It is not rare in philosophy and psychology to see theorists fall into dichotomous thinking about mental phenomena. On one side of the dichotomy there are processes that I will label “unintelligent.” These processes are thought to be unconscious, implicit, automatic, unintentional, involuntary, procedural, and non-cognitive. On the other side, there are “intelligent” processes that are conscious, explicit, controlled, intentional, voluntary, declarative, and cognitive. Often, if a process or behavior is characterized by one of the features from either of the above lists, the process or behavior is classified as falling under the category to which the feature belongs. For example, if a process is implicit this is usually considered sufficient for classifying it as “unintelligent” and for assuming that the remaining features that fall under the “unintelligent” grouping will apply to it as well. Accordingly, if a process or behavior is automatic, philosophers often consider it to be unintelligent. It is my goal in this paper to challenge the conceptual slip from “automatic” to “unintelligent”. I will argue that there are a whole range of properties highlighted by the existing psychological literature that make automaticity a much more complex phenomenon than is usually appreciated. I will then go on to discuss two further important relationships between automatic processes and controlled processes (C-processes) that arise when we think about automatic processes in the context of skilled behavior. These interactions should add to our resistance to classifying automaticity as unintelligent or mindless. In Sect. 1, I present a few representative cases of philosophers classifying automatic processes and behaviors as mindless or unintelligent. In Sect. 2, I review trends in the psychology of automaticity in order highlight a complex set of features that are characteristic, though not definitive, of automatic processes and behaviors. In Sect. 3, I argue that at least some automatic processes are likely cognitively penetrable. In Sect. 4, I argue that the structure of skilled automatic processes is shaped diachronically by practice, training and learning. Taken together, these considerations should dislodge the temptation to equate “automatic” with “unintelligent”.
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Philosophers and psychologists use the labels “cognitive” and “noncognitive” in different ways: for psychologists and cognitive scientists “cognitive” usually means something like “mental.” In this way, perception, memory, learning, etc. are all cognitive phenomena. Philosophers, on the other hand, use “cognitive” to mean something like “intelligent” such that it makes sense to ask whether perception is cognitive or cognitively penetrable as does Fodor (1983), Pylyshyn (2000), Prinz (2006), Siegel (2010). It is in order to avoid confusion, that I use “intelligent” and “unintelligent” instead of “cognitive” and noncognitive” as my general categories of classification above.
This kind of move is not altogether accidental since one of the most influential theories in the philosophy of mind, Fodor’s (1983) Modularity of Mind, is committed to precisely this clustering of features. A hallmark of modularity is that a certain class of processes exhibit a suite of characteristics are indicative of their modularity. I will not argue against modularity in this article but, in focusing on automaticity, I will show that dual-mode theories often overlook the complexity of the relationships between various often but not always co-occurring features.
Ryle writes, “The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle (1949, p. 30).”
Intellectualism is the view that the cognitive or intelligent aspects of skill or know how are reducible to knowing an appropriate proposition governing that skill.
Stanley writes, “[T]riggering representations is something done by an input systems rather than a central system, by a module rather than a central processor. Such triggering is something we do automatically” (2011, p. 16).
As Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) write, “competent performance is rational; proficient is transitional; experts act arationally” (p. 36, emphasis in original).
In order to identify a process or behavior as potentially automatic in the first place, I think that the best we can do is to begin with the processes and behaviors that psychologists have generally studied as automatic.
“Effortless” refers to the subjective, qualitative feeling that accompanies a task that does not require attention.
The Stroop task tests for effects of non-target features on the understanding of a word. E.g., reading the word “red” when the letters R-E-D are purple in color results in a slower reaction time.
Sheets-Johnstone writes, “when Luria speaks of the automatization of movement, it is important to point out that he is describing the way in which a single impulse is sufficient to activate a kinetic melody, and not asserting that one is unaware of writing one’s name, that one is unconscious of doing so, or that one can nod off while the process continues by itself” (p. 52).
See Montero (2010) for a defense of this position and a critique of the empirical evidence that is usually appealed to in order to support the view that attention and skill are incompatible.
