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A further point. I’d propose that it is in experiences of trying to act that we find what Jesse Prinz calls ‘the phenomenal I.’ In chapter 7 of his 2012 book The Conscious Brain Prinz argues ‘that there is no phenomenal quality corresponding to the subject of experience, no phenomenal I.’ Prinz characterizes the phenomenal quality thusly: ‘among the various phenomenal qualities that make up an experience, there is none that can be characterized as an experience of the self or subject in addition to the qualities found in perceived features of the world, sensations, and emotions. Although we might convey the content of our experience using a sentence of the form “I am experiencing X,” the actual qualities that make up the experience can be exhaustively surveyed by enumerating the qualities that constitute the experience of X. There is no remainder corresponding to the word I in the subject position of the sentence.’ (p. 214)

One proposal for the phenomenal I Prinz consider is the experience of authorship of action. He writes (pp. 233-234): ‘With passive perception, the world can pass by the senses without any sense of being a subject, but with active agency, the self seems to come in essentially. Perhaps the phenomenal I is an experience of oneself as the author.’

Prinz rejects this on the basis of some neuropsychological considerations. I would advance a neuropsychological argument in favor of this view, emphasizing the experience of trying rather than the perhaps more conceptually loaded experience of oneself as author.

I'm not up on the psych literature, but this all sounds reasonable to me, and consistent with the phenomenology. One terminological point: on your (our) view there must be what one might call effortless efforts. That is, efforts without any experience of muscle fatigue, pressure on the skin, emotional conflict, etc. - sensations commonly associated with the word "effort". If you agree, it's probably worth making explicit so no ones trips over the word "effort".

Hi Paul,

I'm glad you agree with the phenomenology! Honestly, I've discussed this with a number of philosophers, and reactions run the gamut. Some say 'of course.' Others profess nothing like the experience I'm picking out. Others think for a bit and say, 'well, now you mention it, I do have that experience, quite frequently in fact.' Others want to resist the identification of actual tryings with experiences of trying: for some this seems to be a kind of conceptual thing. The experience of trying cannot be identical with trying, because how would it be an experience OF trying?

Regarding effortless efforts: yes, I agree. Thanks for bringing that up. I want to say some kind of effort is a part of the experience -- since I'm thinking of the experience as a direction of effort -- but I don't want to think of the relevant effort as necessarily involving anything like haptic or proprioceptive experience. One way to bring this out, perhaps, is to note that (for me) one can experience directing effort towards solving a math problem or remembering someone's name.

I'm not sure I understand what it is you're saying, but if I do understand, then I disagree with you. Let me start by trying to make a more precise description of what you're claiming.

Let T be the set of all tryings (tokens, so the trying to thread this needle today is distinct from the trying to thread it that happened yesterday). You partion T into T_c and T_u, where T_c is the set of all tryings with "(phenomenally conscious) experiences" of the trying, and T_u is the set of all tryings without such.

Your claim 3a I take to mean that for any t in T_c, if we were to (counterfactually) remove the experience of t from t (forming t'), then t' would not be a trying. In other words, even tho' t "can be understood as the direction of effort towards the satisfaction of a proximal intention", t' cannot be so understood.

I find that claim unintuitive -- but maybe it only needs more explanation. Perhaps there's something about the proximal intentions (goals) of the tryings that can make it seem more reasonable -- say two sets G_c and G_u such that for all t in T, t in T_c iff goal(t) in G_c, and similarly for T_u and G_u.

But even then I'd be suspicious. I'd think that the possibility of learning would suggest 3a to be wrong. We can learn a task so well that it becomes automated -- we no longer experience the trying to do it that we did before we learned. Consider riding a bike -- or driving a car. Do you want to say that we always experience trying to keep the car in its lane, that we never experience that trying, that once we have learned how to keep a car in its lane we no longer *try* to do so, or what? (Similarly for keeping a bike upright.)

From what you said about effort, I suspect it's the "no longer try" option -- but I find that unintuitive itself.

PS: a little more about keeping the car in its lane. The novice driver is presumably experiencing the trying/effort of keeping the car in its lane; the experienced driver is not experiencing the trying/effort. But of course these are distinct tryings, so that's not a problem. The problem (as I see it) is that if we removed the novice driver's awareness of the efforts he's making, then the same exact motions he goes thru would not count as trying to keep the car in its lane -- even tho' they can (I think) be explained as an (unconscious) attempt to keep the car in its lane.

Hi Mark,

Thanks! You said, 'Your claim 3a I take to mean that for any t in T_c, if we were to (counterfactually) remove the experience of t from t (forming t'), then t' would not be a trying...'

