Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Counterexample to Setiya

In his book, Reasons Without Rationalism, Keiran Setiya posits the following necessary truth about intentional action:
Belief: When someone is acting intentionally, there must be something he is doing intentionally, not merely trying to do, in the belief that he is doing it.

Setiya’s requirement builds on Anscombe’s insight that “intentional actions are ones to which a certain sense of the question ‘why?’ has application.”(Anscombe [2000], Intentions. p. 11, §6.) In specifying precisely what that sense is, Anscombe notes that “this question is refused application by the answer: ‘I was not aware I was doing that’.” (Ibid.) Setiya takes this to suggest a conception of intentional action according to which an agent must know that she is performing a certain action in order to count as performing that action intentionally. Thus, we arrive at what may be called the Strong Knowledge Requirement for intentional action:
Strong Knowledge Requirement: For all agents, φ, if an agent is φ-ing intentionally then that agent knows she is φ-ing.
However, after considering Davidson’s example of the teacher who is intentionally making ten carbon copies as he writes even though he is unsure that he is pressing hard enough to successfully do so, Setiya concludes that the Strong Knowledge Requirement is unsound. Since there are times we do not know that we are successfully performing an action we are intentionally performing, such knowledge cannot be a necessary condition for intentional action.

The first revision Setiya makes to Anscombe is to switch from a knowledge to a belief requirement. This yields what may be called the Strong Belief Requirement for intentional action:
Strong Belief Requirement: For all agents, φ, if an agent is φ-ing intentionally then that agent believes she is φ-ing.
However, as Setiya acknowledges, the Strong Belief Requirement does little better than the Strong Knowledge Requirement vis-a-vis the carbon copy case. Insofar as the carbon-copier is unsure about whether or not he is making ten copies, he does not believe that he is making ten copies. Setiya therefore proposes a second modification to the Strong Knowledge Requirement. He claims that to count as φ-ing intentionally, one need not believe that one is φ-ing. One only needs to believe that one is performing some action ψ, where ψ is either identical with φ or an intentional action one is performing with the end of φ-ing. Moreover, he holds that one’s belief that one is ψ-ing must be true; to wit, ψ must be an action one is actually performing rather than merely attempting to perform. Thus, we arrive at what I take to be Setiya’s considered position with respect to intentional actions:
Moderate Belief Requirement: For all agents, φ, if an agent is φ-ing intentionally then that agent believes truly that she is ψ-ing, where ψ-ing is either identical to φ-ing or an intentional action performed with the end of φ-ing.
It should be clear that the Moderate Belie Requirement is nothing but a restatement Belief. This revision of Anscombe's (alleged) Strong Knowledge Requirement allows Setiya to successful address the carbon copy case since there is an intentional action (i.e., pressing hard while writing) that the carbon-copier believes truly that he is performing, and which is performed with the end of producing ten copies.

I wish to argue that Belief fails to capture a necessary truth about intentional action. To this end, I will be attempting to construct a counterexample to Belief; a case in which we would plausibly regard an agent as acting intentionally even though the agent fails to meet the necessary condition it specifies.

The Prosthetic Limb Example*:
Consider the case of an arm-amputee, Jesse, who has a thought-controlled prosthetic arm grafted to his shoulders. Let us suppose that Jesse has to demonstrate the functionality of his thought-controlled arm to a Research and Development panel. However, just before the demonstration, Jesse gets an anonymous letter saying that the researchers, out of fear that their funding will be cut, have conspired to trick him into thinking that his prosthetic arm is functioning properly even though it is not. According to the anonymous letter, the researchers will ask Jesse to perform a number of tasks and observe him closely for an indication that he is about to perform the requested action. Then they will remotely cause the arm to perform the various tasks using a wireless signal from a computer. Thus, according to the anonymous letter, while it would appear to him that he is controlling his prosthetic arm with his thoughts, it will actually be the researcher’s computers that will be determining the arm’s movements.

