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Governance of one's own actions

(Last Updated On: June 6, 2019)

.It is also important to the concept of ‘goal directed action’ that agents normally implement a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior. An agent may guide her paralyzed left arm along a certain path by using her active right arm to shove it through the relevant trajectory. The moving of her right arm, activated as it is by the normal exercise of her system of motor control, is a genuine action, but the movement of her left arm is not. That movement is merely the causal upshot of her guiding action, just as the onset of illumination in the light bulb is the mere effect of her action when she turned on the light. The agent has direct control over the movement of the right arm, but not over the movement of the left. And yet it is hardly clear what ‘direct control of behavior’ can amount to here. It does not simply mean that behavior A , constituting a successful or attempted F ing, was initiated and causally guided throughout its course by a present-directed intention to be F ing then. Even the externally guided movement of the paralyzed left arm would seem to satisfy a condition of this weak sort. Alfred Mele [1992] has suggested that the intuitive ‘directness’ of the guidance of action A can partially be captured by stipulating that the action-guiding intention must trigger and sustain A proximally . In other words, it is stipulated that the agent’s present-directed intention to be F ing should govern action A , but not by producing some other prior or concurrent action A * that causally controls A in turn. But the proposal is dubious. On certain assumptions, most ordinary physical actions are liable to flunk this strengthened requirement. The normal voluntary movements of an agent’s limbs are caused by complicated contractions of suitable muscles, and the muscle contractions, since they are aimed at causing the agent’s limbs to move, may themselves count as causally prior human actions. For instance, on Davidson’s account of action they will since the agent’s muscle contracting is intentional under the description ‘doing something that causes the arm to move’ [see Davidson 1980, essay 2]. Thus, the overt arm movement, in a normal act of voluntary arm moving, will have been causally guided by a prior action, the muscle contracting, and consequently the causal guidance of the arm’s movement will fail to be an instance of ‘proximal’ causation at all [see Sehon 1998].

As one might imagine, this conclusion depends upon how an act of moving a part of one’s body is to be conceived. Some philosophers maintain that the movements of an agent’s body are never actions. It is only the agent’s direct moving of, say, his leg that constitutes a physical action; the leg movement is merely caused by and/or incorporated as a part of the act of moving [see Hornsby 1980]. This thesis re-opens the possibility that the causal guidance of the moving of the agent’s leg by the pertinent intention is proximal after all. The intention proximally governs the moving, if not the movement, where the act of moving is now thought to start at the earliest, inner stage of act initiation. Still, this proposal is also controversial. For instance, J.L. Austin [1962] held that the statement

(1) The agent moved his leg

is ambiguous between (roughly)

(1′) The agent caused his leg to move

and the more specific

(1″) The agent performed a movement with his leg.

If Austin is right about this, then the nominalization “the agent’s moving of his leg” should be correspondingly ambiguous, with a second reading that denotes a certain leg movement, a movement the agent has

performed . Thus, no simple appeal to a putative distinction between ‘movement’ and ‘moving’ will easily patch up the conception of ‘direct control of action’ under present scrutiny.

In any event, there is another well-known reason for doubting that the ‘directness’ of an agent’s governance of his own actions involves the condition of causal proximality — that an action is not to be controlled by still another action of the same agent. Some philosophers believe that the agent’s moving his leg is triggered and sustained by the agent’s trying to move his leg in just that way, and that the efficacious trying is itself an action [see Hornsby 1980, Ginet 1990, and O’Shaughnessy 1973, 1980]. If, in addition, the agent’s act of leg moving is distinct from the trying, then, again, the moving of the leg has not been caused proximally by the intention. The truth or falsity of this third assumption is linked with a wider issue about the individuation of action that has also been the subject of elaborate discussion.

Donald Davidson [1980, essay 1], concurring with Anscombe, held that

(2) If a person F s by Ging, then her act of F ing = her act of G ing.

