When performing a skilled action—whether something impressive like a double somersault or something mundane like reaching for a glass of water—you exercise control over your bodily movements. You guide their course. What does that control consist in? In my dissertation, An Agent of Attention: An Inquiry into the Source of Our Control, I argue it consists in attending to what you are doing.
In more detail, I argue the control agents manifest in skilled action extends beyond rational processes of deliberating and deciding how they will act to the motor execution of a decision through a process of perceptual attention. Perceptual attention is the process whereby agents harness perceptual information in settling the fine details of an intention’s implementation—i.e., details one’s intention typically leaves unsettled. This requires we reject views that identify agents’ control with their practical rationality and perception’s role with a source of input to belief (e.g., evidence about one’s current circumstances). In acting, agents deploy perception directly and practically in service of an intention’s execution, and, in doing so, settle how they will move their bodies.
Other philosophical accounts of attention also emphasize a central role for attention in action. Mine is distinctive in how it understands attention’s relation to an agent’s motivational priorities. On my view, attending has the aim of prioritizing what has relevance to the agent’s goals to the exclusion of what is a mere distraction. In possessing this aim, attention is essentially anchored in motivation. And yet, sometimes we attend distractedly, as when a low-priority stimulus like a buzzing fly captures our attention. In such cases, I suggest, attention fails to satisfy its proper functional role and so is defective. This, in turn, is crucial for grasping the loss of control that occurs when a skilled practitioner, e.g., chokes under pressure or acts in boredom or fatigue. In such cases, distraction arises from motivational conflicts within the agent: conflicts that can undermine attention’s ability to fulfill its function of removing distraction and achieving behavioural coherence.
A complaint sometimes leveled against accounts (like mine) that claim to reduce an agent’s control over their behaviour to that of mental states or events is that these accounts inevitably deprive the agent of their rightful role in the generation of behaviour. This is the Disappearing Agent Problem for “reductive” or “event-causal” theories of action. I argue that, correctly understood, extant reductive theories face a genuine Disappearing Agent Problem but that we can solve it by recognizing the role of attention in making an action one’s own. Accordingly I develop and defend an attentional account of the agent’s ownership for action. On this view, directing conscious attention in service of one’s goals is sufficient for a kind of subjective perspective (“motivational perspective”) which, when active in controlling the agent’s behaviour, constitutes the control as their own.
A noteworthy implication of my proposal is that acts of conscious attention are inalienable in a way other actions appear not to be. I offer an independent defense for this result by situating my proposal within recent a debate about the phenomenology of attention and showing how my claim follows from a plausible and widely accepted thesis about the conditions under which the phenomenology of conscious attention can be replicated.
You can read my dissertation here.
I have a number of papers building on the claims defended in my dissertation, which you can read about here.
"Review of Attention is Cognitive Unison: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology, by Christopher Mole" (with Tim Bayne).
"Witnessing from Here: Self-awareness from a Bodily vs. Embodied Perspective" (with Evan Thompson). I wrote this paper with Evan Thompson while I was still an undergraduate. We defend a conception of ‘witness consciousness’ as constitutively bodily, and linked to the feeling of being alive. It appears in the Oxford Handbook of the Self, edited by Shaun Gallagher.