Posts tagged ‘intentionality’

dog-beliefThe unconscious is not just un. It works quite differently. So says Tim Crane in a persuasive draft paper which is to mark his inauguration as President of the Aristotelian Society (in spite of the name, the proceedings of that worthy organisation are not specifically concerned with the works or thought of Aristotle). He is particularly interested in the intentionality of the unconscious mind; how does the unconscious believe things, in particular?

The standard view, as Crane says, might probably be that the unconscious and conscious believe things in much the same way, and that it is basically a propositional one. (There is, by the way, scope to argue about whether there really is an unconscious mind – myself I lean towards the view that it’s better to talk of us doing or thinking things unconsciously, avoiding the implied claim that the unconscious is a distinct separate entity – but we can put that aside for present purposes.) The content of our beliefs, on this ‘standard’ view can be identified with a set of propositions – in principle we could just write down a list of our beliefs. Some of our beliefs certainly seem to be like that; indeed some important beliefs are often put into fixed words that we can remember and recite. Thou shalt not bear false witness, we hold these truths to be self-evident; the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

But if that were the case and we could make that list then we could say how many beliefs we have, and that seems absurd. The question of how many things we believe is often dismissed as silly, says Crane – how could you count them? – but it seems a good one to him. One big problem is that it’s quite easy to show that we have all sorts of beliefs we never consider explicitly. Do I believe that some houses are bigger than others? Yes, of course, though perhaps I never considered the question in that form before.

One common response (one which has been embodied in AI projects in the past) is that we have a set of core beliefs, which do sit in our brains in an explicit form; but we also have a handy means of quickly inferring other beliefs from them. So perhaps we know the typical range of sizes for houses and we can instantly work out from that that some are indeed bigger than others. But no-one has shown how we can distinguish what the supposed core beliefs are, nor how these explicit beliefs would be held in the brain (the idea of a ‘language of thought’ being at least empirically unsatisfactory in Crane’s view). Moreover there are problems with small children and animals who seem to hold definite beliefs that they could never put into words. A dog’s behaviour seems to show clearly enough that it believes there is a cat in this tree, but it could never formulate the belief in any explicit way. The whole idea that our beliefs are propositional in nature seems suspect.

Perhaps it is better, then,  to see beliefs as essentially dispositions to do or say things. The dog’s belief in the cat is shown by his disposition to certain kinds of behaviour around the tree – barking, half-hearted attempts at climbing. My belief that you are across the room is shown by my disposition to smile and walk over there. Crane suggests that in fact rather than sets of discrete beliefs what we really have is a worldview; a kind of holistic network in which individual nodes do not have individual readings. Ascriptions of belief, like attributing to someone a belief in a particular proposition, are really models that bring out particular aspects of their overall worldview. This has the advantage of explaining several things. One is that we can attribute the same belief – “Parliament is on the bank of the Thames” – to different people even though the content of their beliefs actually varies (because, for example, they have slightly different understandings about what ‘Parliament’ is).

It also allows scope for the vagueness of our beliefs, the ease with which we hold contradictory ones, and the interesting point that sometimes we’re not actually sure what we believe and may have to mull things over before reaching only tentative conclusions about it. Perhaps we too are just modelling as best we can the blobby ambiguity of our worldview.

Crane, in fact, wants to make all belief unconscious. Thinking is not believing, he says, although what I think and what I believe are virtually synonyms in normal parlance. One of the claimed merits of his approach is that if beliefs are essentially dispositions, it explains how they can be held continuously and not disappear when we are asleep or unconscious. Belief, on this view, is a continuous state; thinking is a temporary act, one which may well model your beliefs and turn them into explicit form. Without signing up to psychoanalytical doctrines wholesale, Crane is content that his thinking chimes with both Freudian and older ideas of the unconscious, putting the conscious interpretation of unconscious belief at the centre.

This all seems pretty sensible, though it does seem Crane is getting an awful lot of very difficult work done by the idea of a ‘worldview’, sketched here in only vague terms. It used to be easy to get away with this kind of vagueness in philosophy of mind, but these days I think there is always a ghostly AI researcher standing at the philosopher’s shoulder and asking how we set about doing the engineering, often a bracing challenge. How do we build a worldview into a robot if it’s not propositional? Some of Crane’s phraseology suggests he might be hoping that the concept of the worldview, with its network nodes with no explicit meaning might translate into modern neural network-based practice. Maybe it could; but even if it does, that surely won’t do for philosophers. The AI tribe will be happy if the robot works; but the philosophers will still want to know exactly how this worldview gizmo does its thing. We don’t know, but we know the worldview is already somehow a representation of the world. You could argue that while Crane set out to account for the intentionality of our beliefs, that is in the event the exact thing that he ends up not explaining at all.

There are some problems about resting on dispositions, too. Barking at a tree because I believe there’s a cat up there is one thing; my beliefs about metaphysics, by contrast, seem very remote from any simple behavioural dispositions of that kind. I suppose they would have to be conditional dispositions to utter or write certain kinds of words in the context of certain discussions. It’s a little hard to think that when I’m doing philosophy what  I’m really doing is modelling some of my own particularly esoteric pre-existing authorial dispositions. And what dispositions would they be? I think they would have to be something like dispositions to write down propositions like ‘nominalism is false’ – but didn’t we start off down this path because we were uncomfortable with the idea that the content of beliefs is propositional?

Moreover, Crane wants to say that our beliefs are preserved while we are asleep because we still have the relevant dispositions. Aren’t our beliefs similarly preserved when we’re dead? It would seem odd to say that Abraham Lincoln did not believe slavery should be abolished while he was asleep, certainly, but it would seem equally odd to say he stopped believing it when he died. But does he still have dispositions to speak in certain ways? If we insist on this line it seems the only way to make it intelligible is to fall back on counterfactuals (if he were still alive Lincoln would still be disposed to say that it was right to abolish slavery…) but counterfactuals notoriously bring a whole library of problems with them.

I’d also sort of like to avoid paring down the role of the conscious. I don’t think I’m quite ready to pack all belief away into the attic of the unconscious. Still, though Crane’s account may have its less appealing spots I do rather like the idea of a holistic worldview as the central bearer of belief.

intentional automatonJochen’s paper Von Neumann Minds: Intentional Automata has been published in Mind and Matter.

Intentionality is meaningfulness, the quality of being directed at something, aboutness. It is in my view one of the main problems of consciousness, up there with the Hard Problem but quite distinct from it; but it is often under-rated or misunderstood. I think this is largely because our mental life is so suffused with intentionality that we find it hard to see the wood for the trees; certainly I have read more than one discussion by very clever people who seemed to me to lose their way half-way through without noticing and end up talking about much simpler issues.

That is not a problem with Jochen’s paper which is admirably clear.  He focuses on the question of how to ground intentionality and in particular how to do so without falling foul of an infinite regress or the dreaded homunculus problem. There are many ways to approach intentionality and Jochen briefly mentions and rejects a few (basing it in phenomenal experience or in something like Gricean implicature, for example) before introducing his own preferred framework, which is to root meaning in action: the meaning of a symbol is, or is to be found in, the action it evokes. I think this is a good approach; it interprets intentionality as a matter of input/output relations, which is clarifying and also has the mixed blessing of exposing the problems in their worst and most intractable form. For me it recalls the approach taken by Quine to the translation problem – he of course ended up concluding that assigning certain meanings to unknown words was impossible because of radical under-determination; there are always more possible alternative meanings which cannot be eliminated by any logical procedure. Under-determination is a problem for many theories of intentionality and Jochen’s is not immune, but his aim is narrower.

