Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University)

Welcome all! This week we publish the answers of Prof Eddy Nahmias from Georgia State University. Prof Nahmias is Chair of Philosophy and Associate Faculty at the Neuroscience Institute there. He published extensively on free will and its connections to neuroscience and psychology. Prof Nahmias also conducted x-phi experiments and explored some ethical issues connected to debates about autonomy and the will. He co-edited with Thomas Nadelhoffer and Shaun Nichols Moral Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. Enjoy!

1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?

I’m interested in the various features of human agency that are most essential in allowing us to have some degree of autonomy and responsibility for our actions. I got interested in these issues from a literary and existentialist angle when I was an English major at Emory University. At the same time I was reading Dawkins and Dennett and thinking about what evolution and neuroscience tell us about human agency and potential limitations on our free will. When I started studying the free will problem as a graduate student at Duke University I became most interested, on the one hand, in Harry Frankfurt’s (evolving) accounts of action, free will, and moral responsibility, and on the other hand, in scientific explanations of human behavior, across various levels. The second half of my dissertation considered the challenges to free will from situationist social psychology and offered an evolutionary account for the capacities I argued were essential for free will. I then shifted a bit from considering the ways scientific discoveries suggested we have limited free will to defending the possibility of free will against the misguided challenges from neuroscientists and psychologists who claimed they were discovering that free will is an illusion, whom I labeled ‘willusionists.’

2. What are you working on at the moment?

Now that I am a department chair, I’m working on … less. But I’m trying to find time to work on three projects. One is continuing the ideas I developed with Oisin Deery using interventionist accounts of causation to address debates about free will and responsibility. In a recent Phil Studies paper we argue that interventionism allows a way to explain (relative) causal sourcehood for actions, and applied this to the Manipulation Arguments for incompatibilism to show why determinism differs in principle from intentional manipulation. We think interventionism can do a lot more to understand agency and action.

Second, I began looking at the literature on punishment a few years ago and became convinced that the best descriptive and justificatory account of punishment is the communicative theory. It fits nicely with an evolutionary account of our punitive psychology, a Strawsonian account of the reactive attitudes, a compatibilist account of free will, and a unifying account of the various purposes of punishment, one that maintains the notion that (some) criminals deserve to be punished while avoiding both the excesses of retributivism and the medicalized model of approaches that assume free will is an illusion. Andrea Scarantino and I are drawing on work from pragmatics and emotional communication to systematize the various messages punishment is (and should be) communicating.

Third, I am trying to understand why everyone—scientists, philosophers, and ordinary people—thinks consciousness is essential for free will. My collaborators, Corey Allen and Brad Loveall, and I did some x-phi work to test intuitive connections, and the results fit nicely with a proposal I’d like to develop more fully: that the capacity to consciously experience suffering, joy, emotions, and reactive attitudes like guilt and admiration are essential for an agent to be able to care—for the (potential) outcomes of her actions to really matter to her. And free will requires being able to have cares (a suggestion made in work by Frankfurt, Dave Shoemaker, Chandra Sripada, and others).

3. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?

Frankfurt’s work on action, free will, and responsibility. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” and the work it inspired. And empirical work on human and animal agency, from evolution to neuroscience to psychology to experimental philosophy.

4. What direction would you like to see the field go in?

More of the above three developments! Plus, more work on the phenomenology of action and agency. And I think philosophers of action should consider and contribute to developments in A.I. and robotics. Philosophers might help in developing robots that can perform (genuine) actions, and we will need to help figure out when to count a robot’s movements as an action, an autonomous action, a free action, and/or an action for which it is responsible and potentially blameworthy.

2018 July 07

Many thanks to Prof Nahmias for his answers!

Visit us again soon for the next mini-interview.