In this article, author Phin Upham examines the surprisingly complex philosophical implications of the simple act of changing your mind.
What does it mean to change one’s mind? In discussing this problem we must come to an understanding of what it means to have an intention, what is relevant in changing that intention, and what sorts of changes of mind are possible. One aspect of intentions and changes of mind that the authors Robins, Baier, Raz, and Hampshire, touched upon tangentially is that of goals. The study of goals helps us to understand what does and does not constitute a change of mind, where the change of mind occurs, and also begins to systematize our intuitions about changes of mind. The semi-permeating nature of intentions, that is that they apply only to the specific goal they refer to, causes some of the confusion over what constitutes a change of mind.
There is an unstated but crucial element to any statement of intention: the end or goal that it will help to bring about. For “I intend to take the bus tomorrow [in order to get to work],” it is in relation to this bracketed goal that the intention can be evaluated and preferred. In order to be intelligible, every intention must help bring about some perceived preferable state. It is unintelligible to say you intend to do something though it is bad from all points of view, i.e. though there is no preference as an end. Of course the web of goals and preferences is not clear cut or linear and it is partially unconscious, nevertheless, there exists some partial ordering, an incomplete hierarchy, that links intentions and acts to goals, and those goals to higher goals, etc.. Intentions exist throughout this web, but each one seems to be largely confined to its relevant level. Thus they may be referred to as semi-permeating. It is this semi-permeating characteristic of goals that leads to the confusion over whether one changes one’s mind or not. An example of the semi- permeable nature of intentions is that while I may intend to take the bus to go to work, and I may want to go to work in order to make money and make money in order to be happy, it is not true that I intend to take the bus to be happy. Any goal that does not exist for itself, must lead ultimately to some highest goal since one must generate its energy from somewhere. So, for example, it would be nonsensical for me to say I am doing D in order to gain C and I want C in order to gain B, but I do not have any reason for wanting B and it is not intrinsically valuable to me (within the hierarchy only the highest good is desirable for its own sake). It is hard to imagine starting such a chain of goals. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, argues convincingly that goals (excluding those done for their own sake) must be shaped in a hierarchy that culminates in one highest value. It will be useful to take his conclusion for the sake of analyzing intentions.
Let us see goals as organizing intentions into a partially ordered, semi-permeating matrix if we want to analyze changes of mind. Baier points out that “one changes one’s mind when one changes one’s plans (56).” This seems true, but since intentions are semi-permeating the change of mind exists on only some levels. Now let us look at the example we have already introduced for a change of mind, “I intend to take the bus [in order to go to work]”. Maybe I change my mind about going to work because I am too tired to spend eight hours in the office. Is it also true that I have changed my mind about taking the bus? No, I would still take the bus if I were going to work. It is not that any other mode of transportation seems better. If asked “did you take the bus to work?” I would respond “No, I decided not to go to work.” I would not respond “No, I decided not to take the bus to work.” The second response would be deceptive. This results from the semi-permeable nature of intentions. It was my intention to go to work that changed, not my intention to take the bus. Though a change in the first intention implies a change in the second, a change of intention about the first does not imply a change of intention about the second. Intentions reside on their own level, and so, largely, do changes of intention. The hierarchy of intentions model we have developed clearly allows us to see how new or newly recognized facts cause a change of mind on their level, and simply a change of plans on the others. A change of mind midway up the chain has enormous repercussions to many other actions. But only that change can be fairly called a change of mind. The rest are effects of that change of mind, not changes of mind themselves.
What sort of changes in the web of intentions count as changes of mind and what sort are simply changes of plan? Let us look back at the example we were just examining. If we were not going to work because we were fired from our job or the building burnt down it would not be fair to say I “changed my mind” about going to work or taking the bus. New facts which negate or make pointless the goals of our intentions do not count as changes of mind. It seems fair to say we changed our minds only when we have certain new types of facts, or new considerations or come to certain types of realizations. Facts that weaken or undermine the benefits of the goal seem fair game. “It is raining,” “I am tired,” “the peaches are bruised,” “I remembered an earlier commitment,” all these seem to be fair reasons to change your mind. Baier phrases this so nicely when she says “changes of mind come about after a reviewing, or refocusing, on features of the old, unchanged situation and its options (58).” So not completing an action due to drunkenness or a car accident do not count as changes of mind since they do not involve reviewing or reevaluating the situation. Changes of mind occur when fact change the weight that connects an act to its consequence by either providing an alternative or weakening the value of the goal. Changes of mind do not seem to occur when an end is eliminated either as a result of forces outside your control (such as a car crash) or by a change further up in the hierarchy. As Baier discusses, a conversion experience also does not constitute a change of mind. It makes pointless the old goals, it does not modify them. It is a change of mind only in the literal sense of a replacement of mind. Changes such as these which occur high up on the hierarchy of goals may often therefor have dramatic affects on one’s actions.