The real target of the paper is the danger of infinite regress. Intentionality comes in two forms, derived on the one hand and original or intrinsic on the other. Books, words, pictures and so on have derived intentionality; they mean something because the author or the audience interprets them as having meaning. This kind of intentionality is relatively easy to deal with, but the problem is that it appears to defer the real mystery to the intrinsic intentionality in the mind of the person doing the interpreting. The clear danger is that we then go on to defer the intentionality to an homunculus, a ‘little man’ in the brain who again is the source of the intrinsic intentionality.

Jochen quotes the arguments of Searle and others who suggest that computational theories of the mind fail because the meaning and even the existence of a computation is a matter of interpretation and hence without the magic input of intrinsic intentionality from the interpreter fails through radical under-determination. Jochen dramatises the point using an extension of Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment in which it seems the man inside the room can really learn Chinese – but only because he has become in effect the required homunculus.

Now we come to the really clever and original part of the paper; Jochen draws an analogy with the problem of how things reproduce themselves. To do so it seems they must already have a complete model of themselves inside themselves… and so the problem of regress begins. It would be OK if the organism could scan itself, but a proof by Svozil seems to rule that out because of problems with self-reference.  Jochen turns to the solution proposed by the great John Von Neumann (a man who might be regarded as the inventor of the digital computer if Turing had never lived). Von Neumann’s solution is expressed in terms of a tw0-dimensional cellular automaton (very simplistically, a pattern on a grid that evolves over time according to certain rules – Conway’s Game of Life surely provides the best-known examples). By separating the functions of copying and interpretation, and distinguishing active and passive states Von Neumann managed to get round Svozil successfully.

Now by importing this distinction between active and passive into the question of intentionality, Jochen suggests we can escape the regress. If symbols play either an active or a passive role (in effect, as semantics or as syntax) we can have a kind of automaton which, in a clear sense, gives its own symbols their interpretation, and so escapes the regress.

This is an ingenious move. It is not a complete solution to the problem of intentionality (I think the under-determination monster is still roaming around out here), but it is a novel and very promising solution to the regress. More than that, it offers a new perspective which may well offer further insights when fully absorbed; I certainly haven’t managed to think through what the wider implications might be, but if a process so central to meaningful thought truly works in this unexpected dual way it seems there are bound to be some. For that reason, I hope the paper gets wide attention from people whose brains are better at this sort of thing than mine…

chainWhy does the question of determinism versus free will continue to trouble us? There’s nothing too strange, perhaps, about a philosophical problem remaining in play for a while – or even for a few hundred years: but why does this one have such legs and still provoke such strong and contrary feelings on either side?

For me the problem itself is solved – and the right solution, broadly speaking, has been known for centuries: determinism is true, but we also have free choice in a meaningful sense. St Augustine, to go no earlier, understood that free will and predestination are not contradictory, but people still find it confusing that he spoke up for both.

If this view – compatibilism – is right, why hasn’t it triumphed? I’m coming to think that the strongest opposition on the question might not in fact be between the hard-line determinists and the uncompromising libertarians but rather a matter of both ends against the middle. Compatibilists like me are happy to see the problem solved and determinism reconciled with common sense, whereas people from both the extremes insist that that misses something crucial. They believe the ‘loss’ of free will radically undercuts and changes our traditional sense of what we are as human beings. They think determinism, for better or worse, wipes away some sacred mark from our brows. Why do they think that?

Let’s start by quickly solving the old problem. Part one: determinism is true. It looks, with some small reservations about the interpretation of some esoteric matters, as if the laws of physics completely determine what happens. Actually even if contemporary physics did not seem to offer the theoretical possibility of full determination, we should be inclined to think that some set of rules did. A completely random or indeterminate world would seem scarcely distinguishable from a nullity; nothing definite could be said about it and no reliable predictions could be made because everything could be otherwise. That kind of scenario, of disastrous universal incoherence is extreme, and I admit I know of no absolute reason to rule out a more limited, demarcated indeterminacy. Still, the idea of delimited patches of randomness seems odd, inelegant and possibly problematic. God, said Einstein, does not play dice.

Beyond that, moreover, there’s a different kind of point. We came into this business in pursuit of truth and knowledge, so it’s fair to say that if there seemed to be patches of uncertainty we should want to do our level best to clarify them out of existence. In this sense it’s legitimate to regard determinism not just as a neutral belief, but as a proper aspiration. Even if we believe in free will, aren’t we going to want a theory that explains how it works, and isn’t that in the end going to give us rules that determine the process? Alright, I’m coming to the conclusion too soon: but in this light I see determinism as a thing that lovers of truth must strive towards (even if in vain) and we can note in passing that that might be some part of the reason why people champion it with zeal.

We’re not done with the defence, anyway. One more thing we can do against indeterminacy is to invoke the deep old principle which holds that nothing comes of nothing, and that nothing therefore happens unless it must; if something particular must happen, then the compulsion is surely encapsulated in some laws of nature.

Further still, even if none of that were reliable, we could fall back on a fatalistic argument. If it is true that on Tuesday you’ll turn right, then it was true on Monday that you would turn right on Tuesday; so your turning that way rather than left was already determined.

Finally, we must always remember that failure to establish determinism is not success in establishing liberty. Determinism looks to be true; we should try to establish its truth if by any means we can: but even if we fail, that failure in itself leaves us not with free will but with an abhorrent void of the unknowable.

Part two: we do actually make free decisions. Determinism is true, but it bites firmly only at a low level of description; not truly above the level of particles and forces. To look for decisions or choices at that level is simply a mistake, of the same general kind as looking for bicycles down there. Their absence from the micro level does not mean that cyclists are systematically deluded. Decisions are processes of large neural structures, and I suggest that when we describe them as free we simply mean the result was not constrained externally. If I had a gun to my head or my hands were tied, then turning left was not a free decision. If no-one could tell which way I should go without knowledge of what was going on in the large neural structures that realise my mind, then it was free. There are of course degrees of freedom and plenty of grey areas, but the essential idea is clear enough. Freedom is just the absence of external constraint on a level of description where people and decisions are salient, useful concepts.

For me, and I suppose other compatibilists, that’s a satisfying solution and matches well with what I think I’ve always meant when I talk about freedom. Indeed, it’s hard for me to see what else freedom could mean. What if God did play dice after all? Libertarians don’t want their free decisions to be random, they want them to belong to them personally and reflect consideration of the circumstances; the problem is that it’s challenging for them to explain in that case how the decisions can escape some kind of determination. What unites the libertarians and the determinists is the conviction that it’s that inexplicable, paradoxical factor we are concerned to affirm or deny, and that its presence or absence says something important about human nature. To quietly do without the magic, as compatibilists do, is on their view to shoot the fox and spoil the hunt. What are they both so worried about?

I speculate that the one factor here is a persistent background confusion. Determinism, we should remember, is an intellectual achievement, both historically and often personally. We live in a world where nothing much about human beings is certainly determined; only careful reflection reveals that in the end, at the lowest level of detail and at the very last knockings of things, there must be certainty. This must remain a theoretical conclusion, certainly so far as human beings are concerned; our behaviour may be determinate, but it is not determinable; certainly not in practice and very probably not even in theory, given the vast complexity, chaotic organisation and marvellously emergent properties of our brains. Some of those who deny determinism may be moved, not so much by explicit rejection of the true last-ditch thesis, but by the certainty that our minds are not determinable by us or by anyone. This muddying of the waters is perpetuated even now by arguments about how our minds may be strongly influenced by high-level factors: peer pressure, subliminal advertising, what we were given to read just before making a decision. These arguments may be presented in favour of determinism together with the water-tight last-ditch case, but they are quite different, and the high-level determinism they support is not certainly true but rather an eminently deniable hypothesis. In the end our behaviour is determined, but can we be programmed like robots by higher level influences? Maybe in some cases – generally, probably not.

