Action planning and Goal Setting: I


Since ending my thesis, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the decision-making process. Specifically, the condition/s needed for there to be action, and what the relationship is between those conditions. Thus far, it seems to me a necessary conditions required for action are goals. A goal, it seems to me, is a desire to bring about of some state-of-affairs at a later time (that is, a time after the present).

Goal forming has certain constraints. First, it appears that goals need to be achievable by the agent, or agents, who form them. For example, a desire to travel beyond our solar system would be better described as a hope or a dream, rather than a goal. Second, goals are future orientated projects; goals can’t be aimed at a past time or present moment. If I desired that I had eaten a salad instead of a burger, such a desire could not be described as a goal, but rather a regret. With such constraints in mind, it doesn’t even seem we can rationally conceive of forming such goals (or even maintaining them).

If the above is right, then actions require aims that are (a) future orientated and (b) are within the agents own power to bring about (i.e., a goal). And action planning is just forming a series of actions that bring about the aimed for state-of-affairs (i.e., a goal).

This means, according to my view, that actions aren’t possible unless there is some goal in mind. Goals give our actions meaning – they give us a reason to act and justify our actions not just in our own minds, but others too. Goals help us constrain the possibly infinite set of actions we could take. For example, if I form the goal to eat a salad, then (if I am to act rationally, i.e., actions that will achieve the goal) I make all non-salad eating actions non-possible. Only actions that will result in eating a salad will be open to me. And being a creature of finite resources, I’ll form an action plan that results the shortest number of actions to achieve my goal. Goals are a necessary condition for the occurrence of all actions between the present moment and all times prior to the goal.

One interesting observation in all this is the relationship between goals, action, and time. We could summarize such an observation as: to move forward, we need to plan backward. What does this mean? I have already explained how goals help direct our actions in the future (i.e., moving forward). But to know how to act requires forming a goal and then figuring out how to achieve it. To do so, it seems, requiring working out actions in reverse order; the step leading to the goal, the step before that step, etc. (i.e., plan backward).

The past, then, cannot guide our actions but only constrain possibilities. Just because in the past Jane played football does not mean she must continue to do so. However, what Jane is capable of achieving will be limited due to the large quantity of resources (e.g., time, energy, etc.) she dedicated to football. We are limited by our past but not held hostage by it.


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