Vierkant: Precis for The Tinkering Mind

By Tillmann Vierkant, University of Edinburgh

(See all posts in this symposium here.)

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say a few words about The Tinkering Mind! I have been bothered by the question of how important intentional action is for epistemic agency for a long time. I have long tried to make sense of notions like free will and agency in the age of cognitive science and have often found that the role of intentional action in epistemic agency is puzzling here. The question of how central intentional action can be in this context comes up in areas as diverse as self-control and willpower, choice and decisions as well as in the literature on dual processing and cognitive control. The Tinkering Mind is my attempt to identify and bring together what confused me in all of these diverse fields.

Epistemic agency is agency for cognitive purposes. When we exercise epistemic agency, we do so to gain new doxastic attitudes like beliefs. Prime examples of epistemic agency are deliberation in everyday contexts and voluntary cognitive control in psychology. But while epistemic agency clearly is an essential part of our cognitive life, what epistemic agency consists in remains surprisingly unclear.

This is because when we normally think of agency, we think of intentional action, and it is at least not obvious whether we can combine the idea that epistemic agency is intentional action with the idea that it is also a form of cognition. In fact, the punchline of the core argument of the Tinkering Mind is that it is only possible to hold that intentional action can be a constitutive part of cognition if we accept the doctrine of extended cognition.

The reason for being worried about epistemic agency being a form of intentional action (as seems clearly right for deliberation and voluntary cognitive control) is that in this case direct belief acquisition events like judging that p[1] (which seem very intuitive candidates for making epistemic agency cognition) cannot be epistemic agency.

Why not? Because most people in philosophy agree that belief acquisition cannot ever be an intentional action (i.e., here and in the book, I take doxastic non-voluntarism as an assumption) (Williams 1973, Alston 2005). Beliefs are formed when we have enough evidence for them and when that is the case, they get formed without the need for an additional tinkering action that installs the belief.

In spite of the fact that there is widespread agreement that belief acquisition is not intentional action, it is very counterintuitive to say that judging that p is not epistemic agency. It is easy to see why this position feels uncomfortable. If judging that p is not agency in any sense, then the beliefs and intentions that control our voluntary actions are themselves acquired passively. We might commit a crime intentionally, but we would have no control over the direct acquisition of the belief that made us do the deed. Yet at the same time, if we aspire to a scientific understanding of the mind, perhaps this is exactly what we should expect. From such a scientific vantage point it would be decidedly odd if not all agency at some point in its causal etiology would lead back to non-agentive mechanisms. It is thoughts of this sort which are behind claims like Galen Strawson’s (2003) that there are no mental actions, and behind attempts in psychology to explain away voluntary cognitive control in terms of sub-personal mechanisms.

However, especially in philosophy, Strawson’s position is considered radical and implausible. One very prominent strand in the philosophical literature to avoid Strawson’s conclusion, which at the same time makes it possible to think of belief acquisition events like judging that p as epistemic agency even though such events cannot be intentional actions is to have a notion of epistemic agency that is wider than intentional action.

In The Tinkering Mind, I discuss Pamela Hieronymi’s (2006,2009) work as one ingenious example of such accounts, but I do not take a stand on whether one should embrace Hieronymi’s account. There are much-discussed good reasons for and against positions like hers (Hieronymi 2006, Chrisman 2018), but we can afford to ignore them here because while in some sense Hieronymi and Strawson are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to epistemic agency (Strawson thinks it doesn’t exist and Hieronymi thinks that it is at the heart of all human agency), in another respect which is critical for my argument they are very similar. Both hold that intentional actions play no central role in epistemic agency. For Strawson, who equates epistemic agency with epistemic intentional agency, that means there is no such agency; for Hieronymi, intentional mental agency only plays second fiddle to the foundational evaluative non-intentional epistemic agency.

Crucially however both do not deny that humans do act intentionally for epistemic purposes. They accept that much of deliberation is intentional action, that we can direct our attention intentionally and that we can intentionally repeat arguments or make suppositions in inner speech. They also do not deny that all of this is often clearly done with an epistemic goal in mind. The only thing both would insist on is that these actions are only catalytic or shepherding actions (Strawson) or managerial (Hieronymi), i.e., that they are not what directly leads to the acquisition of a new belief, but actions that prepare and facilitate a separate cognitive event. As it is not controversial that these events cannot be intentional actions, and if these events are what cognition consists in, then the intentional actions that precede them and prepare them cannot be cognitive themselves. They might well play an important causal role in the etiology of cognitive events, but they are not a constitutive part of the cognitive event itself.

