PHILOSOPHY of Action
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Myrto Mylopoulos (Carleton)
Thank you all for visiting the website again! I’ve been on the road in Taiwan and Japan during the last weeks, giving talks in Kyoto, Tottori, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, and attending two excellent conferences, one in Tapiei and one in Okazaki. But back to work now, and I'll resume uploading content from now.
We kick off this year’s mini-interview series with the answers of Dr Myrto Mylopoulos. Dr Mylopoulos holds a 50-50 appointment as assistant professor at Carleton University’s Philosophy Department and the Cognitive Science Department. Her work addresses intentions, the phenomenology of agency, and the many connections of cognitive science, neuroscience, phil of mind and action theory. Dr Mylopoulos’ recent publications include ‘Intentions: The Dynamic Hierarchical Model Revisited’ with Elisabeth Pacherie, and ‘A Cognitive Account of Agentive Awareness.’ Enjoy!
1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?
I first started thinking about philosophy of action during my undergraduate days. I was really fascinated by (and slightly concerned about) the so-called problem of free will, and that quickly led to a deep interest in what is arguably a central motivation for thinking that we might have free will of a libertarian variety in the first place: the rich and varied experiences that we have when we act, including experiences of control and authorship. The phenomenology of agency was my obsession for a long time, and from there I’ve since broadened my interests to the nature of skill, self-control, and action control and consciousness more generally.
2. What are you working on at the moment?
My main project currently is looking at the links between consciousness, intentional control, and automaticity. It’s funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and I’m fortunate enough to collaborate on it with Dr. Robert Foley, who is a post-doc on the project and has done some great work on vision-for-action.
We’re interested in the notion of flexibility as it often gets appealed to in order to distinguish between intentional control and more automatic forms of control. Given recent work by Ellen Fridland and others, which has argued convincingly to our minds that automatic behaviour is not just rigid, ballistic, and invariant, but exhibits an interesting form of flexibility as well, the question then becomes precisely what kinds (or degrees) of flexibility are implicated in intentional (vs. automatic) control, and—our other main interest in the project—what does consciousness contribute, if anything, to different forms of flexibility.
3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?
Broadly speaking, I’m a causal theorist about action. I take it that nothing is an action if it isn’t caused in the right way by an agent, where I’m happy understanding an agent as (something like) an integrated and coordinated set of psychological systems, states, and processes. But I take talk of causality in this context to be too loose. What we need instead is an account of what it is for an agent to not just cause their behaviour, but control it. Not all causal relationships are control relationships. On my view, it’s the latter that should be our focus when looking at action and agency: some bodily or mental event is an action if and only if it’s controlled in the right way by an agent. Here I’m influenced by Harry Frankfurt in his classic paper “The Problem of Action” as well as by many contemporary action theorists who have made important contributions to our understanding of the nature of control, especially Ellen Fridland, Al Mele, Elisabeth Pacherie, Joshua Shepherd, and Wayne Wu, among others.
4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?
The three I would pick are interrelated. First, there’s been more of a focus on understanding the states and processes that contribute to action control downstream of an agent’s proximal intention, and not just leading up to it. This moves the attention away from practical reasoning of the classic variety—involving beliefs, desires, and intentions governed by rational norms—and towards a better appreciation of other types of states, mechanisms, and constraints that are crucial for action control.
Second, and relatedly, action theorists are currently looking more closely at the role of psychological features and processes like consciousness and attention in facilitating or enabling action control. These roles have received only minor treatment in the past, but I think it’s important that they be properly examined in a comprehensive account of action.
Third, perhaps in part since empirical work in cognitive science has traditionally had a lot more to say about what happens downstream of intention in the motor system, in light of what I take to be this recent shift in focus, I think there’s also been a growing interest in interdisciplinary work that attempts to integrate and synthesize results from (e.g.) neuroscience and cognitive psychology in our best philosophical theories of action. And I think that this broader approach can help to improve and strengthen our existing theoretical frameworks.
5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?
I think a continuation in the direction of the three developments I outlined would be a very good thing for action theory as a whole.
Many thanks to Dr Mylopoulos for her answers!
2019 February 03
I hope to welcome all our readers back again next week