Monday, June 06, 2011

Why do we act?

Taking the train

In our daily life we do a lot of actions and when we act we do it for a reason. For instance, I need a book for a project I am working on and I know that they have it in a bookshop in Utrecht. Therefore I take the train to Utrecht, walk to the bookshop and buy the book. For this – rather complicated – action I had first a desire (having the book) and a reason (the project) and some relevant knowledge (how to get the book) and then I performed the action (taking the train etc.). This is how I think that many actions, so intentional doings, take place and many other people think like me. It’s common sense. There is also a special branch of philosophy that analyses actions: action theory. Even more, I got my PhD by writing a dissertation on how to investigate actions. However, does it really work that way?
The answer of neuroscience and neurophilosophy is no. According to these fields of study it has become clear that the way we really act is different. We have two systems in our head. One regulates our actions; let me call it our action controller. The other system is informed about what the action controller does and about the actions we perform, and it tells the world stories that fit the actions: the brain interpreter. I talked already about it in older blogs. How does it work in practice? This can happen in several ways and much more can be said about it, but – and here I follow Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of the Conscious Will, ch. 5 – the two main methods that we use for rationalizing what we do are cognitive dissonance reduction and postbehavioural intention construction. Cognitive dissonance reduction has become well-known by the research by Leon Festinger and his team. In essence it is this: We have good reasons for thinking that doing A is the right way to act, but when it comes to act we actually do B. After the action we construct reasons why doing B was better than A, and we do not only construct such reasons, but we really believe them and maybe even deny that we ever thought differently. However, in many cases we do not have strict attitudes about what we prefer to do and why; maybe we have no advance attitudes at all for acting the way we do. We simply act. Then we construct our reasons and intentions afterwards, and we seriously believe them, too.
Now the nice thing is that one of the points I stressed in my dissertation is that the method I developed there for investigating actions can apply only when an action has already taken place. It can only afterwards reconstruct the reasons, intentions and so on why the agent acted as s/he did and in view of what I just said it is then a reconstruction of the agent’s rationalizations. But the reader of this blog will certainly see this defence of my dissertation as a case of cognitive dissonance reduction, and s/he may be right. Be that as it is, all these insights explaining how we rationalize what we do are very interesting, and they are intriguing, too. For if it isn’t so that we think that we consciously decide what we do on account of relevant reasons and if our explanations afterwards are nothing more than “postaction confabulation[s] of intention” (Wegner), then one question remains for me: why is it then that we act as we do when it is not for reasons? Why then is it that we do just this and not that and what determines what we do?

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