However, let us suppose that (unknown to Jesse) the anonymous letter is completely unreliable, and that the researchers have concocted no such plot. All the movements his prosthetic arm makes are in fact being caused by his thoughts rather than by the scientist. As he is standing before the panel, a ball is thrown towards Jesse and he catches it with his prosthetic arm. He is then asked to throw the ball, and he complies. Moreover, let us assume that the thought process preceding the movement of the thought-controlled arm are of the same kind as that which would precede the movements of Jesse’s normal (i.e., non-prosthetic) arm. However, since he is unsure about the reliability of the anonymous letter, Jesse remains unsure that it is his thoughts that are causing the arm to catch the ball. Even as he is performing the action he can’t help but wonder if it is actually the researchers who are controlling the arm’s movements with a remote device. In short, there is no action (i.e., moving his arm, catching the ball, throwing the ball) that Jesse believes he is performing. Still, it seems perfectly natural to say that Jesse caught and threw the ball and that he did so intentionally. The upshot is that, contra Belief, Jesse intentionally catches and throws the ball even though there is no action that he believes he is performing.

There are two strategies for resisting the unpropitious consequences of the Prosthetic Limb Example that appear worth considering:
(Strategy 1): Argue that Jesse has not performed an intentional action when he catches or throws the ball.

(Strategy 2): Grant that Jesse has performed an intentional action, but argue that there is an intentional action that he believes he is performing with the end of catching and throwing the ball.
I believe that (Strategy 1) is moribund. Firstly, we may say that Jesse either intended to catch and throw the ball, or he did not so intend. These exhaust all the relevant possibilities. Now, it seems highly implausible to say that Jesse did not intend to catch the ball. Clearly, his catching and throwing the ball was no accident. Nor was it the side-effect of some other action Jesse was performing. Moreover, we may safely assume that Jesse went before the panel with the intention of performing the various tasks asked of him (even if he was unsure he would be the one performing them). Additionally, when the ball was thrown towards him, it is clear that Jesse meant to catch it; this was the goal he had in mind when he moved his prosthetic arm to intercept it. Once it has been acknowledged that Jesse intended to catch and throw the ball, it is natural to regard his intention as the cause (in the broadest sense of the term) of his arm’s movements. In fact, since (ex hypothesi) the arm’s movements are not being controlled by the researchers, it is unclear what other explanation there could be of his catching and throwing the ball besides Jesse’s intention to catch and throw it.

Secondly, suppose it is later revealed to Jesse that the anonymous letter was unreliable and that he was actually controlling the movements of the prosthetic arm. In such a case, I believe we can imagine Jesse thinking to himself, “so I did catch the ball after all!” In other words, it is plausible that Jesse would take ownership of the action in the way one would take ownership of something one intentionally performed. Moreover, it would be implausible to suggest that Jesse’s belief that he performed the action retroactively made his action intentional. Jesse’s belief does not change the (metaphysical) status of his action from unintentional to intentional; at most, it changes his knowledge of the action’s status. Thus, we must conclude that Jesse’s actions were intentional all along, if we are to hold that it is intentional at all. It follows that Jesse’s actions were intentional even when he did not believe he was performing them.

According to (Strategy 2), there is in fact some intentional action that Jesse believes he is performing—namely, whatever thoughts caused the movement of his thought-controlled prosthetic arm. Unfortunately, (Strategy 2) also seems moribund. Ex hypothesi, Jesse’s prosthetic arm is controlled by the same kind of thought processes that are at play when he moves his normal arm. There is some debate over whether thoughts—particularly of the kind that features in the aetiology of bodily movements—may be considered intentional actions. But let us grant, if only for the sake of argument, that the relevant thoughts are themselves a kind of intentional action. Even so, the present proposal only seems remotely plausible if we identify the thought in question with ‘trying’ to catch or throw the ball, in the sense of ‘trying’ that accompanies all cases of intentional action. This is the sense of ‘trying’ that Davidson attributes to the carbon-copier, and which Davidson takes to be sufficient for the carbon-copier’s actions to be intentional. Thus, if we buy into Davidson’s framework, we can easily accommodate the intuition that Jesse’s actions are intentional.

However, this is not an option available to Setiya, who explicitly denies that ‘trying’ (in the above sense) fulfils the criterion imposed by Belief. He writes:
Despite what Davidson suggests, it is not enough that the carbon-copier is intentionally trying to make ten copies, in the paradigm sense of “intentional action” that involves belief. He is and must be doing specific things—for instance, pressing hard on the paper—in that paradigm sense.
In brief, Jesse’s act of trying to catch the ball (even if it is regarded as an intentional action) fails to meet Setiya’s specifications. Consequently, Belief entails that Jesse does not catch the ball intentionally. It follows that, by Setiya’s own lights, (Strategy 2) gets things wrong. Assuming that (Strategy 1) and (Strategy 2) exhausts all remotely plausible strategies for responding to the Prosthetic Limb Example, it remains a counterexample to Belief.

