I’m listening to a lecture series on Searle’s Philosophy of Mind (given by John Searle himself I should add) that I’m really enjoying. This past week I came to a pleasing concept - that of a Basic Action. To get the idea, consider this:
- What are you doing?
- I’m going to work.
- I’m taking Main Street.
- I’m riding my bike.
- I’m pedaling and steering.
- I’m flexing my leg and arm muscles in a certain way.
At some point in a series of “How are you doing what you are doing?” questions, you’ll come to a point where you can’t go further (or at least, the further actions are nothing you are doing consciously). At this point, where you can’t really say how you’re doing it, *that* is a basic action.
The cool thing is that basic actions differ for different people. The above exchange was written to convey an idea, but it would only really make sense if the person being questioned had only just learned how to ride a bike. You only *consciously* move your leg and arm muscles when you’re learning. After a while, you just “ride”.
- for a newbie the basic action are muscle movements.
- for most of us, the basic action would be “riding the bike”.
- for an experienced rider, the basic action might be just “taking main st” (ie all the movements of biking are not really conscious)
- for a weathered commuter who had done this many times, maybe just “going to work” is the basic action.
If you doubt that “lower level” actions can be unconscious, notice that there’s actually an answer to “How are you flexing your leg and arm muscles?" We could answer "By secreting certain neurochemicals" or something. But that level isn’t conscious for any of us.
I haven’t gotten to the end of Searle’s lecture series, but I suspect he’s going to assert that the level at which actions become basic might be somehow constitutive of our identity (in some part anyway), which I think is a really interesting idea!
I also think it’s interesting to wonder whether basic actions can be moved down the ladder as well as up? The usual progression would be to start with dead simple basic actions as a baby (“What are you doing?" "Vocalizing”, “trying to move my arm”, etc), and moving them up to more complex things later.
But I actually think it’s a sign of real intelligence to be able to move back down the scale on purpose.
Like, maybe a mindful tennis player could stop just “swinging a backhand”, and refocus on the muscles to unlearn an ingrained mistake. In any of our social lives, we could stop sizing people up as possible friends, and start to wonder how are we making that judgement, and should we rethink it.
Good food for thought.