How can intentionality exist in an unintentional universe? And if intentionality exists, how can it be explained scientifically? Scientific investigation looks for causes, and causes precede effects. When I do something with intent, the cause of my behavior is in the possible future rather than in the actual past. Arguably intentionality evades what counts as an acceptable scientific explanation. It would seem either that intentionality is ineffable and transcendent, or it should be eliminated as a self-delusional false explanation of how brains work. The only way out, it would seem, is for science to expand beyond backward-looking causality into teleological explanations.
I think this is a bigger problem for philosophers than for scientists.
It’s possible to speculate on evolutionary causes for intentionality. Hard-wired instincts are of only limited value in a variable and changing environment, so being able to craft intentional schemes for finding food, for wooing sexual partners, for protecting oneself and one’s people, etc. offers survival value to the organism. Random mutations that incrementally increase intentional capabilities would thus be naturally selected.
But what about the individual intentional act? I go to the candy drawer in order to get a snack. Why is this a problem? There is a cause preceding my intent: hunger, or the desire for the taste of chocolate. I already know from experience where the chocolate is most likely to be found: that expectation too is caused by past events. I don’t see the paradox.
Humans don’t have direct perception of the present; rather, we use sensory input to construct neural representations of our environment. We don’t have direct perception of the past; rather, we retrieve neural representations of specific past events. We don’t have direct perception of the future; rather, we neurally represent possible future states and situations. Intentionality can operate by constructing a neural representation of a desired specific future state — eating one of those little Snickers bars left over from Halloween — and constructing a behavioral routine that is likely to transform this desired future into an actual present state.
Some fMRI studies intriguingly suggest that the brain unconsciously activates a neural cascade that precedes, and perhaps causes, conscious intent. Is it possible that conscious intent is merely a recognition after the fact of what the brain has already done? The experimental task — intending to push a button — is as simple and unitary as possible. But much intentional behavior is more complex: making airplane reservations to visit your family, deciding where to go to college, preparing a 3-course meal, writing a blog post. For decades psychologists have studied intentional behaviors without recourse to neural imaging or brain probes. The intentional tasks are broken down into components, the requisite skills for performing them are evaluated, the developmental pathway by which children acquire the necessary competencies are systematically studied. Even if it turns out that intentionality cannot be reduced to brain activity, the performance of intentional acts can be subjected to the usual sorts of scientific cause-effect sequences. If intentionality is transcendent and immaterial, it’s not monistic; it can be analyzed.
What about free will? Sure, most of our intentions are caused by motivations, but what about unmotivated intent? Sometimes we wonder why we do things we didn’t consciously intend, but we have come to accept that we may be moved by motivations of which we are not consciously aware. But that’s not free will; it’s almost the opposite, where our intent is controlled by appetite or fear or societal expectation. In order for an intention to count as free, it would have to be unmotivated by either conscious or unconscious causes within ourselves or our environment. Unmotivated intent would be hard to prove. Even if I managed to do it, I would be motivated by a desire to demonstrate my own freedom of choice — a desire that preceded and caused my intention and my action.
The big problem, or maybe The Big Problem, is to account for the causal forces shaping both conscious and unconscious intentions. Even single-celled organisms act in ways that increase their likelihood of surviving and reproducing — what Terrence Deacon calls “ententionality.” Inorganic self-organizing systems are very efficient heat pumps: once the energy gradient between system and environment is equalized, the system spontaneously disorganizes. Why and how, in a universe that’s winding down into inevitable heat death at both the macrolevel and the microlevel, did certain kinds of systems evolve that ententionally preserve rather than dissipate the energy gradient between themselves and their environments?