Mental acts as natural kinds

In Till Vierkant, Julian Kieverstein & Andy Clark (eds.), Decomposing the will. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
Abstract
This chapter examines whether, and in what sense, one can speak of agentive mental events. An adequate characterization of mental acts should respond to three main worries. First, mental acts cannot have pre-specified goal contents. For example, one cannot prespecify the content of a judgment or of a deliberation. Second, mental acts seem to depend crucially on receptive attitudes. Third, it does not seem that intentions play any role in mental actions. Given these three constraints, mental and bodily actions appear to have a significantly different structure. A careful analysis of the role of normative requirements, distinguishing them from instrumental reasons, allows the distinction between mental and bodily forms of action to be clarified. Two kinds of motives must be present for a mental act to develop. The first kind is instrumental: a mental act is performed because of some basic informational need, such as the need to "remember the name of that play". The second kind is normative: given the specific type of mental action performed, there is a specific epistemic norm relevant to that act (such as truth, coherence, fluency, or consensus). These two motives actually correspond to different phases of a single mental act. The first motivates the mental act, i.e. makes salient the corresponding goal. The second offers an evaluation of the feasibility of the act, on the basis of its constitutive normative requirement(s). Conceived in this way, a characterization of mental acts avoids the three difficulties mentioned above. The possibility of pre-specifying the outcome of epistemic mental acts is blocked by the fact that such acts are constituted by strict normative requirements. That mental acts include receptive features is shown to be a necessary architectural constraint for mental agents to be sensitive to epistemic requirements (through emotional feelings and other normatively relevant attitudes). Finally, the phenomenology of intending is shown to be absent in most mental acts; the motivational structure of mental acts is, rather, associated with error- signals and self-directed doubtings. Mental acts need to be recognized as a natural kind of action meant to normatively control and enhance cognitive efficiency according to current processing needs.
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