Monday, March 12, 2012

Can I intend to break a world record if I cannot break it?

Suppose that I love running. Initially, I ran twice a week. But after some time I did it effortlessly and I started to do it three times a week, then four times a week, and in the end I did it almost every day. I joined an athletics club, I trained a lot and I participated in races and I ran faster and fast. My personal bests became much better through the years and after four years of training I had a personal best of 14'37.8" on the 5,000 m. Not bad but on the other hand only of regional importance and just good enough for participating in the national championships, although I had absolutely no chance to win. Nevertheless I begun to dream: How would it feel to break a world record? I knew, of course, that the present 5,000 m record was about two minutes under my personal best. No chance to beat that time. Yet I continued dreaming and then I decided to start my next 5,000 m in a world record tempo and try to keep this pace up as long as possible and see where I would end. My chances were not bad, I thought: I was in top form and the other runners on the starting list could give me good competition. Can we say now that I had the intention to break the 5,000 m world record?
Once I reasoned that the answer was “no”. The argument was that it was simply impossible for me to break the record, because I should have to break my personal best with more than two minutes. Since I had already a rather long running history, such a thing would be impossible. But why cannot I have the intention to do it despite that?
I became aware of the problem again, when I read Sousa and Holbrook’s article “Folk Concepts of Intentional Action in the Contexts of Amoral and Immoral Luck” (Review of Philosophy and Psychology (2010) 1:351–370). I cannot summarize the article here, but the essence is that they argue that “intention” is a multiple concept that has more than one meaning. A current view says that intention implies the ability to do what one intends; it involves skill. Without having the skill to perform a certain action, one cannot seriously maintain that one has the intention to do it. If one succeeds nevertheless when trying to do the action, it’s by a fluke. For instance, if I take a gun for the first time in my life, point to the bull’s-eye and shoot, it should be mere luck if it is a hit, not because of my intention. Just this example raises doubt to the idea that one cannot say that I had the intention to hit the bull’s-eye, I think. Even if I had never had a gun in my hands before, this does not exclude that I can try to hit the bull’s-eye, and it seems not unreasonably to say then that I had the intention to do that, even though I did not have the skill. The question is solved if one realizes that “intention” may mean here not the same as the skill involving concept.
Now I go back to the case that I tried to break the 5,000 m world record. Cannot I say then that I had the intention to break the world record? It may be weird for me, but how about a person whose personal best is only one second above the world record? Or two seconds? Or 15 seconds? Or half a minute....? Where is the limit? And how about a young gifted runner who just took up running and who may have a good chance of bridging the two minutes gap within a few years? Once I met a runner who seriously though that he could bridge such gaps in a race. Must we say that he did not have the intention to do that, since we cannot imagine having such an intention in his case, because such an intention is unrealistic?
In view of this one can say that “intention” is a multiple concept. It can contain the idea of skill but it does not need to be so. But if this is right, it is a multiple concept on a sliding scale.

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