[hist-analytic] Mele 6: Proximal/Nonproximal Intentions & Co-articulation

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Sun Mar 6 13:11:18 EST 2011

These remarks are unedited and subject to revision. They are tentative and represent a work in progress, not a finished product. Nor have they been proof read. 

Mele's book,(Effective Intention,2009, Oxford), is mainly concerned with the experiments of Benjamin Libet. Libet's work inspired a great deal of controversy and, still, does. Since I have written a painstaking review of Libet's last book, detailing his experiments and conclusions, I will only brief recapitulate his fundamental findings and his interpretation. Libet found that the readiness potential associated with an action precedes, or appears to precede, conssiousness of the intention to act. He infers that conscious intentions are not, therefore, the causes of action; that is, since there was incipient action prior to conscious intention. Specifically, his results suggest that the readiness potentials occur, typically, at around -550ms, with consciousness of the intention occurring at around -150ms (adjusted for experimental error). I find Mele's criticisms cogent, for the most part, and have been astonished to discover how weak the arguments are for determinism based on the observed neurological facts. This suggests to me that physicalism is as much an article of faith as dualism or most any other ism except maybe animism, and then I'm not so sure. Still, much of the discussion, despite the pain of following it, is worthwhile. 

The first objection raised by Mele is obvious but quite destructive to Libet's theory: we cannot infer from the fact that *consciousness* of intention following onset of action that intentions are not causes. In all fairness to Libet it should be mentioned that his target is conscious intention as a cause of action and, usually at least, not intention as such. Another of Mele's early criticisms is destructive: Libet variously describes conscious intention as 'wanting', 'decision', 'willing' etc. to flex (the flex being the action undertaken). Subjects were told to recall the time they first became conscious of their intention and take not of a clock, now called a Libet clock becase it is designed so that subjects can observe and respond to a revolving dot around the clock. As I recall it revolves about every two or three second. Of some interest is that some potential subjects could not understand the instruction to mark when they had the conscious intention. Mele operated on the reasonable idea that he would utter inwardly 'now' as an indicator of when he had consciously decided to act. 

I would go further than Mele. I cannot identify, introspectively, any occasion where I have been consciously aware of such intentions as may be associated with flexings. It is my position, based somewhat on Wm. James, that we must distinguish the flexing that occurs while in the process, say, of tying our shoes and flexings that are the point of action. I mark the distinction as that between a willful act and an act of will. Libet, at best, only addresses acts of will. In my own case, I cannot say that I have ever experience consscious of my intention to engage in an act of will, particularly, in the case of proximal intentions such as those associated with basic actions. 

Mele, correctly, notes that 

"The supposed result is consistent with the view that proximal intentions to flex...are at work in me in both experiements, provided that proxicmal intentions are not essentially conscious." (EI, p. 35). 

Mele goes on to discuss a conjecture by A. Marcel ("The Sense of Agency: Awareness and Ownership of Action" in Agency and Self Awareness, Oxford, 2003): 

"The expert acts intentionally but may be unaware of the specifics of tactical intention, for example, in tennis whether one intends to play a deep volly even when the postural aspects of one's approach to the net is a selective preparation for one rather than another." Indeed, this is why even when such experts sincerely claim unawareness of their intention, their opponent can anticipate the shot, though the opponent may not know how he did so." (p. 61) 

It is worth mentioning that flexings etc are pretty primitive and, yet, on one theory (Liberman/Mattingly et al) we can regard speaking as a chain of "flexings," where articulartory gestures are sorts of flexings. (Compare here the Chomsky/Halle feature system linking phonetics and phonology). In fact, articulation is merely the "flexing" of the articulatory mechanisms of speech. Let's look a bit more at this, since there is no hope for physicalism if they can't get beyond fist clenchings, etc. When we utter a sentence, we engage in an ordered n-tuple of articulatory gestures. So when, say, a guy like Sheldon Glashow is asked a complicated question in the application of group theory to quantum mechanics his retort, qua action, can be viewed as a complex "flexing." Now this is something, since when he shot back with the answer I doubt very much that his action followed a conscious intention, and yet these are the sorts of cases the physicalist must contend with, if he's going to go beyond faith in science in explaining thought processes at a higher end than thumb stickings, tail waggings, or fist clenchings (not to mention toothaches and other such mainstays of contemporary boredom in philosophy of mind). 

