Archive for September, 2008

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.

Picture:  Julian Jaynes I see that the annual Julian Jaynes Conference took place last month. As you may  know, Jaynes put forward a surprising theory of consciousness which suggested it had a relatively recent origin. According to Jaynes ancient human beings, right up into early historical times, had minds that were divided into two chambers. One of these chambers was in charge of day-to-day life, operating on a simple, short-term emotional basis for the most part (though still capable of turning out some substantial pieces of art and literature, it seems). The occasional interventions of the second chamber, the part which dealt in more reflective, longer-term consideration were not experienced as the person’s own thoughts, but rather as divine or ancestral voices restraining or instructing the hearer, which explains why interventionist gods feature so strongly in early literature. The breakdown of this bicameral arrangement and the unification of the two chambers of the mind were, according to Jaynes, what produced consciousness as we now understand it.

I find this bicameral theory impossible to believe, but it does have some undeniably engaging qualities. The way it gives a neat potential explanation for divine voices and for certain modern mental disorders gives it a superficial plausibility, especially when expounded with Jaynes’ characteristic eloquence and panache. It’s tempting to think of it as a drastically overstated version of  an essentially sound insight, but even if it’s completely wrong, thinking about its flaws is a stimulating exercise.

At this year’s conference, Stevan Harnad gave a speech in two parts, beginning with some slightly disjointed personal reminiscences of Jaynes – he mentions that he found it impossible to write an obituary for Jaynes and you get the feeling that his emotions are still making it a difficult subject for him to talk about – and then going on to a philosophical discussion of the interesting question of whether Jaynes would have kicked a dog, and why not.

Why shouldn’t he? For Jaynes, after all, consciousness was uniquely human; no other creature had gone through the breakdown of a bicameral mind. There’s nothing especially wrong with kicking unconscious objects and since dogs lack consciousness, there should be no particular reason not to kick one; but Harnad was sure Jaynes, a gentle and civilised man, would certainly not have done so. In fact, he had confirmed this in conversation with Jaynes during his lifetime. Jaynes said it was true that dogs in themselves did not deserve the same moral consideration as conscious entities like human beings; but that we should by all means refrain from kicking dogs unnecessarily because of the moral consequences for the kicker and onlookers. Kicking dogs is a bad, desensitising act, unworthy of the moral dignity of human beings even though dogs don’t fundamentally matter.

This is an interesting answer, and I think it’s intellectually tenable. We should, on the whole, refrain from slashing rose bushes to pieces, and from smashing beautiful porcelain, even though plants and pots are not conscious. But as Harnad suggests, we may doubt the sincerity of the argument – it has the air of a rationalisation run up to defend a weak spot in a wider case rather than something sincerely believed. We might think that a better line of argument was available to Jaynes if he had been willing to say that unconscious creatures can still be moral objects, which is surely true.

Harnad, ultimately, wants to say that dogs are indeed moral objects because they have feelings, or so our mirror neurons tell us; and that empathy is enough to make us hold off, even Julian Jaynes. Although I suspect this overstates the role of mirror neurons, he’s surely right to think that the possession of feelings is enough to constitute a moral object. As Jeremy Bentham put it, ‘The question is not, can they reason?, nor can they talk? but, can they suffer?’

What’s particularly interesting is the discussion Harnad provides about feelings (in the loosest sense; any kind of mental intimation, including but not limited to sensory input). He begins by pointing out that Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is not a logical deduction but a claim about the infallibility of certain thoughts or feelings. To think that one exists can’t be a mistake because non-existent people don’t think at all. Harnad scrupulously points out that it’s the existence of the the thought itself which is established, rather than the existence of the more problematic self. However, other feelings have a similar kind of infallibility; we can be wrong about whether we’ve got a bad tooth, but not that it feels like toothache. Harnad notes that a similar kind of infallibility attaches to what we mean or understand. We can of course use words that don’t, in the wider world, have the meaning we wanted, but we can’t be wrong about what we meant internally. Harnad describes this as the distinction between wide and narrow meaning; it largely corresponds with the more controversial distinction between intrinsic and derive intentionality (thoughts have meanings because somehow they just do; books have meanings only because they record and evoke thoughts).

It all comes down to feelings according to Harnad. “2×2=4″ does not feel the same to us as “Kétser kettõ négy”, but if, like him, we spoke Hungarian, they would feel very similar, because they mean the same thing.

This is very interesting. The problem of intentionality, of meaningfulness, is one of the principal problems of consciousness, but it tends in my view to be somewhat neglected – perhaps partly because it’s so difficult to find anything worth saying about it. New ideas in this area are very welcome, and on the face of it Harnad’s suggestion is plausible (sincerity and strong feelings seem to go together at any rate). The chief problem, perhaps, is that even if it’s true, this insight doesn’t move us on as much as we should like. There’s no accompanying theory of feelings, and since Harnad has explicitly chosen the vaguest and widest interpretation of the term, we still don’t know all that much about the fundamental nature of intentionality.

My feeling, on the whole, is that in fact the true essence of meaningfulness lies elsewhere; a feeling that x is an invariable accompaniment to believing that x, but does not constitute the belief. Two cheers for Harnad, though, and a third for Jaynes, whose legacy remains so productive.