In paradigm exercises of agency, individuals guide their activities toward some goal. A central challenge for action theory is to explain how individuals guide. This challenge is an instance of the more general problem of how to accommodate individuals and their actions in the natural world, as explained by natural science. Two dominant traditions–primitivism and the causal theory–fail to address the challenge in a satisfying way. Causal theorists appeal to causation by an intention, through a feedback mechanism, in explaining guidance. Primitivists postulate primitive agential capacities in their explanations. The latter neglect to explain how primitive capacities integrate with findings from natural science. The former do not explain why some feedback mechanism’s activity amounts to the agent’s guidance. In this paper I argue that both traditions should acknowledge a capacity to guide, as actually constituted by the executive system. I argue that appeals to this empirically discovered psychological system explain how individuals guide in a way that integrates with explanations from cognitive science. Individuals’ capacity to guide is embedded in the natural world through the activity of its constituent (mechanistic) components.
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What I say here closely tracks Frankfurt’s exposition. Frankfurt’s (1978, 74).
Hume, Enquiry, Section VII, pt. 1; Kant, Critique of pure reason, B 130/40.
Different philosophers formulate the puzzle in different ways. Sometimes, they contrast ideas of free or responsible action with conceptions of the natural world as deterministic. (Pereboom, 2004) Others formulate the puzzle in terms of a clash between primitive agent-causation and scientifically respectable event-causation. (Bishop, 1989; Hornsby, 1996; Velleman, 1992) Yet others formulate the puzzle as a clash between the ontology that natural science is committed to and an ontology acknowledging agents and their acts. (Bishop, 1989; Hornsby, 2004; Nagel, 1986; Steward, 2012) I focus on the third formulation of the puzzle.
Not all causal theorists stake their view on the possibility of reduction.
This is what makes causalist theories especially attractive in the present context. As a reviewer rightly points out, many causalists would rather emphasize that causation is essential to action as the most fundamental attraction of causal theories.
Bishop acknowledges this threat in his discussion of ‘heteromesial’ cases, in which feedback mechanisms connect to other agent’s brains. (Bishop, 1989, 169ff.).
Steward, 2012, 55ff. makes a similar point.
My notion of an executive system derives from the specific strand of research documented in the main text, without committing to all details of the models. I believe that it constitutes a fairly uncontroversial regimentation of parts of the literature on cognitive control.
Compare: “There is general agreement that there are three core EFs …: inhibition … (behavioral inhibition) and interference control (selective attention and cognitive inhibition), working memory (WM), and cognitive flexibility (also called set shifting …).” (Diamond, 2013, 136) Diamond counts three executive functions, instead of four, since she does not distinguish between selective attention and cognitive inhibition. I refrain from using the term “attention,” since resource-allocation by the executive system often seems to involve some non-attentional processing-enhancing bias. Compare also what neuroscientists write: “Cognitive control stems from the active maintenance of patterns of activity in the prefrontal cortex that represents goals and the means to achieve them. They provide bias signals to other brain structures whose net effect is to guide the flow of activity along neural pathways that establish the proper mappings between inputs, internal states, and outputs needed to perform a given task.” (Miller & Cohen, 2001, 167) Similarly: “There appear to be at least two types of top-down signal, one that serves to enhance task-relevant information and another that serves to suppress task-relevant information.” (D’Esposito, 2007, 768) Computational modelers write that the system “is responsible for the active maintenance (representation in working memory) of task information (responsible for the execution of goal-directed behavior) that is particularly critical when task-relevant behavior demands that interference from distracting source of information be ignored (attention) and/or competing response tendencies be overcome (inhibition).” (Botvinick & Cohen, 2014, 1255).
What motivates focusing on these executive functions? “First, they seem to be relatively circumscribed, lower level functions … and hence can be operationally defined in a fairly precise manner. Second, for these three executive functions, a number of well-studied, relatively simple cognitive tasks that we believed would primarily tap each target function were available. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the three target functions are likely to be implicated in the performance of more complex, conventional executive tests.” (Miyake et al., 2000, 54/5) Neuroscientists have found evidence for neural mechanisms constituting these functions in the brain. (Gazzaniga et al., 2014) And modelers have shown that they are required to devise networks that replicate human goal-directed behavior. (Botvinick & Cohen, 2014, 1264; Rougier et al., 2005)
Why should we think of them as constituting a “system”? First, already Miyake et al., 2000 found that the executive functions “are separable but moderately correlated constructs, thus indicating both unity and diversity of executive functions.” (Ibid., 87) Second, the executive functions are jointly realized by fairly closely connected networks in PFC. Finally, they share a common function–that of controlling other psychological sub-systems. But while standard in cognitive science, not too much should be read into this term.
The characterization of the executive system in the main text is intended to be flexible enough to accommodate empirical advances. Thanks to a reviewer for prompting clarification.
Attention has been said to consist in our mental capacities’ cognitive unison (Mole, 2011), the selection of a stimulus for a response by the individual (Wu, 2014), the regulation of priority structures (Watzl, 2017), the making-available of information to thought (Smithies, 2011) and to working memory (Prinz, 2012). What I say about visual attention is, as far as I can see, compatible with each of these accounts.
Even irrelevant items stored in working memory can interfere with subjects’ search. (Soto et al., 2005).
Would not damage to V1 interfere with individual’s guidance of their attention shifts as well? Or damage to the priority map-mechanism? Both types of interference would be too unspecific to indicate that either sub-system helps constitute individuals’ capacity to guide. If we damaged V1, visual information could not serve as input to computations of priority. In many cases, lack of this information would indeed interfere with individuals’ search. But such damage affects not merely the individual’s actively guided attention-shifts, but many passive attention-shifts as well. Similarly for damage to the priority map-mechanism. The argument about capacity-constitution in this section relies on the argument in Sect. 4, to the effect that the available evidence supports the claim that executive regulation most closely correlates with individuals’ guidance of their attention-shifts.
Cf. Section 1, p. 1.
The literature acknowledges three marks of individual-level states and events. The third mark is their being phenomenally conscious. Since I reject a functional explanation of phenomenal consciousness, I do not think that appeals to executive functioning explain states and events’ being conscious in any interesting sense. For this reason I relegate the third mark of individual-level states and events to this footnote. See Burge, 2010, 369ff.; on consciousness cf. Dennett, 1969; on integration cf. Stich, 1978; Fodor, 1983; Burge, 2009; on coordination cf. Frankfurt, 1978; Burge, 2009; Hyman, 2015. For a critical discussion of this distinction, see Drayson, 2012 & 2014.
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Special thanks to Tyler Burge. Thanks also to Ned Block, Martin Davies, Thor Grünbaum, Pam Hieronymi, Kevin Lande, Al Mele, Elisabeth Pacherie, Chris Peacocke, Ian Phillips, Josh Shepherd, Helen Steward, Sebastian Watzl, Hong Yu Wong, Wayne Wu, as well as audiences at UCLA, NYU, UNAM, the Universities of Antwerp, Barcelona, Bloomington, Leeds, Paris, Tübingen, and York. Finally, thanks to a reviewer for this journal for their comments.
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Buehler, D. Agential capacities: a capacity to guide. Philos Stud 179, 21–47 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-021-01649-6