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by Alicia Juarrero
MIT Press, 1999
Review by John Collier, Ph.D. on Oct 24th 2002

Dynamics in Action

What is the difference between a wink and a blink? Most of us think we know, but in over two millenia of investigation, neither scientists nor philosophers have been able to agree on what makes the difference. Juarrero argues that the difficulties arise from an erroneous assumption by Aristotle that what originates motion must be different from what is moved. This error was compounded by the impoverished mechanical account of causation of modern science, according to which all causation is a series of bumps and nudges. The consequences of these problems are well-known. Aristotle, having ruled out the possibility of a self-moving universe, invoked the incomprehensible notion of a Prime Mover, outside the rest of the world, moving the world, but itself unmoved. Similarly, the body was thought to be moved by a separate soul, which with Descartes became an entirely separate substance from the body, with all of the problem of mind-body interaction the separation entails. Materialist accounts of mind avoid dualism, but are restricted to chains of efficient causation with no end, undermining any attempt to place the origin of action in the person. Bumps and nudges may occur in the agent, but these are either accidental, and hence not intentional, or else they can be traced back to external bumps and nudges, moving the origin outside of the agent. It seems that we are caught between mysterious dualism that separates volitions from their consequences, and mechanistic reduction that eliminates an originating role for volitions.

The difference between a wink and a blink, between an intentional and unintentional action, is the difference between an action originated by the agent, and one that is not. If the mover must be separate from the moved, then intentional acts must originate in something separate from what is moved. Action theory, for many years now, has been directed toward explaining how this might be possible in a way that allows us to assign responsibility to agents for acts like winks, but not for actions like blinks. Atomistic reductionism and some psychologies, like behaviorism and many versions of functionalism, escape the problems by denying any real basis for usual notions of freedom and responsibility, placing all psychological variation in the mechanical capacities of the body together with externally determined conditioning histories. Juarrero follows many action theorists in rejecting such reductionist accounts because they ignore either the temporal directedness of action, the logical connection between intentions and behavior, or both.

Although action theorists recognize the problem, they have worked within the Aristotelian framework, and never escape the dilemma of dualism versus mechanism. Juarrero takes four chapters to review various attempts to resolve the dilemma, and carefully shows not only that the attempts are unsuccessful, but but also where they fail. The gist is that either volitions play no essential role in outcomes, or else outcomes are merely the causal consequences of volitions. The second choice allows all manner of unintended outcomes to be volitional. These chapters are tedious, and rife with the arcana of analytic philosophy, but it is a job that needs to be done, and Juarrero can hardly be faulted for adopting the methodology of logical analysis, example and counterexample in order to show the flaws. Nonetheless, this part of the book is obscure, full of red herrings, and potentially confusing even to the trained philosopher. Things open up, however, when Juarrero starts in on an alternative approach, based in dynamical systems theory and its expanded view of causation and explanation.

The last chapter before the second part introduces information theory and shows how it can be used to critique the analysis of action. This chapter presents information theory clearly and concisely, with regard to both its strengths and limitations. The reader who understands the point of this chapter is well on their way to understanding the rest of the book. The central idea is that information links intentions with activity through it role as a causally efficacious source that does not disengage after initiation, but continues to guide and direct while flowing into behavior. This alone is not enough to explain action, but it permits a linkage between intentions and actions that has both causal and logical properties. Contrary to the behaviorists, information has an inner source breaking the potential infinite regress of causes (the origination issue requires further material on self-organization that comes later in the book), but contrary to the Aristotelian volitionists, the information in the cause must also be present in the outcome, ruling out unintended consequences that follow from an intention being acts. This solution to the dilemma is extremely clever, and Juarrero demonstrates nicely how it can solve various problem cases in the literature on action.

Even so, one might ask why the informational chain originates in the agent rather than in, say, the agent's environment. Connected to this is the issue of how decisions are made to select one action over another. To answer these questions, Juarrero introduces the apparatus of dynamical systems theory, including attractors, bifurcations, non-equilibrium mechanics and the like. This may seem like a lot of apparatus to answer a simple and old question, and many sceptical readers will either dismiss it or fail to see the point. Nonetheless, I agree that something like this approach is required in order to explain how an agent can initiate action. Humans are at least complex dynamical systems, and any attempt to understand actions as causes must take this into consideration. Juarrero's specific explanation is in terms of the emergence of self-organized information carrying dynamical structures in the brain.  Decisions are the dynamical collapse of intentional states, whether deliberative or spontaneous, guided and constrained by other intentional states. Her details might be questioned, and I found some to be unlikely on the surface, or a bit vague, but the basic idea is promising: self-organizing neurophysiological processes create meaningful information where it did not exist before, and decisions further create information by reducing the set of alternatives, not by a sort of filtering of pre-existing possibilities, but be active dynamical processes governed by the dynamics of information in intentional states and the processes connecting them. In this sense, the agent is the origin of the information that guides action. Now, this point will not be appreciated by the sceptic who believes that all meaning must be innate, or who believes that that all causation must be reducible to bumps and nudges. Juarrero addresses these issues, but I feel that it will be some time before the necessity of a dynamical approach is fully appreciated, and there is much to fill in.

The final part of the book explains why narrative explanations are suitable for an information based dynamical account of action, and ends with some reflections on the implications for freedom, agency and individuality. The reasoning in these chapters will be especially useful to those interested in applications to law and psychological representations of action and responsibility for actions.

It is worth noting that recent work on human-human and human-machine interaction has turned up attractors that emerge in very simple games. These high level but simple dynamical systems phenomena suggest that a dynamical approach to action can set a useful research program, and that at least some of Juarrero's philosophical claims can be found to have empirical counterparts. They also suggest further work directed at the social emergence of dynamical states in interactions among intentional agents. At least some traditional philosophers will be appalled at these developments and the encroachment into realms traditionally dealt with through a priori linguistic analysis and phenomenological studies, but it would not be the first time that traditional philosophical problems that have appeared to concern meaning alone have led into hard science.

This book is the most original approach to the problem of explaining action that I have seen. I think it might have been clearer and more accessible to the non-specialist, and I agree with some critics that much of the apparatus could have been left out in developing an account of action alone. I hope that Juarrero will write a further book that is less technical and more accessible to a wider audience, and perhaps is more explicit on the definitions of action and decision making. Nonetheless, this book should be read by anyone interested in action theory, or anyone interested in dynamical theories of the mind. It is much deeper and more astute than any other recent book on emerging dynamical theories of mind that I have seen, including others I have reviewed here. The reader interested in the main results rather than the argumentation will find the summaries at the end of the chapters very helpful. The book is now out in paperback, making it more accessible.


© 2002 John Collier


John Collier is a Visiting Scientist at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, and is soon to become Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Natal in Durban. His current work is in foundations of information theory, autonomy, evolutionary theory, and various areas in metaphysics and the philosophy of physics. He is currently working on a book on reduction in complex systems with C.A. Hooker and another with Michael Stingl on Evolutionary Moral Realism.