I see how you could take 3a] that way - I could have been clearer in the paragraph before I stated 3a] - but that’s not how I meant it. Tryings can fail to involve experiences of trying. How could that be so, given 3a]? That’s a tough question, and I think answering it fully requires (among other things) a better understanding of the occurrence-conditions of conscious states and processes, and what demarcates them from non conscious processes. I’m not a huge fan of any of the proposed ways to do that. At any rate, all I’m claiming here is that when there are experiences of trying, they in part constitute the trying, and in denying the implication above, I am claiming that experiences of trying are not essential parts of actual tryings. (Compare: when present, a bike seat is in part constitutive of a bike. But a bike seat is not an essential part of a bike.) (Or, taking action-types as an example, compare: when present, the movement of my arm is in part constitutive of an action of signaling a cab. But the movement of my arm is not an essential part of signaling a cab – I might do it verbally, or with a leg, etc.)

So I agree in general with your points about car driving -- in general, any intentional action will involve the direction of effort (however minimal) towards the satisfaction of an intention, whether or not there is any conscious experience associated with that or not.

Thanks for the clarification, Josh. I'm still not sure what you mean, but I'm no longer sure I disagree with you!

So let me try again. What you're saying is that a trying may have an *incidental* experiencing as part of it -- some part that could be removed and it'd still be a trying. However it would be wrong to consider that experiencing as a separate thing.

I'm wondering tho' if that part would be more like the seat of a bike or more like a bell. If the bike lacks seat, it's defective; not so for lacking a bell. The seat is the part of the bike you sit on. What part of the trying is the experience of the trying?

Are you only saying that theories of trying that include experiences of trying as part of the trying (like a bike seat, rather than as an accessory, like a bicycle bell) have desirable properties that their counterparts lack -- such as making your 7] come out true anyway, rather than leaving it as something extra that needs a separate explanation?

Hi Mark,

Thanks for pressing. With respect to whether the experience of trying is the seat or the bell of the bike: I don't know. I'm not here making any commitment to any particular view on the function of consciousness in general. Nor am I ascribing any special function to experiences of trying (I am, of course, committed to the claim that they play at least some role in directing effort towards the satisfaction of an intention), where by 'special function' I mean something like 'function that non-conscious tryings do not have (or do not perform as well).' I wish I knew what the function(s) of consciousness was, and I wish I could say of any particular conscious state or process whether it had a special functional role that non-conscious tokens of that state- or process-type did not have. But I'm not sold on any of the extant proposals out there, and I think the issues are pretty complicated. So I sadly stay neutral, for now.

On 7] - I do think this requires a separate explanation. I also think it is possible to experience this kind of automatic low-level activity while experiencing trying.

Hi Josh,

Thanks for another great post, and for all of your posts and comments throughout the month.

I’m skeptical of the claim that your experience of trying to act, when this occurs, can be partially constitutive of your trying to act. It sounds like you have some arguments in favour of this claim, which I’d be happy to hear. And I’d also be happy to hear more about the specific conception of trying that you have in mind. You suggest that trying is the “direction of effort” towards the satisfaction of a proximal intention, but I’m unclear what is meant by the direction of effort.

In the meanwhile, here’s an example that, I think, provides a decent illustration of why we ought not to conflate (1) an experience of trying to act, and (2) trying to perform the action in question, where trying is understood as you initially suggested.

Consider lifting and holding a heavy object. In particular, imagine the kind of effort required for you to lift a 40-pound box of books and hold that box in front of your body for thirty seconds or so. As you are in the midst of trying to lift and hold the box, your direction of effort is doing some real causal work in the process of lifting the heavy mass, as can easily be seen by comparing the lesser degree of effort that would be required for you to lift and hold a single paperback. But, crucially, your *experience of* directing effort does not play any such causal role. Metaphysically speaking, it seems that the notion of experience belongs to a different category of being. But I imagine you might disagree?


Hi Josh. May I hijack Mark's car example to describe a case I was going to present in different terms? Say I'm a novice driver and I'm driving along trying to keep between the lines; during this process, I have to change gear, which demands all of my attention for a couple of seconds, before my attention switches back to the lines.

The following sounds right to me: for a while I was trying to keep between the lines and had the experience of so trying; that experience was briefly interrupted while I changed gear, during which time I was trying to keep between the lines in the unconscious way a more experienced driver does (though I couldn't keep that up for as long as an experienced driver); after that brief interruption, I became conscious of my trying to keep between the lines again.

