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I need help with a practical question about intention and action.

I had a brownie. I decided to eat half a brownie now, and save half for later.

Then, a few moments after making that decision, I found myself finishing the very last bite of the whole brownie.

This short-circuited my whole understanding of human intention and action. It's not as if I ate half a brownie, and then decided "Screw it, I'll eat the whole thing!" - but rather, without realizing, I ended up eating the whole thing. As if I had had a mindless episode of narcolepsy.

My questions are...

What can be said of this event? Can I say "I made a mistake"? What kind of mistake is it?

What can be said of my intention? Did I really have the intention to eat only half the brownie?

If someone asked me now: "Why did you eat the whole brownie?"... I am tempted to say my sincere answer is one of the funny answers Elizabeth Anscombe explains in the chapters 6, 7, 17 and 18 of her monograph "Intention":

  • I didn't know I was eating the whole brownie!
  • I don't know why I did it.
  • For no particular reason.

I could even clarify:

  • Oh, I didn't mean to eat the whole thing!

So... was it an accident? A mistake? Something else?

And of course, there is the obvious observation that "you just had a mindless lapse of joy while enjoying the brownie and momentarily forgot about your plan to save half". But then that kind of undermines the whole notion of intention as an "itinerary for the future", as Robert Audi might propose.

Can anyone help me understand what happened, and how I can avoid it in the future?

The key I want to learn more about, is the relationship between intention/action on one hand, and sensory impulses on the other. The contrast between wanting and craving. Or put differently, the contrast between wanting something vs. wanting to want something. (1st vs 2nd order desires).

Thanks in advance!

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    The brownie made a choice to be eaten by you. If you made the brownie in a pan, that's called pan psychism.
    – user4894
    Sep 15, 2022 at 0:49
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    Seems you're a Humean internalist such as Bratman having a belief–desire–intention model of any motivational act that if one is rational to act one must have some desire with a true belief content which would be fulfilled by that act, and since in your stated case you cannot find these related conscious mental states you're rightly puzzled. But our experience at any moment is very narrow compared to all the unconscious little beliefs aka Jung's personal unconscious about the background. So our experience at any time can only justify a very small number of the beliefs we actually possess... Sep 15, 2022 at 3:47
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    And as Frankfurt claimed effective 2nd order desire/volition is the mark of true personhood compared to a mere conscious mind with possible free will and your case just shows the lack of it. Regarding their relation to neuroscientific sensory impulses if exists at all it's perhaps related to the famous spike-timing-dependence-plasticity (SDTP) of pre and post synapses on average. It's much more subtle and difficult to form long-term potentiation for 2nd order desires than those 1st order ones due to the physiological synaptic stimulations are naturally adapted to 1st order excitations only... Sep 15, 2022 at 4:42
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    There is a school of thought that in many cases the relation of intention to action is passive with so-called "virtual control", see Pettit, Deliberation and Decision. That is, we mostly act on autopilot, with conscious intervention only when the acting goes against a standing intention, rather than actively will each separate act. On this theory, what happens in your example is simply a lapse in the feedback loop that monitors the autopilot and triggers interventions. Or, the decision report was insincere.
    – Conifold
    Sep 15, 2022 at 6:50
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    You can't get truly in charge of your mind until you meditate for a long time, and even then, it takes diligence. Welcome to the human race!
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 15, 2022 at 10:46

3 Answers 3

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I would look to an analogy with the emerging idea of the need for intelligible intelligence in AI. We have many mental processes going on outside of our awareness, and the picture of consciousness that makes sense to me is Global Workspace Theory, that our awareness is the space of integration of different data streams, that focuses especially on what is unexpected. We have a bias towards thinking we understand our own cognitive processes, but like Anil Seth shows in his TED Talk nearly all of the processing and compiling of what we experience as reality, involves mental processes happening outside our awareness. So we can't assume we understand our own minds, and we need to examine them in action to understand our minds. Cognitive bias, post hoc and motivated reasoning, and even bias put there by evolution as discussed by Donald Hoffman, are all ways of making our own intelligence more intelligible to us, and learning to use it better. Ultimately I would link this new framing to an old framing, the pursuit of wisdom, as discussed here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? As the Delphic maxim beloved by Socrates puts it, 'Know thyself'. But, the Dunbar Number points to how the social self is a tool, for helping us navigate our social environment.

Buddhist thought deconstructs the conventional or social self, in terms of the self as not existing outside causes and conditions (sunyata), and not having any permanent or unchanging essence (anatta). Meditation is about looking at the whole mind, the whole self, as composed of all of it's cognitive processes. This addresses the Delphic self that's to be known: in order to understand ourselves deeply we must catch our own minds at work, and have the skills to do so. That means actively seeking to understand the centre of our concerns, so that we don't allow different internal goals and their algorithms to undermine each other and conflict, such as short term and long term goals. Like that, we make our own intelligence more intelligible, and work to become wise.

I would say different internal algorithms conflicted, outside of your awareness or conscious attention. In this case it had trivial consequences, but for an addict of any kind, gaining understanding of such a conflict and better awareness of different drives, might be life-critical.

