vol. 33, no. 1, spring 2005
The Phenomenology of Efficacy
Suppose you carry a cabinet down a flight of stairs, or organize a disorderly mass of papers, or set a forest on fire. It is easy to imagine that doing these things could give you a sense of your own efficacy: a palpable feeling that it was your body’s motion that moved the cabinet, or your sorting the papers that turned a messy surface into a neat one, or your control of a flame that scorched a tract of land.
In each of these cases the sense of efficacy would attach to occurrences that last more than an instant. But a sense of efficacy might also attach to momentary occurrences. Here is a possible example. You are in an apartment in Paris with a large window facing the Eiffel Tower. Every evening at 6:00 the lights on the Eiffel Tower turn on. You are asked to turn on the lights, and you flick a light switch exactly, as it happens, at 6 p.m.—and at just the moment that the lights come on in the apartment, the lights on the Eiffel Tower come on too.1 Your flicking the switch does not cause the Eiffel Tower’s lights to come on, and moreover, let us suppose, you don’t even believe that they do. Nonetheless, it may seem to you that your action has caused it.
Prima facie, there seems to be a feeling of efficacy here. If there are cases where a sense of efficacy attaches to momentary occurrences such as seeming to turn on the lights in the Eiffel Tower, one could consider what relation the feeling of efficacy bears to sensory experiences that occur at the same time. In general, what it feels like to act is familiar enough that one can ask further questions about the character of this feeling, but elusive enough that it is not immediately obvious what character it has. More specifically, such cases raise several questions. First, is the feeling really one of efficacy? Second, what relation does the feeling bear to visual and kinesthetic experience? Third, if there are experiences of efficacy, what if anything do such experiences represent?
The last question needs explaining. Let us say that an experience represents that such-and-such is the case, only if such-and-such is included in the conditions which, if they obtained, would make the experience accurate. This isn’t a definition of what it is for experience to represent that such-and-such is the case, but it is a start. To finish it what’s needed is an account of which accuracy conditions are the ones at issue. The purpose of the notion of accuracy condition here is to reflect the phenomenal character of the experience, so that a statement of the accuracy conditions of the experience would characterize as precisely as possible its phenomenal character. This leaves much open about which accuracy conditions attach to individual experiences. This constraint results in a notion of accuracy conditions that are more finely grained than possible-worlds truth conditions.2
Given these assumptions about representation in experience, in asking what experiences of efficacy represent, one assumes that such experiences are assessable for accuracy. One reason to think that at least some experiences are so assessable is that we regularly classify some of them—notably, visual experiences—as ‘veridical’ or ‘illusory’. One straightforward account of this is that they are correct when they are veridical and mistaken when they are illusory. Now, some philosophers think this account isn’t right, and they deny that such experiences are so assessable for accuracy.3 Here I am going to assume, contrary to these philosophers, that visual and kinesthetic experiences are assessable for accuracy.
One way to approach all three questions is to fix on the visual and kinesthetic experiences in the Eiffel Tower example, and consider what they represent.4 It is one thing to say that these experiences have accuracy conditions; it is another to say what those conditions are. From the fact that the experiences are familiar, together with the assumption that they have accuracy conditions, it does not follow that we know what those accuracy conditions are. In particular, nothing in what has been said so far settles whether your visual and kinesthetic experience is incorrect, because its accuracy conditions include your causing the lights to come on and you didn’t cause that. Likewise, nothing said so far settles whether your experience is correct because its accuracy conditions include your flicking the switch followed by the lights coming on but exclude that the flicking caused the lights to come on. So even if we are familiar with the visual and kinesthetic experiences in question, and even if we assume that they have accuracy conditions, it can be a further question which conditions those are.
If it turns out that these experiences represent efficacy, then we will have an answer to all three questions. Given the kind of accuracy conditions that are at issue, it is natural to think of either of the accuracy conditions just mentioned as further (and competing) proposals for how to characterize that phenomenal character, so that one proposal says that it feels to you, visually and kinesthetically, as if you caused the Eiffel Tower’s lights to go on, whereas the other says that it just feels as if you first flicked the switch, then saw the lights come on. On this way of thinking about things, the debate between these positions concerns not just what accuracy conditions are had by experiences with the familiar phenomenology, but exactly what that phenomenology is.
In this paper I defend the following thesis:
Some visual and kinesthetic experiences of a subject represent that she (herself) has just brought about an effect.
When a subject brings about an effect, I will say she is efficacious, and when a subject represents that she is efficacious, I will call the causal relation she represents as holding between herself and the effect efficacy. If the Main thesis is true, then causation is represented in some visual and kinesthetic experiences. More exactly, what’s represented is that the subject of the experience caused an effect. Equivalently, a subject will have an experiential representation that she (herself) has brought about an effect in any cases that instantiate the Main thesis.
The content of such representations has a first-personal component: the subject represents that she herself has brought about an effect. This first-personal component is meant to reflect an aspect of experience that is present when one is experiencing oneself as having turned on the light but is (typically) missing when you see someone else turn on the light. This contrast is illustrated by Daniel Wegner’s ‘helping hands’ experiment: person A stands facing a mirror with arms inside a sleeveless robe, while person B, standing behind A, puts engloved arms through the arm holes so that B’s arms are where A’s would normally be. B then hears instructions directing the hands (e.g., to clap, wave, make a fist). People in A’s position who hear the directions report feeling a greater degree of control of B’s hands (3 on a 7-point scale) than do people in A’s position who do not hear the instructions (1 on a 7-point scale).5 When person A reports feeling as if she controls B’s hands, she does not believe that she controls them, so this feeling is a candidate for being an experiential representation of efficacy.
