Action, some basics.

I sent an email; I made a lunch date; I pressed a button; I moved a finger. Each statement describes an action, or perhaps, each statement describe the same action but in a different way. Why bother splitting hairs though? What does it matter if there are a multitude of actions here or one action with different descriptions, or one action with many consequences, or many actions?

Insofar as interaction designers design opportunities for action they have some stake in the composition of actions, their anatomy, or useful descriptions therein. In other words, if interaction designers compose action in some vague sense, it might be nice to know how actions are composed, or to have a few terms for discussion. I can’t unravel everything here, but I can get started with some basics.

So, what is an action?

The point of view that follows comes from Donald Davidson (1963, 1971) and amounts to a ‘causal theory of action’ or the ‘standard view’. It goes something like this…

An action is an event that is intentional under some description. It is caused by beliefs and desires (or pro-attitudes)—ideas, in some sense, in the head about how the world is and how we might prefer it to be, respectively. 

First, we’re not talking about actions of the kind ‘the wind blew the trees’ or  ‘the phone alarm work me up’ or ‘the ball hit his head’. Cause and consequence alone don’t constitute an action for our purposes here. There must be some description of the event in question such that the event stems from an agent; the event must be, generally speaking, purposive. By this account, it’s worth nothing that computers don’t perform actions. (This also happens to problematize Chris Crawford’s working definition of interaction:  two actors who various speak, listen and think.)

Beliefs and desires correspond to the world in distinct ways. Beliefs being ideas about the situation at hand or in the world, including notions about the history of that situation, the underlying mechanics of its existence an the potential for its transformation: I believe the I am at home, that there is a president, that germs cause disease, and that pressing keyboard buttons causes letters to appear on screen. Beliefs may be more or less true, specific or coherent. Some people believe the world is flat, or that there are ‘a lot of people’ in New York City. Beliefs also include ideas about the possible chain of consequence(s) that could result in a desired situation (more on that later).

Desires are ideas about preferred conditions. I desire these words to be arranged in such and such a way; I desire a drink; I desire to avoid being hit by a car. “Pro-attitude” might be more accurate though;  you can a pro-attitude as a kind of disposition, or a disposition to prefer, or just a preference. I prefer chocolate to vanilla, and given the opportunity to chose one or the other, I will chose the former. Desires can not be true or false.

An important outcome of this formulation is that an action is the action that it is, in some sense, by virtue of its attendant reasons or intentions (beliefs and desires); bodily movement or other observable consequences are not sufficient to pin down an action; my arm moving is not the same as the action of me moving my arm. (Also consider the distinction between manslaughter and murder.) The relationship between reasons and action is particularly relevant to any attempt to discuss opportunities for action. Without any additional caveats, it follows that an ‘opportunity for an action’ (such as deleting an email) must include the opportunity (or potential) for an actor to form or hold the corresponding beliefs and desires that would motivate such an action, including by not limited to, the very idea of email, deletion, knowledge about a specific GUI, along with any lower level motivating reason for deleting the message (such as the desire to free up space on a hard drive).

At this point I should mention that the casual description is hardly bullet proof. Its issues are multiple and even people that accept the general form may disagree about, for example, whether beliefs and desires are sufficient to cause action without an additional volition or intention. For more on how this topic breaks down, see the entry for “Action” at plato.stanford, Dancy and Sandis’s Philosophy of Action: An Anthology (2015), Mele’s The Philosophy of Action (1997), and Aguilar and Buckareff’s Causing Human Actions (2010). (I’ve barely touched the last one but it looks promising!)

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