An Agent of Attention: An Inquiry into the Source of Our Control

Dissertation, University of Toronto (2019)
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When performing a skilled action—whether something impressive like a double somersault or something mundane like reaching for a glass of water—you exercise control over your bodily movements. Specifically, you guide their course. In what does that control consist? In this dissertation, I argue that it consists in attending to what you are doing. More specifically, in attending, agents harness their perceptual and perceptuomotor states directly and practically in service of their goals and, in doing so, settle the fine-grained manner in which their bodies will move—details an intention alone leaves unsettled. This requires, among other things, that we reject views on which agents’ control is identical with their practical rationality. When all goes well, agents attentionally prioritize what is motivationally relevant to them to the exclusion of what would otherwise distract them from achieving their goals. However, sometimes agents attend distractedly—i.e., without prioritizing. As the aim of attention is to avoid distraction, this entails the possibility of defective attention. Defective attention, in turn, casts light on scenarios in which agents lose control over what they are doing, as when a skilled practitioner ‘chokes under pressure’. A complaint sometimes levelled against accounts, like mine, that claim to reduce agents’ control of their behaviour to that of causally efficacious mental states or events is that these accounts invariably deprive agents themselves of their rightful role in the generation of behaviour. This is the “Disappearing Agent Problem” for “reductive” or “event-causal” theories of action. I argue that, correctly understood, extant reductive theories do face a genuine Disappearing Agent Problem. However, it is a problem we solve by recognizing the role that conscious attention plays in making an action the agent’s own. Accordingly, I develop and defend an attentional account of action ownership. On this view, allocating conscious attention in service of your goals is sufficient for a kind of conscious perspective (“motivational perspective”), which, when active in controlling your behaviour, constitutes the behaviour as your own doing. As I explain, such perspective also contributes to explaining the subjective structure of your perceptual awareness of the world around you.
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