Skill and motor control: intelligence all the way down

Philosophical Studies 174 (6):1539-1560 (2017)
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When reflecting on the nature of skilled action, it is easy to fall into familiar dichotomies such that one construes the flexibility and intelligence of skill at the level of intentional states while characterizing the automatic motor processes that constitute motor skill execution as learned but fixed, invariant, bottom-up, brute-causal responses. In this essay, I will argue that this picture of skilled, automatic, motor processes is overly simplistic. Specifically, I will argue that an adequate account of the learned motor routines that constitute embodied skills cannot be given in a purely bottom-up, brute-causal fashion. Rather, motor control is intelligent all the way down. To establish this, I will first review two recent accounts of skill, Stanley and Krakauer and Papineau, which characterize the automatic motor control responsible for the fine-grained movements constitutive of motor skill as brute, low-level phenomena. I will then isolate five key features that should apply to skilled motor control, if these accounts are correct. Together, the accounts posit that motor control is: ballistic, invariant, independent of general action trajectories, Insensitive to semantic content, and independent of personal-level intentions. In the final section of this paper, I will appeal to optimal control theory for empirical evidence to challenge the commitment to skilled action as qualified by the above features.



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Ellen Fridland
King's College London

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