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Flow, Unreflective Immersive Action, and the Fringe of Consciousness

Skilled performances done in the state of flow are, at a first pass, behaviours that unfold without any discursive, self-reflective thought and during which the performer is immersed in the action. Railton (2009), Annas (2011), and Dow (2017) argue that (i) such behaviours are Anscombean—if someone acting in flow were stopped, they would be able to say what they were doing—and that (ii) in virtue of being Anscombean, these behaviours are agential—i.e. they count as actions. Brownstein (2014) disputes both points. He suggests that the reports of skilled performers are typically too vague to count as legitimate answers to Anscombeean questions. And since Brownstein agrees that skilled performers are acting (and not merely behaving), he concludes that the ability to answer Anscombean questions is not a mark of agency (2014, pp. 564-565).

In this paper, I argue that this dispute can be explained if we adopt an expansive, novel form of decisionism: the view that conscious choice is central to agency. Conscious choice is usually thought to require reflective, discursive deliberation, and so necessitate a lack of immersion, since in considering non-actual possibilities the subject is distanced from the here-and-now. But conscious choice can be construed differently. William James (1890) discussed the fringe of consciouness: that of which the subject is only peripherally aware. Crucially, the fringe plays a key role in the progression of conscious thought. Drawing on the work of Aron Gurwitsch (1985), I develop the idea that the fringe makes possible a type of unreflective or immersed conscious choice which allows a subject to exert a measure of conscious control over their behaviour even when they are fully immersed in what they are doing. It does this by presenting the subject with (a) demonstrative-based, non-conceptual knowledge of what they are doing and (b) affordances of what could be done next. Interestingly, the account developed here promises to explain the control present, not just in unreflective skilled performances, but also in cases of unreflective unskilled action, such as a person’s “absentmindedly scrolling through nothing” on a social media sites (Lupinacci 2021: 283).

Under Review

Mindfulness and Agential Control (2022-06)

Mindfulness meditation seems to generate the following puzzle: on one hand, mindfulness reveals to the meditator that a large number of their thoughts are outside of their control and leads to a diminished sense of self; on the other hand, regular mindfulness practice is supposed to lead to greater self-awareness and self-control. In this paper I develop an account of agential control based on the theory of agent-causation that does justice to both of these claims. I first suggest that the work of phenomenologist Hans Reiner helps us to see why the feeling of agency extends further than that which is directly controlled; this provides a way of addressing the puzzle above, while also explaining why so many beginner meditators find it surprising how much conscious thought lies outside of their control. I then extend the standard theory of agent-causation (as presented by, e.g., O’Connor (2000)) by appealing to William James’s notion of the fringe of consciousness, a notion that has been taken up and developed in detail by thinkers in the phenomenological tradition, in particular, by Aron Gurwitsch. Inspired by Bruce Mangan’s work on applying the notion of the fringe to the project of ‘explanatory phenomenology’, I argue that Gurwitsch’s model of conscious awareness helps us to understand the role that the fringe plays in making choices. This, in turn, allows us to develop an account of agential control which explains some aspects of the control that is possessed, or lacked, during different stages of mindfulness practice.


Agent Causation and Objective Probabilities (2022-01)

In this article I argue that the objective probabilities of free choice which some agent-causal incompatibilists appeal to as a way of explaining how it is that free choices can be subject to the influence of factors of which the agent is not aware are, in fact, incompatible with the agent-causal relationship. In section 2 I motivate the issue by noting that there is reason to think free choices can be so influenced, such that it would be desirable to have an account which could explain this influence. In section 3 I argue that the agent causal relationship invoked by Timothy O’Connor’s account of free choice involves a form of determination (between the agent and the intention formed) that is incompatible with objective probabilities of free choice. I show that other versions of agent-causation and two-way powers-based accounts of (free) agency also posit such a determination relation, with the result that those accounts too are incompatible with objective probabilities of free choice (or free action). In section 4 I sketch a type of agent-causation account which allows for exercises of the agent-causal power to be indirectly influenced, such that the apparent influence of free choices can be understood without appeal to objective probabilities.

Choosing Freedom: An Original Position Argument Against Two Forms of Compatibilist Control (2020-10)

I develop two Rawlsian original position-style scenarios with which to assess three accounts of agential, freedom-level control. I suggest that by assuming these accounts have been shown internally coherent and had all major objections answered, the Rawlsian original position provides a novel way of assessing the value of the quality of the agency these accounts bestow. By exploring some possible trains of thought which reflect on these scenarios, I suggest that it is not implausible that many readers, including some committed compatibilists, might find themselves judging the incompatibilist, agent-causal control to be more desirable – more worth wanting – than either a compatibilist reasons-responsive account of control or a compatibilist hierarchical mesh account of control. Such compatibilists should, then, recognise an extra cost to the position they endorse: it is not the most valuable form of control. For compatibilist readers who do not share the intuitions I hope to elicit, the scenarios may nevertheless allow them a greater insight into why many incompatibilists find the agent-causal control valuable.