Admittedly, the Prosthetic Limb Example is an unusual case. Moreover, it is clear that in the vast majority of cases of intentional action, the agent is not in the position that Jesse finds himself in. Consequently, I do not see the Prosthetic Limb Example as posing a challenge to the claim that when we act intentionally we prototypically know that we are acting. Moreover, since I take Anscombe to be offering a prototypical generalisation, I do not believe the Prosthetic Limb Example represents a refutation of Anscombe’s account of intentional action. However, what Setiya purports to provide is not a prototypical generalisation, but a necessary truth. Unlike prototypical generalisations, necessary truths allow for no exceptions. Thus, as unusual as the Prosthetic Limb Example may be, it is sufficient to undermine Setiya’s claim that Belief is a necessary truth.

*This example is loosely based on the real life case of Jesse Sullivan. Here is a short video of Jesse's arm in action:

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Roman Altshuler said...

Hey Avery, I might be missing something, but I'm not seeing a counterexample here at all. The claim is called "Belief," not "Knowledge." Now there is--depending on your epistemic stance--a case for the argument that Jesse does not know whether he is performing the action. But Setiya explicitly states that he holds Anscombe's knowledge condition to be too strong, and he therefore shifts to belief. But I think it is pretty clear--at least in the normal sense of the word--that Jesse does believe he is moving his arm.

The problem is in your assumption that doubt excludes belief. But it obviously doesn't. For one thing, I recognize that most (if not all) of my beliefs are fallible; but that does not prevent me from having beliefs. Having a belief is not a matter of having absolute certainty, which is why it is not ruled out by the possibility of doubt.

Now I'm not sure just how you'd work this out fully: perhaps if your doubt is great enough, it does cancel out the belief. But that is just not the case in your example: if Jesse genuinely did not believe, even a little bit, that he was moving his arm, I can't imagine any reason why he would even try to do so! In your case, in fact, he is trying to move his arm. He is unsure about whether the arm is moving as a result of his trying, but he is not unsure enough to stop trying.

And I think this actually backs Setiya nicely. Imagine that Jesse were actually convinced that his arm is being controlled by remote. In that case, he might think: "well, in any case, just for kicks, I'm going to perform the same mental activity that I would perform if I actually were moving my arm." But, intuitively, if this is his thought process--if it is even possible to carry out such a thought process, which I doubt--then he is no longer moving his arm intentionally.

Incidentally, given that he can feel the position of his arm, and can feel it responding to his intentions or tryings or volitions or whatever, I'm not convinced that he does not, in some sense, have a belief that he is moving it regardless of what his explicit beliefs might be (it is, after all, possible to be wrong about what you believe).


Hey Roman,
Thanks for the insightful comments!

I am willing to grant that doubt need not exclude belief. However, it is equally certain that it sometimes does; for example, if my doubt leads me to make a conscious decision to remain agnostic on matter. So, let us suppose that Jesse makes a conscious decision to remain agnostic about whether or not he is controlling his arm. However, let us suppose that he proceeds to reason in the following Pascalian fashion:

Whether or not my arm is being controlled by my own thoughts, I have a vested interest in the continued funding of the research on prosthetic limbs. After all, I ultimately stand to gain from such research. Now, suppose the anonymous letter is true and that my trying is not the actual cause of my arm’s movements. Then nothing is lost since the remote device would have caused my arm to move. But suppose the letter is false, and I do not try to catch or throw the ball. Then I will surely fail the R&D trials (since there would be no remote device to fill in the gap) and the research funding will be cut. Either way, it makes sense to at least try to perform the relevant actions.

I believe that such reasoning may be enough to motivate Jesse to try to catch and throw the ball. Moreover, since such reasoning is consistent with his agnosticism, then his trying is also consistent with his agnosticism. Moreover, given that the prosthetic arm is in fine working order (albeit unknown to Jesse) trying to perform the relevant actions is enough to cause the relevant movements in the prosthetic arm. Thus, his successfully performing the relevant actions is also perfectly consistent with his agnosticism. Now the question that remains is this: are the actions that Jesse successfully performs intentional?

