Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Agency, Endorsement, and Identity: A Case for Phenomenological Intervention

I often try—usually unsuccessfully—to push the idea that philosophy of action would benefit from a serious interaction with phenomenology. I tried to give an account of this to a well-known philosopher a few days ago but, partly because I was being overly exuberant and at the same time not entirely coherent, I got the distinct impression that he thought I was an idiot. Here I want to sketch out one place where I believe action theory needs phenomenology: on the issues of endorsement and identity. I am going to argue that a phenomenological account is needed to bring out the ways in which our agency is both creative and passive in such a way that acting on motives we do not rationally endorse may yet strengthen or at least express our agency.

In the latest incarnation of his theory of identification, Frankfurt has argued that agents can be said to identity with a first-order desire when they both have a second-order volition to act on that desire and are satisfied with that second-order volition. This account has been widely accepted, but Frankfurt’s conception of what the satisfaction comes to has come under constant fire. Frankfurt conceives of the satisfaction as something like a lack of motivation on the part of the agent to revise the second-order volition, and he admits that there are many acceptable reasons why agents might be so disinclined toward revision: for example, they might simply be bored with the self-reexamination involved; or, they might even be manipulated into the satisfaction. Most (as I understand it, Velleman, Bratman, and Ekstrom, among others) are not satisfied with this view of satisfaction. The reasons vary, but the core problem is that satisfaction alone, thus conceived, does not seem to be a sufficiently agential process.

But I think Frankfurt is on to something important: he is rejecting a standard view of agency. On this sort of standard view, agency is an active process through and through; this activity, in fact, is what differentiates agency from (supposedly) passive processes, such as perception and belief formation, or even coming to have motives (as opposed to endorsing them). And this view seems to me slightly mistaken. Its basis is an idea, expressed for example by Korsgaard, along the following lines: When we encounter a motive (such as a desire), we cannot just act on it. Because we are self-conscious, we are detached from our motives, so that we can take them or leave them. That is, we can endorse or reject them. From a first-person practical perspective, in which we must decide what reasons to act on, we are under the necessity of choosing among our motives rather than simply following whichever motives might pop up. As an account of practical reasoning in abstraction, something like this is probably right: when faced with evaluative judgments provided to us by desires, we can either use those judgments as premises in our reasoning to reach a conclusion, or we can override them with other judgments. But is this account correct of our actual deliberative processes or our typical decision-making?

I think it leaves out a rather salient feature of our phenomenology, and this is the point at which phenomenological accounts are needed as correctives to overly rationalized or intellectualized views of agency. The feature is this: We sometimes find ourselves saddled with motives that we would not endorse, on deliberation, as good motives to act on. We might, in fact, reject them on every possible grounds, from their negative consequences in our means-end reasoning to their apparent undermining of our pursuits of the things we care about. But these motives might nevertheless come with, one might say, built-in endorsement. They appear to us as agency-defining for us, individually, as the persons we are. I might, for example, believe that all sorts of things are worth sacrificing some of my pride for. And if I deliberate seriously on the question, I might in the end decide that in some cases I ought to bite the bullet and overcome my pride. But faced with a concrete situation, I find that pride-based motives appear with a certain agential authority that I have not given them through any deliberation. While I may override these motives, either through impulsive action, or though further deliberation about the benefits of doing so, I find that these deliberations smack to me of rationalization.

There is a problem in cases like these. The mechanisms of practical deliberation normally taken to be agency-bestowing appear here as the exact opposite: from the first-person practical perspective, I am distanced from my deliberation, so that while I endorse all the premises in the deliberation, I still cannot help treating the process as a rationalization, undermining the agency-laden motives of pride. I might have every (good) reason to swallow my pride here, and yet I find that every such reason undermines my sense of my own identity and my own agency. The deliberate, rationally endorsed course of action comes up against a practical identity that I do not in any obvious sense endorse, but that I experience as somehow self-endorsing. (Think of John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible bellowing, when asked why he will not sign his false confession, “Because it is my name!”)

The obvious existence of cases of this kind, I think, lends Frankfurt’s account much of its credibility. But I am not at all convinced that a view like Korsgaard’s can accommodate such cases. On her view, after all, such self-endorsing motives are necessarily agent-undermining, since they seem to involve something “acting on me or in me”. I agree that, thus described, self-endorsing motives are agent-undermining. But we can redescribe them as follows: We are complex organisms with complex mental economies. Some items in these economies are central and largely irrevisable; perhaps we could revise them with a massive amount of work, but for the most part they are likely to serve as the cornerstones in all our processes of deliberation and endorsement in such a way that attempting to revise those items would itself be a self-undermining process, a sort of conflict of the will with itself. It is precisely because those items are central to our deliberative processes and our self-conception, and not because we actively endorse them upon deliberation, that they appear to us as agency-laden rather than agency-undermining. If they appear to undermine our agency, it is because they get in the way of other things we want or care about. In other words, they seem to undermine our agency only if we think of agency as entirely unfettered to non-deliberative motives, and if we cannot accept the idea that we discover some norms within ourselves rather than coming to them through deliberation.