The second, related factor is a certain convert enthusiasm. If determinism is a personal intellectual achievement it may well be that we become personally invested in it. When we come to appreciate its truth for the first time it may seem that we have grasped a new perspective and moved out of the confused herd to join the scientifically enlightened. I certainly felt this on my first acquaintance with the idea; I remember haranguing a friend about the truth of determinism in a way that must, with hindsight, have resembled religious conviction and been very tiresome.

“Yes, yes, OK, I get it,” he would say in a vain attempt to stop the flow.

Now no-one lives pure determinism; we all go behaving as if agency and freedom were meaningful. The fact that this involves an unresolved tension between your philosophy and the ideas about people you actually live by was not a deterrent to me then, however; in fact it may even have added a glamorous sheen of esoteric heterodoxy to the whole thing. I expect other enthusiasts may feel the same today. The gradual revelation, some years later, that determinism is true but actually not at all as important as you thought is less exciting: it has rather a dying fall to it and may be more difficult to assimilate. Consistency with common sense is perhaps a game for the middle aged.

“You know, I’ve been sort of nuancing my thinking about determinism lately…”

“Oh, what, Peter? You made me live through the conversion experience with you – now I have to work through your apostasy, too?”

On the libertarian side, it must be admitted that our power of decision really does look sort of strange, with a power far exceeding that of mere absence of constraint. There are at least two reasons for this. One is our ability to use intentionality to think about anything whatever, and base our decisions on those thoughts. I can think about things that are remote, non-existent, or even absurd, without any difficulty. Most notably, when I make decisions I am typically thinking about future events: will I turn left or right tomorrow? How can future events influence my behaviour now?

It’s a bit like the time machine case where I take the text of Hamlet back in time and give it to Shakespeare – who never actually produced it but now copies it down and has it performed. Who actually wrote it, in these circumstances? No-one, it just appeared at some point. Our ability to think about the future, and so use future goals as causes of actions now, seems in the same way to bring our decisions into being out of nowhere inside us. There was no prior cause, only later ones, so it really seems as if the process inverts and disrupts the usual order of causality.

We know this is indeed remarkable but it isn’t really magic. On my view it’s simply that our recognition of various entities that extend over time allows a kind of extrapolation. The actual causal processes, down at that lowest level, tick away in the right order, but our pattern-matching capacity provides processes at a higher level which can legitimately be said to address the future without actually being caused by it. Still, the appearance is powerful, and we may be impatient with the kind of materialist who prefers to live in a world with low ceilings, insists on everything being material and denies any independent validity to higher levels of description. Some who think that way even have difficulty accepting that we can think directly about mathematical abstractions – quite a difficult posture for anyone who accepts the physics that draws heavily on them.

The other thing is the apparent, direct reality of our decisions. We just know we exercise free will, because we experience the process immediately. We can feel ourselves deciding. We could be wrong about all sorts of things in the world, but how could I be wrong about what I think? I believe the feeling of something ineffable here comes from the fact that we are not used to dealing with reality. Most of what we know about the world is a matter of conscious or unconscious inference, and when we start thinking scientifically or philosophically it is heavily informed by theory. For many people it starts to look as if theory is the ultimate bedrock of things, rather than the thin layer of explanation we place on top. For such a mindset the direct experience of one’s own real thoughts looks spooky; its particularity, its haecceity, cannot be accounted for by theory and so looks anomalous. There are deep issues here, but really we ought not to be foxed by simple reality.

That’s it, I think, in brief at least. More could be said of course; more will be said. The issues above are like optical illusions: just knowing how they work doesn’t make them go away, and so minds will go on boggling. People will go on furiously debating free will: that much is both determined and determinable.

knight 2This is the second of four posts about key ideas from my book The Shadow of Consciousness. This one looks at how the brain points at things, and how that could provide a basis for handling intentionality, meaning and relevance.

Intentionality is the quality of being about things, possessed by our thoughts, desires, beliefs and (clue’s in the name) our intentions. In a slightly different way intentionality is also a property of books, symbols, signs and, pointers. There are many theories out there about how it works; most, in my view, have some appeal, but none looks like the full story.

Several of the existing theories touch on a handy notion of natural meaning proposed by H.P.Grice. Natural meaning is essentially just the noticeable implication of things. Those spots mean measles; those massed dark clouds mean rain. If we regard this kind of ‘meaning’ as the wild, undeveloped form of intentionality we might be able to go on to suggest how the full-blown kind might be built out of it; how we get to non-natural meaning, the kind we generally use to communicate with and the kind most important to consciousness.

My proposal is that we regard natural meaning as a kind of pointing, and that pointing, in turn, is the recognition of a higher-level entity that links the pointer with the target. Seeing dark clouds and feeling raindrops on your head are two parts of the recognisable over-arching entity of a rain-storm. Spots are just part of the larger entity of measles. So our basic ability to deal with meanings is simply a consequence of our ability to recognise things at different levels.

Looking at it that way, it’s easy enough to see how we could build derived intentionality, the sort that words and symbols have; the difference is just that the higher-level entities we need to link everything up are artificial, supplied by convention or shared understanding: the words of a language, the conventions of a map. Clouds and water on my head are linked by the natural phenomenon of rain: the word ‘rain’ and water on my head are linked by the prodigious vocabulary table of the language. We can imagine how such conventions might grow up through something akin to a game of charades; I use a truncated version of a digging gesture to invite my neighbour to help with a hole: he gets it because he recognises that my hand movements could be part of the larger entity of digging. After a while the grunt I usually do at the same time becomes enough to convey the notion of digging.

External communication is useful, but this faculty of recognising wholes for parts and parts for wholes enables me to support more ambitious cognitive processes too, and make a bid for the original (aka ‘intrinsic’) intentionality that characterises my own thoughts, desires and beliefs. I start off with simple behaviour patterns in which recognising an object stimulates the appropriate behaviour; now I can put together much more complex stuff. I recognise an apple; but instead of just eating it, I recognise the higher entity of an apple tree; from there I recognise the long cycle of tree growth, then the early part in which a seed hits the ground; and from there I recognise that the apple in my hand could yield the pips required, which are recognisably part of a planting operation I could undertake myself…

So I am able to respond, not just to immediate stimuli, but to think about future apples that don’t even exist yet and shape my behaviour towards them. Plans that come out of this kind of process can properly be called intentional (I thought about what I was doing) and the fact that they seem to start with my thoughts, not simply with external stimuli, is what justifies our sense of responsibility and free will. In my example there’s still an external apple that starts the chain of thought, but I could have been ruminating for hours and the actions that result might have no simple relationship to any recent external stimulus.

We can move thinks up another notch if I begin, as it were, to grunt internally. From the digging grunt and similar easy starts, I can put together a reasonable kind of language which not only works on my friends, but on me if I silently recognise the digging grunt and use it to pose to myself the concept of excavation.

There’s more. In effect, when I think, I am moving through the forest of hierarchical relationships subserved by recognition. This forest has an interesting property. Although it is disorderly and extremely complex, it automatically arranges things so that things I perceive as connected in any way are indeed linked. This means it serves me as a kind of relevance space, where the things I may need to think about are naturally grouped and linked. This helps explain how the human brain is so good at dealing with the inexhaustible: it naturally (not infallibly) tends to keep the most salient things close.

In the end then, human style thought and human style consciousness (or at any rate the Easy Problem kind) seem to be a large and remarkably effective re-purposing of our basic faculty of recognition. By moving from parts to whole to other parts and then to other wholes, I can move through a conceptual space in a uniquely detached but effective way.

That’s a very compressed version of thoughts that probably need a more gentle introduction, but I hope it makes some sense. On to haecceity!


Banca RuritaniaPersonhood Week, at National Geographic is a nice set of short pieces briefly touring the issues around the crucial but controversial issue of what constitutes a person.