It seems to me that you are committed to saying that this case involves three distinct acts of trying - if my experience of trying to keep between the lines is partly constituive of that trying, then that trying must end (and a new one begin) when I shift my attention to changing gear, and likewise when I shift my attention back to the lines. To my mind, this unnecessarily multiplies tryings, and doesn't do justice to the idea of shifting my attention back to a trying that is already going on.

I don't have any disagreements with the rest of your post, though. As an addendum, how is the folloing as an example of an act experienced as automatic? Say I'm a very well-practised piano player, and I decide to do something that's basically automatic - play a scale, say - but pay a lot of attention to how hard, and therefore how loudly, I'm striking each note. Perhaps I decide to practise playing a scale with alternating loud and soft notes. It seems plausible to me (a non-well-practised piano player) that I can do this, and when I do, the timing and placement of my fingers as I play the scale is automatic, but because I am concentrating on hitting each one either loud or soft, I still experience all the individual finger-strokes. That is, I experience each finger-stroke as an act, because I'm focused on doing it right, but part of the experience - of the timing and placement - is an experience of the finger-stroke as automatic.

Hi Michael,

Here's a bit more on how I think of trying. The characterisation of trying I gave was primarily phenomenological. It's consistent, though, with a more functionalized view. So, I'm happy with the view of trying Fred Adams and Al Mele lay out in their 1992 paper 'The intention/volition debate' - tryings are to be identified with the effects of a proximal intention's normal functioning (roughly, its initiating, guiding and sustaining of action). At a phenomenological level I'd prefer the language of directing effort, but the two ways of characterising trying can be put together I think.

Regarding the arguments for 3a] - they involve interpretation of current models of agentive experience, and also interpretation of some studies on a] agents who have lost proprioception, but still experience trying, and b] agents who are temporarily paralysed, but still experience trying. I can't summarise the models or the studies in this comment, but roughly, the idea is that the best interpretation of the neuropsychology relevant to experiences of trying does not separate these experiences from actual tryings, and in fact indicates that these experiences are causally upstream of and exert influence upon motor preparation processes, just as actual tryings do.

Regarding your example, could you say more? Are you making a phenomenological point, a point about the meaning of 'experience of,' or something different? Why think the experience of directing effort plays no causal role in the box case?

Hi CJ,

Thanks for the comment! Regarding piano playing, what you say sounds right to me, and consistent with the science I know too. (Fwiw, there is some interesting empirical work on action control and error detection -- both low-level and high-level -- that looks at piano players and skilled typists. Maria Herrojo Ruiz and colleagues have studied piano-playing, and Gordan Logan and colleagues (and many others) have studied typing.)

About multiplying tryings. I'm not sure I should be worried about this. Your description of the agent's activity gives a few things that could be considered intentional actions under some description: trying to keep between the lines, changing gears, shifting attention between those two. I think agents often try to do more than one thing at once, especially when those are compatible with each other, as is the case when driving and shifting gears.

But you are also making a point that appeals to my constitutive claim. So let me clarify: experiences of trying are partially constitutive of trying, but they need not be present throughout the duration of a trying. Compare: the last three minutes of the half are partially constitutive of the game, but the game does not end when those three minutes are up. So I want to say that the fading away of the experience of trying to keep in the lines need not end that trying, nor need the resumption of an experience of trying to keep in the lines start up a new trying.

That said, maybe it does -- I suppose it depends on some functional details and also on things to do with action-individuation. Sometimes, it seems fine to say of an extended action like playing a game that this action is better thought of as a series of thematically related actions. Maybe the driving case is the same. Or do you disagree?

Well, I certainly think that in my driving case there is only one act of trying, which I experience intermittently, but I'm not sure what someone who thinks that the experience of trying is partly constitutive of trying should say. On the one hand, I was definitely thinking of constitution in too narrow a way before, and the example of a game of two halves has made me reconsider - I definitely now agree that temporal parts of an activity can partly constitute it, even though the activity doesn't end when the parts do. But on the other hand, the experience of trying isn't much like a temporal part of a trying.

You could instead compare it to this: a basketball game is partly constituted by the two teams playing it. It can continue as the same game if one of those teams changes, e.g. by substituting one player for another. But if one team leaves and is replaced by an entirely new one, it seems to me that the game has ended and a new one begun (though if the score isn't reset to 0-0, it might be a very unfair game). The question is whether the end of my experience of trying to keep between the lines is more like the replacement of one basketball team with a new one, or more like the substitution of a single player.