My claim, in other words, is that we do not fully create our wills; we also discover ourselves to have de facto irrevisable wills. Because they are de facto irrevisable but in principle revisable, the phenomenology here comes into conflict with theories of agency that reject any passive component to agency, i.e., any component that we do not actively endorse and that we cannot reject without great harm to our practical identities. And this is also a case where, I think, the phenomenology has the upper hand: faced with self-endorsing agency-laden motives, I may well be aware that I could, in principle, withhold my endorsement of them; but this thought is only an abstraction, born of a self-deceptive view of the agent as a mind fully in control of itself. But at the same time, the motives we endorse and the self-endorsing motives we encounter usually work together more or less harmoniously. Agency is, one might say, a composite of what we are and what we make of ourselves. Phenomenology is in a unique position to study the functioning of this composite. Granted, it cannot exclude the problems of exhaustion-satisfaction or manipulation-satisfaction. But this shows only that phenomenology is not sufficient for an account of agency; not that it is not central to working out such an account.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Normativity and the Causal Theory of Action; Some Concerns About Causalism

Given the recent concerns by David Velleman and others about the “chilling effects” of blogging about conferences, I am a bit hesitant to say too much about the conference on “Normativity and the Causal Theory of Action.” But it was a superb and very interesting gathering, so I’d like to at least offer a few reflections. I don’t think I have anything to say that could even potentially be construed as negative, and if anyone from the conference objects, I would be happy to take down any of the points. In any case, this was a really impressive group of people, and many thanks go to Markus Schlosser, Bryony Pierce, and Finn Spicer for organizing it. The faculty and post-graduate students from Bristol, other UK Universities, and a few visitors from the Continent, provided a spectacular stream of comments that largely had me in awe. Bristol, I should add, is a gorgeous city, with winding streets criss-crossing at different levels in three dimensions; more than enough for a serious flâneur. And it isn’t every day that I get to stay in a dorm room within a 1740s Palladian villa.

Interestingly, the conference did not really attain its initial goal, originally stated as being to bring together critics and supporters of the causal theory of action (CTA). It did not attain this for the simple reason that all five speakers accepted CTA, at least in some minimal form. Though some of us were a bit critical, no one argued against such theories altogether; the papers were more focused on attacking specific versions or formulations of CTA, or raising problems that causal theorists have yet to resolve, than attempting to throw CTA out altogether. Thus, Lynne Rudder Baker defended CTA, but struck a blow against any version on which actions are caused by neural events, providing a quite brilliant argument to the effect that action-causing mental states are constituted by, but irreducible to, their neural substrates. Matthias Haase questioned the extent to which CTA can account for rule following. Maria Alvarez provided a strong account of reasons as facts, attacking causalists for speaking of reasons as the causes of actions, as if reasons were reducible to mental states. And I (on a charitable reading of my paper) argued that CTA is only part of the story of action explanation; the other part has to be hashed out through agent-constituting narrative accounts, which specify exactly what it is, within the agent’s psychic economy, that rationalizes each action.

But while all of us were open to endorsing at least some version of CTA, Michael Bratman was the conference’s major defender of causalism. Having never seen him in action before, I must say that his reputation is well earned. He has the ability to get to the philosophical core of every paper, and thus his comments sometimes had an especially devastating tendency. In his own account, he raised three features central to human agency (planning, identification, and rational guidance), argued that these are fully compatible with CTA, and insisted that we need CTA for two major reasons: (1) If we accept that the actions of non-human animals are causally produced by features of their psyche, we need CTA in order to retain continuity between those animals and ourselves. (2) Accounting for the Davidsonian challenge of distinguishing between acting with a reason and acting for that reason—that is, we need a way of specifying the connection between an action and the motives for which the action was actually performed, as opposed to the motives the agent simply happened to have at the time of action, but did not act on. Bratman added to this the consideration that, if we are to be able to speak of acting for reason R, and acting for a different reason while thinking (perhaps through simple error, or self-deception) that we are acting for R, we need an account of what the right connection—acting for R—comes to; CTA gives us this.

Ultimately, though I find these considerations important, I am not fully convinced. Let us formulate two sorts of objections to CTA. Objections of the first sort argue that planning, identification, and rational guidance are incompatible with a causal account. Those objections, I think, are amply answered by Bratman, Velleman, Mele, Bishop, and others. But now take objections of the second sort, which might go like this: the features central to human agency are, e.g., planning, identification, and rational guidance. These features may well be compatible with a causal account of action. But these concepts themselves are not causal ones. Thus, the objection might go, although giving a complete account of agency need not rule out CTA, it need not appeal to it either, since the features central to agency are explicable apart from any reference to causal relations. I think we can answer the first of Bratman’s points: we can grant that there is no radical break between human and animal kinds of agency by accepting CTA as running in the background of any metaphysical account of action. But certainly we need not foreground CTA, especially since we can explicate the features central to human agency without constantly returning to the continuities between human and animal agential powers.