The first-personal component of the contents posited by the Main thesis is also meant to reflect an aspect of experience that is missing when one experiences one’s body as a mere cause, as when your body’s movements bring about effects, but those movements are beyond your control. For instance, a muscle spasm in your leg makes it kick into a chair. You are pushed out of a window and land on a big beanbag, and the impact rearranges its heft. You have an abnormally fast growth spurt and knock over a vase on your way up. These are cases of causation, and it might well be natural to describe these cases by saying that the subject feels herself to have brought about the effect. But it seems less apt to describe them as cases of feeling efficacious. One does not feel anything like a sense of accomplishment (either prideful or dreadful) when one’s body grows, and it’s hard to see why growing faster would change that. An analogous point holds for rearranging the beanbag or knocking over the vase. So here we seem to have a phenomenal contrast between two sorts of feelings of first-person causation. The contents posited by the Main thesis (specifically, by their first-person component) are meant to exclude any such feelings of ‘mere’ causation, as illustrated by the cases of muscle spasm or falling out of the window or having a fast growth spurt.6
Let me say a bit more about the kinds of actions that are prime candidates for being accompanied by visual and kinesthetic experiential representations of efficacy. These are bodily actions that cause an effect that you see—as opposed to perceiving it through some other sensory modality, or not perceiving it all. These actions will be things like flicking light switches and pouring milk. You flick a switch, and then see the room lighten. You pour some milk, and see the cup get filled. These are cases of seeing the effects of a bodily action. Such bodily actions contrast with what we might call ‘purely mental actions’, such as doing silent calculations ‘in your head’. From now on, when I talk about bodily actions, I mean to exclude the ones with effects that you don’t see.
Now, everyone can agree that bodily actions are at least sometimes accompanied by bodily awareness, or kinesthetic phenomenology.7 And nearly everyone can agree that when one sees the effects of one’s actions, the seeing is accompanied by visual phenomenology.8 So when one completes a bodily action and sees the effect, there will at least sometimes be some phenomenology that is systematically associated with the action and the perception of its effect.9 If we called this phenomenology ‘phenomenology of efficacy’, then it would not be controversial whether there is any phenomenology of efficacy. There would be at least as much as has already been described. What’s controversial is whether any contents are associated with it, and if so, which ones. Is there anything more to it than kinesthetic phenomenology of having moved one’s body, and visual phenomenology that goes with seeing the effect—where this by hypothesis does not involve experiencing any causation? The Main thesis denies this. It says that causation—more exactly, efficacy—can be represented in (visual and kinesthetic) experience. One way to oppose the Main thesis would be to deny that causal relations of any sort are represented in such experiences; a more restricted opposition would deny simply that efficacy can be so represented, even if it allows that causation of other sorts can be.10
One last clarification about what it is for a subject to experientially represent that she has brought about an effect. There are several things we might naturally take a subject’s experiential representation that she has brought about an effect to be. One is an efficacy belief, where this is a belief with content of the form: ‘My action A caused E’. A second is a conjunction of two states that are modally independent: a judgment that one has brought about an effect, where this judgment itself is not systematically or intrinsically related to any phenomenology; and a sensation that is intrinsically phenomenal, but is not systematically or intrinsically related to any representation of efficacy—judgmental or otherwise. On such a view, experiential representations of efficacy are structured in something like the way Thomas Reid supposed all experiences are: the sensational and the representational aspects of experience can vary independently.11
The way I’m going to use terminology, by a subject’s ‘experiential representation that she has brought about an effect’, I’m going to mean experiences that are not themselves efficacy beliefs, and are not conjunctions of phenomenal and nonphenomenal states. This interpretation of the Main thesis—where it claims that there are experiential representations of efficacy in this sense—makes it more interesting. Hardly anyone doubts that we have beliefs about our own efficacy. It is a further claim that some of these very beliefs also have some associated phenomenology. But if the existence of such beliefs counted as experiential representations of efficacy the Main thesis would hardly be informative, and in any case would not illuminate what is going on in the Eiffel Tower case, where the subject does not believe that she turned on the tower’s lights. So whether there are efficacy beliefs with some associated phenomenology is not what’s at issue in the Main thesis. Rather, what’s at issue is whether there are experiential representations of efficacy that are not themselves beliefs.
It will be useful to have another label for one part of the Main thesis. Say that a subject S has an experience with representational phenomenology of efficacy iff S has a visual and kinesthetic experiential representation that she has brought about an effect (where this is restricted by the stipulation above). It is controversial whether there is any representational phenomenology of efficacy. Given the stipulation, it would not suffice to show that there is representational phenomenology of efficacy, by showing that efficacy beliefs themselves have some phenomenal character, and so are themselves a kind of experience.
To defend the Main thesis, I first respond to some arguments that there is no representation of causation in any experience (in section 1), and then argue directly for the Main thesis in section 2. I conclude in section 3 by speculating about what relation representational phenomenology of efficacy may have to the experience of acting intentionally.
1. Dispelling a doubt about the Main thesis
We clearly very often end up believing that one event has caused another. Two further questions are these. Question 1: Can we ever see a causal relation holding between things? In the relevant sense of ‘seeing’ here, seeing is factive—you can’t see a relation that isn’t instantiated. Question 2: Can we represent causal relations in experience? Experiential representations of properties or relations can be incorrect, so you can represent a property in experience that isn’t instantiated in the space around you.
In principle, experiences that represent causation might be always in error. Suppose there was no causation. It might nonetheless look as if there is. So a negative answer to question 1 is compatible with the Main thesis. A negative answer to question 2, in contrast, entails that the Main thesis is false. Let’s call this The Doubt:
The Doubt: No single experience represents that one event causes another.
Why might someone believe the Doubt? Here are three lines of thought.
The first line of thought has four steps.
(1) One thing distinguishing a mere succession of events from a causal sequence of events is that the latter is in some sense necessary.
(2) Because causal succession is necessary, whether an event A causes an event B depends in part on what would happen in circumstances other than the actual ones. But,
(3) What would happen in other circumstances cannot be represented in experience. So,
(4) The necessity of succession cannot be represented in experience—only succession itself can be so represented.
Summing up, visual experience cannot tell us whether a succession is necessary or not. So that route to experientially representing the causal nature of a succession is closed off to us. Colin McGinn expresses something like this line of thought:
You do not see what would obtain in certain counterfactual situations; you see only what actually obtains. When you see something as red you do not see the counterfactual possibilities that constitute its having a disposition to appear red. Your eyes do not respond to woulds and might have beens.12
Though McGinn is talking about seeing, rather than representing in experience, one might (and he does) hold that what experiences can represent is likewise limited by ‘what the eyes can respond to’—and that these limits exclude counterfactuals.
The second line of thought is closely related. It says that whether succession is causal depends on whether it is regular—i.e., whether successions relevantly like it regularly occur. Regularities can be observed. But they cannot be represented in a single visual experience. So causal relations cannot be represented in experience.