I'm still tempted to think that it's more like the replacement of an entire team, and therefore, that if you hold that the experience of trying is partly constitutive of trying, you end up saying that when my attention shifts to changing gear, I stop trying to keep between the lines, but immediately begin trying again, albeit unconsciously. (Two reasons for rejecting this possibility: 1) as I said before, I want to be able to say that when I finish changing gear, I can shift my attention back to the trying I was engaged in before changing gear; 2) isn't it just weird to say that I stopped trying to X and at that very moment started trying to X again?) But perhaps your reasons for thinking that the experience of trying is partially constitutive of trying will lead you to believe that the end of my experience of trying to keep between the lines is more like the substitution of a single basketball player than the replacement of a whole team?

Hi Josh,

Thanks for saying a little more about this, and for asking about the example.

I took myself to be making a metaphysical claim. The claim is intended to be metaphysical inasmuch as it aims to highlight a legitimate feature of reality that plays a genuine causal role in producing an effect. The case of lifting and holding a heavy box of books is thus intended to (1) highlight a particular phenomenon (i.e., the exertion of effort) and (2) illustrate its causal role in the production of action.

About the experience of exerting effort (compared with the actual exertion of effort), the idea is that my *experience* does not do any heavy lifting. This, too, is intended to be a metaphysical claim. The heavy lifting is something that I do, by using the muscles in my hands, arms, shoulders, chest, back, etc. That is, I flex my muscles and move my limbs as I lift and hold the box in the air. And since the box weighs 40 pounds, I must exert a significant degree of effort while lifting it in the air, thereby overcoming gravity and other physical forces. I can experience myself as I am doing this, but my experience does none of this causal work. To say otherwise seems to succumb to a category mistake.

I hope that helps to clarify some of what I said.


Very interesting post and thread Josh.

I wonder if the emerging field of neuroprosthetics has anything to offer here. From my very limited knowledge about it, it seems that some devices use brain patterns associated with thinking about a kind to movement to activate movements of that type produced by the prosthesis, so it seems that trying in those instances requires the subject to think in certain very restricted ways, so that the trying requires producing a consciousness of an imagined activity. Now clearly this is deviant from much of our ordinary experience, but I wonder if it relates to how we more deliberately try to enact something when we learn a new skill, like a correct golf swing.

I remember as a child first noting that I could actively think in a conscious way "Move hand!" but I still wouldn't try to move it, whereas I could think "Don't move hand!" and I would still move it. No wonder I ended up in this field!

Very impressive set of posts, Josh -- and an impressive set of replies. This lies out of my area but I'm interested in trying.

I wonder whether Michael is right. Here I'll just repeat Adina Roskies criticism of neuroscience arguments for free will skepticism. Often neuroscientists conflate making a choice with the experience of making a choice. Similarly, Leibniz might say that while all tryings are experiences (perceptions for Leibniz), experiences of tryings are apperceptions -- experiences of experiences.

Hi CJ,

Fantastic comment. I indeed do want to say that the experience of trying is more like the substitution of a single player, and I suppose I want to say this for functional reasons – we are capable of doing pretty sophisticated things without having an experience of trying, but frankly when things are difficult or unfamiliar we often do experience ourselves trying, which suggests that the experience plays SOME role (what exact role that is, as I’ve said earlier, I don’t know). Even so, I like where your head is at. So can I ask why you want to go the whole team route? Is this for phenomenological reasons, functional reasons, something to do with intuitions about trying . . .?

P.S. - I like both of the reasons you give for rejecting the thought that when attention shifts you stop trying to keep between the lines. I too want to reject this thought. I get that you are saying my constitutive view might commit me to this undesirable thought, and I’d like to avoid this consequence if possible.

Hi Michael,

Thanks. I think I get it. A couple of thoughts aimed in your direction (they might still miss their mark, though). (P.S. - I know you think trying is important in a number of ways. I'd like to hear more about your views on trying, either via e-mail or in comments below or both...)

I’m happy with a distinction between whatever the experience of trying is and the part of the action you describe as ‘using the muscles in my hands, arms . . .’ etc. I also want to say that the central nervous system is crucial here, such that high-level cognitive states and processes are communicating with low-level motoric states and processes, which are in turn communicating with muscle spindles and other efferent fibers nearer the joints and muscles of the hand, arm, etc., and that a part of the work of the central nervous system is aptly described as directing the effort. And of course I’m trying to identify the experience of trying with some of this nervous system activity.

Now, if what we’re talking about is the metaphysics of consciousness, in a very uninteresting way I’m side-stepping traditional mental causation worries by speaking of the neural activities that realize an experience of trying. And I’m also working with some kind of broadly functional story about consciousness here: I suppose some kind of identity theory or even some kind of a posteriori functionalism would work.

