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Motor Representations Aren’t Intentions

Explains why motor representations aren’t intentions.

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What are intentions?

Instrumental Actions: Goal-Directed and Habitual introduced two minimally controversial assumptions about intention

Intentions are the upshot of beliefs and desires (or are identical to one or both of these).

Intentions specify outcomes and (when things go well) coordinate actions around those outcomes, thereby binding together components of the action.

This section, we rely on a further minimally controversial assumption:

Intentions are propositional attitudes and inferentially integrated with beliefs, desires and other propositional attitudes. This inferential integration allows them to play a characteristic role in practical reasoning (see, for example, Bratman, 1987).

Why Motor Representations Are Not Intentions

Motor representations cannot be intentions because motor representations differ from intentions with respect to their representational format.

To support this claim, we first need to understand the notion of representational format (see below); we then need evidence that the claim is true (see the recording or Butterfill & Sinigaglia, 2014, p. §3 on pp. 124ff).

Representational Format

Imagine you are in an unfamiliar city and are trying to get to the central station. A stranger offers you two routes. Each route could be represented by a distinct line on a paper map. The difference between the two lines is a difference in content. Each of the routes could alternatively have been represented by a distinct series of instructions written on the same piece of paper; these cartographic and propositional representations differ in format.[1]

The format of a representation constrains its possible contents. For example, a representation with a cartographic format cannot represent what is represented by sentences such as `There could not be a mountain whose summit is inaccessible.'

The distinction between content and format is necessary because, as the illustration shows, each can be varied independently of the other.

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inferential integration : For states to be inferentially integrated means that: (a) they can come to be nonaccidentally related in ways that are approximately rational thanks to processes of inference and practical reasoning; and (b) in the absence of obstacles such as time pressure, distraction, motivations to be irrational, self-deception or exhaustion, approximately rational harmony will characteristically be maintained among those states that are currently active.
motor representation : The kind of representation characteristically involved in preparing, performing and monitoring sequences of small-scale actions such as grasping, transporting and placing an object. They represent actual, possible, imagined or observed actions and their effects.
representational format : Format is an aspect of representation distinct from content (and from vehicle). Consider that a line on a map and a list of verbal instructions can both represent the same route through a city. They differ in format: one is cartographic, the other linguistic.


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  1. Note that the distinction between content and format is orthogonal to issues about representational medium. The maps in our illustration may be paper map or electronic maps, and the instructions may be spoken, signed or written. This difference is one of medium. ↩︎