Was this the first time you ever ate more of a sweet treat than you intended once you started? You might consider how to minimise temptation, like smaller portion sizes.

How might you approach the issue next time? Maybe cut the brownie and rewrap the part to be saved, before beginning eating.

And perhaps most pertinently you might think, what can I learn from this experience about my own mind? And investigate decisions and intentions, the unity or otherwise of the self, and through the love of the pursuit of truth, work towards becoming wise.

Above all, observe your mind in motion, this is how to live the examined life.

"Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought." -From the opening section of The Dhammapada

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    Wonderful answer, I saw it a bit late. Thank you for sharing these insights! @CriglCragl
    – superiggy
    Nov 9, 2022 at 21:14
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The decisions that one talks in the OP are conscious decisions. On the subconscious level one either made a decision to continue eating when the half of the brownie had been eaten OR (more likely) the one made a decision not to control how much is eaten, which rendered the whole conscious decision about eating only half meaningless - once began, the eating continued till one ran out of the material to eat.

The obvious solution is then to make one conscious about how much is eaten and when the half of the brownie is reached. There are different ways of doing it, to cite a couple:

  • a conscious use of willpower
  • mechanical means - like cutting the brownie in halves and putting the halves apart from each other
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  • "A mind makes a wonderful servant, but a terrible master." Getting in charge of one's mind is like training an animal: figure out what will work, perhaps by consulting an expert, then keep repeating. Eventually, you will be rewarded with an ego that will lie down in the corner and stay there like a dog when you tell it to. A useful dog, but not your master. "You, the Monad, have decided it."
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 15, 2022 at 12:31
  • @ScottRowe if we could get complete control of our minds, i.e. become into completely rational beings (like Mr Spok) would life still have meaning?
    – Roger V.
    Sep 15, 2022 at 12:34
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    Mmm, there is a lot more to mental life than rationality. As Kabir said, "Those who hope to be reasonable about it fail. The arrogance of reason has separated us from that love. With the word 'reason', you already feel miles away." There is much more meaning in having an orderly and sane mind, just like having a clean house and a well-behaved dog leave more time and energy to pay attention to what matters most. You get to decide what that is! Try dance - no reason required. Paint. Sing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 15, 2022 at 15:11
  • @ScottRowe perhaps we are talking about different things - in Freudian terms dancing, singing, and other such activities are ultimately expressions of subconscious drives.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 16, 2022 at 4:31
  • The vast majority of your mental life is below the level of your awareness. Kind of like an iceberg. Meaning mostly comes from all that not conscious activity.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 16, 2022 at 10:33
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I suggest you think about your brownie in the following way:-

Your intention was (to eat the brownie (half now and half later))

Eating a brownie is a version of the general routine of having a snack. It is a routine which is not executed by your self, but executes itself as a sub-routine (to borrow a phrase).

Since your intention is to vary your sub-routine, it required that you monitor and intervene at the appropriate moment.

Your attention was distracted by either your enjoyment of the biscuit or your absorption in whatever else you were doing or both, so you didn’t intervene.

So you did execute your intention, but only partially. You could regard the distraction of your attention as something not under your control, or as a change in priorities as the action progressed.

Depending on why you decided to eat half now and half later, this could be regarded as a case of weakness of will. That represents what we actually do as the result of a contest between our various desires, perhaps refereed by our second order desires. But this is not much of an explanation. Unless we have an independent way of measuring how strong a particular desire is, that is just a metaphorical description of the outcome; in your case, it just means that you were distracted. However, it is at least an acknowledgment that our model of the self as the sole controller of our actions is inadequate.

Second-order desires seem to make sense of some of these situations, but there seems no reason why there should not be third-order desires leading to an infinite regress. It seems to me simpler and clearer to think of our desires conflicting with each other, as one might be conflicted between desire for another biscuit and some other value that makes the biscuit less desirable. Such a conflict would explain a phenomenon like a lapse in attention. There's no need to posit a second order desire here or indeed some kind of referee - the self.

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  • This is a good entry point to understanding. Ultimately, one must observe oneself for a long time, and the feedback loop goes from minutes after action (or the next day, or never) to seconds. At some stage, people develop the sense of an Observer, which is always there. Nonduality means transcending even the observer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 15, 2022 at 10:50
  • @Scott Rowe, Well, you may be right, though I wasn't thinking about any such psychological process, just about what our language allows. What I say may be compatible, or even suggest, something as grand as non-duality, though that seems to me to be compatible with both monism and many varieties of pluralism, either of which would be playing the same game as dualism. But you may be talking about something as radical as not-counting, which would be way beyond philosophy as it is normally understood.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 15, 2022 at 11:12
  • Ok. My father has a coffee mug that says, "Talk is cheap, until you talk to a Lawyer". Thinking about thinking and talking about language can be helpful, but studying Physics doesn't help anyone ride a bike or throw a ball, at least, until after the fact. So, yes, Nonduality is not about Philosophy or Psychology, or even neuroscience (like Sam Harris talks about), it's about your immediate experience. Even the word 'about' suggests thinking, which is already too late for participation.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 15, 2022 at 11:51

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