Since Jesse’s "trying" is motivated by a desire to pass the R&D trials and his belief that performing the various actions is a means to passing the R&D trials, it is clear that his actions are not accidental. Jesse meant to perform them. Moreover, since they result from a conscious decision on Jesse’s part, they are not reflex actions. (It looks to me as if we are quickly running out of options here.) We may of course invent some completely new type of action just to handle the Jesse case, but that strikes me as blatantly ad hoc. My suspicion is that unless we are already strongly motivated by some prior philosophical commitment, we would find it perfectly natural to say that Jesse’s catching and throwing the ball is intentional. In fact, behaviours like catching and throwing are typically taken as paradigm examples of intentional action. The reason is that they are the kind of actions one typically performs with a goal in mind (and Jesse certainly has a goal in mind when he performs them). If this is right, then Jesse’s intentionally catching and throwing the ball is perfectly consistent with his agnosticism about whether or not he is catching or throwing the ball.

Finally, I should point out that given other claims that Setiya makes, your argument proves too much. If Jesse’s being unsure that he is catching and throwing the ball is always consistent with his believing that he is catching and throwing the ball, then by parity of reasoning, the same ought to be true of the carbon-copier. However, Setiya flatly denies that the carbon-copier believes he is making ten copies on the grounds that he is unsure that he is making ten copies. Thus, your suggestion that uncertainty is always consistent with belief (at least as far as intentional action is concerned) seems inconsistent with what Setiya himself says.

Roman Altshuler said...

Just out of curiosity: let's say an amputee who can still "feel" his arm is asked to wiggle his fingers. He complies with the request. Is there something he is doing intentionally? (There's a Zen koan in here somewhere.)

By the way, recall studies by Wegner, et al. If I'm remembering correctly, what they show is that in cases where people intend to do something and it happens, they automatically develop the belief that the happening is something they have done, however implausible this might be. And there is, I think, a pretty clear sense in which someone can believe X despite being consciously and willfully committed to agnosticism about X. That is: having a belief is perfectly compatible with (1) deciding not to have the belief, and (2) deciding to act as if one had the belief for reasons that bypass the existence or non-existence of said belief.

That is: I remain unconvinced that you've described a case where someone genuinely lacks the belief that he is doing something and yet is doing it intentionally.

The case as you describe it--even if we accept your claim that Jesse really lacks the relevant belief--raises the question of what he is doing. I think it is simply bizarre to claim that he is intentionally moving his arm if (ex hypothesi) he in no way believes that he is moving his arm. But partly it's because I cannot imagine this case, so it's a bit hard to have clear intuitions about it. (This is why I hate thought experiments--they tend to simply confuse the issues.)

I do recognize, however, that there is a possible problem for Setiya here: The claim that, when we are trying to do something without the belief that we are doing it, we must be doing something else in the belief that we are doing it, is problematic when it comes to basic actions. Ok. But I'm not convinced that the Prosthetic Limb example is analogous to the carbon copier case.

The carbon copier's making of the carbon copies is intentional because he is, genuinely, trying to make ten carbon copies, although he is unsure whether he really is. He is, however, doing something--pressing as hard as he can on the top copy. But if Jesse genuinely does not believe that he is moving his arm, I do not see how he can be trying to move it. Perhaps what he is intentionally doing is going along with the funding review--the moving of his arm may then be intentional as part of that action (ah, now we're on Thompson ground). Here's how we check whether or not Jesse has the relevant belief: ask him to strangle a kitten.


You said:

By the way, recall studies by Wegner, If I'm remembering correctly,what they show is that in cases where people intend to do something and it happens,they automatically develop the belief that the happening is something they have done, however implausible this might be.

Wegner’s experiments may have shown that such beliefs are automatic, but they do not show that they are inevitable. For example, suppose Wegner were to subject himself to the experiment knowing full well that he was not causing the relevant occurrence. Although he may still experience the phenomenology of agency, it is also clear that he has the power to call the phenomenology into question. He may say, “it seems to me as if I’m causing phi, but I know better. I’m not really doing phi at all!” In other words, it is important to distinguish between the phenomenology or experience of agency and the belief that one is actually performing the relevant action. Likewise, we can imagine that Jesse’s arm is fitted with a proprioceptive feedback loop that allows him to “feel” his arm performing the relevant movements. Moreover, we can even suppose that Jesse undergoes the phenomenology of agency. Still, he may decide to withhold belief (if he had persuasive reasons to do so) even in the face of the feeling of agency.

You said:

And there is, I think, a pretty clear sense in which someone can believe X despite being consciously and willfully committed to agnosticism about X.