Thus it is really the second point—Davidson’s original one—that seems to require CTA. It rests on the question of whether we can give a coherent account of what it is to act for a reason (as opposed to merely acting with a reason) without appealing to causality. I’ll give here a brief, and all too incomplete suggestion: we had better be able to give such an account, since CTA requires it. The reason is this: saying that X caused Y isn’t very meaningful, unless we can give a further account of what that causal relation consists of. For example, we might say that the solubility of salt (together with the salt's being placed in water) causes it to dissolve in water, but this claim conveys little information apart from a detailed account of the dissociation of NaCl molecules in H2O. That account cannot, in turn, appeal to any causal claim, since it is supposed to make the causal claim meaningful in the first place. Similarly, if we are to explain sentences of the type “Agent S’s action A was caused by motives X, Y, Z”, we need to lay out what causation by these motives consists in, and we need to do this in non-causal terms. If (in Mele’s example) Al mowed his lawn in the morning because this was a convenient time to mow his lawn and not because he wanted to get back at his neighbor for waking him up early last week, then we need an account of the relation between his belief that this is a convenient time and his mowing the lawn, and an account of how this is different from the relation between his wanting to get back at his neighbor and his mowing the lawn. And these accounts seem to require talk of rationalization and the agent’s psychological economy that is not in turn dependent on any causal talk.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Educational Policy and the Extended Mind

Here’s an apparent inconsistency: it seems that, given a century of psychometric study, that there are innate factors to intellectual performance that are rigid vis-à-vis enviornmental inputs and settings. No matter what you do or where you put them, some students will predictably excell at school, and others will fail. Better teachers, smaller classrooms, expenditure per pupil, a healthy diet from pre-natal development onwards, a nurturing home enviornment—these all have important effects, but even considered collectively, those effects are bound by what seems to be innate, even genetic capacities.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that we are all a lot smarter than our counter-parts a hundred years ago. This is not only true in terms of literacy rates, basic mathematical competence, graduation rates and college attendance. Even our IQ’s have been improving (by what is known as the Flynn effect).

The first observation suggests that we really ought to be quite a bit less ambitious when it comes to public education policy, lest we waste a lot of resources and energy for negligible marginal benefits, incurring high opportunity costs. Prudent public education policy would replace the goal of making everyone smart (a pie-in-the-sky or ‘romantic’ view), and orient itself towards finding ways to make the incorrigibly dim nonetheless productive workers. On the other hand, the second observation suggests that there are in fact important and measurable returns to investment in public education—witness the fact that most Americans can now read, and know enough arithmetic at least to fill out their tax forms.

Let me call these respective positions ‘What’s the Point?’ (WTP) and ‘Yes We Can’ (SSP). WTP often responds to SSP in the following way: yes, certain metrics like literacy, basic mathematical competence, graduation rates, even a base-line IQ, have improved over the centuries, most notably the past one. But this achievement has been merely to allow the full exploitation of a natural capacity, and we are fast approaching the time when marginal returns on education investment fast diminish. In other words, whereas some prudent social policies have enabled increasing numbers of citizens to achieve their natural potential, we have not affected that natural potential itself, and once we reach it, there is not much more that policy will effect. Furthermore, for many students, we have already past whatever natural potential they have, and are now expecting results that simply are not achievable.

WTPers are fond of an analogy between innate mental capacities and innate physical capacities. Take running. Just about every human being can run, and some can run faster and farther than others. Surely some of that is due to training, diet, confidence, dedication--but in the end, a defnite limit is reached, and an innate distribution of ability becomes evident. Thus, (so the WTP argument runs) it is just as much folly to expect every child to learn calculus and to quote Shakespeare as it is to expect every child to run a 7 second 100m or a 4 minute mile.

But let’s consider this analogy a little further. Observe that ‘innate’ capacities, like running, operate within what are in effect artificial constraints. To measure one’s ‘innate’ running ability, we require (for example) that aids like drug enhancers, bionic legs, superhero lung transplants, roller skates, and so on, are verboten. But we do allow for scientific nutrition regiments, super-tech training aids, the use of all sorts of biometric technology. Without any of these artificial constraints, the relevance of ‘innate’ ability becomes not only specious, but moot. With superhero lungs and bionic legs, who knows, maybe I could run a one-minute mile. The point being, if we refuse to abide by artificial constraints, ‘innate ability’ becomes not only irrelevant, but almost incoherent. (Consider this question: what is the ‘innate’ life-span? If the physicalists are correct, and brain transplants become one day possible, and new bodies can be grown ‘brave new world’ style, then….you see the point).

I wonder why we shouldn’t consider ‘innate’ intelligence along the same lines. The equivalent of Olympic-criteria for measuring intellectual performance in the United States is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Like the olympic sports, the NAEP sets up artificial constraints on the measurement of intelligence. The NAEP assesses skills in reading, math, science, writing, history, civics and geography. Verboten for students taking the NAEP are instruments like calculators, spell check, wikipedia, maps, and so on. But why do we insist on these constraints? It is hard to imagine very many scenarios where anyone in a ‘real life’ situation would not be able to avail themselves of any one of these technologies, so what is it exactly that we are measuring, and why?

The what is a very prickly issue, and innatists will get upset if you seem at all puzzled about it. But I think I can partially answer the ‘why’. We are still wed to a fundamentally Cartesian, fundamentally classical understanding of intelligence. According to this model, to ‘know’ something is to be a certain state, rather than to possess a certain ability. Thus, to ‘know’ that 98 + 113.5 = 211.5, or that the slope of a curve equals ∆x/∆y, is to have an intuitive insight into the nature of number, or in the nature of m. But consider for a moment: why is it that today, almost any decently educated 5th grader will be able to determine that 98 + 113.5 = 211.5, and any decently educated 8th grader will be able to solve for a slope-intercept? Before the development of a base-10 arabic numeral system, it would have been difficult for almost anyone to solve for the first, and before Descartes, to solve for the second. I am suggesting of course that there is a strict analogy between the use of a calculator and the use of a base-10 numeral system. Both are artifical, yet testers for the NAEP consider one’s ability to use the first still somehow ‘innate,’ while the latter is ‘artificial’—indeed, cheating. Why not then, instead of trying to measure some suspect ‘innate’ faculty, we instead measure ability—not under no constraints, but under constraints that are plausible and ‘realistic.’