The third line of thought is that causal relations involve mechanisms by which force is transferred from one thing to another. But even in successions of events that we believe to be causal (collisions of balls, lifting of barbells) no such transfer is represented in experience.
All three of these lines of thought have the same form. Each points to a feature purportedly had by causally related events (or other causal relata) and lacked by events that are not causally related, and then says that that purportedly distinctive feature cannot be represented in experience.
My rebuttal of the Doubt targets this common feature of the three lines of thought. From the fact that X is a feature distinguishing causal from noncausal successions, it doesn’t follow that an experience representing a causal relation would have to represent X. An experience could correctly represent that a succession is a case of causation, without representing any of the features that (putatively) make it a case of causation. For all the three lines of thought say, there could be a way that successions look when they look causal.
Let me elaborate. Suppose you are a generalist about the nature of causation, where this is the view that a pair of events are causally related only if certain laws or regularities hold. If generalism is true, then whether a pair of events is causally related depends on what happens at places and times other than the place and time of the events. Even if you had this view about the metaphysics of causation, there might still be a way that causal sequences look. There can be a way that causal sequences look, I’m suggesting, even if the distinctive causal feature of them is not manifest to you in their looking that way. So even on a generalist view of causation, there can be a way that causal sequences look that is shared by how some noncausal sequences look.
It may be useful to consider an analogy with holes. We seem to be able to see holes. But it is hard to say what makes something a hole. The candidate accounts of this are arcane. Here we seem to have a case in which there is a property—the property of being a hole—that is represented in experience, even though we don’t represent in experience any more specific feature that distinguishes holes from non-holes.
For example, suppose you see a piece of Swiss cheese with a hole in it, and that your experience is veridical. According to one theory of the metaphysics of holes, they are immaterial particulars. According to an opposing theory, they are material but negative parts of material particulars.13 When the cheese looks to have a hole, does it look to host an immaterial particular, or does it look to have a material part, neither, or both? If the cheese looked to have both of these more specific properties, then the experience could not be veridical after all, since the hole cannot be both material and immaterial. It is hard to see how anything could look immaterial (in any sense of ‘look’), a fortiori how anything could look to host an immaterial particular. It also seems strained to say that holes always look like parts of things that have them (in any sense of ‘look’). The best answer, then, is, neither: experience is neutral on which of these more specific properties (if either) the cheese has. And even if one does not agree with these specific proposals about the nature of holes, or with the specific verdicts on whether they can characterize how things look, the important point is that this seems to be a case where no good candidate theory of the underlying nature of holes need be especially apt at characterizing how holes look. If so, then visual experience is neutral on the underlying nature of holes, even while representing that things have holes.
If experience is neutral in this way, then it’s plausible that whichever metaphysical theory of holes turns out to be correct (either the two mentioned or some other theory), we have a case in which an object has a distinctive feature H if it has a hole, and experience represents the property of having a hole, but does not represent distinctive feature H. So it will not in general be true that if X distinguishes causal relations from noncausal ones, the experience represents the causal relation only if it represents X. To support the Doubt along any of the three lines mentioned, some argument is needed that the case of causation is not like the case of holes.
This rebuttal assumes that the accuracy conditions had by an experience when it represents that something has a hole in it are more finely grained than possible-worlds accuracy conditions. But there is independent reason to think that accuracy conditions that are as coarsely grained as possible-worlds accuracy conditions will not be useful for characterizing how things visually seem to a subject to be. It is widely agreed that something can visually seem to a subject to be red, without its visually seeming that 390+48=438. But if the notion of accuracy conditions were coarsely grained possible-worlds accuracy conditions, this would not be so.
Another kind of rebuttal of the Doubt would appeal to examples from outside the domain of action in which the claim seems especially implausible. Some such examples are familiar from Albert Michotte.14 Suppose you are watching someone use a big knife to cut a slice of bread from a loaf. You see the serrated blade move back and forth along the loaf until it gets to the cutting board, and the slice of bread topples over. If the Doubt is correct, then strictly speaking it looks as if the knife is moving through the bread—but it does not look as if the knife is cutting the bread.15
So far I have responded to a general doubt someone might raise about the Main thesis. I now turn to a positive argument for it.
2. An argument for the Main thesis
What motivates the Main thesis? One motivation is that it seems to account for a contrast between two kinds of experienced unity. The contrast is most easily introduced by first considering a distinction drawn by Husserl between two ways of experiencing the passage of time.
Suppose you hear a series of five notes at times t1 through t5 that form a melody: C-E-G-E-C. Compare this series to another one in which you hear a series of five sounds, each sounding at the same moment as the corresponding note in the melody (the first one sounds at t1, the second at t2, etc.) These sounds are the clink of a cup against a saucer, the groan of an accelerating bus, a creak from a chair, a snippet of a loud voice, and the honk of a car’s horn. Now, we experience the notes of the melody as unified in a way that we need not experience the five sounds as unified—even if at each moment we remember the sound(s) from the previous moment(s). In effect, this is Husserl’s observation: such remembering, he suggested, does not suffice to make us experience any remembered series of motley sounds as integrated in a way that we hear the notes of a melody to be integrated. Rather, when we hear the sounds as a melody, the previous ones remain present to us in a special way even after they have ceased. Husserl had a special term for this way of remaining present to us: ‘retention’. In the case of the melody, the previous notes are ‘retained’, whereas in the motley series they are not, and that, he thought, is what makes it the case that we hear the notes as a melody, but not the motley sounds.16
It seems plain that there is a phenomenal difference between these two experiences, and one that stems not just from the different qualities of the individual sounds, but from the way those sounds seem to be related to one another in each experience. It is harder to say whether the phenomenal difference between the auditory experiences is reflected in any difference in accuracy conditions. But it seems clear that there is a phenomenal contrast, and that it has something to do with the connections between the sounds heard at each time.
Now consider a different pair of cases. The first one is the Eiffel Tower case with which we began, in which it seems to you that you have turned on the lights in the Eiffel Tower. In the second case, the timing of the switch-flicking and the lights coming on is the same, and you can see your hand flick the switch and see the tower’s lights coming on. But unlike the first case, you don’t have any feeling that you turned on the tower’s lights. So whereas in the first case, you have a feeling of efficacy with respect to the tower’s lights, in the second case you don’t.
