Skilled action typically requires that individuals guide their activities toward some goal. In skilled action, individuals do so excellently. We do not understand well what this capacity to guide consists in. In this paper I provide a case study of how individuals shift visual attention. Their capacity to guide visual attention toward some goal (partly) consists in an empirically discovered sub-system – the executive system. I argue that we can explain how individuals guide by appealing to the operation of this sub-system. Understanding skill and skilled action thus requires appreciating the role of the executive system.
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This notion of guidance derives from Frankfurt (1978). See my 2014 and “Varieties of human agency,” MS.
For an argument that all skilled action is goal-directed, see Fridland 2019, 1–5. She rightly points out that goal-direction is compatible with an action’s being automatic in several standard senses.
Some philosophers maintain that they must be controlled, because they are actions. Maybe all action requires control over the act’s execution. (Shepherd 2014) I leave this point open.
Christensen et al. 2019
Stanley & Krakauer 2013
Butterfill & Sinigaglia 2014; Mylopoulos & Pacherie 2017; Shepherd 2019; Fridland 2019. Another strand in the literature focuses on whether skill is intelligent or whether it is automatic. (Stanley & Williamson 2001; Fridland 2017; Christensen et al. 2016; Christensen et al., 2019) What I say about guidance is compatible with the idea that some aspects of skilled action are automatic in some sense. I do, however, reject the notion that skilled action is ballistic, reflex-like, and entirely inflexible.
This is not to say that contributors are insensitive to this issue. See Pacherie 2006, 2, 6, 15; 2008, 14. Fridland 2017, 4, 20; 2019, 3ff., 12. Shepherd 2019 rightly points out that, if we do not explain how individuals guide their action through the operation of, e.g., motor control structures, we “risk commitment to something like two centers of agency present in the skilled [agent]. … we seem to need an explanation of how these systems manage to interface and coordinate rather than to compete for the control of action.” (2019, 288) The control must be the individual’s.
Christensen et al. 2016 have independently drawn a connection between skilled action and executive function. They are not concerned with goal-directed guidance in my minimal sense, but with the contribution of higher (conscious) cognition, especially conscious attention, to aspects of skilled action. (ibid., 40, 45/6, 61/2) While I think of the executive functions as competencies at the level of sub-systems alone, they seem to think of them as individual-level capacities. (See below, section 3.) While I emphasize functional aspects of agency, in particular, guidance, that the executive functions explain, they focus on explaining the experience of skilled action. But even though (i) their argumentative goal, (ii) their conception of an executive system, and (iii) the empirical data and philosophical arguments they provide differ from mine, I believe that there are more points of agreement than disagreement between the two contributions.
A representational state or event with input from different modalities is intermodal. Modular processes are fast, automatic, driven by a very limited range of inputs, relatively encapsulated, and inaccessible to consciousness. (Fodor1983, 47ff.)
They are, or could become, rational-access conscious. (Block. 1995) Human individuals can often report being in those states or undergoing such events.
Carrasco 2011, 1488
Behavioral, brain, and computational studies converge in relying on such a map for understanding the activity of the exogenous and endogenous systems. See, for instance, Itti & Koch 2000; Zelinsky 2008; Najemnik & Geisler 2009. I discuss the priority map more fully in my “The priority map,” MS. In what follows, whenever I describe how different systems or states help shift attention, it should be understood that they do so by influencing priority assignments on the priority map.
Wright & Ward 2008. The threshold depends on context.
Early research on capture assumed that a salient stimulus overrides the individuals’ endogenous control under all circumstances. But attentional capture is not strongly automatic. Rather, capture is a function of context and intensity of the salient stimulus. (Lamy, 2005; Yeh & Liao 2008; Folk et al., 2009; Lamy et al., 2012)
Wright & Ward 2008
Folk et al., 1992, 1035
Walker & McSorley 2008
See Miyake et al. 2000; Miller & Cohen 2001; Baddeley 2007; Koechlin and Summerfield, 2007, 2014; Diamond 2013; Gazzaniga et al., 2014; Goldstein et al. 2014; Botvinick & Cohen 2014; Fuster 2015. The conception of the executive system that I sketch here is grounded in psychology. I do not commit to the details of specific psychological account of the executive system. For more on the executive system, see (Buehler 2018)I think of the different executive functions as components of a mechanism constituting the individual’s capacity to guide. The executive system is a sub-system of the individual minimally insofar as this system itself is a component in mechanistic explanation of the whole individual’s capacity to guide. (Craver 2007; Weiskopf 2018) See Buehler 2018 and forthcoming for more on explanatory levels. Thanks to a reviewer for pressing these issues.
Wayne Wu (2016, 108) and Ellen Fridland (2014, sect. 4.2) have proposed that such (active) attention-shifts must be semantically integrated with individuals’ intentions, or top-down biased by their contents. My proposal might be used to specify how the relevant integration or biasing must work. Thanks to a reviewer for prompting clarification.
Of course, not all executive functions need be exercised, for the executive system to regulate some psychological process. The executive system might regulate, e.g. by allocating central resources to a process, even if no memory and inhibition are required for its execution.
Individuals also guide attention shifts outside of visual search. We have already seen that individuals can intentionally guide their attention to some specific object, location, or region. Shifts subserving more complex, goal-driven intentional actions form another large class of active attention shifts. One sub-class of these shifts consists in shifts subserving motor behavior. (Hayhoe & Ballard 2005; Land, 2009; Sprague et al., 2007; Land 2009) Another sub-class of shifts is directed toward the goal of acquiring information. (Ballard & Hayhoe 2009; Babcock et al., 2002; Canosa et al., 2003)
The fact that executive regulation both correlates with, and explains, individuals’ guidance does provide an argument for the claim that the executive system constitutes a capacity to guide. I address this issue more fully in my “A capacity to guide,” MS.
Marks do not constitute a definition. They are paradigmatic characteristics of items in the extension of a concept.
The literature acknowledges three marks of individual-level states and events. The third mark is their being phenomenally conscious. States of the executive system are often conscious. This fact supports the idea that the executive system underlies individual-level states and events. The fact justifies predictions that guidance-events will often be conscious. But since I reject a functional explanation of phenomenal consciousness, I do not think that appeals to executive regulation 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 1968; on integration cf. Stich 1978; Fodor 1983; Burge 2009; on coordination cf. Frankfurt 1978; Burge 2009; Hyman 2012.
See section 2.3
Cf. section 2.2
Shepherd 2019, 288
Cf. section 2.2
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Special thanks to Tyler Burge. Thanks also to Ned Block, Susan Carey, Martin Davies, Harry G. Frankfurt, Pamela Hieronymi, Kevin Lande, Bence Nanay, Elisabeth Pacherie, Christopher Peacocke, Michael Rescorla, Miguel Ángel Sebastián, Josh Shepherd, James Stazicker, David Velleman, and Hong Yu Wong. Thanks to my commentators Peter Fazekas, Mark Fortney, and Sebastian Watzl at the Minds Online 2016 conference, to participants at the NYU Mind & Consciousness Group in September 2016, UNAM-IIF’s TEC discussion group in May 2016, the UCLA Mind and Language Workshop in October 2015, and to audiences at UCLA, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Leeds, UNAM, the National Research University in Moscow, York University, Antwerp University, the Pacific APA Seattle, and at Tübingen University. Finally, I wish to thank the reviewers and editors for this journal for their feedback and support. I acknowledge funding from ANR-17-EURE-0017.
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Buehler, D. Skilled Guidance. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 641–667 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00526-9