Monday, November 02, 2015

On trying

In the philosophy of action puzzle cases can be used for several reasons. An already old website (I suppose it has been made by Joshua Knobe, who is now especially known for his contributions to experimental philosophy) mentions three such reasons:
– Exploring the causality of the relation between intention and action. Davidson’s case of the mountain climber in my blog last week falls under this category.
– Exploring the question whether acting intentionally implies acting with the intention to do what one intentionally does. For example, Harman discusses this case (quoted from the website): “In firing his gun, [a] sniper knowingly alerts the enemy to his presence. He does this intentionally, thinking that the gain is worth the possible cost. But he certainly does not intend to alert the enemy to his presence.”
– Exploring the relation between intending and succeeding to do what one intends to do. (see
In this blog I want to discuss a question that belongs to the last category and that I find intriguing since already a long time: Can one try to do what one cannot do? For instance, can I try to break a world record, if I am by far not good enough to break it?
According to Stuart Hampshire trying implies that “there is some difficulty and a possibility of failure”. If so, we speak of trying “whenever difficulty or the chance of failure is stressed” and the trying agent knows what to do and has decided to perform the trying action: The agent “should have some idea of how the required result might be achieved and that he should make up his mind now” (Hampshire 1959:107).
Suppose that I am a long distance runner. The world record on 5,000 metres track (5K) is 12'.37,35", run in 2004 by Kenenisa Bekele in Hengelo in the Netherlands. It is my big wish to break this record. However, my personal record (pr) is exactly three minutes slower: 15'.37,35". I ran it after many years of hard training. Therefore everybody body will say that it will be impossible for me to break the world record. Nevertheless, I don’t give up and I train and train and train ... and then I choose a race for the big try. As expected by the experts, I fail and because I have started by far too fast in the race I even fail to break my own pr.
According to Hampshire’s definition of trying, we can say that I tried to break the 5K world record but that I failed. Is it really so? It’s clear that I failed, but can we say that I tried? I think that we cannot, for it was 99.99999... % certain that I would fail, and I think that in order to speak reasonably of a try there must be a minimal chance of success and the chance of success was absent from any reasonable point of view. Therefore I want to add this “minimal chance of success” as a condition when we want to speak of a try. However, what is a minimal chance? Is it when my pr would have been 14'.37,35"? Or 13'.37,35"? Or 13'.07,35"? Or 12'.52,35"? Or ...? The problem is what tells a try from a not-try. A man cannot try to give birth to a baby, but a long distance runner with a pr of 12'.38,35" on the 5K track can reasonably try to break the world record on the distance, and there is a lot in between from the perspective of what we can possibly try and what we cannot. But where is the line that separates them? Often there is one, but as my case of the 5K runner shows, also often there isn’t one. In practice we know what trying is but in theory we cannot define it. The upshot is that we can’t even try to define “try” for there is no chance of success but only failure.

Hampshire, Stuart, Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1959.

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