You won’t be too surprised to hear that in my view personhood is really all about consciousness. The core concept for me is that a person is a source of intentions – intentions in the ordinary everyday sense rather than in the fancy philosophical sense of intentionality (though that too).  A person is an actual or potential agent, an entity that seeks to bring about deliberate outcomes. There seems to be a bit of a spectrum here; at the lower level it looks as if some animals have thoughtful and intentional behaviour of the kind that would qualify them for a kind of entry-level personhood. At its most explicit, personhood implies the ability to articulate complicated contracts and undertake sophisticated responsibilities: this is near enough the legal conception. The law, of course, extends the idea of a person beyond mere human beings, allowing a form of personhood to corporate entities, which are able to make binding agreements, own property, and even suffer criminal liability. Legal persons of this kind are obviously not ‘real’ ones in some sense, and I think the distinction corresponds with the philosophical distinction between original (or intrinsic, if we’re bold) and derived intentionality. The latter distinction comes into play mainly when dealing with meaning. Books and pictures are about things, they have meanings and therefore intentionality, but their meaningfulness is derived: it comes only from the intentions of the people who interpret them, whether their creators or their ‘audience’.  My thoughts, by contrast, really just mean things, all on their own and however anyone interprets them: their intentionality is original or intrinsic.

So, at least, most people would say (though others would energetically contest that description). In a similar way my personhood is real or intrinsic: I just am a person; whereas the First Central Bank of Ruritania has legal personhood only because we have all agreed to treat it that way. Nevertheless, the personhood of the Ruritanian Bank is real (hypothetically, anyway; I know Ruritania does not exist – work with me on this), unlike that of, say, the car Basil Fawlty thrashed with a stick, which is merely imaginary and not legally enforceable.

Some, I said, would contest that picture: they might argue that ;a source of intentions makes no sense because ‘people’ are not really sources of anything; that we are all part of the universal causal matrix and nothing comes of nothing. Really, they would say, our own intentions are just the same as those of Banca Prima Centrale Ruritaniae; it’s just that ours are more complex and reflexive – but the fact that we’re deeming ourselves to be people doesn’t make it any the less a matter of deeming.  I don’t think that’s quite right – just because intentions don’t feature in physics doesn’t mean they aren’t rational and definable entities – but in any case it surely isn’t a hit against my definition of personhood; it just means there aren’t really any people.

Wait a minute, though. Suppose Mr X suffers a terrible brain injury which leaves him incapable of forming any intentions (whether this is actually possible is an interesting question: there are some examples of people with problems that seem like this; but let’s just help ourselves to the hypothesis for the time being). He is otherwise fine: he does what he’s told and if supervised can lead a relatively normal-seeming life. He retains all his memories, he can feel normal sensations, he can report what he’s experienced, he just never plans or wants anything. Would such a man no longer be a person?

I think we are reluctant to say so because we feel that, contrary to what I suggested above, agency isn’t really necessary, only conscious experience. We might have to say that Mr X loses his legal personhood in some senses; we might no longer hold him responsible or accept his signature as binding, rather in the way that we would do for a young child: but he would surely retain the right to be treated decently, and to kill or injure him would be the same crime as if committed against anyone else.  Are we tempted to say that there are really two grades of personhood that happen to coincide in human beings,  a kind of ‘Easy Problem’ agent personhood on the one hand and a ‘Hard Problem’ patient personhood?  I’m tempted, but the consequences look severely unattractive. Two different criteria for personhood would imply that I’m a person in two different ways simultaneously, but if personhood is anything, it ought to be single, shouldn’t it? Intuitively and introspectively it seems that way. I’d feel a lot happier if I could convince myself that the two criteria cannot be separated, that Mr X is not really possible.

What about Robot X? Robot X has no intentions of his own and he also has no feelings. He can take in data, but his sensory system is pretty simple and we can be pretty sure that we haven’t accidentally created a qualia-experiencing machine. He has no desires of his own, not even a wish to serve, or avoid harming human beings, or anything like that. Left to himself he remains stationary indefinitely, but given instructions he does what he’s told: and if spoken to, he passes the Turing Test with flying colours. In fact, if we ask him to sit down and talk to us, he is more than capable of debating his own personhood, showing intelligence, insight, and understanding at approximately human levels. Is he a person? Would we hesitate over switching him off or sending him to the junk yard?

Perhaps I’m cheating. Robot X can talk to us intelligently, which implies that he can deal with meanings. If he can deal with meanings, he must have intentionality, and if he has that perhaps he must, contrary to what I said, be able to form intentions after all – so perhaps the conditions I stipulated aren’t possible after all? And then, how does he generate intentions, as a matter of fact? I don’t know, but on one theory intentionality is rooted in desires or biological drives. The experience of hunger is just primally about food, and from that kind of primitive aboutness all the fancier kinds are built up. Notice that it’s the experience of hunger, so arguably if you had no feelings you couldn’t get started on intentionality either! If all that is right, neither Robot X nor Mr X is really as feasible as they might seem: but it still seems a bit worrying to me.

dennettProfessors are too polite. So Daniel Dennett reckons. When leading philosophers or other academics meet, they feel it would be rude to explain their theories thoroughly to each other, from the basics up. That would look as if you thought your eminent colleague hadn’t grasped some of the elementary points. So instead they leap in and argue on the basis of an assumed shared understanding that isn’t necessarily there. The result is that they talk past each other and spend time on profitless misunderstandings.

Dennett has a cunning trick to sort this out. He invites the professors to explain their ideas to a selected group of favoured undergraduates (‘Ew; he sounds like Horace Slughorn’ said my daughter); talking to undergraduates they are careful to keep it clear and simple and include an exposition of any basic concepts they use. Listening in, the other professors understand what their colleagues really mean, perhaps for the first time, and light dawns at last.

It seems a good trick to me (and for the undergraduates, yes, by ‘good’ I mean both clever and beneficial); in his new book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking Dennett seems covertly to be playing another. The book offers itself as a manual or mental tool-kit offering tricks and techniques for thinking about problems, giving examples of how to use them. In the examples, Dennett runs through a wide selection of his own ideas, and the cunning old fox clearly hopes that in buying his tools, the reader will also take up his theories. (Perhaps this accessible popular presentation will even work for some of those recalcitrant profs, with whom Dennett has evidently grown rather tired of arguing…. heh, heh!)

So there’s a hidden agenda, but in addition the ‘intuition pumps’ are not always as advertised. Many of them actually deserve a more flattering description because they address the reason, not the intuition. Dennett is clear enough that some of the techniques he presents are rather more than persuasive rhetoric, but at least one reviewer was confused enough to think that Reduction ad Absurdum was being presented as an intuition pump – which is rather a slight on a rigorous logical argument: a bit like saying Genghis Khan was among the more influential figures in Mongol society.

It seems to me, moreover, that most of the tricks on offer are not really techniques for thinking, but methods of presentation or argumentation. I find it hard to imagine someone trying to solve a problem by diligently devising thought-experiments and working through the permutations; that’s a method you use when you think you know the answer and want to find ways to convince others.

What we get in practice is a pretty comprehensive collection of snippets; a sort of Dennettian Greatest Hits. Some of the big arguments in philosophy of mind are dropped as being too convoluted and fruitless to waste more time on, but we get the memorable bits of many of Dennett’s best thought-experiments and rebuttals.  Not all of these arguments benefit from being taken out of the context of a more systematic case, and here and there – it’s inevitable I suppose – we find the remix or late cover version is less successful than the original. I thought this was especially so in the case of the Giant Robot; to preserve yourself in a future emergency you build a wandering robot to carry you around in suspended animation for a few centuries. The robot needs to survive in an unpredictable world, so you end up having to endow it with all the characteristics of a successful animal; and you are in a sense playing the part of the Selfish Gene. Such a machine would be able to deal with meanings and intentionality just the way you do, wouldn’t it? Well, in this brief version I don’t really see why or, perhaps more important, how.

