Picture:  Amoeba Somewhat belatedly I came across an interesting paper by W Tecumseh Fitch the other day (Actually I came across Beau Siever’s discussion of Daniel Dennett’s  discussion of the paper.) in which he boldly tackles the thorny subject of original intentionality, claiming it’s all based on what he calls nano-intentionality.

Fitch declares himself a defender of intrinsic intentionality. Intentionality, as you may know, is aboutness, meaningfulness: things like books and films are said to have derived intentionality: they are about things because the people who made them and the people who read or watch them interpret them as being about something, conferring meaning on them. But some things, our own thoughts, for example, are not about things because of what anyone else thinks, they just are intrinsically about things. How they manage this has always been a mystery.

Dennett, in fact, denies that there is any such thing as intrinsic intentionality – how can anything just inherently be about something? It’s this view that Fitch wants to challenge; strangely, Dennett says it’s all a misunderstanding and he agrees with Fitch.

How can this be? Well, Dennett would be right to reject intrinsic intentionality if it meant that we just say things are magically about things and that’s the end of the story; but really when people speak of intrinsic intentionality it is usually a kind of promissory note: they mean, here in people’s minds is where meaning originates; we don’t know how yet, but meanings in minds are different to meanings in books. Fitch means to say; this is where meaning originates, and I think I can tell you how. I think Dennett is comfortable with theories of intentionality which provide a decent naturalistic interpretation – and if that’s what we’re doing, he doesn’t really care too much whether we’re calling it intrinsic, or original, or whatever.

Fitch’s view still seems at odds with Dennett’s in many ways; he rejects the idea that computers could have intrinsic intentionality, and in general his ideas would seem to fit well with those of Searle, Dennett’s arch-enemy. Searle says that consciousness arises from certain kinds of biological material as a result of some properties of that material which we don’t understand (yet – Searle is sure that further scientific research will enable us to understand them). Nanointentionality would seem to fit into that view quite well.

So what is it? Fitch says that biological organisms exhibit a responsiveness to their environment which no machine can emulate. When we’re cut, we heal up: our flesh extemporises, forming functional but ad hoc patterns of tissue that patch up the gap. Amoebas and smaller single-celled organisms respond to their surroundings, not just in a pre-organised way, but flexibly, managing to respond and adapt even to new circumstances. This kind of responsiveness to the environment, in his view, is the elementary precursor to true intentionality: the responses are not, in detail at least, writtn into the organism, and they are, at a basic level, goal-directed.

Having, as he believes, obtained this narrow foothold, Fitch seeks to build on it. Cells working together can build up an information processing system which inherits from them the spark of aboutness while adding to it new capacities. When they reach the level where options can be modelled and accepted or rejected, full-blown consciousness and true intrinsic intentionality dawn. There’s something a little surprising about this; Fitch is relying for most of the work on the kind of functional organisation he otherwise rejects. At least half of the powers of intentionality seem to come, not from the initial spark, but the way the neurons process information – the sort of thing you might think was perfectly amenable to computation (I see Dennett nodding happily). It prompts another thought, too: Fitch denies that mere silicon can have the kind of open-ended responsiveness of an amoeba. If we swap cells for transistors, that may be right; but what if the computer moves down a notch and simulates the parts (perhaps even the molecules) of the amoeba? Since Fitch is committed to naturalism, it seems hard to exclude computers from having the properties of living things so absolutely as he wishes.

There is also a problem down there with the nano-intentionality, too. Fitch sees the responsiveness of the eukaryotic organisms (he’s prepared to exclude the prokaryotes) as having a directedness which prefigures proper intentionality. But I doubt it. This directedness is a real and interesting quality, resembling what Grice called natural meaning: those spots mean measles; that spade means a hole to be dug. This is a good place to be looking for the roots of intentionality; indeed, my own view would have them somewhere in this area. The snag is that natural meaning has a tendency to separate out into two parts; the fitness of a thing for a result, and derived intentionality. The first of these has nothing of intentionality in it, properly understood; a spade may be specially fit for digging, but a large snowbank is especially fit for avalanches; large black clouds are fit for rain; there’s no real meaning at work. The element of derived intentionality lies in the eye of the beholder; the spade is about digging because that’s the way it was designed, and that’s the way I mean to use it. This is intentionality, but resoundingly not the intrinsic kind we’re after.

So, if we look at Fitch’s amoeba, we can analyse its responsiveness. In part it’s simply a fitness to go on surviving no different in principle from the cloud’s fitness to rain; in part it’s a purposefulness which we and FItch can’t help reading into it. Take away these two elements, and the foothold on which Fitch stands disappears, I think.


