Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Cognitivism and Intending to Try

One set of putative counterexamples to the Strong Belief Thesis (SBT)—the claim that intending to X entails the belief that one will X—involve cases in which an agent allegedly intends something difficult and is therefore unsure they will succeed.  In such cases, it is claimed, an agent intends to X but does not believe that they will X.  Brunero describes one such case as follows:

“[L]et’s consider the case of someone who intends to lift a heavy log that has fallen onto his front porch.  Plausibly, he intends to lift the log but doesn’t believe that he will.  It’s not that he believes he won’t; he’s simply agnostic about whether he will”(p. 22).

Defenders of SBT often respond to such putative counterexamples by saying that, in such cases, the agent in question intends to try to X, rather than intends to X.  However, Brunero claims that even if this strategy preserves SBT, it does so at the expense of the intuition that the log-lifter is rationally criticisable for failing to bend his knees. This is because the log-lifter may believe that bending his knees is necessary for lifting the log without believing that it is necessary for trying to lift the log.  Brunero writes:

“Intuitively, if this man were to believe that he’ll lift the log only if he bends his knees when he lifts, and were to fail to intend to bend his knees when he lifts, he would be criticizable as means-ends incoherent. But he might think that bending one’s knees, while necessary for lifting the log, isn’t necessary for trying to lift the log. After all, we could suppose that the last time he didn’t bend his knees, he tried and failed to lift the log, but didn’t fail to try to lift the log. So, if his intention is merely to try to lift the log, he is no longer criticizable as means-ends incoherent in failing to intend to bend his knees”(p. 23).

The efficacy of preceding line of argument will largely depend on our conception of “trying”. Consider the account of trying defended by Jennifer Hornsby, who defines trying to do something as roughly “doing what one can to do the thing”(Hornsby, p. 19).  On one natural reading of Hornsby, trying to X involves doing all in your power to X. (I will call this the Hornsby account of trying, though it is likely to be a gross oversimplification of the picture that Hornsby herself endorses.)  Given the Hornsby account, intending to try to X entails intending to do all in your power to X.  Since bending at the knees is assumed to be something in the log-lifter’s power, and since the log-lifter does not intend to bend his knees, it follows that the log-lifter is being irrational when he fails to intend to bend his knees.  He is failing to intend something (i.e., bending at the knees) that is necessary for achieving his end (i.e., doing all in his power to lift the log).

While the Hornsby account preserves the intuition that the log-lifter is irrational for failing to bend his knees, insofar as he genuinely intends to try to lift the log it also seems much too demanding to constitute a plausible account of trying.  One does not need to do all in one’s power to X in order to try to X.  One may, for example, decide in advance that one is only willing to put so much effort and no more into accomplishing some task.  In such a case, one still plausibly counts as trying to accomplish that task.  For example, suppose I am at an auction, and I am trying to purchase a vase.  I have $500 on me.  However, I have determined that I am not willing to pay more than $350 for the vase.  Suppose that I bid on the vase up until the $350 mark, but stopping bidding when the price of the vase climbs above $350.  Since I still have $150 in my pocket, I haven’t yet done all that I can to purchase the vase.  However, it seems implausible to say that I did not try to purchase the vase.  

In light of the preceding problem, I think the cognitivist should reject the Hornsby account.  However, there are two features of Hornsby’s account of trying that the cognitivist may wish to take on board.  First, trying requires a good faith effort.  One does not count as trying if there is something one believes to be necessary for X-ing, but which one deliberately fails to do.  Second, trying only requires doing those things that are in one’s power or under one’s control.  This is an important feature of trying since it is meant to capture the idea that trying is something we often resort to when we are in doubt about our successfully completing some task.  Even if successfully X-ing is not up to us, there may be things along the path to X-ing that are up to us, and trying involves doing those things.  

The challenge that faces the cognitivist is to provide an account of trying that includes the above features and that also allows us to make sense of examples like that of the vase-bidder and log-lifter.  My next comment will offer such an account.  If successful, my account of trying will allow the cognitivist to maintain that the log-lifter is rationally criticisable for failing to bend his knees even though he only intends to try to lift the log.

Consider the following suped up version of the Hornsby account:

Trying
S is trying at some time T1 to X only if for any Y, if S believes at T1 that doing Y at T2 is necessary for achieving X and S truly believes that doing Y at T2 is under S’s control, then S does Y at T2.

One distinctive feature of the immediately preceding account of trying is that it includes two temporal markers, T1 and T2 respectively.  The point of the T1 temporal marker will soon become clear.  However, a brief statement about the motivation for the T2 temporal marker is also in order.  The T2 temporal marker is meant to address a worry highlighted by Kieran Setiya, albeit in a different context.  (See his “Cognitivism about Instrumental Rationality”.)  Setiya observes that an agent may believe that intending some means, M, may be necessary for achieving some end E, and yet an agent may fail to intend M because she trusts that she will do so at a later time.  Setiya observes that such an agent need not be guilty of irrationality.  Let us call such cases self-trust cases.  One way to handle self-trust cases is to insert a temporal marker into the Means-End Coherence principle:

Means-End Coherence*
Rationality requires that [if one intends to X, and believes that one will X only if one intends to Y at some time T1, then one intend to Y at T1].