Dennett does a bit better with arguments against intrinsic intentionality, though I don’t think his arguments succeed in establishing that there is no difference between original and derived intentionality. If Dennett is right, meaning would be built up in our brains through the interaction of gradually more meaningful layers of homunculi; OK (maybe), but that’s still quite different to what happens with derived intentionality, where things get to mean something because of an agreed convention or an existing full-fledged intention.

Dennett, as he acknowledges, is not always good at following the maxims he sets out. An early chapter is given over to the rules set out by Anatol Rapoport, most notably:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

As someone on Metafilter said, when Dan Dennett does that for Christianity, I’ll enjoy reading it; but there was one place in the current book where I thought Dennett fell short on understanding the opposition. He suggests that Kasparov’s way of thinking about chess is probably the same as Deep Blue’s in the end. What on earth could provoke one to say that they were obviously different, he protests. Wishful thinking? Fear? Well, no need to suppose so: we know that the hardware (brain versus computer) is completely different and runs a different kind of process; we know the capacities of computer and brain are different and, in spite of an argument from Dennett to the contrary, we know the heuristics are significantly different. We know that decisions in Kasparov’s case involve consciousness, while Deep Blue lacks it entirely. So, maybe the processes are the same in the end, but there are some pretty good prima facie reasons to say they look very different.

One section of the book naturally talks about evolution, and there’s good stuff, but it’s still a twentieth century, Dawkinsian vision Dennett is trading in. Can it be that Dennett of all people is not keeping up with the science? There’s no sign here of the epigenetic revolution; we’re still in a world where it’s all about discrete stretches of DNA. That DNA, moreover, got to be the way it is through random mutation; no news has come in of the great struggle with the viruses which we now know has left its wreckage all across the human genome, and more amazing,  has contributed some vital functional stretches without which we wouldn’t be what we are. It’s a pity because that seems like a story that should appeal to Dennett, with his pandemonic leanings.

Still, there’s a lot to like; I found myself enjoying the book more and more as it went on and the pretence of being a thinking manual dropped away a bit.  Naturally some of Dennett’s old attacks on qualia are here, and for me they still get the feet tapping. I liked Mr Clapgras, either a new argument or more likely one I missed first time round; he suffers a terrible event in which all his emotional and empathic responses to colour are inverted without his actual perception of colour changing at all. Have his qualia been inverted – or are they yet another layer of experience? There’s really no way of telling and for Dennett the question is hardly worth asking. When we got to Dennett’s reasonable defence of compatibilism over free will, I was on my feet and cheering.

I don’t think this book supersedes Consciousness Explained if you want to understand Dennett’s views on consciousness. You may come away from reading it with your thinking powers enhanced, but it will be because your mental muscles have been stretched and used, not really because you’ve got a handy new set of tools. But if you’re a Dennett fan or just like a thoughtful and provoking read, it’s worth a look.

bindingJohnjoe McFadden has followed up the paper on his conscious electromagnetic information (CEMI) field which we discussed recently with another in the JCS – it’s also featured on MLU, where you can access a copy.

This time he boldly sets out to tackle the intractable enigma of meaning. Well, actually, he says his aims are more modest; he believes there is a separate binding problem which affects meaning and he wants to show how the CEMI field offers the best way of resolving it. I think the problem of meaning is one of those issues it’s difficult to sidle up to; once you’ve gone into the dragon’s lair you tend to have to fight the beast even if all you set out to do was trim its claws; and I think McFadden is perhaps drawn into offering a bit more than he promises; nothing wrong with that, of course.

Why then, does McFadden suppose there is a binding problem for meaning? The original binding problem is to do with perception. All sorts of impulses come into our heads through different senses and get processed in different ways in different places and different speeds. Yet somehow out of these chaotic inputs the mind binds together a beautifully coherent sense of what is going on, everything matching and running smoothly with no lags or failures of lip-synch. This smoothly co-ordinated experience is robust, too; it’s not easy to trip it up in the way optical illusions so readily derail up our visual processes. How is this feat pulled off? There are a range of answers on offer, including global workspaces and suggestions that the whole thing is a misconceived pseudo-problem; but I’ve never previously come across the suggestion that meaning suffers a similar issue.

McFadden says he wants to talk about the phenomenology of meaning. After sitting quietly and thinking about it for some time, I’m not at all sure, on the basis of introspection, that meaning has any phenomenology of its own, though no doubt when we mean things there is usually some accompanying phenomenology going on. Is there something it is like to mean something? What these perplexing words seem to portend is that McFadden, in making his case for the binding problem of meaning, is actually going to stick quite closely with perception. There is clearly a risk that he will end up talking about perception; and perception and meaning are not at all the same. For one thing the ‘direction of fit’ is surely different; to put it crudely, perception is primarily about the world impinging on me, whereas meaning is about me pointing at the world.

McFadden gives five points about meaning. The first is unity; when we mean a chair, we mean the whole thing, not its parts. That’s true, but why is it problematic? McFadden talks about how the brain deals with impossible triangles and sees words rather than collections of letters, but that’s all about perception; I’m left not seeing the problem so far as meaning goes. The second point is context-dependence. McFadden quite rightly points out that meaning is highly context sensitive and that the same sequence of letters can mean different things on different occasions. That is indeed an interesting property of meaning; but he goes on to talk about how meanings are perceived, and how, for example, the meaning of “ball” influences the way we perceive the characters 3ALL. Again we’ve slid into talking about perception.

With the third point, I think we fare a bit better; this is compression, the way complex meanings can be grasped in a flash. If we think of a symphony, we think, in a sense, of thousands of notes that occur over a lengthy period, but it takes us no time at all. This is true, and it does point to some issue around parts and wholes, but I don’t think it quite establishes McFadden’s point. For there to be a binding problem, we’d need to be in a position where we had to start with meaning all the notes separately and then triumphantly bind them together in order to mean the symphony as a whole – or something of that kind, at any rate. It doesn’t work like that; I can easily mean Mahler’s eighth symphony (see, I just did it), of whose notes I know nothing, or his twelfth, which doesn’t even exist.

Fourth is emergence: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The properties of a triangle are not just the properties of the lines that make it up. Again, it’s true, but the influence of perception is creeping in; when we see a triangle we know our brain identifies the lines, but we don’t know that in the case of meaning a triangle we need at any stage to mean the separate lines – and in fact that doesn’t seem highly plausible. The fifth and last point is interdependence: changing part of an object may change the percept of the whole, or I suppose we should be saying, the meaning. It’s quite true that changing a few letters in a text can drastically change its meaning, for example. But again I don’t see how that involves us in a binding problem. I think McFadden is typically thinking of a situation where we ask ourselves ‘what’s the meaning of this diagram?’ – but that kind of example invites us to think about perception more than meaning.

In short, I’m not convinced that there is a separate binding problem affecting meaning, though McFadden’s observations shed some interesting lights on the old original issue. He does go on to offer us a coherent view of meaning in general. He picks up a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic information. Extrinsic information is encoded or symbolised according to arbitrary conventions – it sort of corresponds with derived intentionality – so a word, for example, is extrinsic information about the thing it names. Intrinsic information is the real root of the matter and it embodies some features of the thing represented. McFadden gives the following definition.

Intrinsic information exists whenever aspects of the physical relationships that exist between the parts of an object are preserved – either in the original object or its representation.

So the word “car” is extrinsic and tells you nothing unless you can read English. A model of a car, or a drawing, has intrinsic information because it reproduces some of the relations between parts that apply in the real thing, and even aliens would be able to tell something about a car from it (or so McFadden claims). It follows that for meaning to exist in the brain there must be ‘models’ of this kind somewhere. (McFadden allows a little bit of wiggle room; we can express dimensions as weights, say, so long as the relationships are preserved, but in essence the whole thing is grounded in what some others might call ‘iconic’ representation. ) Where could that be? The obvious place to look is in the neurons. but although McFadden allows that firing rates in a pattern of neurons could carry the information, he doesn’t see how they can be brought together: step forward the CEMI field (though as I said previously I don’t really understand why the field doesn’t just smoosh everything together in an unhelpful way).