A further question (feel free to ignore): when you say the experience does none of the work, are you making an epiphenomenalist claim, or are you saying that whatever causal work the experience might do, it won’t be the same as the work done by what the experience is ABOUT (that is, the trying)? Some folks have thrown something like the latter line at me, and I admit I feel the pull of it. The way I reckon, this latter claim is either a claim about phenomenology, or a kind of conceptual claim about experience (maybe it is both). If it is a phenomenological claim, I want to disagree on phenomenological grounds: the experience of trying seems transparent at least in the sense that when experiencing a trying, it seems to me that I just am consciously trying to A. And when I reflect on that experience, it sounds natural to say that I am, in part in virtue of that experience trying to A.

Ok. But if this is a conceptual claim about experience, maybe the thought is just that experience DESCRIBES the world (in this case, it describes my activity of directing effort), but I am claiming that my experience DIRECTS a part of the world (my own effort aimed at satisfying an intention). Obviously you are committed to none of this, but I am here just trying to make sense of a possible reading of your objection. And against this reading, I’m inclined to have my cake and eat it too (by the way, I have no clue what this expression really means and I never have). That is, I want to say that experiences of trying might have a dual direction of fit – they both describe an agent’s activity, and they direct the agent’s activity (how they might do so is a very interesting question, verging on some tough issues). At the very least this seems conceptually possible, so that's a point against a conceptual objection here.

Hi Alan,

That’s a very interesting line of thought! I honestly hadn’t pondered that before. With neuroprosthetics I think you’re right that the neural activity they read is related to motor imagery, which utilizes some of the same neural tracts as actual motor execution. In this case the trying question becomes interesting, because I want to say that in a case of motor imagery agents are consciously trying to perform a mental action – an action of cycling through some motor plan in imagination. But one might predict that this would be different in important ways from actually trying to do the thing without the neuroprosthetic.

I have no extra wisdom here, except to add: it strikes me that it would be very interesting if we had sophisticated enough neural monitoring technology to see what happens as someone becomes accustomed to using a neuroprosthetic (maybe this has been done?! I’m generally surprised to find out things have already been done in neuroscience...). Because all of a sudden they begin to rely on actual feedback, which will (given what we know about action control) integrate with the high-level executive states that subserve trying – so their motor imagery (an act of imagination) would become an actual trying.

I think whatever the results, greater knowledge of how neuroprosthetic use works and how it changes the interactions between high-level cognitive states and low-level motor implementation would be valuable information.

Hi Joe,

Thanks for the kind words! I’m not sure if it addresses your thought, but I intended the last two paragraphs of my latest comment to Michael to do just that. I’m not at all sure that they do adequately address it, though, so I wonder what you think?


I just want to make sure I've got you right. I should have more clearly stated that Roskie, in talking about conscious choice, makes a meta-level distinction between conscious experience (perception) and the experience of that conscious experience (apperception). So one could say (and I thought Michael was suggesting) there is a difference between trying (which might be conscious) and the experience of trying. You say the two might be the same. Something like that?

Hi Josh,

Glad to hear that what I said made some sense. I’ve got work-in-progress that discusses the notion of effort and I’d be happy to share it when it’s ready.

The nervous system is crucial, no doubt, but I would resist making the claim “that a part of the work of the central nervous system is aptly described as directing the effort”. To my mind, this is a category mistake. It seems to be a category mistake because the exertion of effort is something that we attribute to the agent, not to any of the agent’s proper parts, properties, etc. Just as my hands, arms, shoulders, legs, etc., do not exert effort, neither do any of my other features, like my brain and central nervous system. I do the exerting.

About your further question, if I read you correctly here, I take myself to be making something like the latter claim: viz., that in the case I presented, the causal work is accomplished not by your experience of exerting effort, but by your exertion of effort itself. This is intended to be a metaphysical claim, both about experience and the exertion of effort. As a metaphysical issue, it seems to me unlikely that experience could be the kind of thing that could play that specific causal role, and so I find it difficult to imagine how an agent’s experience could causally direct the exertion of effort.

I hope that helps, too. Cheers!

Hi Joe,

Ah, I see. When I've been saying 'experience of trying,' I meant to refer only to the level of perception, not apperception (saying perception is a little awkward, since I think the experience of trying is non-perceptual in the sense that it is not an experience in any sense modality). I think it is possible to have a meta-cognitive, or higher-order, or apperceptive experience of the trying as well (say when one turns ones attention to how hard one is trying or something like that). In that case I'd think of it as two co-conscious experiences -- the experience of trying and the higher-order apperception of trying. So I'm not saying the perception/apperception of trying are the same - I mean to be talking only about the perception-level.

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