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Agency of belief and intention

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In this paper, I argue for a conditional parity thesis: if we are agents with respect to our intentions, we are agents with respect to our beliefs. In the final section, I motivate a categorical version of the parity thesis: we are agents with respect to belief and intention. My aim in this paper is to show that there is no unique challenge facing epistemic agency that is not also facing agency with respect to intention. My thesis is ambitious on two fronts. First, the parity thesis is a substantive thesis about the nature of belief and intention. I argue that there is a structural parity of belief and intention; the status of whether they are agential stands and falls together. Second, the parity thesis illuminates the nature of agency. It constrains what counts as a satisfactory account of agency: either we must accept agency of both belief and intention, or we must reject both. In the final section, I argue that we have prima facie reason to accept agency of belief and intention. Finally, I diagnose why there has been such resistance to epistemic agency. Epistemic agency is problematic, but its problems are problems with agency, not problems with epistemic agency.

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  1. See Alston (1985, (1988), Kornblith (2012), Audi (2013), Engel (2013), Steup (2000, (2008), and McCormick (2014).

  2. Setiya (2013).

  3. Comesana (2015, p. 199). It is important to add that he himself remains neutral on whether doxastic involuntarism is true.

  4. Setiya (2014). See also Setiya (2008).

  5. See footnote 1.

  6. While many epistemologists have rejected the parity thesis, some are sympathetic to it. See especially Hieronymi (2009b) and McHugh (2012, (2013, (2014). Hieronymi (2009b) argues for two types of agency that we exercise over our mental lives. Hieronymi’s primary examples of agential attitudes are belief and intention. McHugh (2012) explores (though does not endorse) what he calls the symmetry thesis: that our ordinary rational control of belief is strongly constrained by evidence, and intentions are constrained by reasons for action, and the best explanation of this fact is that these symmetries are explained by important symmetries in the nature of belief and intention. McHugh (2014) argues for the possibility of doxastic freedom, modeled on freedom of intention. In this paper, I do not directly address freedom and responsibility, and how they may apply to belief and intention. Instead, the aim of my paper is to call attention to the structural similarities between belief and intention.

  7. See the literature on believing at will, including Hieronymi (2005, (2008, (2009a, (2009b), Bennett (1990), Williams (1970), and Setiya (2013). See also Alston (1985, (1988), Kornblith (2012), Audi (2013), and Engel (2013) for epistemologists who reject doxastic voluntarism.

  8. See Steup (2008), McCormick (2014), and perhaps Peels (2014).

  9. See Feldman (2000, p. 637).

  10. Kornblith (2012), for example, writes that “when we offer others reasons for belief... we assume that, to a first approximation, the desires of the people we are talking to will have nothing to do with what they come to believe. They will only be moved by reasons, and thus, their agency will play no role in the beliefs they acquire” (p. 97). Underlying Kornblith’s argument is an assumption about what can count as agency; Kornblith assumes that agency involves acting on the basis of an intention that is formed by our desires. Since epistemic reasons are entirely independent of our desires, epistemic agency is an incoherent notion. A similar conception of agency is offered by Engel (2013). Engel articulates this conception of agency when he writes, “On the standard conception of agency the relation between the intention (or the reasons) for \(\phi \)-ing and the action of \(\phi \)-ing is a causal one. In other words an agent A \(\phi \)s iff (i) A has a reason to \(\phi \) which is at least constituted of an intention to \(\phi \), (ii) the reason and the intention causes in the appropriate way a bodily movement and (iii) A could have done otherwise” (p. 160).

  11. See Kavka (1983).

  12. Ibid, pp. 33–34.

  13. This point is contentious. See, for example, Hieronymi (2005). One might think that the reason to form the intention to drink the toxin is the wrong kind of reason and thus is not properly understood as a reason at all. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  14. Suppose that I stubbornly insist that I in fact can form the intention. Doesn’t that show Kavka’s conclusion to be false? Suppose I reason, “I’ll just drink the potion. I’ve decided. Midnight will roll around, and my intention will be present, because I’ve decided to drink the potion.” Kavka considers this possibility. But, he argues, midnight will approach and you will think, “I can give up this intention just after midnight. I don’t actually have to drink the poison.” He thinks even as you consider this possibility, your resolve will wane. When midnight comes, you will not be able to keep your resolve. I do not think this interpretation is required. Rather, the important point is that you cannot intend directly on the basis of an intention. Instead, you have to undertake some intermediate step to form the intention. But the same is true of belief.