Overall, then, I am suggesting that ‘innate’ intelligence no longer makes a whole lot of sense—although it still makes some sense, just like running—once we accept an externalist, “extended” theory of mind. In other words, we should take to heart the theory developed by Clark and Chalmers in their famous paper and apply it to the debate over innatism and educational policy. Returning now to the issue between WTP and SSP, we can at least partially explain the discrepancy noted at the beginning by recognizing that, because of technologies like a base-10 numeral system, even someone of ‘average’ intelligence can now solve for problems that, half a milennia ago, only the most educated and ‘innately’ intelligent could solve. That is to say, tests like the NAEP are in fact somewhat anachronistic, and I am sure that, if we did for instance allow for the use of graphing calculators, and the internet, that we would see marked improvements in test scores and therefore ‘average intelligence.’

Some caveats: this makes most sense when applied to mathematics, and to a lesser degree, skills like geography and history. That’s because the gains from technology (including symbol-systems) demostrably extend by orders of magnitude cognitive capacity. It’s not clear what role any such technology plays in writing and reading. I have some thoughts on this issue, but I’ll save them for the comment section if any one cares to explore the issue further.

Secondly, and less directly, I’m still not convinced that even on the innatists own ground and under their conditions that there is anything obvoiusly being measured. This is because I suspect that ‘innate’ ability, to whatever extent the concept makes sense, is influenced as much if not more by factors such as focus, attention, and motivation as by any raw capacity. The problem might be fitfully compared to the issue of indeterminacy. Whatever it is one is measuring by standardized tests, it will remain inscrutable whether performance results from raw capacity or from motivation, and so far, we have no reliable way (as far as I know) of controlling for one or the other. To see just how this issue informs the debate, check out this discussion.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Off to the Continent, Plus Action Theory Abstract

I might be taking a blogging hiatus for a bit, as I'm leaving for Europe and don't know how good or regular my internet access will be over the next month and a half. It should be fun. Three philosophy events planned:
Bristol: Normativity and the Causal Theory of Action (One day conference)
Cologne: Meaning and Its Place in Nature (Workshop with Ruth Millikan)
Krakow: European Congress of Analytic Philosophy (Really long conference)

I'll try to post about these if I get a chance. All should have exciting things to offer. For now, I'll throw out my abstract for the Krakow Congress, which is a revised version of the Bristol paper, which in itself has grown more sophisticated and, hopefully, a heck of a lot clearer than this original (that, and I managed to squeeze Lacan into the newer versions):

The First Person, Mental Holism, and the Causal Theory of Action

Following Davidson, the dominant view in the philosophy of action takes actions to be caused by the mental states that rationalize (i.e., provide reasons for) those actions. But objections to the view remain on the grounds that the causal theory seems to be out of sync with some aspect of our first-person perspective. On the one hand, it is argued, we do not actually experience our mental states as causing our actions. On the other hand, the relation between our motives and actions seems to be a normative rather than a causal one. I will argue that there is no real problem: there is, ultimately, no good reason to reject the causal picture on first-personal grounds. On the other hand, once we work out the real force of the appeal to the first person, the picture of causality we are left with is immensely uninteresting.

What gives rise to the first-personal criticisms of the causal theory is a difficulty about the mental itself: mental states seem to depend for their existence on being apprehended, or potentially apprehended, by consciousness. Mental states depend for their very existence qua mental on the way in which they can be apprehended. If this is right, then it follows that accounts of mental states and their relations must be developed from a first-personal perspective. But from a first person perspective, we do not seem to experience our motives as causing our actions. The standpoint from which we can even talk about motives, then, excludes causal relations. But this argument is flawed: we can, sometimes, recognize motives so overpowering that they bring about courses of action. Nor can we exclude the possibility that some motives operate in the back of all our deliberations. A stronger argument appeals to the normative role of deliberation: we cannot take a motive as a cause in deciding what to do; rather, we must endorse or reject the motive, which implies that it cannot act causally on us. But this is also problematic. We can engage in rational deliberation that merely helps to clarify which desire is strongest, so that it can act as a cause; or we might engage in post-hoc justification of a decision that has already been causally established. The causal view is not excluded by this account.

