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Mental Overpopulation and Mental Action: Protecting Intentions from Mental Birth Control

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 37, Number 1, March 2007
pp. 49-65 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0009

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Many, I suspect most, philosophers of action afford intentions a central role in theorizing about action and its explanation. Furthermore, current orthodoxy in the philosophy of action has it that intentions play a causal role with respect to the etiology and explanation of action. But action theory is not without its heretics. Some philosophers have challenged the orthodox view. In this paper I will examine and critique one such challenge. I will consider David-Hillel Ruben's case against the need for intentions to play a causal role in the etiology and explanation of mental actions. Contra Ruben, I will defend the orthodox view that intentions play an indispensable causal and explanatory role with respect to mental actions.

I Ruben on Mental Overpopulation and the Causal Theory of Action

Ruben's critique of a causal and explanatory role for intentions with respect to mental actions issues in part from his declaration of war on 'mental overpopulation' in the philosophy of mind and action. One target theory of action he claims overpopulates the mental is the causal theory of action (CTA). According to the CTA, some behavior A of an agent S is an action if and only if there are some non-actional mental events or states that proximately cause S's A-ing and constitute S's reasons for A-ing. Regarding the implications of the CTA for mental overpopulation Ruben writes that

Assuming that we engage in a great deal of genuine activity, the demands of the CTA will ... require of agents an implausibly rich mental life, over full of reasons, beliefs, desires, and intentions. The CTA must inflate the mental, as a precondition for reducing action. Its slogan might be: no (action) reduction without (mental) inflation.

The CTA 'overintellectualizes action,' according to Ruben. So 'the friendliest thing one can do in the case of action is to prune (but not, of course, to eliminate) the mind's contents.' So he sets himself to practicing what he calls a form of 'mental birth control.'

Focusing on mental action, against theories that overpopulate our mental lives, Ruben offers a theory of mental action which allows for mental actions to be 'spontaneous actions.' For Ruben, a spontaneous action, either overt or mental, is one that 'has no rationalising mental cause or explanation' such as a belief-desire complex or an intention. When an agent acts intentionally, according to Ruben, 'it does not follow that the act was preceded by his having an intention to act.' With respect to mental actions, Ruben writes that, 'Mental life is simply not rich enough to insure that the requisite rationalising items will always be there.' This does not mean that actions are uncaused, lacking any motivation. It is just that it is not a necessary condition for some behavior to be actional that it has a rationalizing mental cause or explanation, according to Ruben.

I will not take up all the issues raised by Ruben in his case against theories of action that are guilty of 'overpopulating' our minds, or the problems I have with his theory of action more generally. Much of what I will ignore about some of Ruben's work on mental action has been taken up elsewhere by Alfred Mele and, to my estimate, effectively addressed. But I will also address some issues taken up by Mele. However, I will pursue a different line of argumentation against Ruben than Mele.

II Trying and Mental Action

Before moving to consider Ruben's case against mental overpopulation in theories of action, I should lay out my cards and offer a useful criterion for distinguishing between actional and non-actional mental behavior. I propose applying what Joelle Proust calls 'the try test' as a means of determining whether some behavior that occurs is actional. She suggests that, 'To determine whether some piece of behavior qualifies as an action ... just consider whether it can meaningfully be tried.' Proust notes that such a test is not foolproof. But it seems to be at least one way to test whether some behavior is actional or mere behavior.

The features of a full-blown account of trying go beyond the scope of this paper. But, following Frederick...



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