  15. You might think, with Kolodny (2005), that the reason you cannot form the intention is because you cannot intend to do what you believe you have no reason to do. Kolodny writes that “[the Toxin Puzzle] shows only that, in certain situations, one cannot intend to do what one believes one has no reason to do.” His explanation of this is that one cannot intend to do what one believes one will not do. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out. Kolodny offers his point in the context of a debate whether reasons to intend are always reasons to act, not about the metaphysics of intention. If Kolodny is right, then the Toxin puzzle only shows that intentions to intend are ineffective in certain circumstances, rather than ineffective overall.

  16. Pink (2009).

  17. Ibid. p. 106. Pink concludes, “Motivations such as intentions and decisions to act are not voluntary. They are not directly subject to the will. Intentions cannot be formed or decisions be taken just on the basis of prior decisions or desires so to decide.”

  18. Here is an unproblematic way that intentions can lead to other intentions. I can decide in five minutes time that I will decide whether to raise my arm. But this is not a case of forming an intention on the basis of another intention. Rather, it is a case of deciding to open inquiry at a future time.

  19. See Owens (2000). You might think that this simple distinction is inadequate to capture the way we go about our deliberation. We talk about “making up our mind” whether to believe p. The main point of my argument—and one that the proponent of “up to us” denies—is that the formation of the attitude is “up to us” even if the reasons that determine which attitude is proper are not.

  20. The proponent of this argument is committed to rejecting permissivism, especially permissivism of the sort defended by James (1896). Contemporary permissivists do not contend that we may choose what to believe in underdetermined situations, only that features other than evidence may make it rational to believe. Thanks to Ralf Bader for pointing this out. If permissivism is true, then there will be no parity breaker between belief and intention, since belief and intention can both be rationally underdetermined.

  21. You might think that the problem here is not rationally underdetermined choice, but metaphysically underdetermined choice. What is really required for agency is libertarian free will. I think that this debate is orthogonal to the difference between belief and intention. The question of metaphysically free choice arises when we ask how it is that the agent is properly understood as the source of her action/attitude. Whatever the right account of metaphysically free choice, it seems that it could apply equally to belief and intention. Thanks to Nathan Weston for pressing me on this point.

  22. Here I remain neutral on the sort of entities reasons are: facts, mental states, etc.

  23. This way of viewing epistemic and practical reasons rules out the possibility of believing for practical reasons. Following Hieronymi (2005, (2009b), I think that this is a conceptual fact about reasons for belief and intention. The wishful believer is not believing for a practical reason but instead for a bad epistemic reason (though its propositional content may do double-duty as a good reason for some action).

  24. Though this way of viewing reasons for action is contentious. See Brewer (2009).

  25. Setiya (2013).

  26. Setiya does not explicitly endorse this argument; thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  27. However, correlate verbs for belief (e.g. judge, opine) are dynamic, not static. Furthermore, there is linguistic evidence that we can coerce dynamic readings of mental state verbs. See Vendler (1957).

  28. Davidson (1963).

  29. Setiya (2014).

  30. Setiya (2013, p. 184). Setiya also characterizes the distinction between belief and intention this way in Setiya (2008).

  31. Here, Setiya cites Thompson (2008).

  32. We might resist this point. Beliefs also culminate in actions, as I will argue later.

  33. Another way to interpret this is that so-called “static” verbs can also have dynamic readings. The command “be silent!” has a dynamic force, though it utilizes the verb of being. Similarly, someone might issue the command “believe me!” Whether we take this to mean that static verbs have dynamic meanings, or that static verbs can be agential, my point still stands: Setiya’s test doesn’t show that belief is not agential. Thanks to Daniel Skibra for helping me clarify this point.