I argue that appeals to the first person are really getting at something else: the thesis of mental holism. The thesis claims that the identity of a mental state depends on its relations to other mental states, including past ones, and to the entire framework of the mental. But these accounts typically leave out the important role of the future: if our normative frameworks can change, so then can our estimation of the identity of past mental states, including the motives that caused our actions. But since mental states derive their identity from these frameworks, it follows that the identity of any mental state can, at any future time, be revised. The revised account of that mental state’s identity will be just as true as my estimation of the motive causing my action was at the time I acted. Because the identity of our motives is always open to revision, it may seem like no particular motive is responsible for causing our actions, and this gives rise to the objections to the causal theory. On the account I offer, however, we can maintain that our actions are indeed caused by mental states, but there is no fixed fact of the matter about which particular states they are. If the first-personal arguments fail to show that our actions are uncaused, they make that thesis much less interesting. The cause of an action is only an empty placeholder for explanations that we can construct and reconstruct indefinitely.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Skepticism About Phenomenology

One often finds, in certain M&E circles, a distrust of phenomenology. Or, perhaps, one might say it is a distrust of phenomenology as a study of “how things feel to us” and, by extension, a distrust of the philosophical field called phenomenology. The distrust goes something like this: It is important, when talking about the mind, to get the phenomenology right. But the phenomenology need not influence our view of the mind very much: if we come to a theory independently, and the theory turns out to be out of touch with experience, all that is needed is an added error theory, or debunking strategy, to explain why we systematically make mistakes.

One finds such a strategy, for example, in attacks on free will and, especially, in attacks on conscious will, such as that developed by Daniel Wegner. Very roughly, on this account our decisions are not conscious processes at all: they are sub-personal processes. The same processes that produce our decisions also produce our consciousness of making those decisions. So we rank our desires and motives without conscious input, and then take responsibility for doing all the work consciously, but this is an illusion, a little trick of biology. The phenomenology is important only insofar as we need to get it right in order to explain it away. A good deal of criticism of Wegner, in fact, strikes me as geared primarily not toward arguing against his view that conscious will is an illusion, but rather toward showing that he gets the phenomenology wrong. For those who make such arguments, then, the real problem isn’t that Wegner doesn’t take phenomenology seriously enough; it’s that he hasn’t gotten it right enough to eliminate it. The phenomenology is not important in itself.

And this approach seems reasonable. After all, experience is highly misleading. People often misremember things, for example, and such misrememberings may arise as a result of distorting psychological features of which the agent is not aware. We do not seem to be the best judges of our own, first-personal mental states; our friends, observing us from outside, can often understand why we act in certain ways much better than we can. And, certainly, it is possible to simply be wrong because our neuro-psychological structures are not designed to get things right. Wegner, for example, points to experiments that show structural tendencies to take responsibility for certain events over which, in fact, the subject had no control. So, the argument might go, if we cannot trust our experience to track our true responsibility conditions, we should recognize that the experience of will and responsibility is a sham. The distrust leads to the following premise: we can engage in the scientific study of consciousness without taking phenomenology into account.

This kind of distrust, however, misses the point of phenomenology, which is to study the essences and meanings of mental acts. To see phenomenology as competing with neuroscience or cognitive science is an elementary mistake: phenomenology simply isn’t the sort of method that can provide factual information about physical events. What phenomenology does, rather, is clarify what it is that neuroscience and cognitive science are talking about when they talk about our mental states. Case in point: No phenomenological analysis of memory can help me figure out whether I am currently remembering, misremembering, or simply imagining a past event. And a phenomenological analysis of responsibility, or the phenomena involved in willing, is unlikely to establish whether or not I was the agent of a movement I experienced as mine. Indeed, clever experimental set-ups can throw the mechanisms by which we normally make such determinations out of whack, and phenomenological analysis cannot prevent that from happening.

But how, without phenomenology, would we know what it is we are throwing out of whack? What cognitive system is malfunctioning? In order to be able to determine, third-personally, whether a person is remembering, misremembering, or imagining, we must already know what remembering, misremembering, and imagining are. In order to know that, in a particular instance, a person is mistakenly attributing conscious will to herself, we must know what it is to consciously will something. No scientific approach can tell us what mechanisms are involved in memory, or in willing, or in imagination without appealing to what we already know about remembering, willing, or imagining. The point of phenomenology is precisely to pin down what this appeal is an appeal to. Without that initial knowledge, we could have no means of studying mental processes; we could, at best, study physical occurrences that would explain nothing about our psychology: no amount of tinkering with the brain can tell us what neural processes are involved in remembering if we do not already have some grasp on what remembering is. A scientific study of consciousness, thus, cannot dispose with phenomenology, or leave discussion of how its findings fit (or don’t fit) with phenomenology for last. The phenomenology—explicitly or implicitly—has to come first.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Davidson on Pro-Attitudes: Evaluative and Dispositional

As is well known, Davidson sees actions as events caused by reasons, which themselves involve a combination of a belief and a pro-attitude. Davidson, and many others, often use “desire” in place of “pro-attitude”, though we do best to keep in mind that this use of desire is meant to be very broad. These pro-attitudes are supposed to be mental states, capable of both playing a causal role (when re-described appropriately as physical states) and a rationalizing role (that involves making the action they cause intelligible, both to observers and the agent). I’ve started to get concerned, though, about whether Davidson’s accounts of what pro-attitudes are can be sufficient.

