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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