As with the pair of series of sounds, here too it seems plain that there is a phenomenal difference between the two experiences. And like the example that illustrates the contrast between mere memory and retention, the phenomenal contrast here seems to have something to do with the connection between events: the difference stems from how the sight of the lights turning on seems to you to be related to the flicking of the switch. But unlike the case of the contrast between the two auditory experiences, where there is no obvious candidate for what difference in accuracy conditions might reflect the different ways in which the events at each time are related to one another, there is such a candidate here.17 The obvious candidate is that in the first case, there is an experiential representation of efficacy, whereas in the second case, there is not. If so, then when there is an experiential representation of efficacy, the experience represents the switch-flicking and the lights turning on as causally unified, and more specifically, causally unified as the result of the subject’s own action. One motivation of the Main thesis is that it provides a plausible account of the phenomenal difference between these two versions of the Eiffel Tower case.
What would one have to hold if one were to reject this claim? I will consider some alternative accounts of the phenomenon that is illustrated by the original Eiffel Tower case, and argue that none of them is satisfactory.
Three putative paradigm cases of representational phenomenology of efficacy
In the discussion that follows, in addition to the Eiffel Tower example with which we began, I consider two other putative paradigm cases of representational phenomenology of efficacy. I think these cases illustrate familiar representational phenomenology of efficacy. Opponents of the Main thesis will of course deny that these cases illustrate representational phenomenology of efficacy. Since they think there is no such thing, they will say that familiar phenomenon illustrated by these cases can be re-described in a way that does not invoke it. The possible re-descriptions seem to divide four categories. I argue that none gives the right account of the familiar phenomenon after all.
First example: Small children get lots of pleasure out of having effects on things—they sometimes seem to experience a small triumph in making a light turn on with the flick of a switch, or in opening a pouch by pulling a zipper. Going by casual observation of two-yearolds, their pleasure seems to come not just from the motion of their hands, and not just from seeing the effect itself (the pouch getting opened or the light getting switched on by someone), but from the combination of these two things—i.e., from the fact that their motion brings about a change in their immediate surroundings. Experiments by Carol Rovee-Collier suggest that the same phenomenon may be found in infants. Infants lying in a crib looking at a mobile attached to a ribbon on their leg will kick more, if their kicking makes the mobile move, compared with infants in the same circumstances except that the ribbon on their leg isn’t attached to the mobile (so kicking won’t make it move).18
The second example comes from the realm of spoken communication. In conversation it sometimes becomes immediately apparent, after saying something, that it has ‘come out wrong’ and been misinterpreted. For instance, suppose you say to someone who is worried that you don’t like her friends, “I won’t be coming to your party, but not because I don’t like your friends.” It is easy to imagine making this remark in an effort to reassure the person that you do like her friends. But it is also pretty easy to hear it in the opposite way—a way that would confirm her doubts, rather than allaying them. In general, ‘Q, but not because P’ can be heard as presupposing P, but it need not be heard this way—it can be heard either way, due to the weakness of the presuppositional effect. So just imagine that in an effort to be reassuring you say this to someone, but your effort fails, and you can tell immediately from the slightly insulted look on her face what you have actually conveyed. It is this last part—your being able to tell from the insulted look on her face what effect your explanation has had—that seems to me to be a good example of representational phenomenology of efficacy.
The third example we have already encountered. Suppose that every evening at 6:00 the lights on the Eiffel Tower turn on. You are in an apartment in Paris with a large window facing the Eiffel Tower. You’re asked to turn on the lights, and you flick a light switch exactly, as it happens, at 6 p.m.—and at just the moment that the lights come on in the apartment, the lights on Eiffel Tower come on too. In this example, your flicking the switch does not cause the Eiffel Tower’s lights to come on, and moreover you don’t (let’s stipulate) even believe that they do. Nonetheless, there is arguably a good sense in which it seems to you that your action has caused it, and that this seeming is jointly visual and kinesthetic.
For these three cases to be of much interest, they have to illustrate a more general phenomenon—the cases can’t be rare or special. With respect to the third case, there is something special about it—it is after all a coincidence. But even if the setting is special, the feeling isn’t. What’s at issue is the nature of this feeling. The Main thesis allows that when you have this feeling, you have representational phenomenology of efficacy.
Opponents of the Main thesis will doubt that these cases illustrate representational phenomenology of efficacy (because they doubt that there is such a thing). They will try to re-describe the cases—and with them, the general, familiar feeling—so that they do not involve any representational phenomenology of efficacy. One natural way to try and re-describe the cases is to say that the only kinds of phenomenology distinctive to them are Minimal, where Minimal phenomenology is kinesthetic phenomenology of moving one’s body, and visual phenomenology as of kinesthetic phenomenology involved in action, plus visual experience involved in seeing the effect—where by hypothesis neither of these (either alone or together) represents causation of any sort. The way ‘Minimal phenomenology’ is defined leaves it open whether experiences with Minimal phenomenal have accuracy conditions or not—for all the definition says, such phenomenology may be a raw feel, or have some structure other than that imposed by accuracy conditions. All that is specified about Minimal phenomenology is something negative—that it does not represent efficacy.
If the Main thesis is true, then there is (a) phenomenology of efficacy, which (b) consists at least in part of a representation of efficacy, where (c) this representation is experiential, and more specifically (d) it is visual and kinesthetic. There are thus four main ways to deny the Main thesis. The minimal re-description denies (a): that is, it questions whether there is any phenomenology of efficacy at all, and suggests instead that the description of the putative paradigm cases simply mis-describes (or over-describes) visual and kinesthetic phenomenology that is in fact very simple. The Reid-esque re-description grants (a) and (b) but denies (c): that is, it grants that there is phenomenology of efficacy and that it involves some sort of representation of efficacy, but denies that this representation is itself any kind of experience. The third option is to grant (a) but deny (b), (c), and (d): that is, hold that there is phenomenology of efficacy, but deny that it involves any representation of efficacy—let alone a visual and kinesthetic one. The fourth option is to grant (a), (b), and (c), but deny (d): that is, grant that there are experiential representations of efficacy, but deny that they are kinesthetic. I think the most natural versions of these latter two options are provided by a proposal from action theory. When developed in one way, it provides an example of the third option; when developed in a different way, it provides an example of the fourth option.
