Sculpting the space of actions. Explaining human action by integrating intentions and mechanisms

Dissertation, University of Amsterdam (2014)
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How can we explain the intentional nature of an expert’s actions, performed without immediate and conscious control, relying instead on automatic cognitive processes? How can we account for the differences and similarities with a novice’s performance of the same actions? Can a naturalist explanation of intentional expert action be in line with a philosophical concept of intentional action? Answering these and related questions in a positive sense, this dissertation develops a three-step argument. Part I considers different methods of explanations in cognitive neuroscience (Bennett & Hacker’s philosophical, conceptual analysis; Marr’s three levels of explanation; Neural Correlates of Consciousness research; mechanistic explanation), defending ‘mechanistic explanation’ as a method that provides the necessary tools for integrating interdisciplinary insights into human action. Furthermore, a dynamic, explanatory mechanism allows the assessment of the impact of learning and development on expert action in a valuable way that other methods don’t. Part II continues by scrutinizing several cognitive neuroscientific theories of learning and development (neuroconstructivism; dual-processing theories; simulation theory; extended mind/cognition hypothesis), arguing for the complex interactions between different types of processing and different action representations involved in expert action performances. Moreover, according to our discussion of a particular ‘simulation theory’ these interactions can be influenced in several ways with the use of language, allowing an agent to configure a specific action representation for performance at a later stage. The results of Parts I and II are then applied in Part III to a parallel discussion of philosophical analyses of intentional action (discussing i.a. Frankfurt, Bratman, Pacherie and Ricoeur) and cognitive neuroscientific insights in it. Both approaches are found to converge in emphasizing the importance for an expert to develop stable patterns of actions that comply maximally not only with his intentions, but also with his motor expertise and with situational conditions. Consequently, his actions – automatic, or not – rely on this ‘sculpted space of actions’.

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Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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