Monday, April 18, 2011

How long does an action last?

Recently the Hungarian psychologist Emese Nagy reconfirmed older research saying that the length of an action is about three seconds. Nagy studied video images of hugs by athletes, their coaches and their opponents on the Olympic Games in Beijing. On the average a hug lasted three seconds, independent of the nationality and sex of the hugger. Only when an athlete embraced his or her coach, it lasted a bit longer. Already in 1911 it had been discovered that much what people do lasts about three seconds and some 15 years ago it came out that it is also the case for animals.
Although I do not want to doubt the research as such, I think that as it stands it cannot be true. Besides that the body has other rhythms and cycles as well, like the biological clock, the result raises important philosophical questions, for instance the question “what is an action?”
Why do we call a three seconds lasting hug an action? What about if it lasts much longer or shorter? After having won unexpectedly the Paris-Roubaix cycle race Sunday a week ago, Johan Vansummeren embraced his girl friend clearly much longer than three seconds. Does this imply that actually it wasn’t a hug or, if it was, that it wasn’t an action? If it wasn’t an action, what makes a piece of behaviour an action or something else? If it was an action, what sense does it have to say that an action lasts on the average three seconds?
Actions do not stand alone. They are placed in a setting and belong to the stream of our doings. We can isolate a part of this stream and call it an action if it has a clear aim and the actor intentionally does something in order to reach that aim. However, to take an example, when I am “going to dine”, this is more than only the act of putting the food in my mouth but it comprises also taking my coat, walking downtown, choosing a restaurant, ordering the dinner, up to paying and leaving the restaurant… From a wide perspective, all this together is the action “going to dine”. From the same perspective we can call “taking my coat”, “ordering the meal”, etc. sub-actions. And we could distinguish sub-sub-actions as well. It is the same for participating in a race, say a 5K on a track. From a wide perspective it includes everything from registering a week before the race, to going to the track, running, taking a shower afterwards, receiving my prize and going home; and much more. Actually these are sub-actions (and sub-sub-actions) of the long action “participating in a 5K”. And if I have won, hugging my coach belongs to it, too. It is clear that seen this way the whole action lasts longer than three seconds and most sub-actions do as well. Does this imply that both the running as such (which lasts at least 15 minutes for most runners) and the hugging of my coach cannot be called actions any longer but only sub-actions at most? Of course, we can call them actions. But does that make sense? Running a race is only running a race if many preconditions have been fulfilled: there must be a kind of registration, there must be preparations so that one runs at one’s best, and so on. And it is the same for hugging my coach. One can call it “hugging the coach” only in the setting of the race. This is also true for what one sees as the beginning and the end of this “action”. All this depends on our perspective and on our interpretation of what happens. It may be so that all action-pieces take place in three second units, but it does not follow that this split up is meaningful. This depends on how it can be put in a wider setting: whether the hug is a gesture of joy or an attempt of murder.

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