I will now consider all four of these alternatives.
The minimal re-description
Consider John Perry in the supermarket. He puts a leaky bag of sugar into his cart, and it forms a trail of sugar as he pushes his cart along. Starting the trail was an unintended effect of his putting the sugar in the cart. Now, Perry sees this effect of his putting the leaky bag into the cart, and we can suppose that he feels his body move as he bends down to place it there. We can even suppose that he sees the sugar quite soon after setting down the bag. Yet it is plainly wrong to suppose that Perry then had anything like the feeling described in the cases, just from having this kinesthetic phenomenology and the visual phenomenology that goes with seeing the trail of sugar behind him, which is an effect of his action.
Another example of minimal phenomenology without the familiar feeling comes from experiments done in Copenhagen in the early 1960s by T. Nielson. In these experiments, subjects received false feedback about their own intentional movements. Subjects were instructed to move their hand in a specific direction, but an artificial hand, made to look like their own, was projected onto their field of view, giving them a visual experience as of their own hand moving in the wrong direction. So kinesthetic information started out telling them one thing (my hand is moving to the left), but then visual experience gives them conflicting information. In response to this situation, rather than report experiencing a conflict, subjects privilege the visual information in a way that seems to distort their awareness of how their own hands are moving. Reports of the experiences include, “My hand took over my mind and was able to control it”; “I tried hard to make my hand go to the left, but my hand tried harder and was able to overcome me and went off to the right”; and “My hand was controlled by an outside physical force. I don’t know what it was but I could feel it.”19
Two things are notable about these reports. First, the subjects seem to report feeling their hand move in a way that it is not in fact moving. If we take their reports at face value, it really does feel this way: their kinesthetic phenomenology is falsidical.
Second, there doesn’t seem to be representational phenomenology of efficacy here. One of the reports suggests the opposite—that it is not the subject who has brought about the effect (not even unintentionally), but an ‘outside physical force’. The other reports suggest at best a mitigated, nonstandard sort of representational phenomenology of efficacy—one in which the ‘mind’ and the hand are at odds. In contrast, when you spill milk on the counter, or get (understandably) misinterpreted, there isn’t a feeling that something else took over.
The failure of the minimal re-description of the putative paradigm cases suggests that the prima facie suggestion of the examples is correct: there really is some kind of phenomenology of efficacy. In addition, an upshot of these cases is that minimal phenomenology doesn’t suffice for giving a subject a representation of efficacy any kind—doxastic or nondoxastic, experiential or nonexperiential.
A second way to deny the Main thesis is to suggest that what you have to add to Minimal phenomenology is some sort of nonexperiential representation of efficacy—and then you’ll get the familiar feeling, without any experiential representation of efficacy. This brings us to the next re-description of the putative paradigm cases.
The Reid-esque proposal
Thomas Reid thought that what we call ‘experience’ (e.g., visual experience) was in fact two things, not one: a sensation, which did not represent anything; and a judgment (where this is a kind of belief) which had no intrinsic phenomenology. Each of these components, he thought, could be had without the other.20
If you had this view, it would be natural to call the conjunction of the two components (or at least, some such conjunctions) experiences, even though they would include a nonphenomenal part. This will sound jarring if you think of experiences as being phenomenal by definition—as many contemporary philosophers do. But if on those grounds one refused to call such conjunctions ‘experiences’ one would not be able to state the debate between Reid and the contemporary view. So it is best to consider Reid’s view as a view about the structure of experiences, where it is left open whether all parts of it have to have a phenomenal character.
According to the Reid-esque proposal, minimal phenomenology and a nonexperiential representation of efficacy are separate parts of the visual and kinesthetic experiences had in the putative paradigm cases. We can see right away that if the visual and kinesthetic experiences in the three cases have a dual structure in something like the way Reid proposed, the alleged nonphenomenal part of the structure cannot be a judgment, since in the Eiffel Tower case you don’t believe that you have turned on the lights of Eiffel Tower. The Reid-esque proposal says that the visual and kinesthetic experiences in the three cases consist in Minimal phenomenology on the one hand, and a nonphenomenal representation of efficacy, on the other, and these two components can in principle each be had without the other. There is a level of abstraction at which the three experiences as the Reid-esque proposal understands them have the same structure as all experiences have according to Reid’s own view. Three differences are these. First, the Reid-esque proposal is not a view about experience in general; instead it is a view about the experiences in the three cases (and others like them). Second, the Reid-esque view has minimal phenomenology instead of a sensation. Recall that minimal phenomenology may or may not be assessable for accuracy, whereas Reid’s sensations are definitely not so assessable. Finally, the Reid-esque proposal has an un-named representation, which can but need not be a judgment, where Reid had a judgment.
One might try to quickly dismiss Reid-esque proposal, on the following grounds. Intuitively, what was missing from cases with minimal phenomenology that lacked the familiar feeling was at least in part phenomenal. But what the Reid-esque proposal proposes to add to minimal phenomenology is something definitively nonphenomenal. The quick dismissal of the Reid-esque proposal is that adding something nonphenomenal to minimal phenomenology could not result in the phenomenal aspect of the familiar feeling that is missing from the modified Perry case and the experiences of Nielson subjects.
This dismissal of the Reid-esque proposal is too quick. Suppose it turned out that every case in which there was both minimal phenomenology and a nonexperiential representation of efficacy of the sort the Reid-esque proposal invokes was also a case instantiating the familiar feeling. Then the Reid-esque proposal would at least be extensionally accurate—it would predict which cases are cases of having the familiar feeling. So any objection to the Reid-esque view must have a different basis.
My first objection to the Reid-esque proposal focuses on the relation between the familiar feeling and beliefs about efficacy. In the cases of spoken miscommunication and toddlers using the light switch, the subjects are disposed to believe (and may actually believe) that they brought about the effect. What makes them so disposed? Their experience seems to play a role: you feel (and hear) yourself speaking, you see the insulted look on your interlocutors face, and you are disposed to believe that what you just said came out wrong. This much could (and should) be granted even by opponents who think there is no representational phenomenology of efficacy. But what, by the lights of the Reid-esque proposal, can explain why the subjects are so disposed?