Mele makes heavy weather out of the possibility of nonconscious intentions having causal efficacy. If this is a fact then the claim that intentions may be causes is unaffected by the observation, even if correct, that readiness potential precedes conscious intention, when conscious intentions are at issue. Nevertheless, I want to make a point against Libet's conclusion which does not rely on Mele's rather obviously valid criticism. My point involves what linguists have called "anticipatory co-articulation." 
One standard example of anticipatory co-articulation occurs in the case of uttering 'apt' or 'act'. Notice the two consonants 'p' and 'c' can be "exploded" or not. In the word 'paper', for example, 'p' is "exploded": there is a little puff of air expelled in articulation. But this is not always so. In the case of 'apt', for example, 'p' is pronounced as a "stop consonant," one where this "explosion" does not occur. (cf. _A Course in Phonetics_ Peter Ladefoged, 1975, Hartcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, p. 49. This stoppage is in anticipation of the stop consonant 't' in 'apt'; in particular notice that the 't' is uttered with the lips closed before they open at completion of articulating the word. In other words, the shape taken by the articulatory mechanisms of speech in the case of 'p' anticipate those for 't'. I refrain from sticking to this example because the onset times are so brief in duration. A better example could be drawn in the case of vowel rounding in French, a case where latency is greater than in the case of 'apt'. I'm not sure whether there are cases of sufficiently long anticipatory behavior, but the principle remaims the same. 

We might want to examine whether my intention to utter a word (perhaps as part of a sentence) when it is conscious ever precedes the change in readiness potential associated with actions taken in anticipation of actual articulation, actions such as those linguists associate with "anticipatory co-articulation." If there is such a conscious intention it must be distinct from the intention to move the articulatory mechanisms involved in the utterance of that word. In other words, the readiness potential for articulation and that of uttering a word need not coincide. Anticipatory co-articulation follows the intention to utter a word but, if Libet's conclusions are applicable, then either the change in readiness potential for uttering the word and for the anticipatory co-articulation are one and the same, or the intention associated with co-articulation comes after the intention to utter the word, but before articulation of word one consciously intends to utter. The first possibility is not reasonable. This last possibility, if reasonable, would contradict any generalization of LIbet's results to include verbal intentions. If nothing else, considerations such as these serve to underscore Mele's excellent point to the effect that there remains, throughout, the important question whether readiness potentials (RPs) are, actually, correctly associated with intentions, or decisions. They might as well be associated with urges, desires, wishes, etc. In fact, Libet's own language encourages us to ask this fundamental question. The fact that the question remains cogent should prove of some interest when we consider how confidently some physicalists are in *identifying* mental actions with brain states etc. Flexing one's fist is hardly articulating a complex answer within seconds of a question's being asked. Similarly, the rancor over 'pains' and 'C-fibers' doesn't go very far to convince us that complex psychological processes are identifiable with brain activity, alone. The claims for a laboratory basis for the identification are wildly exaggerated and appear, typically to rely on faith in science, if not merely faith alone. 

It is one of Mele's central claims, well worth considering, that at -550 ms in Libet's experiment has less to do with proximal intentions and more to do with "potential causes" of proximal intentions. (EI. p. 51). Without belaboring the point. This suggestion is, entirely, consistent with a Jamesian view of the eveidence in relation to what James called 'volition'. A simplified view of such a view would be this: My decision to act on the intention is, at most, part of the volition. I isolate an idea of action, and in the absence of a competing idea, I act on the idea. James doesn't use 'cause' at all, but this is what it would seem to be. So, it may be that the idea of action, the "text" of the intention, occurs prior to the decision to act on the idea, whether to withhold or not, say. The "text," then, may occur at -550 whereas the proximal intention may occur later, where by proximal intention we mean the decision to act "now." 


Steven R. Bayne 

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