In Davidson’s famous example, someone alerts a burglar by illuminating a room, which he does by turning on a light, which he does in turn by flipping the appropriate switch. According to the Davidson/Anscombe thesis above, the alerting of the burglar = the illuminating of the room = the turning on of the light = the flipping of the switch. And this is so despite the fact that the alerting of the burglar was unintentional while the flipping of the switch, the turning on of the light, and the illuminating of the room were intentional. Suppose now that it is also true that the agent moved his leg by trying to move his leg in just that matter. Combined with the Davidson/Anscombe thesis about act identification, this implies that the agent’s act of moving his leg = his act of trying to move that leg. So, perhaps the act of trying to move the leg doesn’t cause the act of moving after all, since they are just the same.

The questions involved in these debates are potentially quite confusing. First, it is important to distinguish between phrases like

(a) the agent’s turning on the light

and gerundive phrases such as

(b) the agent’s turning on of the light.

Very roughly, the expression (a) operates more like a ‘that’ clause, viz.

(a′) that the agent turned on the light,

while the latter phrase appears to be a definite description, i.e.,

(b′) the turning on of the light [performed] by the agent.

What is more, even when this distinction has been drawn, the denotations of the gerundive phrases often remain ambiguous, especially when the verbs whose nominalizations appear in these phrases are causatives. No one denies that there is an internally complex process that is initiated by the agent’s switch-flipping hand movement and that is terminated by the light’s coming on as a result. This process includes, but is not identical with, the act that initiates it and the event that is its culminating upshot. Nevertheless, in a suitable conversational setting, the phrases (b) and (b′) can be properly used to designate any of the three events: the act that turned on the light, the onset of illumination in the light, and whole process whereby the light has come to be turned on. [For further discussion, see Parsons 1990, Pietrofsky 2000, and Higginbotham 2000].

Now, the Davidson-Anscombe thesis plainly is concerned with the relation between the agent’s

act of turning on the light, his act of flipping the switch, etc. But which configuration of events, either prior to or contained within the extended causal process of turning on the light, really constitutes the agent’s action? Some philosophers have favored the overt arm movement the agent performs, some favor the extended causal process he initiates, and some prefer the relevant event of trying that precedes and ‘generates’ the rest. It has proved difficult to argue for one choice over another without simply begging the question against competing positions. As noted before, Hornsby and other authors have pointed to the intuitive truth of

(3) The agent moved his arm

by trying to move his arm,

and they appeal to the Davidson-Anscombe thesis to argue that the act of moving the arm = the act of trying to move the arm. On this view, the act of trying — which is the act of moving — causes a movement of the arm in much the same way that an act of moving the arm causes the onset of illumination in the light. Both the onset of illumination and the overt arm movement are simply causal consequences of the act itself, the act of trying to move his arm in just this way. Further, in light of the apparent immediacy and strong first person authority of agents’ judgements that they have tried to do a certain thing, it appears that acts of trying are intrinsically mental acts. So, a distinctive type of mental act stands as the causal source of the bodily behavior that validates various physical re-descriptions of the act.

And yet none of this seems inevitable. It is arguable that

(4) The agent tried to turn on the light

simply means, as a first approximation at least, that

(4′) The agent did something that was directed at turning on the light.

Moreover, when (4) or (4′) is true, then the something the agent did that was directed at turning on the light will have been some other causally prior action, the act of flipping the switch, for example. If this is true of trying to perform basic acts (e.g., moving one’s own arm) as well as non-basic, instrumental acts, then trying to move one’s arm may be nothing more than doing something directed at making one’s arm move. In this case, the something which was done may simply consist in the contracting of the agent’s muscles. Or, perhaps, if we focus on the classic case of the person whose arm, unknown to her, is paralyzed, then the trying in that case (and perhaps in all) may be nothing more than the activation of certain neural systems in the brain. Of course, most agents are not aware that they are initiating appropriate neural activity, but they are aware of doing something that is meant to make their arms move. And, in point of fact, it may well be that the something of which they are aware as a causing of the arm movement just is the neural activity in the brain. From this perspective, ‘trying to F ’ does not name a natural kind of mental act that ordinarily sets off a train of fitting physical responses. Rather, it gives us a way of describing actions in terms of a goal aimed at in the behavior without committing us as to whether the goal was realized or not. It also carries no commitment,

i. concerning the intrinsic character of the behavior that was aimed at F ing,

ii. whether one or several acts were performed in the course of trying, and

iii. whether any further bodily effects of the trying were themselves additional physical actions [see Cleveland 1997].

