Monday, November 13, 2006

Action Theory

A passage from Ian McEwan's immaculate novel, Atonement:
She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger close to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was the not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self – was it her soul? – which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.

7 Comments:

Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

Experimenting with apparently willed finger flexion leads me to this definition of "intention": My intention to flex my finger comprises (1) a reliable* prediction that my finger will indeed flex (at time t under conditions c) and (2) some sort of pro-attitude toward my finger's prospectively being flexed (at t under c).

More generally, for any action A, I "intend" to A just in case (1) I predict that my body will A and (2) I want my body to A in just the way predicted.

On this account, my intention does not in any way play a causal role with respect to the event at hand. The primary "effect" of my intention may be only my ability to provide a narrative about how the event came about, relating its causes to some (ineffable) set of facts about my body (viz., those that led to my prediction).

* "Reliable" here means counterfactually sensitive to the conditions that actually give rise to the event predicted.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you going through a McEwan phase right now? I had mine years ago.

The early stuff is best, though I have to admit I haven't looked at anything since Amsterdam. Black Dogs was a terrible mess. I think Comfort Of Strangers was his best.
[JN]

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge."

In here, Gilbert Ryle is told that humans have inner lives involving aesthetics and other things, and he replies "I want to pitch a brick at you for calling it 'inner'."

4:21 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I have liked McEwan since picking up The Cement Garden in high school, purely on the basis of the title. That remains my favourite, though I think Atonement is pretty spectacular and I'm looking forward to reading Saturday if I ever get a chance!

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Jimmy Doyle said...

"More generally, for any action A, I "intend" to A just in case (1) I predict that my body will A and (2) I want my body to A in just the way predicted."

That can't be right. What about an unintentional (indeed, involuntary), but predictable and welcome erection?

Yes, I think I liked The Cement Garden best too. Enduring Love a bit disapointing. Amsterdam includes a brilliant scene involving unintentional (indeed, involuntary -- but neither predictable nor welcome) vomiting.

1:03 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

"What about an unintentional (indeed, involuntary), but predictable and welcome erection?"

Right, need an "absent an external stimuli" clause in there.

Mostly a light-hearted suggestion, though, so promise not to erect any more ad hoc defenses should other objections to the definition arise [puns not intended].

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Iconoclast said...

If you are speaking about action, no one else treated it so succinctly, since Aristotle, the way Elizabeth Anscombe did in her Intention. (Davidson was much inspired by this incredibly difficult book).

1:02 PM  

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