Saturday, January 23, 2010

Philosophy of Action Speculations

Suppose Albert plants a bomb to kill Bill. Perhaps he hides it under Bill's house. But Albert suddenly dies. Two days later, the bomb explodes and kills Bill. Did Albert act to kill Bill?

Common sense quickly says yes. But sometimes common sense is fantastically wrong, as physicists and psychologist take great delight in showing. The burden of proof would require some argument against common sense. An argument against Albert killing Bill might go this way:
1. Something (in this case, a killing) can be considered an 'act' of somebody only if there is an operating intention behind that act.
2. But there is an operating intention behind an act only if the (alleged) actor is alive at the time.
3. Albert was not alive at the time the bomb exploded.

4. So, Albert had no operating intention at the time the bomb exploded (by 3 & 2)
5. Thus, the killing of Bill can't be considered an act of Albert (by 4 & 1)
Premise (3) is stipulated by the story. (2) might be assailable, but it would take some work. (1) seems easiest to rebut. Are there cases where something is an act, but nobody is intending anything?

Suppose, when they kids, Albert bought one of those spring-loaded, fake peanut cans where a snake pops out. He placed it on Bill's kitchen shelf, so as to startle him. Weeks went buy, and Albert forgot all about the peanut can joke. One day Bill opened the can, and was greatly startled. Did Albert act to startle Bill?

Yes, Albert did. Here, it's an easier case, since Albert is still alive. Upon being reminded of the can, young Albert would say he still wants to startle Bill, so the intention is once again operant. Or, suppose Albert had forgotten about the can for only 2 seconds, but the can then springs the fake snake on Bill at the next moment. In the normal course of conversation, no one would reasonably doubt that Albert (successfully) acted to startle Bill.

Intention, therefore, is "gappy." It's like knowledge. A person doesn't know what they know every conscious moment, but if asked what the carpet or floorboards looked like in one's childhood home, a person might bring the hithertofore long-forgotten knowledge immediately to consciousness.



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