Means-End Coherence* allows us to accommodate self-trust cases because it permits an agent to rationally refrain from intending a means believed to be necessary for some end until that time at which intending the means is actually necessary for achieving that end. A similar issue arises in cases of trying that involve multiple steps towards achieving some end.  If purchasing a plane ticket requires that I book my flight by 6pm and pay for my ticket by 8pm, the T2 temporal marker ensures that I may qualify as trying to purchase my plane ticket at 7pm, even though all I have done is booked my flight. No doubt, other kinds of considerations may be invoked in order to further refine Trying, so as to make it more precise.  But the present (rough) formulation should be good enough to illustrate the possibility of offering an account of trying that meets the specifications that the cognitivist needs. 

Subtleties aside, what makes Trying of interest (in the present context) is that it allows us to preserve the intuition that the vase-bidder tried to purchase the vase. Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that whether or not the vase-bidder bids is completely up to her.  We can therefore assume that the “doing Y at T2 is under S’s control” condition has been satisfied.  As the auctioneer announces a new price for the vase—$150…$250….$350…and so on—what the vase-bidder believes is necessary for purchasing the vase is being constantly updated.  When the starting price of $150 is announced, the vase-bidder comes to believe that she must bid $150 to purchase the vase.  If she refrains from bidding $150 (i.e., doing what she believes to be necessary to purchasing the vase), then she does not count as trying to purchase the vase.  However, if she bids $150 and refrains from bidding $250 at this stage, she still counts as trying to purchase the vase. Bidding $250 becomes a requirement for purchasing the vase only after she forms the belief that is necessary for doing so.  However, this belief is not retroactive.  It remains true that the vase-bidder tried to purchase the vase when she bid $150 since bidding $150 is what she believed was necessary for purchasing the vase at the time. 

Let us assume that the vase-bidder continues to bid up to the $350 mark.  When the announced price of the vase climbs above $350, the vase-bidder stops bidding.  At this point, it seems natural to say that the vase-bidder has stopped trying to purchase the vase.  Moreover, a natural description of the entire scenario seems to be that the vase-bidder tried to purchase the vase, but that (at a certain point) she stopped trying.  At which point did she stop trying?  She stopped trying at the point at which she stopped bidding—i.e., the point at which she stopped doing what she believed to be necessary for purchasing the vase.

Trying also allows us to make sense of why the log-lifter is irrational for failing to intend what he believes to be necessary for lifting the log even though he only intends to try to lift the log.  To briefly recap, Brunero observes that the log-lifter may have tried to lift the log in the past without bending his knees.  This, by Brunero’s lights, suggests that trying to lift the log does not require bending at the knees.  If it did, then it would not have been possible for the log-lifter to try to lift the log in the past without bending his knees.  But now we can see where Brunero’s argument seems to go wrong.  It assumes that because bending at the knees was not necessary for the log-lifter’s previously trying to lift the log, it is not necessary for the log-lifter’s presently trying to lift the log.  But there has been a crucial change in the log-lifter’s doxastic makeup between his past and present attempts to lift the log.  During previous attempts, the log-lifter did not believe that bending at the knees was necessary for lifting the log.  Of course, he was open to the possibility that it was necessary.  But being open to the possibility that P is not to believe P.  So, during his previous attempts to lift the log, he did not believe that bending at the knees was necessary for lifting the log.  This explains how it was previously possible for the log-lifter to try to lift the log without bending at his knees.  However, it does not follow that it is now possible for the log-lifter to try to lift the log without bending at the knees since the log-lifter now believes that bending at the knees is necessary for lifting the log.  Like the vase-bidder, what is necessary for the log-lifter to count as trying to X changes as his beliefs about what is necessary for X-ing gets updated.  Hence, even if the log-lifter’s trying to lift the log in the past did not require bending his knees, it does not follow that the log-lifter’s presently trying to lift the log does not require bending his knees. 

What does this mean for the log-lifter’s intention to try?  On the present conception of trying, intending to try to X involves intending to do whatever you believe at the time to be necessary for X-ing. Of course, as one’s beliefs about what is necessary for X-ing are updated, one may change one’s mind about doing what one believes is necessary for X-ing.  For example, one may think that some action Y (while under one’s control) is simply not something one is willing to do.  At the point at which one both believes that Y is necessary for X-ing and at which one refuses to do Y, one stops trying to X.  At this point, you should also stop intending to try.  Indeed, if you did not stop intending to try, you would be violating Means-End Coherence*.  You would be intending to do something (i.e., trying to lift the log) without forming an intention you believed to be necessary for achieving that thing (i.e., an intention to bend his knees).

I will conclude by considering a possible objection to the preceding account.  There may be a worry that the present account of trying is too strong because it entails that the log-lifter cannot intend to try, insofar as he believes that bending his knees is necessary for lifting the log and he does not intend to bend his knees.  If this were right, it would indeed be a problem for the cognitivist since instead of explaining why the log lifter is irrational, the cognitivist would be explaining away the very possibility of the log-lifter being irrational.  However, this worry rests on a mistake.  Intending to try is an instance of intending, not an instance of trying.  And like all other intentions one does not actually have to do what one intends in order to count as having the intention to do it.  In other words, intending to try no more entails actually trying than intending to kick a ball requires actually kicking the ball.  Moreover, while trying to X requires actually doing everything you believe at the time to be necessary for X-ing, intending to try to X does not.  Hence, the present objection errs by conflating what is necessary for intending to try to X and actually trying to X.  While the latter requires that the log-lifter bend at knees, insofar as he believes this to be necessary for lifting the log, the former does not.  The upshot is that the log-lifter may intend to try to lift the log without actually bending at the knees or intending to do so.   

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