  1. 1. Christophe Menant says:

    The “intentionality” of consciousness has been introduced by philosophers as to cover the “aboutness” of thinking.
    It looks a bit surprising that the concept of intentionality is considered as pertinent when addressing the case of simple unicellular organisms. Isn’t there a risk that such a top-down procedure brings on elementary life all the complexities of a concept related to the unknown nature of consciousness ?
    Why not do it the other way around by using easy notions of meaningful information exchanges at simple organisms levels, and then work on a bottom-up approach thru the evolution of organisms ? (http://cogprints.org/6014/)
    Regarding Fitch’s amoeba, I’m not sure that her fitness to go on surviving is no different in principle from the cloud’s fitness to rain. The survival constraint of the amoeba is geographically limited to the amoeba and is related to its nature. The physical laws that bring the cloud to rain exist everywhere.

  2. 2. Malcolm Pollack says:

    Hi Peter,

    I think it is important to keep a clear distinction between intentionality and consciousness. Following Dennett, I am inclined to see intentionality as a property, specifically, of the products of evolution (or of the artifacts they bestow intentionality upon). The only things we know to be the end products of the design engine of evolution are living things, but it is in virtue of their being designed, rather than being alive, that they possess their intentionality. In this way intentionality can have entered the world through the gradual adjustment of the most rudimentary organisms’ design and behavior to serve their evolutionary “interests”; this interpretation avoids the infinite-regress objections that one often hears, (particularly from dualists and theists).

    As “aboutness”, the concept of intentionality applies to more than just thoughts; a hummingbird’s beak is “about” the flowers it fertilizes, for example, and its wing is “for” flying. But consciousness is not required for any of this sort of intentionality, and is another matter altogether. For all we know Searle may be right: consciousness may arise in virtue of certain yet-unknown physical properties of biological matter.


  3. 3. Malcolm Pollack says:

    How careless of me; the hummingbird’s beak isn’t for fertilizing flowers, of course, but for dining on their nectar.

    Typos and dangling words as well! I must review before submitting. Sorry.

  4. 4. steve esser says:

    Peter, thanks for discovering this paper – I thought it was outstanding.

    I’m a bit surprised you don’t see merit is how he distinguishes between the intentionality of a cloud and an eukaryotic cell: “…goal-directed capacity to respond adaptively to novel circumstances…” and “‘remember’ a solution by changing its own physical structure.” Send a gust of wind into a cloud twice and it will react the same way each time – no adaptation or development.
    Best regards,
    – Steve Esser

  5. 5. Peter says:

    Cheers, Steve. Beau Sievers deserves another hat-tip here I think.

    I might have come over unduly negative on the cloud versus eukaryote issue. I recognise that the distinction is important, and that the responsive characteristics of organisms are a precursor and prerequisite of intentionality. But I’d adhere to Grice’s distinction between natural and non-natural meaning. The eukaryote’s behaviour has lots of the former, in a highly complex form, but none of the latter, which is where we should look for the real McCoy of original intentionality.

  6. 6. Eric Thomson says:

    This paper sounds interesting. I agree with a good deal of your analysis, but think you should be careful of throwing out the baby of natural meaning with the bathwater.

    Dretske has argued at length that natural meaning is necessary, but not sufficient, for original intentionality. To the basic informational core, we need to add a few things to get true intentionality. I discussed such ingredients a bit here, along with several common objections to Dretske.

  7. 7. Eric Thomson says:

    I just read the Fitch paper, and prefer your summary. He is a bit sloppy with the words ‘aboutness’, using it as a synonym with ‘function’ and ‘goal’ at different times in the text, which makes it hard to follow the thread of his argument sometimes. I’d have to re-read it, switching in the appropriate terms, to get a stronger sense of how sound his argument is. I’m not convinced that individual neurons have ‘nanointentionality’, and even if they do I’m not sure it is necessary for thought (intentionality in the usual sense).

    The more promising avenue is the focus on goal-directed behavior of autonomous organisms (nanointentionality), and how this has been present for a very long time. It certainly seems reasonable that intentional states evolved as part of this ongoing story about goal-directed behavior. This is not particularly new. Indeed, I know of few people that would disagree.

    However, it seems a bit of a shoehorn to then say that 1) The nanointentionality of single-celled organisms inheres in single cells of metazoans (is that a category mistake?), and further 2) This property in single-cells of metazoans is necessary if that metazoan is to count as having a mind.

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