So there are at least two sorts of changes of minds. One is a change of means of achieving a goal (taking the subway rather than the bus to work) and the other a change of goals (I chose not to go to work). But surprisingly the difference here seems to spring from the amount of disruption that the change creates (a difference in magnitude) rather than a difference in kind. In our hierarchical organization of intentions to accomplish goals, all the steps in the process are the goal of the step below them and the means to the step above them. If the difference between a goal and a means is thus arbitrary (depending on perspective) how can we define the different sorts of changes of mind as we do and remain cogent. Nevertheless I believe that there is a real difference between these two classes of changes of mind, I just think that the usual description of them is misleading. To “change the means of achieving a goal” seems to rather mean to take an alternate route to reach the same point one level up. So, for example, if I took the subway to work rather than the bus, I would be substituting just one link of the chain for an alternate link, I would not be changing the general structure. On the other hand the other form seems to create a deviant chain, though it necessarily goes to the same highest goal. So I might decide not to go to work, and instead stay home and study philosophy in order to be happy. In both the work case and this case I have the same result, but I used a different causal chain to get there. While this seems right, I still have my doubts as to the fairness of the distinction between the two classes of changes of mind. It seems that we really do consider some actions ends (work) and others means (taking the bus) even though the web of intentions I have constructed does not recognize a difference. Perhaps this points out a flaw in the analogy, or perhaps it reflects the elusive nature of the distinction. But if this distinction is non-existent, it seems easy enough to construct a counter example that would have the same structural attributes of a class one type of change of mind (method) but involved a more “ends” (work) aspect. So If I decided to take the bus to the same building I usually work in but instead of working [in order to get money] I beg in the lobby [in order to get money]. In which group does one classify this example? It seems so serious a change to be a method change, but it seems structurally identical to the subway-bus switch in terms of my analogy. We may even be able to say that it is unfair even to speak of one intention chain to be longer than another. This may be a function of our conventional descriptions rather than an intrinsic difference. Why is taking the bus rather than the subway a shorter divergent chain than going to work or not one day? If I describe your intention to take each step on the way to the subway, place a token in the machine, avoid the closing doors, etc. the causal chain may be more complex than a simple description of not going to work (I sleep, eat, take a walk, sleep). So perhaps the magnitude of the divergent chain distinction is flimsy. How about temporal magnitude? It seems that taking the day off makes more of a temporal difference than taking the subway. This does not work either since we would consider taking a boat vs. a plane to Europe a “means” change of mind even though it means a temporal change of many days. In the end it may be a result of an elusive and unformalizable distinction that we make between different actions where “going to work” is an end and “taking the subway” is a means.
Viewing changes of mind in terms of reweighing a hierarchical, partially ordered structure of semi-permeable goals/ends seems to allow us some insight into how our intuitions about changes of mind work. But this view is awkward in supporting our distinction between “end” changes of mind and “means” changes of mind. It is essential that a continuum of goals be taken into account when intentionality and change of mind are discussed since one cannot meaningfully have either without reference to goals.
 The idea of partial order I took from Amartya Sen’s discussions on the topic in his class Utility and Rights. This might mean that I preferred S to T and M to T but I had not defined the relationship between S and M.
 The concept of semi-permeating was introduced to me in Fredrick Dretske’s essay “Epistemic Operators.” In the essay it was used to establish that one did not need to disprove all possible alternatives when one says “I know that x.”
 Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics explores this aspect of goals or “goods” and concludes that there are two types of acts: an act done for itself and an act done for a higher goal. The discussion of acts done for themselves and changes of mind about those will not be explored in this essay. It seems at first glance, though, that changes of mind regarding these acts are purely a function of comparing the strength of the two intentions.
About the Author
Phin Upham is an investor who divides his time between New York and San Francisco. He specializes in technology and macroeconomic investing. Phin Upham also writes frequenly on philosophy and culture. Visit his website at PhinUpham.com.