It is not open to the proponent of the Reid-esque proposal to say that what makes the subject so disposed is the nonexperiential representation of efficacy, if that representation just is itself a disposition to form an efficacy belief. In that case the question of what makes the subject so disposed would just get pushed back to apply to the representational component itself. So to explain what gives the subject this disposition, the proponent of the Reid-esque view must either look to minimal phenomenology, or give some other account of what the nonexperiential representation is (other than a disposition to form an efficacy belief).
Minimal phenomenology does not seem to be up for the job. The Reid-esque view is committed to allowing that the minimal phenomenology could occur without the representational component. In the two Eiffel Tower cases, the minimal phenomenology is presumably the same. Yet in one of these cases the subject has nothing remotely like a disposition to believe that she turned on the lights in the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, there could be an analog of the spoken miscommunication case, where you make the fateful remark about not coming to the party and see the insulted look on your addressee’s face, but due to your tin ear and lack of imagination you can’t on your own figure out that it was your remark that insulted her, because you can’t hear the reading of what you’ve said on which it presupposes that you don’t like her friends. Here, too, the minimal phenomenology in both cases of miscommunication is the same. So minimal phenomenology does not provide an explanation of why a subject might end up disposed to form efficacy beliefs.
The last option is for the proponent of the Reid-esque proposal to hold that the nonexperiential representation of efficacy is something other than a disposition to form efficacy beliefs. Perhaps it is a way of being ‘struck’ with the thought that you have just brought about an effect, without yet being disposed to believe it. But it is hard to see how being struck with the thought that you brought about an effect can play the right kind of role in making you disposed to form the belief. In general, when being struck that p falls short of being disposed to believe that p, it seems merely to result in making p an epistemic possibility. But something’s becoming an epistemic possibility for me does not suffice to make me disposed to believe it. And if it doesn’t make me so disposed, it is hard to see why adding minimal phenomenology would help.
Putting these points together, the proponent of the Reid-esque proposal seems to lack a good account of what makes subjects disposed to form efficacy beliefs in the paradigm cases.
So far, in objecting to the Reid-esque proposal, I have focused on the relation between experiences and dispositions to form efficacy beliefs. A different objection focuses on the relation between the two components of the familiar feeling, as the Reid-esque proposal understands it: minimal phenomenology and a nonexperiential representation of efficacy.
What the Reid-esque proponent needs is a relation between the components that both preserves the independence of the two components, on the one hand, while accounting for their felt connection, on the other. If there are two components to cases of having the familiar feeling, they are surely not experienced as separate. So any putative relation between them would both have to be compatible with this felt connection. And since we are examining hypotheses about what constitutes the familiar feeling in question, the pair of ingredients so related would have to suffice for the felt connection.
Suppose the two ingredients posited by the Reid-esque view constitute the familiar feeling only if one of the components causes the other component without too many intermediaries. Such a causal relation, however, would not suffice for it to feel as if there is just one thing, the experience. Mental states cause other mental states all the time, without our experiencing them as connected to one another. Even when the two states are both conscious states, the fact that one causes the other need not result in felt connection between them. A pang of sadness might cause you to remember to buy light bulbs, without your feeling that they are parts of the same experience.
One way to relate the two putative components would be to posit a higher-order mental state representing that they are connected, such as a higher-order belief with a complex content such as ‘This feeling goes together with my being struck that p’, for the relevant p. But if this proposal were correct then we would have to have such higher-order beliefs in order to have the feeling of efficacy. And it seems false that this is needed. So another difficulty for the Reid-esque proposal is to say how the components of experience can be related, given that they are not experienced as separate.21 Both obvious proposals here seem to be inadequate.
A proposal from action theory
In the Eiffel Tower case and the case of spoken miscommunication, the putative phenomenology of efficacy attaches to an unintended effect of an intentional action. In the Eiffel Tower case, you intend to turn on the lights in your own apartment. In the case of spoken miscommunication, you intend to tell your friend that you are not coming to her party. In the case of the toddler, she intends to flick the light switch (or at least to see if it moves), or pull on the zipper, even if she does not initially know what effects these will have. (In the case of the infants, it is trickier to assess whether the kicking is intentional. I will return to this). So, although in both cases the effect that you feel yourself to have brought about was not one you intended to bring about, there is an intentional action that you are undertaking when you have the feeling of efficacy.
The fact that the putative paradigm cases of phenomenology of efficacy accompany intentional actions raises the following possibility: even when phenomenology of efficacy attaches to unintended effects, the phenomenology itself is none other than the same kind found in cases where effects are intended. The proposal has two parts. According to the first part, there is a special sense or experience of carrying out an intentional action, where an intention counts as being ‘carried out’ even if it does not go exactly as planned. Call this an ‘experience of intentional action’. We can leave open for now just which aspects of carrying out an intentional action one can experience. There are various candidates. According to Carl Ginet, volition has its own distinctive phenomenal character;22 according to Christopher Peacocke, making an effort to carry out an action has a distinctive phenomenal character;23 according to John Searle, carrying out an action, even effortlessly, has a distinctive phenomenal character;24 according to Daniel Wegner and other researchers, subjects of experiments can report when they decided to act, which at least suggests that there may be a phenomenal character to deciding.25 And another candidate is phenomenology of efficacy itself, where it attaches to an intended effect. Any or all of these are candidates for belonging to what I’ve here called ‘the experience of intentional action’.26 It will not matter for the proceeding discussion just which of these aspects are included in the experience of carrying out an intentional action.
The second part of the proposal is that the experience of carrying out an intention is all there is to phenomenology of efficacy. Summing up, the proposal from action theory says this:
Proposal from action theory: (i) there is such a thing as the experience of intentional action; (ii) the phenomenology of efficacy is none other than instances of (i) that accompany the intentional actions that are associated with the actions in each of the putative paradigm cases.
Now, as stated, the proposal from action theory is compatible with the Main thesis. For all it says, in the putative paradigm cases, the experience of intentional action may sometimes include visual and kinesthetic representation that one has brought about an effect.
But the proposal from action theory can also be developed in two ways that provide alternatives to the Main thesis. First, it may be that the experience of intentional action does not represent that one has brought about an effect. Perhaps it does not represent anything at all, or perhaps it represents something other than one’s own efficacy with respect to an effect. Second, it may be that the experience of intentional action is never kinesthetic. (There are some reasons to think there is such a thing as nonkinesthetic experiences of intentional action.)27 The proposal from action theory, then, is a potentially powerful challenge to the Main thesis.
