The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Conscious control, as I see it, involves deliberately moving the body, or deliberating engaging the mind; or, as the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume put it much more elegantly, it is “the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body or new perception of our mind” (1888: p. 708). Conscious control thus covers control of not only bodily movements, but also thought, so that, for example, in thinking over and analyzing a chess problem, one could say that a grand master is exerting conscious control over her mental actions. There is a tight connection between conscious control and monitoring, and some psychology research which intends to test whether conscious control interferes with performance directs subjects to monitor their actions. However, monitoring and control can come apart when, for example, one monitors the movements of their limbs as someone else manipulates them. Whether one can have control without monitoring, however, is less clear.

Just-do-it apostles also inveigh against trying and effort: “You’re trying too hard” is a catch-phrase one sometimes hears when you perform poorly. These two related concepts admit a variety of interpretations—for example, we can talk about mental and physical trying or effort, and within the mental category we can talk about trying as engaging our will to act or as engaging in difficult calculations. And although much of what I say will concern both trying and effort, we tend to use the two terms in slightly different ways—for example, in some contexts we refrain from saying that someone tried to do something if she succeeds at it, but we still might think that the action was performed with enormous effort.

On my view, the sense of self is closely connected to the interrelated concepts of conscious control, trying, and effort, for, as I see it, it is present in all three. In deliberately willing your actions, you have a sense that—rather than being carried away—it is you who is acting. This is not necessarily the sort of self that Hume (1888: pp. 252-3) claimed he was unable to find, upon introspection, something apart from any perception. Rather it is the perception (or as we would say today the experience) of acting intentionally, such as deliberately opening a safe deposit box that you rarely open, as opposed to, for example, the experience of bodily movements that arise via reflexes. In opening that safe deposit box, you have a sense of controlling your movements, while a sneeze is experienced as just happening to you. My particular concern is with arguing against the idea “dissolves” in expert action, or what David Velleman (2008) refers to “self-forgetful spontaneity” (p. 187).

Finally, to act for a reason is to act with some awareness of the reason why you are acting; this, in turn, gives experts the ability to justify their action to some degree. This justification need not be complete; it might be simply “I knew that this method had worked before, so I presumed that it might work again.” Neither need one’s reason lead to the best possible action. An expert chess player might make a move for a reason—I could tell that it would lead to an even trade—and might be able to justify it—I was ahead so even trades are called for—even if there were better moves that could have been made. Moreover, the justification might even sometimes be mistaken. In very complicated situations, even experts make mistakes: the move might not inevitably lead to an even trade. Nevertheless, I would still count this as an example of acting for a reason and having the ability to justify one’s actions. And it stands in contrast to the idea that anything one might say to justify one’s actions would be a mere retrospective rationalization.

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