First, we can start out with Davidson’s earliest account of pro-attitudes, given in “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”. Here, under the category of pro-attitudes

are to be included desires, wantings, urges, promptings, and a great variety of moral views, aesthetic principles, economic prejudices, social conventions, and public and private goals and values in so far as these can be interpreted as attitudes of an agent directed toward actions of a certain kind. The word ‘attitude’ does yeoman service here, for it must cover not only permanent character traits that show themselves in a lifetime of behaviour, like love of children or a taste for loud company, but also the most passing fancy that prompts a unique action, like a sudden desire to touch a woman’s elbow (A&E, 4)
There is already, I think, something a bit off here. Keep in mind that the point of introducing pro-attitudes as essential to the action-producing causal sequence is that they are supposed to rationalize an action, i.e., to make it intelligible. But the introduction of passing fancies into the mix seems to undermine that. There is no doubt that at least some actions do arise as the result of passing fancies. But it is not clear how such fancies can help make actions intelligible: that is, the action may well be intelligible in light of the fancy, but the fancy itself is not intelligible. If the entire point of introducing pro-attitudes is to ensure that it is possible to make sense of actions, then pro-attitudes that seemingly spring out of nowhere don’t help; if we’ve identified the proximal cause of an event but not the cause of that cause, we haven’t really given a causal explanation of the event at all; we’ve only pushed that explanation back a step, resting satisfied with having done very little. The passing fancy does not, by itself, serve to make sense of the action: something else is needed to make the fancy itself meaningful. This suggests to me a tension in two ways in which pro-attitudes play explanatory roles: their explanatory role as making an action rational, and their explanatory role as making the action intelligible. For Davidson, these are the same thing—intelligibility implies rationality—but the above considerations suggest to me that the connection is not so direct.

Let’s move on to an account of what pro-attitudes must be like if they are to have a role in making an action rational. For a mental state to rationalize something is for that state to be capable of playing a role as a premise in a practical syllogism. The state’s contribution to rationalizing an action, then, is provided by its content, which Davidson characterizes in “Intending” as follows:

The agent’s pro attitude is perhaps a desire or a want; let us suppose he wants to improve the taste of the stew. But what is the corresponding premise?... we do not want a description of his desire, but an expression of it in a form in which he might use it to arrive at an action. The natural expression of his desire is, it seems to me, evaluate in form; for example, ‘It is desirable to improve the taste of the stew,’ or, ‘I ought to improve the taste of the stew.’ We may suppose different pro attitudes are expressed with other evaluative words in place of ‘desirable’. (A&E, 86)

Davidson is completely right, I think, in pointing out that the propositional content of a desire cannot be something like “to improve the taste of the stew”, or “the taste of the stew is improved.” That content could play no role in a practical syllogism, because it is missing the crucial element needed at this point in the practical syllogism, namely, the evaluation.

Davidson sometimes suggests that the propositional content of mental states is all that we need to know about them in order to understand how they function as mental states. For example, in “Problems in the Explanation of Action,” he tells us that,

beliefs, desires, intentions, and intentional actions must, as we have seen, be identified by their semantic contents in reason-explanations. The semantic contents of attitudes and beliefs determine their relations to one another and to the world in ways that meet at least rough standards of consistency and correctness. (PR, 114)
Now this is partly right: to understand an agent’s action, we need to know why she thought the action worth performing, and the evaluative claim tells us this. But we should also note that the content so given does not exhaust what there is to be said about the mental state. This is fairly obvious from the fact that the judgment is carried out in evaluative terms such as “it is desirable” or “I ought to”, etc. Such evaluative terms as “ought” and “desirable”, if we are to make sense of them and not simply of their place in a practical syllogism, require a further account in terms of the non-propositional features of states such as desire or obligation. So an account of pro-attitudes in terms of evaluations is not exhaustive; something needs to be added. But what?

Davidson seems to suggest an answer to this while explaining why we need reference to pro-attitudes in action explanation:

To deny the need for a pro-attitude in the etiology of action is to lose an important explanatory aid. If a person is constituted in such a way that if he believes that by acting in a certain way he will crush a snail he has a tendency to act in that way, then in this respect he differs from most other people, and this difference will help explain why he acts as he does. The special fact about how he is constituted is one of his causal powers, a disposition to act under specified conditions in specific ways. Such a disposition is what I mean by a pro-attitude. (PR, 108)
On this account, pro-attitudes are dispositions to behave in a certain way. But this account is clearly insufficient to explain what pro-attitudes or mental states in general are, since dispositions to behave in certain ways might not be mental, intentional, or propositional at all. So Davidson’s claim that a disposition to act in specific ways under specified conditions is “what I mean by a pro-attitude” is confusing: such dispositions are not at all what Davidson means by a pro-attitude, unless those dispositions include an evaluative content. Moreover, there are—as Davidson recognizes—plenty of pro-attitudes that never issue in action at all, and so there are pro-attitudes that do not yield themselves to a dispositional account except counterfactually. Understanding pro-attitudes as dispositions helps us to make actions intelligible, but not necessarily rational, in the way that understanding the molecular structure of salt and water makes the solubility of salt intelligible without rationalizing it.

The difficulty, then, is that Davidson seems to have several different accounts of pro-attitudes, none of which are sufficient to explain what pro-attitudes are. What does seem necessary for a pro-attitude to play the role Davidson needs it to play is its evaluative content. But this evaluative content requires a further, non-evaluative element, in order to explain its evaluative meaning; at the same time, we need a further element in order to explain how pro-attitudes as such can be meaningful for an agent, a point brought out by cases of “passing fancy” problem. But this further element, in turn, cannot be provided by a dispositional account, since the dispositional account only provides an account of pro-attitudes if we already assume the evaluative account. The evaluative account explains the action as rational, but does not explain why the agent performs the action, only how her performing it might make sense in rational terms; it neither makes sense of the motivating force of particular pro-attitudes, nor does it explain how the attitudes themselves are meaningful for the agent. The force of the evaluation remains unclear. But that force cannot be provided by the dispositional account, since that account already assumes the evaluative account; otherwise it would not be an account of pro-attitudes at all. My suggestion, then, is that both accounts of pro-attitudes given by Davidson require a phenomenological account as a foundation in order to make sense of the motivational and meaning-bestowing power of pro-attitudes.