By contrast, it is a familiar doctrine that what the agent does, in the first instance, in order to cause his arm to move is to form a distinctive mental occurrence whose intrinsic psychological nature and content is immediately available to introspection. The agent wills his arm to move or produces a volition that his arm is to move, and it is this mental willing or volition that is aimed at causing his arm to move. Just as an attempt to turn on the light may be constituted by the agent’s flipping of the switch, so also, in standard cases, trying to move his arm is constituted by the agent’s willing his arm to move. For traditional ‘volitionalism,’ willings, volitions, basic tryings are, in Brian O’Shaughnessy’s apt formulation, ‘primitive elements of animal consciousness.’ They are elements of consciousness in which the agent has played an active role, and occurrences that normally have the power of producing the bodily movements they represent. Nevertheless, it is one thing to grant that, in trying to move one’s body, there is some ‘inner’ activity that is meant to initiate an envisaged bodily movement. It is quite another matter to argue successfully that the initiating activity has the particular mentalistic attributes that volitionalism has characteristically ascribed to acts of willing.

It is also a further question whether there is only a single action, bodily or otherwise, that is performed along the causal route that begins with trying to move and terminates with a movement of the chosen type. One possibility, adverted to above, is that there is a whole causal chain of actions that is implicated in the performance of even the simplest physical act of moving a part of one’s body. If, for example, ‘action’ is goal-directed behavior, then the initiating neural activity, the resulting muscle contractions, and the overt movement of the arm may all be actions on their own, with each member in the line-up causing every subsequent member, and with all of these actions causing an eventual switch flipping somewhere further down the causal chain. On this approach, there may be nothing which is the act of flipping the switch or of turning on the light, because each causal link is now an act which flipped the switch and (thereby) turned on the light [see Wilson 1989]. Nevertheless, there still will be a single overt action that made the switch flip, the light turn on, and the burglar become alert, i.e., the overt movement of the agent’s hand and arm. In this sense, the proposal supports a modified version of the Davidson/Anscombe thesis.

However, all of this discussion suppresses a basic metaphysical mystery. In the preceding two paragraphs, it has been proposed that the neural activity, the muscle contractions, and the overt hand movements may all be actions, while the switch’s flipping on, the light’s coming on, and the burglar’s becoming alert are simply happenings outside the agent, the mere effects of the agent’s overt action. As we have seen, there is plenty of disagreement about where basic agency starts and stops, whether within the agent’s body or somewhere on its surface. There is less disagreement that the effects of bodily movement beyond the body, e.g., the switch’s flipping on, the onset of illumination in the room, and so on, are not, by themselves at least, purposeful actions. Still, what could conceivably rationalize any set of discriminations between action and non-action as one traces along the pertinent complex causal chains from the initial mind or brain activity, through the bodily behavior, to the occurrences produced in the agent’s wider environment?

Perhaps, one wants to say, as suggested above, that the agent has a certain kind of direct (motor) control over the goal-seeking behavior of his own body. In virtue of that fundamental biological capacity, his bodily activity, both inner and overt, is governed by him and directed at relevant objectives. Inner physical activity causes and is aimed at causing the overt arm movements and, in turn, those movements cause and are aimed at causing the switch to flip, the light to go on, and the room to become illuminated. Emphasizing considerations of this sort, one might urge that they validate the restriction of action to events in or at the agent’s body. And yet, the stubborn fact remains that the agent also does have a certain ‘control’ over what happens to the switch, the light, and even over the burglar’s state of mind. It is a goal for the agent of the switch’s flipping on that it turn on the light, a goal for the agent of the onset of illumination in the room that it render the room space visible, etc. Hence, the basis of any discrimination between minimal agency and non-active consequences within the extended causal chains will have to rest on some special feature of the person’s guidance: the supposed ‘directness’ of the motor control, the immediacy or relative certainty of the agent’s expectations about actions vs. results, or facts concerning the special status of the agent’s living body. The earlier remarks in this section hint at the serious difficulty of seeing how any such routes are likely to provide a rationale for grounding the requisite metaphysical distinction(s).

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