Wednesday, October 13, 2010

on knowing what i am doing. (part I)

i'm taking a seminar this semester on the philosophy of action. it's an area of philosophy in which we worry over what differentiates our intentional actions from the broader category of human behavior. what is the distinction between the things we mean to do and those things we do unintentionally? if i know that i'm doing something, does that necessarily make it intentional? (what about cases of collateral damage, where i know that i will hurt someone, but hurting them is not my aim? is that a harm i inflict intentionally?) if i do not (consciously) know that i'm doing something, does that necessarily make it unintentional? (what about cases in which i am directed by motives that are only clear to me in retrospect, if at all? can't i have meant to do something without realizing it until later?) and if we can come up with some way of distinguishing intentional actions from mere behavior, what should its moral significance be? are we more or only responsible for intentional behavior? does intentional behavior have unique moral significance? is an agent who does intentional harm somehow morally worse than an agent whose behavior persistently results in unintentional harm? why is it? anyway, it's a subject near the center of my academic interests in will, responsibility, self- and personhood.

one of the central features attended to in this literature is that everything you do, the smallest movement of your hand-- a keystroke-- can be described in infinitely many ways. you're moving the air. you're pressing a button. you're making a certain sound. you're arresting someone's attention, or failing to. you're typing a letter (the letter 'a'). you're typing a letter (to your sister). you're reconfiguring the innards of your laptop in ways that you may or may not understand or think about. all of these things (and so many others) are things you do when you strike the key. your action answers to many descriptions, some almost certainly of things you intend to do, and others that you just as certainly didn't. some things you do that you didn't directly intend, you could probably have anticipated if you'd thought about it. other things you never in a million years could have imagined. some will be written in familiar language, while others will be written in terms of the most abstruse physics.

pei says the things you regret are the things you didn't do, and i believe him. it's a sentiment with plenty of currency, corroborated by sages and the common sense. it captures something true in the experience of a particular kind of person who i particularly admire. but i've never been able to understand how it works in a moment where it might make a difference. it's rare that i feel like i'm choosing between doing something and not doing it. i'm choosing between doing something and doing something else. and even that's misleading. because for everything i do, there are infinite things i don't do. with every actual step i take, i annihilate infinite possible futures. the vast majority of them will never cross my mind. the vast majority of those that cross my mind i won't be troubled by the loss of. to make sense of this sentiment, then, one would need some kind of anchor. one would need to know what makes some possible paths The Things You Didn't Do and others nothing at all to you. what property does the former have that distinguishes it from the latter? it has to be something more than just facts about individual temperament-- individual propensities to regret in general or not to regret in general. i suppose that The Things You Didn't Do must be something like the times you might have defied the inertia of fear and habit and followed your heart-- the times you might have taken a personal risk where the benefits might have been great-- the times you missed yr chance to have done something different than you'd done before-- something deeper.

ok, so here's where i bring it all together. (thank you for your patience.) the infinitely describable nature of action (and of possibility) makes it so desperately impossible to sort The Things You Didn't Do from the things you did. i began by saying something about all the different things you do by the smallest movement of your hand. and each action we might have undertaken, like each action we do undertake, is likewise infinitely describable. and whether or not it constutes a Thing You Didn't Do (as i understand it) depends on which description you adopt: whether or not a course of action constitutes a break from the past or more of the same, following your heart or acting out of fear, is in large part a matter not only of how you describe the potential options-- the different courses you might take-- but how you describe what's come before. we don't just change more or less, overall-- we only ever change in some particular respect. it's relative, i mean. but there's no one thing that answers to the name "what came before"-- as i've said, there are infinite possible descriptions of a life that draw out different shades and patterns. what constitutes a break from the past depend on what aspects of the past one takes to be important. and given how much and complexly we love and fear it will often enough times be the case that almost any course of action open to a person could be accurately described in terms of either-- as constutiting either a change or more of the same. and i'm still only talking about the descriptions that are warranted-- forget all of the ways we describe things to ourselves which amount to misleading rationalizations or self-protecting spin. even if we could be so lucky and so good as to only consider the truest truths about who we are and what we've done, we're still, as we stand there considering our options, weighing and comparing, in a shifting matrix. try to focus your eyes anywhere and it goes fractal, folds into some infinity.

and then there's that funny fact of life-- how we always end up back where we started, anyway-- how we end up with exactly what we took ourselves to be running from.

two paths diverged in a yellow wood-- ok. but i don't believe it was so obvious which was which as it seems in memory to have been. or that, in fact, there were only two. it's such quaint idea, two paths. anyway, 

agree times a million that we regret the things we didn't do rather than the things we did, but i wonder how often it ever seems clear in the crucial moment, in the pinch, which future matches which description.


Hakim Madjid said...

Really great blog entry. Loved reading it!

Maith an bhean a Lára :)

Larisa said...

hey laura,
recently remembered your blog and found this really exciting entry. it's actually tied closely to the essays i've been grading on the language and mind exams on the intentional stance. the question asks why it is both easy and risky relative to other perspectives to describe the intentional stance. i find all of this talk rather funny and slippery but i've been thinking about it a lot lately: how some paths we take and many we don't take seem particularly salient to us, even though there are so many possibilities for action that lay outside what seems remotely relevant to our choices in the moment, and just generally how amazing it is that we understand each other and our engagements with this world at all, or seem to, given just how many possibilities are available to us.
hope you're enjoying yourself, in philosophy class and elsewhere. let's catch up soon.