The overall framework here is sensible and it clearly fits with the rest of the theory; but there are two fatal problems for me. The first is that, as discussed above, I don’t think McFadden succeeds in making the case for a separate binding problem of meaning, getting dragged back by the gravitational pull of perception. We have the original binding problem because we know perception starts with a jigsaw kit of different elements and produces a slick unity, whereas all the worries about parts seem unmotivated when it comes to meaning. If there’s no new binding problem of meaning, then the appeal of CEMI as a means of solving it is obviously limited.

The second problem is that his account of meaning doesn’t really cut the mustard. This is unfair, because he never said he was going to solve the whole problem of meaning, but if this part of the theory is weak it inevitably damages the rest.  The problem is that representations that work because they have some of the properties of the real thing, don’t really work.  For one thing a glance at the definition above shows it is inherently limited to things with parts that have a physical relationship. We can’t deal with abstractions at all. If I tell you I know why I’m writing this, and you ask me what I mean, I can’t tell you I mean my desire for understanding, because my desire for understanding does not have parts with a physical relationship, and there cannot therefore be intrinsic information about it.

But it doesn’t even work for physical objects. McFadden’s version of intrinsic information would require that when I think ‘car’ it’s represented as a specific shape and size. In discussing optical illusions he concedes at a late stage that it would be an ‘idealised’ car (that idealisation sounds problematic in itself); but I can mean ‘car’ without meaning anything ideal or particular at all. By ‘car’ I can in fact mean a flying vehicle with no wheels made of butter and one centimetre long  (that tiny midge is going to regret settling in my butter dish as he takes his car ride into the bin of oblivion courtesy of a flick from my butter knife), something that does not in any way share parts with physical relationships which are the same as any of those applying to the big metal thing in the garage.

Attacking that flank, as I say, probably is a little unfair. I don’t think the CEMI theory is going to get new oomph from the problems of meaning, but anyone who puts forward a new line of attack on any aspect of that intractable issue deserves our gratitude.

Blind AquinasBesides being the author of thoughtful comments here – and sophisticated novels, including the great fantasy series The Second Apocalypse – Scott Bakker has developed a theory which may dispel important parts of the mystery surrounding consciousness.

This is the Blind Brain Theory (BBT). Very briefly, the theory rests on the observation that from the torrent of information processed by the brain, only a meagre trickle makes it through to consciousness; and crucially that includes information about the processing itself. We have virtually no idea of the massive and complex processes churning away in all the unconscious functions that really make things work and the result is that consciousness is not at all what it seems to be. In fact we must draw the interesting distinction between what consciousness is and what it seems to be.

There are of course some problems about measuring the information content of consciousness, and I think it remains quite open whether in the final analysis information is what it’s all about. There’s no doubt the mind imports information, transforms it, and emits it; but whether information processing is of the essence so far as consciousness is concerned is still not completely clear. Computers input and output electricity, after all, but if you tried to work out their essential nature by concentrating on the electrical angle you would be in trouble. But let’s put that aside.

You might also at first blush want to argue that consciousness must be what it seems to be, or at any rate that the contents of consciousness must be what they seem to be: but that is really another argument. Whether or not certain kinds of conscious experience are inherently infallible (if it feels like a pain it is a pain), it’s certainly true that consciousness may appear more comprehensive and truthful than it is.

There are in fact reasons to suspect that this is actually the case, and Scott mentions three in particular; the contingent and relatively short evolutionary history of consciousness, the complexity of the operations involved, and the fact that it is so closely bound to unconscious functions. None of these prove that consciousness must be systematically unreliable, of course. We might be inclined to point out that if consciousness has got us this far it can’t be as wrong as all that. A general has only certain information about his army – he does not know the sizes of the boots worn by each of his cuirassiers, for example – but that’s no disadvantage: by limiting his information to a good enough set of strategic data he is enabled to do a good job, and perhaps that’s what consciousness is like.

But we also need to take account of the recursively self-referential nature of consciousness. Scott takes the view (others have taken a similar line), that consciousness is the product of a special kind of recursion which allows the brain to take into account its own operations and contents as well as the external world. Instead of simply providing an output action for a given stimulus, it can throw its own responses into the mix and generate output actions which are more complex, more detached, and in terms of survival, more effective. Ultimately only recursively integrated information reaches consciousness.

The limits to that information are expressed as information horizons or strangely invisible boundaries; like the edge of the visual field the contents of conscious awareness  have asymptotic limits – borders with only one side. The information always appears to be complete even though it may be radically impoverished in fact. This has various consequences, one of which is that because we can’t see the gaps, the various sensory domains appear spuriously united.

This is interesting, but I have some worries about it. The edge of the visual field is certainly phenomenologically interesting, but introspectively I don’t think the same kind of limit seems to come up with other senses. Vision is a special case: it has an orderly array of positions built in, so at some point the field has to stop arbitrarily; with sound the fading of farther sounds corresponds to distance in a way which seems merely natural; with smell position hardly comes into it and with touch the built-in physical limits mean the issue of an information horizon doesn’t seem to arise. For consciousness itself spatial position seems to me at least to be irrelevant or inapplicable so that the idea of a boundary doesn’t make sense. It’s not that I can’t see the boundary or that my consciousness seems illimitable, more that the concept is radically inapplicable, perhaps even metaphorically. Scott would probably say that’s exactly how it is bound to seem…

There are several consequences of our being marooned in an encapsulated informatic island whose impoverishment is invisible to us: I mentioned unity, and the powerful senses of a ‘now’ and of personal identity are other examples which Scott covers in more detail. It’s clear that a sense of agency and will could also be derived on this basis and the proposition that it is our built-in limitations that give rise to these powerfully persuasive but fundamentally illusory impressions makes a good deal of sense.

More worryingly Scott proceeds to suggest that logic and even intentionality – aboutness – are affected by a similar kind of magic that similarly turns out to be mere conjuring. Again, results generated by systems we have no direct access to, produce results which consciousness complacently but quite wrongly attributes to itself and is thereby deluded as to their reliability. It’s not exactly that they don’t work (we could again make the argument that we don’t seem to be dead yet, so something must be working) more that our understanding of how or why they work is systematically flawed and in fact as we conceive of them they are properly just illusions.

Most of us will, I think want to stop the bus and get off at this point. What about logic, to begin with? Well, there’s logic and logic. There is indeed the unconscious kind we use to solve certain problems and which certainly is flawed and fallible; we know many examples where ordinary reasoning typically goes wrong in peculiar ways. But then there’s formal explicit logic, which we learn laboriously, which we use to validate or invalidate the other kind and which surely happens in consciousness (if it doesn’t then really I don’t think anything does and the whole matter descends into complete obscurity); hard not to feel that we can see and understand how that works too clearly for it to be a misty illusion of competence.

What about intentionality? Well, for one thing to dispel intentionality is to cut off the branch on which you’re sitting: if there’s no intentionality then nothing is about anything and your theory has no meaning. There are some limits to how radically sceptical we can be. Less fundamentally, intentionality doesn’t seem to me to fit the pattern either; it’s true that in everyday use we take it for granted, but once we do start to examine it the mystery is all too apparent. According to the theory it should look as if it made sense, but on the contrary the fact that it is mysterious and we have no idea how it works is all too clear once we actually consider it. It’s as though the BBT is answering the wrong question here; it wants to explain why intentionality looks natural while actually being esoteric; what we really want to know is how the hell that esoteric stuff can possibly work.

There’s some subtle and surprising argumentation going on here and throughout which I cannot do proper justice to in a brief sketch, and I must admit there are parts of the case I may not yet have grasped correctly – no doubt through density (mine, not the exposition’s) but also I think perhaps because some of the latter conclusions here are so severely uncongenial. Even if meaning isn’t what I take it to be, I think my faulty version is going to have to do until something better comes along.

