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August 22, 2009



I wonder if it matters whether Ollie himself programmed the TV to display that message or whether his nefarious publishers did. Also, does it matter whether he can clearly see the message or whether it is subliminal?

Michael Drake

Right, having the kind of will we want to have (whether or not it's "free") at least in part consists in having the right thoughts be cognitively salient at the right time. Bridging the small space between 1 and 2 might help make the case:

(1a) Ida is working on her book, which is important to her. She regularly is distracted with thoughts of watching TV. Every time the thought occurs she looks toward the TV, at which point another thought occurs to her, "Return to work!", and realizes that she should return to work. So she returns to work.

Joel Anderson

I’m delighted to see this discussion starting up. The intellectual generosity of the folks at ANU truly knows no bounds. (Thanks, Dave!) I’m currently working on trying to take my sketchy remarks from last week into a full-blown paper, but here are a few responses.

(A) I think the Ida/Ollie case can be further strengthened (and more sharply distinguished from extended cognition) by making the case one in which the motivating element is not a thought, but still something internal. One of the things that Joe Heath and I did in the essay on procrastination that Dave mentioned is to start from in-the-head strategies and work outwards. E.g., there are fairly effective head-games you can play with yourself to reframe a big, aversive task, such as breaking it down into bite-size pieces. Building on this, I think that the distance between Ida and Ollie gets closer if we introduce an intermediate position for Ida.

(1.5) “Ida is working on her book, which is important to her. She regularly is distracted by an impulse to get up and go watch TV in the next room. Desperate to stay on task, she has trained herself to associate thoughts of watching TV with having her editor (or dean) glaring disapprovingly at her. The association has become so automatic that every time she looks toward the TV, she shudders and immediately returns to work.”

Whatever objections there may be to Ida’s strategy here - and whether we want to call it “autonomy” - there seems to be no question about it being an “in the head” strategy for strengthening her resolve. And then we can run the case of Ollie as one in which the TV first displays a short video of his editor (or dean) glaring disapprovingly at him, which would be the externalize version of the same thing.

(I’ve actually been thinking that the best case as one of a personal trainer, either imagined or real, since this makes the case a bit cleaner in several respects, but perhaps less close to home.)

(B) One of the cases that I presented in the Q&A at ANU is that of a to-do list. This is a case of action-initiation rather than impulse suppression. There are interesting tie-ins with the time-management advice to improve task-initiation by turning monster tasks into a pile of manageable “widgets to be cranked” (see esp. David Allen’s well-know “Getting Things Done”; see also a very interesting article by Francis Heylighen and C. Vidal: My suggestion is that there is what one might call “volitional transparency” which involves a kind of “seeing as” in which items on a to-do list are seen as “the next thing to do” and this realization just issues in doing it. Of course, as with Otto’s extended memory, this only works after Ollie gets “trained up” on using to-do lists. This is the second aspect of willpower that I’ll be running in the paper as a “twin case”.

(C) As “Mark” points out, there are important issues lurking nearby – as in whether it “matters” whether it’s Ollie or his publishers (or dean) who programmed the TV to display the message. I think there are at least two questions here, with different answers:
(i) When is an outside-the-head component of a volitional system one’s own? (ii) When is an outside-the-head component of a volitional system compatible with attributing rational agency or autonomy or, in Mark’s word’s, the “kind of will we want to have”?
This is something I’m still working out, but my sense of things is roughly this. Issues of “ownership” are to be approached roughly in terms of a more-or-less coherent and highly contextualist package of normative practices of attribution, without any foundational basis for any “fact of the matter” about whether something *really* is part of the extended mind/will. (One of my inspirations here is Carol Rovane’s Bounds of Agency). Then, in response to (ii), there is a further split. One way of answering the “right kind of will” question is as the “well-adapted” will. This is the kind of approach that Andy Clark clearly favors regarding extended cognition – and this is where his functionalist commitments are very clear. But to speak of a “well-adapted will,” we need to be able to take the volitional system’s tasks as *given*. To the extent to which we care (and I do) about making room for rational, critical reflection on whether those tasks are the tasks I truly want to be completing, we also need to distinguish a well-adapted, extended will from something like autonomy, which can be embedded/scaffolded but will always include a subjective perspective that eludes the stronger “extended will” claim. In other words, my hunch is that our volitional/motivational system can be genuinely extended, but that our autonomy can only be embedded. Perhaps like consciousness, as Dave hints in his Forward to Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind. The trick is to find a way of saying this that doesn’t land me back with Descartes (though I may end up in a Kantian mode).

Incidentally, in this connection, I wonder a bit what work is being done by the phrase “s/he realizes that s/he should return to work.” I think that it’s important for discussions of the extended will not to pack too much practical reasoning in. It muddies the waters.

Justin Teague

I think the question of whether Ollie is as strong-willed as Ida (it's a continuous variable) depends on whether or not Ollie would return to writing without the aid of the sign. If we take Ollie and twin Ollie to be the same person in different situations, then Ollie is less strong-willed as Ida.

Compare a third person, Dan who has a psychic grandmother who berates him whenever he is thinks about watching TV. If we assert that the encouragement or discouragement of a behavior by others makes it easier for us perform or not perform that behavior, and not because they merely remind us but because the shame of doing otherwise is a motivation, then the sign makes it easier for Ollie to get back to reading (it is some anonymous other). In this case, Ollie in the first situation is faced with less of challenge than Ida, so we cannot yet say if they are equally strong-willed. In the second situation, they have the same challenge and Ollie fails, so her will is weaker.

I may be misinterpreting the thought experiment. If the idea is that Ida is able to have thought the "you are thinking about TV and thus not working", while Ollie is not aware that she is not working and needs some object other than her the relevant part of her brain to inform her of this fact, then we can say that Ida and Ollie are equally strong-willed, but that Ollie suffers from some strange psychological impairment that limits the options her will can select from, for the will can select only from perceived possible actions. She no more lacks the strength to will to return to work than if she passed out.

We could also call this second ability, the automatic keeping of a goal in mind, strength of will, but we need to be clear that it is not identical to the first ability, which is more akin to resisting temptation. If we call the second ability "will", I don't see how the concept of extended will is anymore problematic than extended memory or perception (via writing or telescopes, respectively)

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