  34. You might attempt to reconstruct the case as an activity of listening, rather than being silent. I think this does not capture the activity of the monks. They are not just listening, they are disciplining themselves to silence themselves, to achieve tranquility.

  35. Davidson (1963, p. 685).

  36. Ibid.

  37. “Central to the relation between a reason and an action it explains is the idea that the agent performed the action because he had the reason” (Ibid, p. 691).

  38. I recognize that different views will want to quibble over whether we use the term “reason” or “justification” here. I think the translations are unproblematic, but more could be said on the topic.

  39. See e.g. Turri (2011) for a causal account, Evans (2013) for a counterfactual account, and Fumerton (1995) for a psychological acquaintance view.

  40. I am extrapolating this argument from Setiya’s text.

  41. Setiya argues as though the only alternative is a causal alternative. However, as noted above, the Rationalizing-Relation View of basing could be causal, counterfactual, psychological, or dispositional. The important point is that the relation points to something additional that connects the agent to her reason.

  42. See Sorensen (2014). Moore’s paradox is generally understood as a paradox of assertion (see Pagin 2015). See also Adler (2002) for a treatment of Moore’s paradox as it applies to belief, and also for other versions of it.

  43. A Moore-paradoxical statement is supposed to be true but unassertible. On Setiya’s view, the sentence is not unassertible, but incoherent. If Setiya is correct, it is not possible to believe p and the fact that q is evidence that p without believing p because of q. As a result, by Setiya’s lights it isn’t properly understood as a Moore sentence.

  44. Setiya (2013, p. 192).

  45. You might think that this answer is clear because the evidence overdetermines the belief. Later, I will present cases in which this is not part of the case.

  46. Setiya might resist this point. He might think that there are additional conditions on justification. However, in what follows I will argue there are not any reasonable options open to Setiya. Additionally, throughout his paper, Setiya interchanges justified belief with believing for a good reason. He writes, “When you have sufficient evidence that p, in the fact that q, and you believe that p on the ground that q, this evidence justifies your belief that p. In other words, believing for a reason, in the sense that involves beliefs about evidence, is sufficient for justification by evidence, where the ground of one’s belief belongs to one’s evidence and is sufficiently strong.” (ibid. p. 188).

  47. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this possibility.

  48. Setiya (2013, p. 191). See also Lehrer’s Gypsy Lawyer case (Lehrer 1971).

  49. Numerous psychology studies have shown that this happens routinely. E.g. Steinpreis et al. (1999).

  50. “The last temptation is the greatest treason,” says the character Thomas Becket in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1964). “To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

  51. I add the phrase “relevant beliefs” because it is necessary to complete the description under which the agent takes herself to be acting. If the agent intends to pump water to the house, she must also believe that “thus-and-such arm motion will pump the water to the house.”

  52. See Anscombe (1957).

  53. I don’t mean to suggest that an agent must always see herself as the doer of some action or attitude in order for it to be agential. We can be alienated from our actions and attitudes and still be responsible for them. I only mean to argue for the weaker claim that if the agent does identify herself with the action or attitude, then it is agential. Could there be cases where the agent identifies herself with the action, but it is not agential, such as if Frankfurt’s Scientist were manipulating her brain? The case would require that the Scientist is manipulating her, but the agent fully identifies herself with the action, as a manifestation of her will. The answer to this question will, I think, depend on one’s views of metaphysical free will, which I cannot address here.

  54. See Reed (2016) and Velleman (1992).

  55. Some of this work is already being done. See especially Adams (1985), McHugh (2012, (2013), and Smith (2005).


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I owe a deep debt to Baron Reed, Andrea Kruse, Nicholas Leonard, Nathan Weston, and Trevor Nyman for their vital feedback on various versions of this paper. I am grateful to Jennifer Lackey, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Sandy Goldberg, the Athena in Action Workshop at Princeton, those at the Workshop in Doxastic Agency at Ruhr University Bochum and those at the Canadian Society of Epistemology Symposium on Epistemic Reasons for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper.

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Flowerree, A.K. Agency of belief and intention. Synthese 194, 2763–2784 (2017).

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