(BTW, the picture is supposed to be Thomas Aquinas, who introduced the concept of intentionality. The glasses are suppose to imply he’s blind, but somehow he’s just come out looking like a sort of cool monk dude. Sorry about that.)


Picture: qualintentionality. Sometimes mistakes can be more interesting than getting it right. Last week I was thinking about Pauen’s claim, reasonable enough, that belief in qualia is ultimately based on the intuitive sense that experience and physics are two separate realms. The idea that subjective stuff, the redness of red and so on, could be nothing but certain jigs danced by elementary particles, provokes a special incredulity. What’s the famous quote that sums that up, I thought? Something about…

This phenomenal quality is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it.

That captures the incredulity quite nicely. However, it dawned on me that it was Brentano, and he didn’t say ‘phenomenal quality’, he said ‘intentional inexistence’.

So it turns out we have two incredulitites, one about qualia – subjectivity or ‘what it is like’, one about intentionality – ‘aboutness’ or meaningfulness. To me, they have a very similar feel. So what do we say about that? I can see four reasonable possibilities.

  1. The resemblance is superficial: just because your mind boggles at two different things, it doesn’t mean the two things are identical.
  2. The incredulity is the same because it’s not specifically attached to qualia or intentionality, it’s just characteristic of mental phenomena of all kinds.
  3. The incredulity arises from intentionality, and qualia have it because they are intentional in nature.
  4. The incredulity arises from qualia, and intentionality has it because it arises out of qualia.

Although 1. is a very rational line to take, I can’t help feeling there is at least a little more to it than that. I don’t detect in myself a third incredulity – I don’t feel that nothing in subjectivity could possibly account for intentionality, or vice versa: that remains to be examined. And to put it no higher, it would be nice if we could tidy things up by linking the two problems, or even perhaps reducing one to the other. One inexplicable realm is bad enough.

I suppose 2. is what Brentano himself might have said. I don’t know whether we’d now be quite so quick to bestow the mystery on all mental phenomena: it doesn’t seem so implausible now that calculation or choosing a chess move might be nothing more than a special kind of physical activity. Moreover, if the problem doesn’t come from intentionality or qualia, we seem to have a third problem distinct from either, which is unwelcome, and a slight difficulty over the relationships. It doesn’t seem much of an answer to say that qualia seem strange and non-physical because they’re mental, unless we can go on to say a lot more about the spookiness of the mental and why it attaches to subjective experience the way it does.

I suppose we could go dualist here, and say that mental things exist in a separate domain in which both qualia and meanings participate. Isn’t something like that the main reason dualists are dualists, in fact? Taking that route involves the usual problems of explaining the interaction between worlds and indeed, giving some explanation of how the second world works. If we don’t give that latter explanation we seem only to have deferred the issues.

It might be easier if we said something along the lines of the mental being essentially a different level of explanation within a monist universe. For me, that looks at least a starter so far as intentionality goes, but not for qualia. They’re not really a level of explanation – they’re not explanatory at all, quite the reverse. This brings out some interesting differences. In the case of qualia we already have a pretty full scientific account of how the senses work. We pretty much know what we’d reduce qualia to, if we’re in the market for a reduction. In a sense, the way is clear: there’s no work in the ordinary world that we need qualia to do, we just need an extra ineffable zing from somewhere, something we could arguably dispense with. For intentionality, things are much worse. There is no scientific account of meaning, we don’t really know how the brain deals with it, yet it is an essential part of our lives which can’t be dismissed as airy-fairy obscurantism.  Curiously, of course, it’s qualia which are seen as the Hard Problem, while intentionality is part of the easy one. I suppose this is because when we contemplate intentionality, it doesn’t seem intractable. We may not know how it works, but it looks like the kind of thing we could get a grip on given a couple of insights; whereas there seems no way of scaling the smooth glassy wall presented by qualia.

Here’s a thought: if we’re saying that the two issues are different facets of the same problem, we ought to be able to apply the established qualia arguments to intentionality and still make sense, shouldn’t we?  We can’t do it the other way because I don’ t think there are any arguments for the existence of intentionality – nobody denies it.

So: the zombies go quite well, at first sight, anyway: we’d say that intentionality zombies (another kind – sorry) look and behave like us, but never actually mean what they say or understand the words they read.  By some process they come out with appropriate responses, but in the same sort of sense as the original zombies, the lights are all out.

Then instead of inverted spectra, we’d have inverted meanings. This is trickier, because there’s no tidy realm of meaning equivalent to the spectrum we can use – unless we co-opt the spectrum itself and say that when you mean red, you say blue… That doesn’t seem to work. Could we say that you actually mean the negation of everything you say, but for some reason act otherwise…? Maybe not.

Alright, let’s try Mary: Intentionality Mary was brought up without ever grasping the meaning of anything, but she understands everything there is to know about cognition… That doesn’t seem to make sense.

The problem is always that qualia have no causal effects, whereas meanings and intentions absolutely do: in fact if anything the problem with them is explaining their efficacy. Noting this, we can see that actually even the zombies didn’t really work: we can believe in people who behave like us without having real experience, but it’s surely nonsensical to say that our counterparts without desires or intentions would behave the same way as us, unless we’re really only talking about some kind of quale of desire or intention.

So if qualia and intentionality are radically different in some respects, the differences might provide at least a hint that ‘both mental’ is not a good enough explanation for the two incredulities.

What about option 3? Could it be that the incredulity we’re concerned with is basically attached to intentionality, and qualia only have it because they are intentional in nature? On the face of it it seems quite reasonable to think that the redness we experience is about the rose, and that it’s the special magic aboutness that adds the extra ineffable quality. With other qualia, though, it’s not so clear. If you take happiness to be qualic, what is it about? We can of course be happy about particular things, but that’s distinct from just being happy. Moreover, there’s plenty of intentionality without qualia: an account book is suffused with intentionality. In fairness, that’s only the derived kind – accounts only mean what we make them mean – perhaps it’s only the original intentionality of our thoughts that bestows qualicity?  But with intentionality, we expect content. We believe and desire and think that x or y, with x or y being capable of expression in words: but it’s the whole point of qualia that there’s nothing like that available.

Option 4 says qualia are fundamental and intentionality springs from them. John Searle has actually put this view forward (in addition to his view that intentionality is the business of of imposing directions of fit on directions of fit). The suggestion here is that, for example, the feeling of hunger is about food in some basic, primitive sense, and that it’s on similar qualia that all our meaningfulness is built. The example has a definite appeal, and there’s something attractive about rooting intentionality in the ‘three Fs’ of survival: making it not some celestial mystery but a particular slant that arises out our nature as competitive and social biological creatures. But there are problems. We must remember that the quale of hunger has no causal effects: it’s only the functional counterpart that actually causes us to speak or seek food, so the connection between the quale and the expression of beliefs or desires is broken. We may suspect for other reasons that it’s not really the quale at work here: the sense in which hunger means food looks very like H.P.Grice’s natural meanings (those spots mean measles). We may suspect that this is really what makes the example seem to work, yet completely inanimate and non-qualic things can have this kind of meaning (those clouds mean rain), so although it is an excellent place to start looking for an analysis of intentionality, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of qualia.

Personally, I would reaffirm the view I’ve often set out before: I haven’t a clue what’s going on.

Picture: Raymond Tallis‘Aping Mankind’ is a large scale attack by Raymond Tallis on two reductive dogmas which he characterises as ‘Neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.  He wishes especially to refute the identification of mind and brain, and as an expert on the neurology of old age, his view of the scientific evidence carries a good deal of weight. He also appears to be a big fan of Parmenides, which suggests a good acquaintance with the philosophical background. It’s a vigorous, useful, and readable contribution to the debate.

