It is fairly common to give a conditional analysis of an option, e.g.:
(CAO) Performing an act X at a future time t1 is an option for a subject S at the present time t0 if and only if S would perform X at t1 if S were to intend (to try, to decide, or to choose) at t0 to perform X at t1.
I know that there are a host of problems with such conditional analyses, but let’s set those aside for the moment, for I want to address what seems to be an unappreciated worry concerning the possibility of indeterminism.
Of course, if we accept libertarian indeterminism and thereby hold that the formations of intentions are not causally determined by the preceding events and the laws of nature but are instead caused by us, then there is no problem for CAO so long as we hold that which acts we perform are causally determined by the intentions that we (indeterminately) form. But what if that’s not the case? That is, what if whether or not my intention to perform X results in my X-ing is indeterminate? Suppose, for instance, that if I intend to pick up the cup of coffee that’s on the table in front of me, there’s a 75% (objective) chance that I’ll pick it up but a 25% (objective) chance that I’ll knock it over, spilling it. And suppose that if I were instead to intend to leave it be, there’s 100% that I will leave it be. In this case, it’s clear that I have the option to leave it be. But do I have the option of picking it up? If whether or not I do so is not up to me or to my intentions but is rather up to chance, then it’s hard to see how my doing so is a genuine option. Moreover, if we do say that it’s an option at a 75% chance of success, what will we say when there is only a 74, 73, 72, …, or 0 percent chance of success? Where do we draw line, and how do we do so non-arbitrarily?
I want to suggest, then, that if the effectiveness of our intentions is indeterminate in this way, then we should think of our options not as actions, but as gambles. So, in the case described, we should say that I have the option of taking gamble 1 (where this is the gamble of taking both a 75% chance of picking up the cup of coffee and a 25% chance of knocking it over). And we should also say that I have the option of taking gamble 2 (where this is the “gamble” of taking a 100% chance of leaving it be). Furthermore, there will be many other gambles that are options for me.
Now, if this is right, we should revise CAO as follows:
(CAO*) Taking a gamble G is an option for a subject S at the present time t0 if and only if S’s intending (trying, deciding, or choosing) at t0 to perform some act X at t1 entails taking gamble G.
Now, this is all off the cuff, so I wonder if others might tell me what sorts of problems they foresee with this kind of view and whether they know of any literature on this topic. One putative problem with this view is that it seems to imply that it is mistaken to talk about reasons for action. For consider whether I have good reason to pick up the cup of coffee. It would be odd to say that I don’t because picking up the cup of coffee risks spilling it all over me, causing me severe burns. For picking up the cup of coffee doesn’t involve that risk; it is only intending to pick up the cup of coffee that involves that risk. That is, the risk is associated with the gamble, not the action. And such risks seem to be very relevant to our practical deliberations. So, perhaps, this sort of view suggests that talk of reasons for action is best understood as an imprecise way of talking about reasons for intending. And that when we look at reasons for intending, we need to look not just to the results of performing the intended act but also the risks of performing acts that are not intended.
(Thanks to Christian Coons, Mark van Roojen, and the other participants at SLACRR 2012 for raising an objection that led me to think about this issue. And thanks to Mark for the suggestion that I might talk about gambles.)