Are Newcomb problems really decisions?

Synthese 156 (3):537-562 (2006)
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Richard Jeffrey long held that decision theory should be formulated without recourse to explicitly causal notions. Newcomb problems stand out as putative counterexamples to this ‘evidential’ decision theory. Jeffrey initially sought to defuse Newcomb problems via recourse to the doctrine of ratificationism, but later came to see this as problematic. We will see that Jeffrey’s worries about ratificationism were not compelling, but that valid ratificationist arguments implicitly presuppose causal decision theory. In later work, Jeffrey argued that Newcomb problems are not decisions at all because agents who face them possess so much evidence about correlations between their actions and states of the world that they are unable to regard their deliberate choices as causes of outcomes, and so cannot see themselves as making free choices. Jeffrey’s reasoning goes wrong because it fails to recognize that an agent’s beliefs about her immediately available acts are so closely tied to the immediate causes of these actions that she can create evidence that outweighs any antecedent correlations between acts and states. Once we recognize that deliberating agents are free to believe what they want about their own actions, it will be clear that Newcomb problems are indeed counterexamples to evidential decision theory.



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James M. Joyce
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Citations of this work

Some counterexamples to causal decision theory.Andy Egan - 2007 - Philosophical Review 116 (1):93-114.
Why Take Both Boxes?Jack Spencer & Ian Wells - 2019 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 99 (1):27-48.

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The Foundations of Statistics.Leonard J. Savage - 1954 - Wiley Publications in Statistics.
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Causality: Models, Reasoning and Inference.Judea Pearl - 2000 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
The direction of time.Hans Reichenbach - 1956 - Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. Edited by Maria Reichenbach.

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