Mind Out of Action

Dissertation, University of Edinburgh (2008)
Abstract
We think less than we think. My thesis moves from this suspicion to show that standard accounts of intentional action can't explain the whole of agency. Causalist accounts such as Davidson's and Bratman's, according to which an action can be intentional only if it is caused by a particular mental state of the agent, don't work for every kind of action. So-called automatic actions, effortless performances over which the agent doesn't deliberate, and to which she doesn't need to pay attention, constitute exceptions to the causalist framework, or so I argue in this thesis. Not all actions are the result of a mental struggle, painful hesitation, or the weighting of evidence. Through practice, many performances become second nature. Think of familiar cases such as one's morning routines and habits: turning on the radio, brushing your teeth. Think of the highly skilled performances involved in sport and music: Jarrett's improvised piano playing, the footballer's touch. Think of agents' spontaneous reactions to their environment: ducking a blow, smiling. Psychological research has long acknowledged the distinctiveness and importance of automatic actions, while philosophy has so far explained them together with the rest of agency. Intuition tells us that automatic actions are intentional actions of ours all the same (I have run a survey which shows that this intuition is widely shared): not only our own autonomous deeds for which we are held responsible, but also necessary components in the execution and satisfaction of our general plans and goals. But do standard causal accounts deliver on the intentionality of automatic actions? I think not. Because, in automatic cases, standard appeals to intentions, beliefs, desires, and psychological states in general ring hollow. We just act: we don't think, either consciously or unconsciously. On the reductive side, Davidson's view can't but appeal to, at best, unconscious psychological states, the presence and causal role of which is, I argue, inferred from the needs of a theory, rather than from evidence in the world. On the non-reductive side, Bratman agrees, with his refutation of the Simple View, that we can't just attach an intention to every action that we want to explain. But Bratman’s own Single Phenomenon View, appealing to the mysterious notion of 'motivational potential', merely acknowledges the need for refinement without actually providing one. So I propose my own account of intentional action, the 'guidance view', according to which automatic actions are intentional: differently from Davidson and Bratman, who only offer necessary conditions in order to avoid the problem of causal deviance, I offer a full-blown account: E's phi-ing is intentional if and only If phi-ing is under E's guidance. This account resembles one developed by Frankfurt, with the crucial difference that Frankfurt – taking 'acting with an intention' and 'acting intentionally' to be synonymous – thinks that guidance is sufficient only for some movement being an action, but not for some movement being an intentional action. I argue that, on the other hand, Frankfurt's concept of guidance can be developed so that it is sufficient for intentional action too. In Chapter One I present and defend my definition of ‘automatic action’. In Chapter Two I show that such understanding of automatic actions finds confirmation in empirical psychology. In Chapter Three I show that Davidson's reductive account of intentional action does not work for automatic actions. In Chapter Four I show that the two most influential non-reductive accounts of intentional action, the Simple View and Bratman's Single Phenomenon View, don't work either. And in Chapter Five I put forward and defend my positive thesis, the 'guidance view'. Also, in the Appendix I present the findings of my survey on the intentionality of automatic actions.
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Citations of this work BETA
Ezio Di Nucci (2013). Habits, Nudges, and Consent. American Journal of Bioethics 13 (6):27 - 29.
Ezio Di Nucci (2013). Embryo Loss and Double Effect. Journal of Medical Ethics 39 (8):537-540.
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