Philosophy of cognition
action theory
theory of action first: 2011-10-12

Theory of action and causation

Philosophy of action, also indicated as theory of action, covers a range of philosophical activities with a growing interest, stimulated by recent results in neurosciences and by discussions on free will.  The basic principle common to all causal theories of action is that:

[t]he agent performs an action only if an appropriate internal state of the agent causes a particular result in a certain way. [Davis 2010: 32]

Wayne A. Davis observes that there is a distinct difference between agent causation and event or state causation. This refers to a variety of views. To summarize these views very briefly: agent causation makes use of the concept of agent intention, in which intention usually is formed by the combination of beliefs and desires. With the event- or state causation approach the agent intentions are not the main interest. Others' views put emphasis on the agent as a complete entity. [Davis 2010: 32-34]

In parallel, a significant discussion in theory of action is focused on the so called physicalism issue. Although it is not the focus of this section, when causality is discussed this issue can not be completely neglected.

Physicalism claims that the actions of physical objects can be completely explained in terms of physical causes and laws. The position that assumes that the same `mental state' is related to the same physical state is usually called type identity. The position I take in this essay is that the mental states such as beliefs and desires are higher level functional identifications of states and processes that actually are activations of neurological instances. At a low level certain actions indeed can be explained by detailed neurological processes (see example in appendix 2). However, the actions of designing functional artifacts are far too complex to be worked out at a detailed neural level. If this would at all be possible, it would require large computer facilities. But, large computer facilities have a similar problem, it will not be possible to follow at low circuitry, bit level what really happens. To perform the same function they will not act in exactly the same way at low level. This last remark can easily be demonstrated by a simple example. This text typed with a particular pc running Microsoft OS compared with an other type pc will generate the same text in a different way. This position is usually called token identity. (For some more information and a survey of references on this issue see e.g. Davis 2010) However, the output string of bytes to the printer would be identical (type identity), assuming the pc is configured in the right way. It is the so called printer driver programme that transforms into the required output. With human beings we can see this programming process taking place. Just after birth infants see their own arms moving almost at random, gradually they program their neurons to act according to their will. ("Will" is here meant not in an ontological sense, but just as a higher level of action control.)

The leading paradigm knowing is acting is also most relevant in the analysis of design activities. It has been worked out most explicit by Dewey. In the theory of inquiry he defines as the first step the institution of a problem:

A problem represents a partial transformation by inquiry of a problem situation into a determinate situation. It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved. (Dewey 1938: 173) The transformation is a combination of conceptual thinking in the direction of solutions and the actual knowledge of the factual situation. This transformation is followed by testing the considerations and judgments made. [Dewey1938a}:173-179)

Philosophygarden        of Hans Tromp