Tallis persuasively denounces exaggerated claims made on the basis of brain scans, notably claims to have detected the ‘seat of wisdom’ in the brain.  These experiments, it seems, rely on what are essentially fuzzy and ambiguous pictures arrived at by subtraction in very simple experimental conditions, to provide the basis for claims of a profound and detailed understanding far beyond what they could possibly support. This is no longer such a controversial debunking as it would have been a few years ago, but it’s still useful.

Of course, the fact that some claims to have reduced thought to neuronal activity are wrong does not mean that thought cannot nevertheless turn out to be neuronal activity, but Tallis pushes his scepticism a long way. At times he seems reluctant to concede that there is anything more than a meaningless correlation between the firing of neurons in the brain and the occurence of thoughts in the mind.  He does agree that possession of a working brain is a necessary condition for conscious thought, but he’s not prepared to go much further. Most people, I think, would accept that Wilder Penfield’s classic experiments, in which the stimulation of parts of the brain with an electrode caused an experience of remembered music in the subject, pretty much show that memories are encoded in the brain one way or another; but Tallis does not accept that neurons could constitute memories. For memory you need a history, you need to have formed the memories in the first place, he says: Penfield’s electrode was not creating but merely reactivating memories which already existed.

Tallis seems to start from a kind of Brentanoesque incredulity about the utter incompatibility of the physical and the mental. Some of his arguments have a refreshingly simple (or if you prefer, naive) quality: when we experience yellow, he points out, our nerve impulses are not yellow.  True enough, but then a word need not be printed in yellow ink to encode yellowness either. Tallis quotes Searle offering a dual-aspect explanation: water is H2O, but H2O molecules do not themselves have watery properties: you cannot tell what the back of a house loks like from the front, although it is the same house. In the same way our thoughts can be neural activity without the neurons themselves resembling thoughts. Tallis utterly rejects this: he maintains that to have different aspects requires a conscious observer, so we’re smuggling in the very thing we need to explain.  I think this is an odd argument. If things don’t have different aspects until an observer is present, what determines the aspects they eventually have? If it’s the observer, we seem to slipping towards idealism or solipsism, which I’m sure Tallis would not find congenial. Based on what he says elsewhere, I think Tallis would say the thing determines its own aspects in that it has potential aspects which only get actualised when observed; but in that case didn’t it really sort of have those aspects all along? Tallis seems to be adopting the view that an appearance (say yellowness) can only properly be explained by another thing that already has that same appearance (is yellow). It must be clear that if we take this view we’re never going to get very far with our explanations of yellow or any other appearance.

But I think that’s the weakest point in a sceptical case which is otherwise fairly plausible. Tallis is Brentanoesque in another way in that he emphasises the importance of intentionality – quite rightly, I think. He suggests it has been neglected, which I think is also true, although we must not go overboard: both Searle and Dennett, for example, have published whole books about it. In Tallis’ view the capacity to think explicitly about things is a key unique feature of human mindfulness, and that too may well be correct. I’m less sure about his characterisation of intentionality as an outward arrow. Perception, he says, is usually represented purely in terms of information flowing in, but there is also a corresponding outward flow of intentionality. The rose we’re looking at hits our eye (or rather a beam of light from the rose does so), but we also, as it were, think back at the rose. Is this a useful way of thinking about intentionality? It has the merit of foregrounding it, but I think we’d need a theory of intentionality  in order to judge whether talk of an outward arrow was helpful or confusing, and no fully-developed theory is on offer.

Tallis has a very vivid evocation of a form of the binding problem, the issue of how all our different sensory inputs are brought together in the mind coherently. As normally described, the binding problem seems like lip-synch issues writ large: Tallis focuses instead on the strange fact that consciousness is united and yet composed of many small distinct elements at the same time.  He rightly points out that it’s no good having a theory which merely explains how things are all brought together: if you combine a lot of nerve impulses into one you just mash them. I think the answer may be that we can experience a complex unity because we are complex unities ourselves, but it’s an excellent and thought-provoking exposition.

Tallis’ attack on’ Darwinitis’ takes on Cosmidoobianism, memes and the rest with predictable but entertaining vigour. Again, he presses things quite a long way. It’s one thing to doubt whether every feature of human culture is determined by evolution: Tallis seems to suggest that human culture has no survival value, or at any rate, had none until recently, too recently to account for human development. This is reminiscent of the argument put by Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of the principle of survival of the fittest: he later said that evolution could not account for human intelligence because a caveman could have lived his life perfectly well with a much less generous helping of it. The problem is that this leaves us needing a further explanation of why we are so brainy and cultured; Wallace, alas, ended up resorting to spiritualism to fill the gap (we can feel confident that Tallis, a notable public champion of disbelief, will never go that way). It seems better to me to draw a clear distinction between the capacity for human culture, which is wholly explicable by evolutionary pressure, and the contents of human culture, which are largely ephemeral, variable, and non-hereditary.

Tallis points out that some sleight of hand with vocabulary is not unknown in this area, in particular the tactic of the transferrred epithet: a word implying full mental activity is used metaphorically – a ‘smart’ bomb is said to be ‘hunting down’ its target – and the important difference is covertly elided. He notes the particular slipperiness of the word ‘information’, something we’ve touched on before.

It is a weakness of Tallis’ position that he has no general alternative theory to offer in place of those he is attacking – consciousness remains a mystery (he sympathises with Colin McGinn’s mysterianism to some degree, incidentally, but reproves him for suggesting that our inability to understand ourselves might be biological). However, he does offer positive views of selfhood and free will, both of which he is concerned to defend. Rather than the brain, he chooses to celebrate the hand as a defining and influential human organ: opposable thumbs allow it to address itself and us: it becomes a proto-tool and this gives us a sense of ourselves as acting on the world in a tool-like manner. In this way we develop a sense of ourselves as a distinct entity and an agent, an existential intuition.  This is OK as far as it goes though it does sound in places like another theory of how we get a mere impression, or dare I say an illusion, of selfhood and agency, the very position Tallis wants to refute. We really need more solid ontological foundations. In response to critics who have pointed to the elephant’s trunk and the squid’s tentacles, Tallis grudgingly concedes that hands alone are not all you need and a human brain does have something to contribute.

Turning to free will, Tallis tackles Libet’s experiments (which seem to show that a decision to move one’s hand is actually made a measurable time before one becomes aware of it). So, he says, the decision to move the hand can be tracked back half a second? Well, that’s nothing: if you like you can track it back days, to when the experimental subject decided to volunteer; moreover, the aim of the subject was not just to move the hand, but also to help that nice Dr Libet, or to forward the cause of science. In this longer context of freely made decisions the precise timing of the RP is of no account.

To be free according to Tallis, an act must be expressive of what the agent is, the agent must seem to be the initiator, and the act must deflect the course of events. If we are inclined to doubt that we can truly deflect the course of events, he again appeals to a wider context: look at the world around us, he says, and who can doubt that collectively we have diverted the course of events pretty substantially?  I don’t think this will convert any determinists. The curious thing is that Tallis seems to be groping for a theory of different levels of description, or well, a dual aspect theory.  I would  have thought dual-aspect theories ought to be quite congenial to Tallis, as they represent a rejection of ‘nothing but’ reductionism in favour of an attempt to give all levels of interpretation parity of esteem, but alas it seems not.

As I say, there is no new theory of consciousness on offer here, but Tallis does review the idea that we might need to revise our basic ideas of how the world is put together in order to accommodate it. He is emphatically against traditional dualism, and he firmly rejects the idea that quantum physics might have the explanation too. Panpsychism may have a certain logic but generate more problems than it solves.  Instead he points again to the importance of intentionality and the need for a new view that incorporates it: in the end ‘Thatter’, his word for the indexical, intentional quality of the mental world, may be as important as matter.