See Logan (1985) for similar considerations.
Bargh (1992) has proposed that the central feature that all automatic processes and behaviors share is autonomy. “He defined an autonomous process as one that, once started (and irrespective of whether it was started intentionally or unintentionally), runs to completion with no need for conscious guidance or monitoring” (Moors and Houwer 2006, p.301). But, as I argued above in reference to Wu (2013a), and as Moors and DeHouwer make clear, it isn’t clear why any one feature, as opposed to any other feature, should have priority as being definitive of automaticity.
See Wu (2013a) for a report that Shiffrin has since given up on the possibility of any feature list as definitive of automaticity.
To operationalize this concept, one would have to select the processes or features of automaticity that one was most interested in investigating. By combining various processes and features, one could investigate their overlap. This would make the concept of automaticity operationalizable according to various dimensions depending on the concerns of the researcher.
See also Sutton (2007).
“We have seen ample reason to think that top-level batting is more like an automatic reflex than any consciously controlled sequence of movements” (Papineau 2013, p.184).
See Fridland (2013a) for more on the problem of selecting between many fine-grained action routines.
“Such anticipation is based, for example, on observing initial segments of the motion of a ball or puck or the opponent’s gestures. Except for a finding of generally better attention-orientation abilities visual expertise in sports, like the expertise found in the Chase and Simon studies of chess skill, appears to be based on the nonvisual abilities related to the learned skills of identifying, predicting and therefore attending to the most relevant places” (2003, p. 85).
See Wu (2011, forthcoming) for more on the automaticity of selective attention.
As Wu has said, “Attention in the form of eye movements tracks intention, even where the intention is not explicitly to attend in that way. It won’t be strange, colloquially, to say that once the person starts looking, a pattern of eye movements happens automatically which makes perfect sense given what the person is looking for. The specific pattern of the movements is a feature of the subject’s attention, one that is not represented in the content of the intention...At the same time, this automatic feature is clearly influenced by the goals we have, for the pattern of movements makes sense given the intention, so it is top-down influenced (personal communication).
See Christensen et al. (in progress) for a defense of this claim.
In emphasizing that expert skills are automatic, I do not mean to endorse a position that excludes the possibility of experts occasionally performing the automatic components of their skill in non-automatic ways. This may occur, perhaps, when experts deliberately practice and refine particular aspects of a skill.
“At the heart of the framework is the relationship between high-level goals, and the real-time sensorimotor control strategies most suitable for accomplishing those goals” (Todorov 2004, p. 907).
This body of evidence [supporting optimal control theory] is fundamentally incompatible, with models that enforce a strict separation between trajectory planning and trajectory execution. In such serial models, the planning stage resolves the redundancy inherent in the musculoskeletal system by replacing the behavioral goal (achievable via infinitely many trajectories) with a specific ‘desired trajectory’. Accurate execution of the desired trajectory guarantees achievement of the goal, and can be implemented with relatively simple trajectory-tracking algorithms. Although this approach is computationally viable (and often used in engineering), the many observations of task-constrained variability and goal-directed corrections indicate that online execution mechanisms are able to distinguish, and selectively enforce, the details that are crucial for goal achievement. This would be impossible if the behavioral goal were replaced with a specific trajectory (Todorov and Jordan 2002, p. 1226).
Though, some would disagree (See Stanley 2011).
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I would like to thank the Naturalistic Approaches to Mind reading Group at King’s College London for numerous helpful comments and suggestions. I would like to thank, especially, David Papineua, Nick Shea, Alexander Clark, Natalie Gold, Matteo Mameli, Karen Neander and Stephen Mann. I would also like to thank Jennifer Corns, David Lowenstein, John Michael, Eliot Michaelson, Micheal Brownstein and Matt Parrott for their thoughtful comments. Lastly, I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their probing and insightful feedback.
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Fridland, E. Automatically minded. Synthese 194, 4337–4363 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0617-9
- Cognitive penetrability
- Selective attention