NoR section three supplemental: Options as abilities?

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

I earlier followed Hedden in identifying an agent’s options with a certain range of basic intentions available to them. This theoretical setting—assumed but not argued for—illustrate us one way of connecting source intentionality to radical interpretation. But it is not the only way. Here I’ll sketch an alternative account.

The alternative is as follows: an agents options are not the intentions that they form, but their basic, specific abilities. Let me explain what one of those is.

The agents basic abilities I will understand as picking out those acts that are the execution of a basic intention. A basic intention, in turn, is an intention that has a function to produce a certain result. But as is now familiar, something can have the function to produce phi, and yet not produce phi. This will happen when circumstances are “abnormal”. For example, one mental state of mine has the function to produce my arm rising. If my arms are tied behind my back, then the existence of such an intention does no good: my arms stay resolutely stuck to my sides. So though I have the general ability to raise my arms, I lack the specific ability to raise my arms in these circumstances.

What then, are an agent’s basic specific abilities in circumstances c? I propose they are just those among the agent’s general abilities whose associated “normal conditions” are met in c. Unpacking this, x having a specific ability to phi will entail that x can form an intention whose function is to bring about phi, and also that circumstances are normal for this function, so that if it were formed, phi would be brought about.

Clearly this is an account of basic specific abilities that relies very heavily on our account of the content of intentions. It is not something we could reconstruct without an account of source intentionality, though unlike the previous account, we don’t identify options with the representational states themselves.

I call all these things “basic abilities” since I want to emphasize that not every true claim of the form “Sally can phi” or “Sally is able to phi” is an option in the relevant sense. We can use these phrases—agentive modals—to report on a richer range of ‘extended’ abilities that Sally possesses, which often depend on features of her circumstances not at all to do with Sally or her functioning. Example: given Suzy’s maximum pace, and the maximum pace of Orcs, Suzy can outrun the Orcs chasing her. But without any malfunction on Suzy’s part, the speed of the Orcs could be different, and so an intention to outrun them doesn’t guarantee success.

It is very natural to think that there should be a connection between basic abilities and “extended abilities”—that we enact the latter by way of enacting the former. Recent work on the semantics of agentive modals by Mandelkern, Schultheis and Boylan is suggestive of such a connection. According to their story, an agent x is able to phi just in case there is some practically available act A such were x to try to A, they would phi. Suppose we insist that practically available acts [for an agent in world w and context c] must be those that correspond to the agents basic abilities. We could then follow Manderkern et al in adding further constraints that narrow down this basic repertoire to produce the contextually relevant set of aviailable acts [the authors suggest an epistemic constraint: that an act is only available if the agent knows it is a way to phi; and also that the set of acts will contextually vary, and by default should be compatible with the agent’s prior plans]. If this were the way that the semantics and metasemantics of agentive modals works, then although our everyday ascription of abilities goes well beyond the basic set, nevertheless basic abilities remain at the core of ability-ascriptions.

If options were an agent’s basic, specific abilities, what would be the consequences for rational decision making?

Well, to begin with, by construction if the agent forms the intention to execute an option to phi, then the agent will phi. It would not be an option unless circumstances were normal, and intention-formation is guaranteed to bring about its content in all normal circumstances. So, in a certain sense, the possibility of “trying and failing” is excluded.

However, the agent may lack knowledge of this. She may not know, for example, if her hands are bound.  If that is the case, then she can credence to a scenario where she forms the intention to raise her hands, and her hands do not rise. This is where the account of options-as-intentions and the account of options-as-abilities differ. On the former, in such circumstances, the relevant option to evaluate is: forming the intention to raise one hands. The agent will assess various possible outcomes of this, including those where her hands are bound and do not rise. On the latter, in the same circumstances, the relevant option to evaluate is: raising one’s hands. The agent will then assess what will happen conditional on enacting this, which excludes the possibility of one’s hands not going up.

This is a case where the agent is ignorant of her options because she does not know whether conditions are normal, and so doesn’t know whether her general ability to raise her arm translates into a specific ability in this circumstance. Another way an agent can be ignorant of what options are open to her, on the options-as-abilities account, is by lacking knowledge of her general abilities. She might have never tried a particular stressful bodily motion, or not attending while she tried to do so, so that when asked to reflect on whether she would succeed if she tried, she is not confident.

You might think that its treatment of ignorance of one’s abilities is a strike against this theory of options: that rational decision-making should factor in the possibility of trying-and-failing, even if in fact, in all normal circumstances including the actual one, the agent would never try-and-fail. If we were building a theory of options for structural rationality, I would have sympathy. But notice that it is really hard to construct a theory of options that excludes the possibility of ignorance of what those options are. For example, if options are abilities, one might not know which intentions it is possible for you to form. And on the version of the Hedden view that I suggested in the previous post, one might be ignorant of options because one did not know, of a given intention, whether it was appropriately basic.

At some point we will need to hold the line, I think, and insist that ignorance of options is just ignorance of what rationality recommends. For other determinants of substantive rationality, that is already familiar. X may be ignorant of what is morally or all things considered permissible for her, due to her ignorance or (justified?) false belief about moral demands. The suggestion here is that ignorance of options can work like ignorance of value.

Suppose that the agent knows that raising their arms would bring about the best consequences, but is unsure whether their arms are tied. The verdict I am suggesting is that they should raise their arms: enact the ability they do possess. Their ignorance is normatively relevant only insofar  as it is a decent excuse for not doing as they ought.

A positive attraction of the view is that it enables a straightforward reading of the idea that “ought implies can”: specific abilities are exactly the things the agent can do. And it also avoids an unattractive feature of the options as intentions view: that in order to be rational, an agent needs be opinionated about the likely consequences of them being in the mental state of intending. It seems to me that the natural view is that an agent could be rational by forming intentions, but not thinking about forming intentions.

The view just sketched is less plausible as a theory of the options relevant for structurally rational action [I’m here very grateful to a series of discussions with Gary Mullen on which the following is based—though Mullen is not to blame for any mistakes in what follows]. The problem here is that structural rational evaluation is supposed to be a commentary on patterns in the agent’s mental states. But if options depend on the circumstances an agent finds themselves in (e.g. Whether arms are tied) two mental duplicates could differ in rationality while making the same choice. This seems odd. So I do think we need a more internalistic notion of option for structural rationality. Suppose it were this: that our options for structurally rational action are those things we think are our basic abilities. And suppose that the theory of rationality is that we should try to enact whichever one of these abilities we think would lead to the best results. Then, in the special case where we have full knowledge of our abilities, the option-set for structural rational decision making and substantively rational decision making will coincide. Further, there will be rational pressure on us to keep track of our abilities, in order to preserve the possibility that taking the structurally rational option is also to take the substantively rational one.

Notice that if we identified options with those abilities we believe ourselves to have, then our theory of options, which should be layer one intentionality, would depend on what we believe, a layer two fact. So it would be a considerable headache for my account if we tried to collapse the account of options to the single “internalistic” case.

I haven’t argued for the correctness of options-of-abilities, any more than I argued for the correctness of options-as-intentions. But together, they give us two very different ways that we can wield the resources of source intentionality to generate a suitable basis on which radical interpretation can be founded.


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