CamembertCan you change your mind after the deed is done? Ezequiel Di Paolo thinks you can, sometimes. More specifically, he believes that acts can become intentional after they have already been performed. His theory, which seems to imply a kind of time travel, is set out in a paper in the latest JCS.

I think the normal view would be that for an act to be intentional, it must have been caused by a conscious decision on your part. Since causes come before effects, the conscious decision must have happened beforehand, and any thoughts you may have afterwards are irrelevant. There is a blurry borderline over what is conscious, of course; if you were confused or inattentive, if you were ‘on autopilot’ or you were following a hunch or a whim it may not be completely clear how consciously your action was considered.

There can, moreover, be what Di Paolo calls an epistemic change. In such a case the action was always intentional in fact, but you only realise that it was when you think about your own motives more carefully after the event. Perhaps you act in the heat of the moment without reflection; but when you think about it you realise that in fact what you did was in line with your plans and actually caused by them. Although this kind of thing raises a few issues, it is not deeply problematic in the same way as a real change. Di Paolo calls the real change an ontological one; here you definitely did not intend the action beforehand, but it becomes intentional retrospectively.

That seems disastrous on the face of it. If the intentionality of an act can change once, it can presumably change again, so it seems all intentions must become provisional and unreliable; the whole concept of responsibility looks in danger of being undermined. Luckily, Di Paolo believes that changes can only occur in very particular circumstances, and in such a way that only one revision can occur.

His view founds intentions in enactment rather than in linear causation; he has them arising in social interaction. The theory draws on Husserl and Heidegger, but probably the easiest way to get a sense of it is to consider the examples presented by Di Paolo. The first is from De Jaegher and centres, in fittingly continental style, around a cheese board.

De Jaegher is slicing himself a corner of Camembert and notices that his companion is watching in a way which suggests that he too, would like to eat cheese. DJ cuts him a slice and hands it over.
“I could see you wanted some cheese,” he remarks.
“Funny thing, that,” he replies, “actually, I wasn’t wanting cheese until you handed it to me; at that moment the desire crystallised and I now found I had been wanting cheese.”

In a corner of the room, Alice is tired of the party to do; the people are boring and the magnificent cheese board is being monopolised by philosophers enacting around it. She looks across at her husband and happens to scratch her wrist. He comes over.
“Saw you point at your watch,” he says, “yeah, we probably should go now. We’ve got the Stompers’ do to go to.”
Alice now realises that although she didn’t mean to point to her watch originally, she now feels the earlier intention is in place after all – she did mean to suggest they went.

At the Stompers’ there is dancing; the tango! Alice and Bill are really good, and as they dance Bill finds that his moves are being read and interpreted by Alice superbly; she conforms and shapes to match him before he has actually decided what to do; yet she has read him correctly and he realises that after the fact his intentions really were the ones she divined. (I sort of melded the examples.)

You see how it works? No, it doesn’t really convince me either. It is a viable way of looking at things, but it doesn’t compel us to agree that there was a real change of earlier intention. Around the cheese board there may always have been prior hunger, but I don’t see why we’d say the intention existed before accepting the cheese.

It is true, of course, that human beings are very inclined to confabulate, to make up stories about themselves that make their behaviour make sense, even if that involves some retrospective monkeying with the facts. It might well be that social pressure is a particularly potent source of this kind of thing; we adjust our motivations to fit with what the people around us would like to hear. In a loose sense, perhaps we could even say that our public motives have a social existence apart from the private ones lodged in the recesses of our minds; and perhaps those social ones can be adjusted retrospectively because, to put it bluntly, they are really a species of fiction.

Otherwise I don’t see how we can get more than an epistemic change. I’ve just realised that I really kind of feel like some cheese…


  1. 1. Scott Bakker says:

    This is Nietzsche’s famous insight, and is consonant with a good deal of research. In moral justification contexts, for instance, conscious awareness pretty clearly *always* plays a PR role, acts as a post facto publicity agent (thus Haidt’s famous ‘elephant and rider’ metaphor). And this is precisely what you would expect if troubleshooting social landscapes were a primary driver of conscious metacognitive access. The fact that the brain neglects its own operations, and is effectively blind to the operations of other brains, means ‘communicating intentions’ is bound to be a strategic affair. It’s like religion: before science, it did not matter one way or another whether our cosmological theories were true, though it mattered quite a bit whether our theories were socially effective.

  2. 2. ihtio says:

    I can see how we could retrospectively change our memories (or confabulate them) so that we think that we previously intended something after we did it or after the deed was brought into our awareness.

    I see two problems with this approach:
    1. Psychoanalytic explanation of the phenomena — Di Paolo in essence says that I have had a secret unconscious desire / wish to do something, and after some peculiar event, when the wish was nearing its fullfillment (or after the satisfaction of my desire), I became aware of the wish itself. It’s not really paradigm changing. The criticism that applied to unconscious wish fullfillment hypothesis applies also in this case.
    2. What about “I want to wake up early tomorrow, so I can go for a run” intention?

  3. 4. Callan S. says:

    Why would you say that’s your intention after the matter? Sure, you might say ‘oh, not what I wanted – but I’ll roll with that, seems of some use now’. But why would you say in the cheese or watch example that was actually your intent? Is it like in pool when you pot two or three balls at once and pretend you meant to do that?

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