Are our actions truly under our control? Or are they actually the result of hidden forces that shape our decisions? Professor Emma Borg explores the philosophy of human agency ahead of next month’s Albert Wolters Public Lecture by distinguished American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett.

Imagine that, while on holiday in Paris, you hear on the radio the shocking news that Notre-Dame is on fire. What do you do? Perhaps you want to witness the terrible blaze for yourself, so you form a plan that involves leaving your hotel room, taking the Metro and then walking to the Île de la Cité, remembering to pick up your jacket on the way out in case it is cold.

The recent fire at Notre-Dame was (thankfully) a highly unusual event, but your hypothetical response to it has an all-too-familiar shape. It’s an example of the classic reasons-based decision-making that we take to explain most of our ordinary actions.

Free agents?

Within this reasons-based model, there are some things we want or seek, some beliefs we have about how to satisfy those wants, and, on the basis of these and other mental states, we form plans of action that result in us doing things. As Daniel Dennett says, we have an intuitive sense of ourselves as responsible free agents.

This means something like: “I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation, I say to myself: ‘That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act,’ in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case” (Dennett, Brainstorms, 1981, pp. 297. MIT Press).

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett. Image: Dmitry Rozhkov CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia commons

Of course not all of our actions are like this: sometimes actions don’t come off (I may intend to leave my hotel room but find myself locked in). And sometimes what I do isn’t in fact the result of the reasons I have at all (an arm movement that looks like I’m intentionally reaching for my room key might in fact be the result of duress or a sudden muscle spasm).

Yet the idea that our actions are, at least usually, under our control is a corner-stone of our view of both ourselves and others. For instance, the notions of responsibility (legal, moral and linguistic) and culpability, which shape so much of our social interaction, depend crucially on recognising others as generally in control of what they do.

So when we seek to explain our actions or those of others in ordinary conversation we usually appeal to the reasons we take to lie behind action (e.g. “He opened the fridge because he wanted to make tea and he thought the milk was in there”).

But this common-sense idea of reasons-based actions – of ourselves as the agents of what we do – is philosophically tendentious. On the one hand, we have the well-known debate between free-will and determinism – the question of how we, as purely physical creatures, could be free to make decisions when our actions must be the result of purely deterministic physical causes.

Predictably irrational

However, even setting hard-nosed determinism to one side, the common-sense model remains under significant threat, for it seems deeply problematic in light of recent research findings from across philosophy, comparative human-animal research, and social psychology. The idea that we are in control of what we do seems to be less and less tenable the more we learn about the workings of our minds.

So, to take just one example: findings in social psychology seem to show that we are, as Ariely (2008 puts it, “predictably irrational”, subject to a vast range of “hidden forces that shape our decisions”.

We might think that we decide to offer Jones the job because of their expertise, but experiments seem to show that we are often unconsciously influenced by our perception of their race or gender or social class.

We tell people that we chose the healthy snack because we are trying to get fit, but experiments show that our choices are often the result of much less edifying factors, like the simple fact that the apple was displayed at eye level while the chocolate bar was put on the bottom shelf.

Hidden nudges

It is this kind of work that underpins the so-called ‘nudge’ movement in behavioural economics and the philosophical repercussions of it seem dire. Despite the appealing picture we have of ourselves as driven to act by the reasons we have, perhaps (as the social psychology experiments seem to show) what we do is really the result of crude subconscious algorithms; things prompting our actions that we don’t know about and probably wouldn’t like if we uncovered them.

This question – of the challenges faced by our common-sense account of human agency – is one that fascinates me. In thinking about it I’ve learnt more from the work of Daniel Dennett than I could possibly relate here. On 9 May, we are honoured to have Dennett visiting the University of Reading as recipient of the Albert Wolters Visiting Distinguished Professorship. He will discuss the nature of human agency and what we can learn about ourselves by thinking about artificial agents.

To the extent that I’m free to instigate my own actions, I certainly plan to be there!

Professor Daniel Dennett is a distinguished cognitive scientist at Tufts University specialising in the philosophies of mind, science and biology and is known as one of the ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’ along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens.

The Albert Wolters Visiting Distinguished Professorship is a prestigious honorary title, which takes its name from the first Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Reading (1908). It is awarded annually to internationally distinguished scholars in recognition of their world-class contribution to psychology, language sciences or neuroscience.

Previous recipients include cognitive psychologist and human memory expert Professor Elizabeth Loftus, internationally renowned intellectual Professor Noam Chomsky, and Harvard psychology professor and popular science author Steven Pinker.

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Reading philosopher Professor Emma Borg is Director of the Reading Centre for Cognition Research. Her research specialisms are the philosophy of language (particularly the semantics/pragmatics divide) and the philosophy of mind and cognitive science (particularly issues of concepts and social cognition).