The question of whether something is causal or constitutive for cognition brings us back to the promised link between epistemic agency and extended cognition. Because famously in the extended cognition debate, the contested question is also one about the causal/constitutive divide. (Clark 2007, Adams & Aizawa 2008, Rupert 2004)) In this case, the divide refers to whether processes that happen outside the skull can be constitutive parts of the cognitive process. As we will see in the next paragraph, the argument that proponents of extension use to show that the environment can be part of the cognitive process is one that is also the best argument to claim that intentional shepherding actions can be constitutive parts of the cognitive process.

The main reason that extended cognition folk normally use to argue that world-involving processes are constitutive and not just causal is because of looping. (e.g., Clark 2007) Take the example of calculating on paper. Is the writing down of the numbers literally part of the cognitive process? People who are sceptical about extended cognition would deny this. They would argue that writing down numbers might well be a necessary causal condition for difficult calculations, but the actual cognitive part of the process happens in the head. Against this, the proponent of cognitive extension will hold that in the actual process one cannot neatly separate the writing from cognition, because there are constant feedback loops between the internal and the external ongoings. The writing is not just an output from or an input to the cognitive system but an integral part of a cognitive feedback loop.

The same argument can be used in the case of intentional epistemic actions.  They are not just shepherding of cognition, but an integral part of the feedback loop of belief acquisition events and actions that enable them and are a consequence of them, which in turn allow for new acquisition events. In this way extended cognition provides us with an argument why intentional shepherding actions might not just be causal precursors of cognition but constitutive parts of it.

Critically, the connection to extended cognition does not end here. I chose calculating on paper as my example for a reason – it is a nice illustration of the fact that epistemic intentional actions often are not actions like directing attention or rehearsing an argument that happen inside the head, but things like sketching or rotating Tetris blocks with a cursor, which do involve manipulations of the external environment.

But crucially, as Yair Levy (2019) has pointed out, the way in which intentional actions and belief acquisition events feedback on each other is functionally no different when these intentional actions happen inside the head to when they are world-involving. In other words, if one is convinced that looping is a good argument for the claim that intentional actions inside the head can be a constitutive part of the cognitive process, then the same argument can be used for world-involving intentional actions. In this way, the best argument for thinking that intentional mental actions like deliberation and voluntary cognitive control can be constitutive parts of cognition also becomes a new and powerful argument for the truth of extended cognition.

Finally, while I clearly have sympathies for extended cognition, my argument does not aim to show that it must be true. It only shows this on the understanding of cognition that allows for intentional action to be a constitutive part of it.

If one does not agree with that antecedent, then there is no pressure to accept the consequent. But the argument also has important consequences for such sceptics. It highlights what is intuitive about the understanding of cognition that is implied for the sceptic, i.e., that doxastic attitude acquisition events like judgings are cognition, but it also highlights what is counterintuitive about it, i.e., that deliberation and cognitive control can only be catalytic and not cognition itself.


 Adams, F. and K. Aizawa. (2008). The Bounds of Cognition. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

Alston, W. (2005). Beyond Justification: Dimensions of Epistemic Evaluation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Chrisman, M. (2018). Epistemic normativity and cognitive agency. Noûs52(3), 508-529.

Clark, A. (2007). Curing cognitive hiccups: A defense of the extended mind. Journal of Philosophy, 106, 163–192.

Hieronymi, P (2006). Controlling attitudes. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 87, (1), 45–74.

Hieronymi, P. (2009). Two kinds of mental agency. In O’Brien, L. & Soteriou, M. (eds.), Mental Actions. Oxford: OUP.

Levy, Y. (2019). What is ‘mental action’? Philosophical Psychology, 1-23.

Rupert, R. D. (2004). Challenges to the hypothesis of extended cognition. The Journal of Philosophy, 101:389–428.

Strawson, G. (2003). Mental ballistics or the involuntariness of spontaneity. Meeting of the Aristotelian Society, London.

Williams, B. (1973) Deciding to Believe. In: Problems Of The Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


[1] Some people might deny that judging is the belief acquisition event. That sounds odd to me but for people so inclined the argument then focuses on belief acquisition events and whether those are passive.

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