Markus Schlosser (University College Dublin)

We are publishing this week Markus Schlosser’s answers to our questions. He is Lecturer in Philosophy at University College Dublin and has published extensively on agency, free will, reasons and causes, and the connections between philosophy, neuroscience and cognitive science. He recently published ‘Embodied Cognition and Temporally Extended Agency’ and ‘Traditional Compatibilism Reformulated and Defended’, and his next piece, titled ‘Dual-system theory and the role of consciousness in intentional action’, is coming out soon in B. Feltz, M. Missal, & A. Sims (eds.) Free Will, Language, and Neuroscience with Brill. Last but not least, he also wrote the 'Agency' entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


In my recent research, I looked at the dual-process theories that are currently widely deployed in psychology and cognitive science. They most commonly distinguish between cognitive processes that are fast, automatic, and unconscious, and processes that are slow, deliberate, and conscious. My main research question was whether the standard causal theory of action, as we know it in philosophy, can be captured within this dual-process architecture. I argue that the causal theory can be accommodated in this framework, if we add certain conditions about the causal histories of habitual actions.


In other work, I defended representationalism about the mind against challenges from embodied and enactive cognition. The debates on this have focused on the execution of skills that are governed by the circumstances, and they have neglected temporally extended planning agency, such as teaching a course, doing a Master’s degree, or going on vacation. My main argument is that the explanation of planning agency requires the ascription of representational mental states.


Most recently, I have become interested in Eastern philosophy, initially Buddhism and then Advaita Vedanta (the main school of Hinduism). I am especially intrigued by their claim that the individual sense of self is illusory and how this bears on their conceptions of agency. Another interesting aspect is that Eastern philosophy sees questions about the self and agency directly linked with questions about human suffering. The identification with desires is seen as a major cause of suffering, mediated by the formation of attachments and cravings. In future research I hope to explore those issues from the perspective of Western philosophy.


2. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


In most of my work, I have defended the standard causal theory of action. It says, in rough outline, that action is to be explained in terms of the intentionality of intentional action, and that intentional action is to be explained in terms of non-deviant causation by the agent’s desires, beliefs, and intentions. There are many well-known problems with this position, but I have yet to see a better alternative. In my research, I have proposed solutions to the problem of deviant causal chains, I have argued that the problem of the disappearing agent is a pseudo-problem, I have defended the view against the rival agent-causal theory, and I have discussed various empirical challenges from the neuroscience of free will, the research on automaticity, and situationism.


3. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


All depends here on what we mean by ‘recent’. Since Anscombe and Davidson’s important contributions, I would identify the following three milestones. First, Frankfurt’s early work on the hierarchical model of agency. Second, Bratman’s focus on planning agency and his argument for the irreducibility of intentions. Third, evidence and theories from empirical psychology and cognitive science (on automaticity, conscious control, the role of attention, the influence of situational factors, the sense of agency, etc.).


4. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


In the philosophy of action, I would like to see more engagement with empirical research, even though this has become somewhat problematic with the replication crisis in social psychology. A lot of the research that is most interesting for the philosophy of action comes from this area (such as the research on automaticity and implicit bias). The empirical research on self-control has also been in a crisis. For a couple of decades it seemed that the limited resource model of willpower has very solid empirical support. But this has changed rather dramatically in the past few years, and now one has to wait and see where the research will take this area. It can be frustrating for philosophers when their arguments and theories are hostage to empirical science in this way. Nevertheless, I think that the philosophy of action can benefit greatly from empirically informed theorizing. Concerning my own research direction, I hope to bring ideas from Eastern philosophy into the philosophy of action, and I would like to see more of that in the field and within Western philosophy in general. I believe that Eastern thought has a lot to offer and that it can open exciting new pathways in Western debates.


2018 March 24

Many thanks to Dr Schlosser!