Summary of Cain’s ‘Frankfurt style examples’

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In this much neglected article Cain attacks the use that Frankfurt-style cases (FSCs) are often put to, claiming that they are unable to do the job because it is not clear that they describe legitimate scenarios.  To put it another way: it is not clear that FSCs describe situations that are metaphysically possible.  Cain accepts that there might be cases where the mere conceptual possibility of FSCs would be useful.  Refuting the idea that Principle of Alternative Possibilities is an analytic truth would be one example (2003, p.227 n.5).  But this is not the use to which most theorists have put FSCs.  Fischer & Ravizza (1998) use FSCs to investigate the metaphysics of the will and moral responsibility, Stump (1990; 1996) uses them to investigate the metaphysics of the will, the intellect and the power to do otherwise, and Eshleman (1997) employs them in a discussion of the free will defence.  All of these uses presuppose that Frankfurt-style cases are metaphysically possible.  Cain suggests, however, that this is doubtful, and can only properly be judged with a more detailed knowledge of the will (p.221).

To argue his point Cain first notes what it is that FSCs have to achieve: they have to be structured such that the counterfactual intervener is able to bring about the action which occurs in the actual sequence.  This might amount to causing a decision to be made, causing an intention to be formed, causing the agent to stick to some prior decision, etc, depending on the details of the case (p.222).

Cain identifies three kinds of account of the human will and decision making processes: (1) bottom-up physicalist accounts, (2) top-down physicalist accounts, and (3) dualist accounts (p.223).  Cain thinks that FSCs will be most plausible given a type (1) account, but even here there are difficulties.

Type (1) accounts, i.e. bottom-up physicalist accounts, are those which hold that “micro-level events and processes are in some fundamental sense” responsible for everything that happens (p.224).  FSCs will be most plausible on this account of causation (and thus accounts of the will which adhere to this notion of causation) because FSCs typically work by the positing of some device which interferes with the minute operation of the subject’s brain.  So Black the neuroscientist implants a device which monkies with the atoms in Jones’ brain, causing Jones to decide to do whatever.  If the causal properties of the decision (and whole decision-making process) are only a matter of micro-level properties, then there is hope that an intervener which interferes with such micro-level properties could produce a decision.

Can this hope be realise?  To investigate this Cain identifies two types of event.  There are those events such as movements, changes of size, changes of shape, etc where there is no essential causal process involved.  A space ship can orbit a planet using the planet’s gravitational pull, or it can orbit asteroid to move itself in an orbit around the asteroid – completely different causal processes are at work.  Then there are those events where some causal process is essential to the event in question.  Consider the scratching of some glass: it involves one thing rubbing against another causing some damage (the thing we call a scratch).  But suppose the matter of the second thing was manipulated in an identical fashion – the molecules were arranged scratch-wise: the thing looked like it had been scratched – but the causal process involved did not in any way include another thing rubbing up against it.  Then there was no scratching event (p.224).  The conclusion: FSCs are only theoretically possible if decision-making processes are events which involve causal processes that are not essential to them (events like orbiting).

To make the point another way: the how is important.  Even if we accept a counterfactual intervener who can manipulate the atoms of the brain, and cause them to move in any way that is desired, that only guarantees a duplication of the movement of the atoms.  If decision-making essentially involves being caused in certain ways, the FSC might not be able to guarantee such manipulation.

The prospects for FSCs are even worse if we want to accept a non-reductive physicalism.  For suppose we accept an object has causal powers in virtue of its structure (i.e. we accept top-down causation).  The causal power originates at the macro-level.  In this case it should be clear that if the intervener only has the ability to duplicate the micro-movements of the atoms in the brain there will be “little reason” to think that in the alternative sequence the same causal power is active.  And if it’s not, then the intervener is not bringing about what it needs to bring about.  It’s not bringing about a deciding, even if the movement of every atom is indistinguishable from the movements which occur when the power is genuinely exercised.

The same is true of dualistic accounts of the mind and the will: there is just little reason to think the intervener in an FSC will be able to bring about the same causal processes.  This is especially true, argues Cain, once we recognise that the incompatibilist is going to think many of these causal processes need to be indeterministic (p.226).  For if it is essential that the causal processes be indeterministic, the intervener’s job of controlling those processes, allowing them to operate only within narrow bounds, seems all the more difficult.


Cain, J., 2003. Frankfurt style examples. Southwest Philosophy Review, 19(1), pp.221–229.

Eshleman, A., 1997. Alternative possibilities and the free will defence. Religious studies, pp.267–286.

Fischer, J.M. & Ravizza, M., 1998. Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility, Cambridge University Press.

Stump, E., 1990. Intellect, Will, and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. In Christian theism and the problems of philosophy. pp. 254–285.

Stump, E., 1996. Libertarian Freedom and the Principle of Alternative Possibilities. In Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today, Jordan, Jeff (ed). Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today, pp. 73–88.