Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Conscious Control over Action

This post is by Joshua Shepherd (pictured above), a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and a Junior Research Fellow at Jesus College. Joshua's work concerns issues in the philosophy of mind, action, cognitive science, and practical ethics. In this post he discusses the role of conscious experience in the control of action, and summarises his recent paper 'Conscious Control over Action' published in Mind and Language. 

One question we might have concerns the kinds of causal contributions consciousness makes to action control. Another concerns a question regarding the relative importance of consciousness to action control. If consciousness is relatively unimportant, theorizing about ‘conscious control’ might be largely a waste of time. If consciousness is important, however, understanding the contributions of consciousness could be essential to a full understanding of the way we exercise control over our behaviour.

Although some philosophers and cognitive scientists have argued that consciousness is unimportant for action control, I argue in a recent paper that the opposite is probably true. The key is to see conscious processes as a part of a broader structure that enables action control, and to see where consciousness tends to fit into that structure. Consciousness certainly does not do everything for action control – but the things it does look to be important.

Here is an example of what I have in mind. Many have emphasized the fact that non-conscious visual processes appear to play an important role in structuring fine-grained elements of action control. Such processes contribute information to structures that enable features of action control like accurate shaping of grip size, or accurate tracking of action targets in the environment. Even if this is true, however, I argue that extended processes of action control often require not just fine-grained elements such as scaling one’s grip or tracking an action target.

Action control requires the maintenance and updating of action plans, the preparation of contingency plans in response to anticipated difficulties, and the flexible management of capacities such as attention. Action control requires, that is, not just implementational capacities of the sort non-conscious vision may support, but executive capacities. And it looks like consciousness plays important roles for the deployment of these executive capacities.

Consider the action of putting. This is an action that some people can perform very well. Do highly skilled putters rely on any kind of conscious process when they successfully put? It looks to me like the answer is yes. Highly skilled putters are better than novices at keeping visual attention focused on the ball before the putt. When visual attentional control fails, the putt is more likely to miss – and one important difference between experts and novices is that experts appear to have more control over visual attention than novices. That is, experts are better are remaining focused. I argue that this difference in control, while not entirely due to consciousness, likely involves consciousness in an important way:

Anyone who has putted before will be familiar with the phenomenology of intentionally focusing (or of intentionally trying to focus) on the ball. Unless this phenomenology is mistaken—and there is thus far little reason to think that it is—it could be that intentional conscious visual focusing is critical for successful putting (and for successful action directed towards targets more generally). (pp. 334–5)

Ultimately, I think that what we need is an understanding of how conscious and non-conscious processes of various sorts collaborate in the exercise of action control. It is difficult to get this understanding without giving credit to conscious processes where such credit is due. My paper about this can thus be seen as a part of a broader project of developing an accurate account of the exercise of action control.

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