The phenomenology of efficacy in the putative paradigm cases, however, cannot be assimilated to the experience of intentional action. It is evident that these are not the same, if we reconsider the phenomenal contrast between the two Eiffel Tower cases. This is the phenomenal contrast between the two Eiffel Tower cases that motivated the Main thesis in the first place. In the first case—one of the putative paradigm cases—you have a feeling of efficacy. In the other case, you don’t. In both cases, you intend to turn on the lights in your apartment. If there could be an experience of intentionally turning on the lights in one’s own apartment in one case, then it should be possible for there to be such an experience in the other. But there is a feeling of efficacy with respect to the lights in the Eiffel Tower in only one of the cases. So the latter feeling cannot be assimilated to the former. The experience of intentional action cannot be all there is to the familiar feeling illustrated by the three cases.
It does not matter, then, whether the experience of intentional action is a nonkinesthetic experiential representation of efficacy, or whether it is an experience that fails to represent efficacy in any way at all. Either way, it is not always the same thing as the experience of efficacy. So the proposal from action theory poses no threat to the Main thesis.
Where does that leave us? I have considered four possible re-descriptions of the putative paradigm cases of representational phenomenology of efficacy. Developed in one way, the proposal from action theory would provide an attempt to account for the familiar feeling that is illustrated by the putative paradigm cases, by invoking an experiential but nonkinesthetic representation of efficacy. Developed differently, the same proposal would provide an attempt to account for the familiar feeling, by invoking an experience that does not represent efficacy at all. The Reid-esque proposal provides a different alternative account of the familiar feeling, by granting that there is a representation of efficacy, but denying that is any sort of experience at all. And the minimal re-description holds that the efficacy is simply not part of the phenomenology in the putative paradigm cases. To be sure, there could be multiple versions of each of these re-descriptions, and I have not considered all of them. But these seem to be both natural and prima facie compelling versions, and I’ve argued that none of them is adequate.
Although I have argued that the phenomenology of efficacy cannot be assimilated to the experience of intentional action, something like the proposal from action theory seems to be correct. In the next section, I discuss the relation between the experience of efficacy and the experience of intentional action.
3. What is the relation between experiences of efficacy and the experience of intentional action?
Let’s set aside the case of the kicking newborns, since it may be difficult to assess whether its actions are intentional. In the other putative paradigm cases of phenomenology of efficacy, there is clearly an associated intentional action. In the Eiffel Tower case, you intend to turn on the lights in your apartment; in the case of spoken miscommunication, you intend to tell your addressee that you’re not coming to her party; in the case of the toddler, she intends to move the light switch.
Suppose for the sake of argument that there is such a thing as an experience of acting intentionally. This by itself is not a very strong claim. It leaves open whether there is any constitutive link between intentional action itself and such an experience, and it leaves open what if any role is played by such experiences in one’s knowing that one is acting intentionally when one is. Let us suppose as well that some experience of acting intentionally is present in the putative paradigm cases just mentioned. I have argued that representational phenomenology of efficacy cannot be assimilated to such experiences. But there may nonetheless be something correct about the proposal from action theory.
Consider effects that you bring about, but not intentionally, and not as an unintended consequence of doing something else that you did intend to do. These will be effects brought about by a process that your movements are a part of, but that is beyond your control—as in the earlier examples in which a muscle spasm in your leg makes it kick into a chair, or you are pushed out of a window and land on a big beanbag, and the impact rearranges its heft, or you have an abnormally fast growth spurt and knock over a vase on your way up. There seems to be a contrast between phenomenology of efficacy (which as we’ve seen can be had with respect to both intended and unintended effects), and phenomenology of mere causation. Given this contrast, it may be reasonable to think that the cases of representational phenomenology of efficacy are always accompanied by an experience of acting intentionally. It is as if the phenomenology of efficacy is always a side-effect of an experience of acting intentionally.
If the phenomenology of efficacy is distinct from mere phenomenology of first-person causation, then we’re left with a residual question about how this difference is reflected in the contents of experiences of efficacy. In particular, since both contents will include a first-personal component, how do the two kinds of first-personal components differ? This brings me to a speculation with which I will conclude. Perhaps in the paradigm cases of the feeling of efficacy, one feels oneself to be exercising a power, such that one could exercise it again at will, given the right circumstances. It may be a power that one did not know one was exercising (as in the case of spoken miscommunication), or it may be a power that one did not know one had (as in the case of turning on the lights in the Eiffel Tower), but it will be a power nonetheless. In contrast, even though the subject in our examples of mere first-person causation has a power to rearrange the beans in the beanbag or knock over a vase, it seems wrong to say that in the examples they are exercising those powers, or that they feel as if they are. So perhaps the distinction between two kinds of phenomenology of first-person causation is reflected in a difference in content, where in the cases of efficacy, one feels oneself to be exercising a power, whereas in the other cases, one merely feels oneself to be a cause.
The first incarnation of this paper was presented at a workshop on the Phenomenology of Agency organized by Terry Horgan in the fall of 2003. Thanks to Terry for the workshop, and for very helpful subsequent discussions. Later versions of the paper were presented at Tufts, the Yale Perception and Cognition Lab, ANU, UMass–Amherst, Toronto, MIT, and Berkeley. Thanks to audiences at all of these places for their responses. For further discussion and criticism, I am grateful to Tim Bayne, Alex Byrne, David Chalmers, Imogen Dickie, Benj Hellie, Richard Holton, Paul Katsafanas, Sean Kelly, Doug Lavin, Bernard Nickel, Adam Pautz, Christopher Peacocke, Amelie Rorty, Brian Scholl, Alison Simmons, Robert Stalnaker, Daniel Stoljar, Amie Thomasson, Stephen White, Jessica Wilson, and Kritika Yegnashankaran. Above all I am grateful to Terry Horgan for getting me interested in the topic in the first place, and to Daniel Warren for helping me think through the speculative conclusion.
1. The example is from Daniel Dennett’s review of Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will in the Journal of Mathematical Psychology 47 (2003): 101–4.
2. I give some considerations favoring this view in “The Contents of Perception,” section 3, and it is discussed briefly below (in section 1).
