This will be my last post for the month. For reading along, for commenting, and for in places remaining graciously silent: thanks everyone. It’s been much more fun than I thought it would be.
I want to sketch some ideas about an aspect of agentive experience that gets too little attention. I don’t know how much this will engage with regular readers of this blog, and if not, my apologies. Also, some of these ideas are sketchy. Maybe that means they are better left unsaid (that’s my normal approach). But against my better judgment, I’ll sketch them anyway.
Finally, now that I’ve written this, I notice it is far too long for a blog post. So, apologies again.
Alright, end rant. I want to throw out an idea or two about the experience of trying. If anyone wants to comment, I am very interested to hear whether the phenomenological description seems accurate to you. Further, less phenomenological issues can be raised as well, of course.
First, a claim about tryings.
1] Trying to act can be understood as the direction of effort towards the satisfaction of a proximal intention.
Next, a claim about experiences of trying.
2] The (phenomenally conscious) experience of trying to act can be understood as the experience of the direction of effort towards the satisfaction of a proximal intention.
This raises an interesting question. Are the neural activities that realize tryings distinct from experiences of trying, or not? If not – that is, if some subset of the neural activities that realize tryings to act are neural activities that realize experiences of trying to act – then:
3a] Experiences of trying to act, when they occur, are in part constitutive of actual tryings.
3b] The neural activities that realize tryings are distinct from those that realize experiences of trying, so that the experience of trying is something like a conscious perception of or a conscious thought about trying.
Now, I’ve got some neuropsychological arguments for 3a], and I don’t think there is any good empirical argument for 3b]. We can talk about that if anyone is initially sceptical. But go a bit further with me. Because I also want to say:
4] Experiences of trying to act are distinct from all the various (haptic, visual, auditory, etc.) experiences of feedback one has while acting.
Experiences of trying, that is, are non-sensory, non-perceptual, fundamentally executive (or agentive) experiences. But wait: we know that a good bit of the implementation of our own action takes place at places of the mind inaccessible to consciousness. We are rarely ever of the many fine-grained adjustments we make while acting. Nor are we aware of many or all of the details of motor programming that go into our (bodily) actions. That’s fine. I also want to say:
5] Experiences of trying to act take place at a certain level in a hypothesized action control hierarchy. Vaguely, they take place towards the top, and the intentions such experiences seek (in some sense) to execute involve relatively rough-grained content (not much about fine-grained motor control stuff in the content of those intentions).
This raises a question regarding how experiences of trying relate to experiences of feedback. I’d like to put them together in some way to get full-blooded experiences of action. For:
6] Experiences of acting, unlike experiences of trying, sometimes do involve relatively fine-grained experiences of feedback. This is especially the case when one makes a mistake while acting.
Here’s what is I think an interesting feature of experiences of acting, that falls cleanly out of this model:
7] When one experiences a relatively fine-grained mistake and a correction (for one often will not experience these – especially the very fine-grained mistakes/corrections), one will sometimes experience these corrections 'as automatic' -- as not involving any trying. In these cases, one is in a sense an observer of (a part of) one’s own action – an observer in the sense that seems often to bother some action theorists.
Maybe this is surprising, maybe not. Usually talk of alienation from action or of the special kind of knowledge of action one has while acting don’t get into the functional details so much (this trend is starting to be reversed). I, at least, find it interesting that there are parts of one’s actions that are often both experienced, and also proceed more or less automatically, with very little executive input. (In this connection, maybe it’s worth mentioning that experiences akin to anarchic hand syndrome can be induced in healthy adults under the right conditions: see this interesting paper).
But, especially if 3a] is right, then when one experiences trying to act, one is not an observer of one's own action (at least under some descriptions).
(For a related point, see the comment I make below.)
(The thought has occurred to me that given all I’ve said about the experience of trying, this experience-type is a good candidate for the kind of non-observational knowledge of action that many Anscombians consider necessary for intentional action. I wouldn’t think this knowledge is necessary – we sometimes act without any related experience of trying. This post is long enough so I won’t get into knowledge of action. But if any Anscombians have relevant thoughts, do send them along.)