Sure. But certainly we would not want to say that every time an agent is agnostic about X they also believe X. Your argument only establishes that someone in Jesse’s place may believe he is performing the relevant actions. This is not a possibility that I deny. My point is that it is not inevitable that Jesse believe he is performing the relevant action; which is just another way of saying that in the Jesse example I have described an intelligible possibility.

You admit to having some difficulty imagining the case. I’ve tried the thought experiment out on a few lay people (i.e., non-philosophers) and they had little difficulty making sense of the example. Perhaps you’re having difficulty because you’re assuming that Jesse believes he is NOT performing the relevant action. But belief is not a binary relation. Being agnostic about X is different from believing X is false. Now, if you can make sense of the carbon copier intentionally making 10 copies even though he is unsure that he is doing so, then I cannot see why you should have any difficulty with the Jesse case. The cases are not alike in every respect, but they seem to be alike on precisely this point—that the respective agents are intentionally performing actions they don’t believe they are performing.

Perhaps I can assist you in your efforts to visualize the example by localising Jesse’s agnosticism:

Let us suppose that in the time leading up to the R&D trial, Jesse is able to try out his prosthetic arm and verify that it works. However, in our re-imagined example the anonymous letter says that the researchers have conspired to take over control of his arm just for the purpose of the trials because they don’t want to take the risk of him screwing up during the trial. (The researcher’s motivation for doing this is kind of like that of an artist who lip-syncs her own song during a live performance, just to be safe.)

In the re-described case, Jesse believes he can perform the actions generally, but he is unsure that he is performing them on the particular occasion because he thinks it is possible that the scientist may be controlling his arm remotely. Even so, I insist that Jesse may genuinely try (motivated by the Pascalian train of thought limned in my previous comment) and succeed at performing the relevant actions. If this is an intelligible possibility, then I have more than enough to get my thought experiment going.

Roman Altshuler said...

Right, my problem with such thought experiments is that they produce the intuition you want by bypassing any phenomenological testing. In my view, this makes the intuitions they produce prima facie unreliable.

But again, I do agree with you that there is a problem in the case of basic actions. In the carbon copy case, there is a basic action that the agent is performing intentionally. Similarly, imagine a man being asked to lift a weight he does not believe he can lift. If he manages to lift the weight, we can say that there is something he is clearly doing intentionally: straining his muscles. So the question in the prosthetic limb case is just whether there is anything Jesse is doing intentionally. Theories of trying, or volition, were, at least in part, motivated by attempts to answer the question of what it is he is doing in this case (or what the phantom limb patient is "doing" when he "wiggles" his fingers). And I agree that, unless there is a doing or action involved in moving the prosthetic arm, the case is peculiar and requires a further account.


I’m not really sure I get your phenomenology objection. Is the suggestion that whether or not an action is intentional is determined by phenomenology? That certainly can’t be right. As you pointed out earlier, there have been numerous experiments showing that the phenomenology of agency can be produced in cases in which the agent has performed no actions. Certainly, we would not want to say that the amputee who has the phenomenology of wiggling his fingers is intentionally wiggling his fingers even though there is no actual ‘finger-wiggling’ going on? Moreover, it seems entirely besides the point if there is some other action the amputee is performing intentionally; the fact remains that she is not intentionally wiggling her finger even though it seems to her as if she is. The take home lesson seems to be that phenomenology is not the final court of appeal when it comes to intentional actions.

With respect to the Jesse example, it will be agreed upon by all sides that there is an action being performed (namely, catching and throwing the ball) and that Jesse is the one performing the action. The question is whether or not his catching and throwing the ball is intentional. Moreover, the action with which we are presently concerned is the catching and throwing of the ball, and not some other bodily movement (like raising the arm etc.) nor his “trying” to catch or throw the ball. These other activities may also warrant attention, and it may be worthwhile to inquire into their status. Even so, the question: “Did Jesse intentionally catch and throw the ball?” is its own question, and it happens to be the one with which we are presently concerned. Ordinarily, if I ask, “Did John intentionally break the lamp?” I am not asking about John’s phenomenological state or about his muscle contractions. I’m inquiring about John’s goals; did he set out to break the lamp or not? Did he break the lamp in order to achieve some purpose or end? (See the synonyms for the word ‘intention’ in any dictionary.) These, I maintain, are the kinds of questions we should be asking about Jesse.