3. Further discussion of this point can be found in section 2.1 of “The Contents of Perception,” by Susanna Siegel, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005), ed. Edward N. Zalta, URL =<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2005/entries/perception-contents/>.
4. A different approach would start with the structure of action itself, and ask what if any kinds of phenomenal character either typically accompany (or partly constitute) the various (alleged) components of action. This approach is taken by Elisabeth Pacherie, “Sense of Agency and Sense of Control,” Psyche 13:1 (February 2007).
5. The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 80.
6. Some cases combine the two sorts of experiences described here—for example, you pour some tea but a tremor in your hand makes you spill some. We can safely set these mixed cases aside.
7. Whether there is some systematic link between kinesthetic phenomenology and bodily actions is a matter of debate. See B. Brewer, “The Integration of Spatial Vision and Action,” in Spatial Representation, ed. N. Eilan, R. McCarthy, and B. Brewer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), who argues that there is no such systematic connection, and B. O’Shaughnessy, chapter 23 of Consciousness and the World (New York: Oxford University Press) who argues that there is.
8. An exception may be Dennett (“Who’s On First? Heterophenomenology Explained,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Special Issue: Trusting the Subject? (Part 1),10:9–10 (October 2003), who in eliminativist (as opposed to reductionist) moods seems to deny that there is such a thing as visual phenomenology, in favor of the idea that there are only beliefs about it.
9. It is a substantive question exactly what the relation is between phenomenology of efficacy and bodily actions of the sort under discussion. In Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), John Searle defends the view that such phenomenology is constitutively linked to actions, so that no event is an action if it lacks the phenomenology. A weaker claim would be that such phenomenology typically accompanies bodily actions, but allows that there can be actions without the phenomenology.
10. It will not count against the Main thesis if there are some experiential representations of efficacy that were not visual and kinesthetic. (The first paragraph mentions cases that may be examples of just such experiential representations.) The Main thesis does not say that the only experiences of efficacy are visual and kinesthetic; it just says that one’s own efficacy is represented jointly by some visual and kinesthetic experiences.
11. Reid himself held a stronger position—that all experiences (not just the kind illustrated by the Eiffel Tower example) consist of two components: a judgment devoid of any phenomenal aspect, and a sensation that did not represent anything as being the case.
12. Colin McGinn, “Another Look at Color,” Journal of Philosophy 93:11 (November 1996): 540.
13. The first theory is defended by R. Casati and A. C. Varzi, Holes and Other Superficialities, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Bradford Books, 1994); the second, by D. D. Hoffman and W. A. Richards, “Parts of Recognition,” Cognition 18 (1985): 65–96; see also D. K. Lewis and S. R. Lewis, “Holes,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 48 (1970): 206–12; reprinted in D. K. Lewis, Philosophical Papers. Volume 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 3–9.
14. A. Michotte, The Perception of Causality (New York: Basic Books, 1963).
15. One might grant that it looks as if the knife is cutting through the bread, but hold that this experience is theory-laden. This, however, would be a concession. Theory-laden experience is experience.
16. Husserl discusses the notion of retention in connection with hearing melodies in lectures given between 1893 and 1917, collected in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, trans. J. B. Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1980). The contrast between the melody and the series of motley sounds is mine.
17. This remark about the experience of hearing a melody is not meant to suggest that experiences of retention have no accuracy conditions, but rather that it is hard to pinpoint what they are, since mere temporal succession is not enough.
18. C. Rovee-Collier, “‘The Joy of Kicking’: Memories, Motives, and Mobiles,” in Memory: Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. by Solomon et al. (New York: Springer, 1989), 151–80.
19. T. I. Nielson, “Volition: A New Experimental Approach,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 4 (1963): 224–30.
20. A bit of reconstruction is needed to map our category of visual experience onto Reid’s discussion, since visual experience is not a salient category for Reid. According to Reid, the two components figure in the etiology of perceptions, which we typically form when an object causes a sensation, the sensation “suggests” a conception (or what I’ve called a ‘judgment’), and the conception is accompanied by a feeling of conviction.
21. It is perhaps worth noting that relation between sensation and conception in Reid’s own view is similarly obscure. He alternately called it ‘natural suggestion’, ‘natural signification’, and ‘natural magic’.
22. Carl Ginet, On Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
23. Christopher Peacocke, “Action: Awareness, Ownership and Knowledge,” in The Sense of Agency, ed. N. Eilan and J. Roessler (Oxford University Press, 2003).
24. J. Searle, Intentionality (Cambridge University Press, 1983), ch. 3.
25. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will. See also P. Haggard, “Conscious Awareness of Intention and Action,” in The Sense of Agency, ed. Eilan and Roessler.
26. For further discussion of potential aspects of phenomenology of agency, see Pacherie, “Sense of Agency and Sense of Control.”
27. Why think there may be such a thing as an experience of intentional action that is not kinesthetic? Blindfolded hemiplegic patients who are unaware of their paralysis, when asked to raise their paralyzed arm to shoulder height, will tell you that’s where it is. The channels for kinesthetic information work fine, making it somewhat less plausible that they have falsidical kinesthetic phenomenology. (However, the evidence doesn’t rule out this possibility, so it is somewhat weak). In addition, a patient (named IW) lacking proprioceptive phenomenology from waist down except for deep pain and surface temperature, when asked to move limbs, knows that he has moved, though doesn’t know (without looking) what position they’ve moved to. (Both cases are cited and discussed by A. Marcel, “The Sense of Agency,” in Self-Awareness and Agency, ed. Eilan and Roessler.) This evidence is weak, because it leaves unsettled whether kinesthetic phenomenology would be needed for IW to know how his limbs have moved—not just that they have moved.
Another putative example of feeling oneself to be acting in the absence of kinesthetic phenomenology is given by Christopher Peacocke (though it seems to be a thought-experiment, rather than either an anecdote or the result of an experiment). You are the dentist with numb face and jaw. The dentist asks you to open your mouth. You know when you’ve done it, even though you can’t feel your body move. “Mental Action and Self-Awareness I,” forthcoming in Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Mind (Blackwell, expected 2006), ed. J. Cohen and B. McLaughlin. Going with this, it seems as if you could have the feeling of having opened your mouth, even if you didn’t actually do so.