A&E=Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events. Clarendon, 1980.
PR=Donald Davidson, Problems of Rationality. Clarendon, 2004.

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Durham's Antagonistic Feminism

I feel a bit of a rant coming on. In an interview about her book, The Lolita Effect, Gigi Durham came out with the following:
Girls are always supposed to be changing their bodies and dressing up in order to attract male attention. There is not much emphasis on girls enjoying their own bodies, or even any reciprocity where boys might be thinking about what they could do to please girls. It's not very mutual.

But aren't boys also sold a very limited ideal of what it means to be sexual, too? Like all the pop culture references to pimps?

I think that male sexuality is defined in really narrow and limiting ways as well, but in the end, it ends up giving more power to boys. It actually hands it all off to them as being the arbiters of girls' sexuality, and the ones who can make the sexual decisions.
I have to confess that claims like this bother me to no end. I don't have a problem with feminism. But I do have a problem with this kind of feminism. Sure, I agree with Durham's major point: the sexualization of younger and younger girls by media and marketing is scary, and it's probably lousy for the girls' self-image. But surely we can grant that without adding to it the claim that boys get all the power as "arbiters of girls' sexuality", or that they get to "make the sexual decisions."

For one thing, taken at face value the claim is patently false, as most boys--and men--know perfectly well. Walk into any bar, and what you find is women sitting around and men approaching them, with the men having to accept the risk and the women holding the veto. This makes it look rather suspiciously as if women are the ones who "can make the sexual decisions." I can quite honestly say that I have very rarely been in a position to arbitrate anyone's sexuality, even had I wanted to (and though in some cases I have, the reverse has just as frequently been the case). But this isn't about me. My case just shows that "boys" is overly broad: what's meant, perhaps, isn't "all boys," or "boys as such" (because there is no such entity), but "some boys." Well, this may be true. But if so, then the response of girls to those particular boys is what puts them in a privileged position viz a viz other boys. The boys that get the best response from the girls, then, become the models for the other boys. And in this regard, the girls--by responding favorably to a specific group of boys rather than the others--are the arbiters of boys' sexuality, since their response dictates the norms for the majority of the boys to follow.

Perhaps (and I'm digging here) this is what Durham means: girls feel compelled to express their sexuality in particular ways that appeal to boys. Well, maybe, though this doesn't clearly make the boys arbiters of anything: as I understand it, girls arbitrate each other much more frequently, forcefully, and effectively than boys ever could. And in any case, it is rather silly to say that the boys are arbitrating anything, because that would assume--avoiding the overly literal reading, on which it would seem that boys control the media--that (1) boys naturally favor a certain kind of female sexuality and (2) girls' are trained to live up to that kind of sexuality. But that's just silly. What boys respond to sexually is not--except maybe at a very primitive level--something built into them. Rather, boys are exposed to the same media images of sexuality as girls are, and are just as stuck responding to those norms as the girls. If one wants to say, as Durham does, that images of girls' sexuality are media-originated, this may well be true; but one cannot then deny that those same images influence boys' sexuality.

At the most, what can make Durham's claim somewhat reasonable is something like this: boys are fed images of what girls should be like in order to be sexy. Girls are also fed images of what girls should be like in order to be sexy. Thus, the girls are influenced to express themselves in certain ways, while the boys are not. But that's not quite right: the boys are also influenced to express themselves in certain ways; perhaps not so much in the way they look, but to some extent in the way they act, and certainly in the way they respond to girls. Sure, there is a gender difference with regard to media effect here. My point is merely that this difference is not well, accurately, or intelligently expressed by the claim that boys are the arbiters of girls' sexuality.

What Durham seems to be pushing is a "war of the sexes" analysis of media effect on sexuality, a war in which men--or boys, at the case might be--are the enemy. And like any war, this one comes with distortion, deception, and propaganda designed to make the "other side" look like a bunch of evil, controlling trolls. That's a lousy model. First, it's very liable to turn intelligent men off from feminism. Second, it's liable to turn intelligent women off from feminism. Third, it's deceptive.

One of the spectacularly brilliant features of Simone de Beauvoir's approach in The Second Sex was the powerfully argued thesis that institutionalized gender inequality is bad for both women and men. There is no obviously good reason why Durham can't take the same approach: if the marketing of restrictive types of female sexuality is bad for girls, it isn't spectacularly great for boys, either. It may be a problem for girls if, say, they feel that they have to wear short skirts in order to get attention. But it's not unproblematic for boys if they are incapable of not paying attention to anyone who does wear a short skirt. Control works both ways, and feminist work that doesn't recognize this will always end up missing half the picture.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Responsibility Attribution in Milgram Experiments

Mind Hacks mentions a NYT article on some recent semi-replications of the Milgram experiments, which, as most of you no doubt know, involved a researcher telling a participant to administer shocks to another participant (who was not really getting shocks), of higher and higher voltage, in order to see how many people would obey even to the point of killing the other person. I am curious about a point mentioned here: in exit interviews, the experimenters “found that those who stopped generally believed themselves to be responsible for the shocks, whereas those who kept going tended to hold the experimenter accountable.” Aside from the general interest this should (I hope) evoke in x-phi circles, I am wondering whether this finding—if accurate—confirms or falsifies one of my pet theories about the experiments.

