Timothy Schroeder (Rice University)

I have the pleasure to share with you this weekend Timothy Schroeder’s answers to our questions. He is Professor of Philosophy at Rice University. Prof Schroeder works mainly on ethics and moral psychology, with a focus on desires, addiction, responsibility and deliberation, as well as philosophy of mind. Most recently he co-authored In Praise of Desire with Nomy Arpaly. Enjoy!


1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?


I finished my graduate studies thinking of myself as a scientifically-oriented philosopher of mind, and wrote a book about desire from that perspective. And only after I wrote the book did I start to wonder who would really be interested in it! It seemed to me that the philosophers who cared the most about the nature of desire were all working in moral psychology, motivation-oriented metaethics, the theory of free will, and action theory. And so bit by bit moral psychology and action theory drew me in, and these days that's most of what I think about.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


A book on the low-level neuroscience of action, and its interpretation by philosophers, is the main project right now. At the level of, say, functional neuroanatomy we know a lot about how the "shin bone is connected to the knee bone" in the brain's action production systems. And this knowledge, at this level, is very secure. It's not as though there could be a huge group of cells in pre-frontal cortex reaching down to exert control over the spinal cord that we just never noticed before! And it's also strikingly detailed. So how should we interpret it? To my eye, this "causal map" of action production has three main kinds of input: representations of available basic actions, representations of how things stand in the world (beliefs and perceptions), and influence in the form of dopamine, a key chemical in the brain (with maybe serotonin in a mostly complementary role; that's less clear to me). These influences come together to generate a choice of basic action (with influence from habit and other factors). But now, how should the contribution of dopamine be interpreted? Some action theorists have started trying to figure this out, proposing theories in terms of value judgments, or in terms of expectations, or in terms of Appetite as opposed to Reason. My own view is that the contribution of dopamine to action is the contribution of intrinsic desires. But what I believe, more firmly than my own hypothesis, is that this is an important project for action theorists to be engaged in. Insofar as an action theorist has causal commitments in her theories - and how could she not? - the action theorist has to be at least consistent with the causal facts. So making these facts accessible to all of us, and arguing for their importance to philosophy, is a big part of the project of the book.


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


The most basic actions are choices (also known as tryings or immediate intentions), and then the less basic actions are the consequences of those choices. As for what makes something a choice, it is being a command (an "imperative representation" as Millikan puts it), execution of which is a psychologically basic competence of the individual, that is performed for a (better or worse) reason, or at least in the light of such reasons. And what makes an imperative representation of that sort into one that is made for a reason, and so into a choice? To be made for a reason is for it to be the causal product of practically rationalizing attitudes that cause the command to be issued in virtue of their standing in a (perhaps partially) rationalizing relation to that command. Or, if one chooses in the light of one's reasons, then the cause (or the main cause, or causal explanation) of one's imperative representation is something not rationalizing, such as a habit, but it is still true that a full causal explanation of the choice would include the way in which it happened in virtue of not being contrary to some of one's practical attitudes (and so in light of them).


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


A while back, there was a strong turn toward morally loaded philosophy of action, especially in service of debates about moral motivation. And around then, or maybe a little after, there was a separate strong turn toward theorizing joint agency and related phenomena. I wouldn't claim to be a sociologist of the field, but to me it looked a bit like people were tired of theorizing action itself, arguing about causal theories of action vs. non-causal theories, investigating the idea of basic actions, or individual intentions...stuff like that. And so people branched out. More recently, we have begun to see knowledge of relevant neuroscience begin to creep into the theory of action, and that might turn out to be a stable trend into the future.


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


Not surprisingly, I'm excited to see the field think more about the constraints on philosophy that come from neuroscience. Even philosophers who like a Wittgensteinian or Brandomesque theory of mind as the background for thinking about action agree that it's no coincidence that neural events cause arm motions at the same time as justifications for voting lead to voting by raising a hand: we all have causal commitments insofar as we have theories that purport to explain events. My hunch is that a close look at the neuroscience will reveal important new constraints on philosophical theorizing. The neuroscience itself cannot entail that theory A is right, but it can entail that theory A cannot be true if it is also true that desires necessarily have property B and lack property C. And that would itself be great for philosophical theorizing: to see which sets of our causal commitments are jointly inconsistent, and to then start thinking about what to give up in response.


Many thanks to Prof Schroeder for his answers!

2018 November 3


Hope to see you all again next weekend with a new mini-interview