Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Counting Intentional Non-events

In writing earlier about a programmer’s take on the debates in the Philosophy of Action, there was a particular philosophical argument that I wanted to delve into separately because I have a suggested solution. [Notice how my intention was to not write about this while writing earlier.]

Recall that in Action Theory, loosely speaking, Events are general cause & effect “things that happen”, and Actions are things that someone (aka the Agent) does on purpose, usually involving some “bodily movement” to get things rolling. One of the debates is whether Actions are, in fact, Events or not. [For object-oriented programmers, the question is whether “class Action extends Event” or not.] Jennifer Hornsby[1] argues that the “standard story of action”, with its focus on body movements, and its claims that all actions are events, is off-track because it leaves out NOT moving (e.g. not eating that ice cream because of a desire to be thinner, spoiling the party by not turning up, etc.).

There is a subtle philosophical point here: Events are considered particulars, i.e. individual things that “exist” in the sense that each is associated with a span of time and a region of space (when and where the event occurred), and one can (figuratively) “point” to it, and count it, and tell it apart from other events. Additionally, it is common in philosophy to maintain that a “hole” (the lack of something) doesn’t exist as a particular. After all, I can’t count how many green things are not in this room, nor point to each of them, nor tell them apart from each other. So, the argument goes that since you can intentionally “not wink at me” (by definition, an action), Action can’t be a subtype of Event.

However, in thinking about what it would mean for a computer program to “not do some action”, I realized there was a way to pinpoint those occasions. For example, in special game playing programs, moves are considered, compared with other moves, and ultimately one is chosen with the rest being rejected. It seemed to me that the rejected moves are "not done" in an "intentional" fashion, in contrast to moves that were never even considered. Game programs are a particular form of the general class of programs that generate "plans" to reach some goal not unlike humans. Actions are considered or rejected as the plan is being put together. Also, in everyday programs, the logic decides to call a subroutine or not, thus the routines are intentionally not called sometimes, in contrast to not doing things that aren't even in the program. It makes sense to say that routine A was "not called" x number of times, but no answer other than zero seems to make sense when asking how many times did the program not go to Mars.

So, I came up with a theory of how one can count, for a given situation, actions that are not a positive performance (i.e. that are not “doing something”). By “given situation” I mean a particular period of time and an area of space (for example, the duration of time we were together at this table for lunch today). To count how many times an event A did not occur in a given situation (e.g. you not winking at me during lunch):
1) establish the minimum time span that actually doing A once would take, including any time needed to separate one occurrence from another. Dividing the situation duration by the minimum action duration would establish a maximum potential count. (e.g. lunch was an hour, a wink takes a second plus a second in between, therefore a potential maximum 1800 winks over lunch)
2) establish what conditions are required for A to occur once (e.g. we both must be at the table with eye contact), and eliminate all the time spans where the conditions did not hold (e.g. I was in the restroom for 10 mins, you were talking to the next table for 15 minutes, so a tighter maximum would be 1050 winks)

But, to count how many times the action A did not occur in a given situation, there must be intention. In order for “not doing something” to be an intentional action, the agent must consider doing A and decide not to. And, the required conditions have to be met otherwise the action couldn’t have taken place anyway (i.e. motive and opportunity).
3) So, the actual number of occurrences of “not doing something” is how ever many times the agent considered doing it, and didn’t, when they could have. E.G. you thought about winking 5 times while we had eye contact but only did once…the 3 times you thought about it while I was in the restroom don’t count, so, you didn’t wink at me 4 times.

Interestingly, the time it takes to consider and reject doing something may take much less time than the doing of it, so, the maximum potential number of times something wasn’t done may be much more than the max. potential times that it was. One might get-pregnant twice a year but not-get-pregnant 3 times a week.

Finally, because one must consider (not) doing something in order for it to count as an action, one can say confidently that some things did not occur zero times. There were zero times that I did not give you a unicorn (because there are no such things, hence no opportunity). There were zero times that I did not stand on your shoulders because it never even entered my mind.

[1] Jennifer Hornsby, Agency and Actions, Cambridge Univ Press, 2004

[2] Jennifer Hornsby, Actions (International Library of Philosophy), Routledge, 1980

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