It has always seemed to me that the experiment wasn’t really about authority at all—or at least not in the sense intended. The point was to see whether ordinary people would obey an authority figure who instructed them to do something obviously wrong. And the idea—at least the way it is usually presented—is that the experiments showed that people do, for the most part, follow authority over their own moral convictions—as well as their moral sentiments (since responding to a person shouting in pain is, I’m fairly certain, not fundamentally a matter of conviction or belief, but of hardwired altruism; in any case, I am guessing, and I’d be interested in seeing work on this if there is some, that in high-stress situations like this, our higher order moral reasoning functions don’t play much of a direct role). Well, yes, the Milgram experiments do show this. But I don’t know if they show just what they are often taken to show, i.e., that most people are sheep. Now some people certainly are sheep—the recent cases of calls to fast food restaurants do seem to suggest that there are people who really will do whatever a police officer tells them just because the person telling them this is a police officer. But maybe even in these cases—and I suspect in many of the Milgram cases—another motive is in play.

We are all stuck in societies that require us to follow rules. Not murdering innocent people, not causing massive and unnecessary harm to others, and not doing to people what they don’t want done to them (at least in the absence of overriding reasons), are central to our social codes. In one form or another (though with many limits on which people are to be protected by these rules), these norms have existed—and probably must exist—in pretty much every human society. It’s also true that many people, not just as teenagers, enjoy breaking rules (psychoanalysis can of course provide quite a bit on this: the killing of the father, jouissance, etc; and speaking of which, I haven’t seen much serious psychoanalytic work on Milgram for some reason; suggestions anyone?). I have a feeling, too, that many very moral people—genuinely virtuous people, who generally do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing—have a deep need to act immorally (a need that is forced on them by morality itself, rather than by some resentment against morality; I’ll post on this later). Violating little rules—shoplifting, for example—creates small pleasures. Violating big rules, on the other hand, is in some way character-transforming.

Most people who generally act morally (not genuinely virtuous agents, but ordinary people) probably do so in part because of some combination of habit and fear: you avoid violating norms because you’re afraid of the consequences, and you get into the habit of sticking to those norms. So most of us wouldn’t seriously consider killing someone—not just in the sense that we’d think it is a bad idea, but we wouldn’t even entertain the thought—at least in part because we don’t want to go to jail, and in part because—having already learned that we don’t want to go to jail—we are accustomed to not taking murderous thoughts seriously. These factors probably motivate most of us more than we’d like to acknowledge, and likely play a stronger role in moral motivation than feelings of respect for the moral law or for the other or for the dignity of persons. Knowing that one can get away with violating norms breaks the habit of following them, making the possibility of violating them a live one. (And of course being put in a situation where one might kill someone already breaks the habit, since we don’t really have habits of not killing people, because situations in which that is a real possibility don’t come up that often.) So if an official researcher, in an experiment, tells you to keep shocking someone, suddenly you might realize: here’s my chance!

If this is what is going on in at least some of the Milgram cases—and I’ve always suspected that it was at some level going on in most of them—then the test subjects who go through to the highest voltage level are not sheep. They are, from a certain perspective, the opposite of sheep. Their desire to hurt and to kill is what drives them; the researcher merely provides a convenient excuse. If they’re not sheep, one might ask, why would they need an excuse, why not just follow their dark heart’s desire on their own? Partly because they are normally sheep—in that they don’t consider acting on the desire a live option—and in the experiment they break out of that sheep-hood. And partly because committing murder is instrumentally irrational—you might get caught (watching crime dramas like Law and Order has more or less convinced me that I could never pull off a real crime and avoid getting caught; though I think Crime and Punishment convinced me of that on other grounds years ago). Generally following instrumental rationality isn’t essentially sheep-like (though it might be sheep-like in some circumstances).

Most of this has probably occurred—in must more concise and less annoyingly preachy ways—to people who have thought about the Milgram experiments. The question now is whether the new findings—that is, the interview reports mentioned above—seem to falsify this thesis. This depends, I think, on whether we take responsibility attribution as primitive. If we do, then the thesis falls apart. If responsibility attribution is primitive, i.e., if people’s reports of their feeling of responsibility are not based on deeper psychological functions, then the interviews confirm that people are sheep. Those who follow through take the researcher, rather than themselves, to be responsible, and this suggests that they did not do something they really wanted to do; they did something they did not want to do because the researcher told them. But we probably shouldn’t take these responsibility attributions as primitive. In a way, if the non-sheep thesis is right, this is exactly what we’d expect. If the subjects are acting out their own desire, but one that their usual norm-following forbids them to act out, then they can only act it out by attributing their action to the researcher. This is the whole point: you can get away with murder in this case, but only provided you are not the one committing it. I don’t mean, of course, that the people who attribute responsibility to the researcher are lying; rather, one explanation for their attribution is that they’ve given the researcher the power to let them fulfill their desires; they then interpret the researcher as the agent, since otherwise they could not act.

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