11 November 2012

Reducing the Intentionality Problem

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:26 pm

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?



  1. If you were either a monist, a panpsychist, a dualist or a subjective idealist or perhaps a solipsist would your experiments in the field of psychology vary? Could you envisage an experiment that would definitively establish any one of these metaphysical positions? Your interpretation might be led by one or the other position and perhaps that is inevitable, certainly Dennett seems to think that dualism is the default ‘folk’ metaphysics that psychologists use all unbeknownst to themselves. That doesn’t negate the data however.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 12 November 2012 @ 7:44 am

  2. Those are excellent points. That cause-effect relationships seem to permeate the universe, that they can be studied experimentally and observationally, that they can be specified quantitatively — all of this could be deemed evidence supporting a panpsychist contention that the universe is permeated by temporal logic. Cognitive psychological research systematically investigates inputs and outputs, presuming that the black box in which the processing takes place is the brain. But the findings could just as easily be absorbed into a dualistic framework, with the detailed breakdown of thinking into components and steps and sequences constituting the scientific analysis of mind without tying it back to brain. Of course now the ties are being explored, largely through collaboration between the neurologists and the experimental cognitivists. But even if minds do run on brains and don’t run without them, can’t that evidence be accepted by the dualist anyway as useful description of how Universal Mind works in humans?

    I’ve occasionally tried to discuss with traditional Christians the means by which God speaks to them inside their heads, by which God answers intercessory prayers, by which after the Last Judgment those who have died in Christ will be resurrected in new/restored bodies in such a way that their identity is preserved, etc. All we have is speculation, but these seem like potentially empirical questions if that particular Someone would agree to participate in the research.

    Comment by ktismatics — 12 November 2012 @ 9:29 am

  3. ” Random mutations that incrementally increase intentional capabilities would thus be naturally selected.”

    I think I read a rebuttal of that recently, but it may just have been a rebuttal of the notion that evolution tends to greater complexity – can’t remember who, which isn’t helpful…

    And then, the difficulty that, more than any other probably, has people turning to religion, if just to turn their minds off: the past’s gone; the future hasn’t happened yet; so there’s only NOW – a now in which it’s not even possible to make this statement…. know what I mean?

    ” 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?”

    Is that the million dollar question now? I mean that as a sincere question. Is that what they’ve now identified as the minimal self-reproducing system?

    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 14 November 2012 @ 1:55 am

  4. SJ Gould made a good argument against the evolutionary tendency toward increasing complexity, pointing out that something like a third of the biomass on earth consists of single-celled organisms. But maybe you’re thinking of the Baldwin Effect, whereby the genetic ability to learn something adaptive — e.g., how to avoid some new predator in a new territory — gets selected for. Whether that adaptive ability is figured out from scratch by the survivor or acquired by imitating someone else, the figuring-out ability or the imitating ability proves adaptive, the possessor survives and passes on the successful gene combination, etc. The Baldwin Effect fits into a Darwinian scheme; there is no need to invoke Lamarckian teleology to explain it. But is it possible that the learned behavior becomes instinctive in subsequent generations? That’s a harder case. If after several generations the entire population possesses the requisite learning ability, then in a sense that learning ability has gotten hard-wired into the genome. Nonetheless, the behavior still has to be learned by each member of the species, just as each child has to learn to speak even if all humans have the requisite genetic predisposition for language acquisition. Again, this is Darwinian not Lamarckian.

    The ability to resist entropy is the minimal requirement for life as understood by Deacon. He acknowledges that self-reproduction is crucial too: if a single organism evolved and never reproduced it would never have made the 6 o’clock news. So Deacon devotes a chapter to how the first cells might have been composed of molecules that line up in such a way that they form an enclosed space, a cell wall protecting the cell from rapid dissolution into the substrate, giving it enough time to reproduce. But that first cell: if it builds and maintains a barrier against its environment, with say more energy inside than outside the cell wall, then it’s a negentropic system that seems to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. And then if that cell is able to maintain itself by sucking even more energy across the cell wall into itself, then it’s an even more anomalous violation. And then it reproduces itself…

    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2012 @ 5:03 am

  5. I started a comment on intentionality but it turned declamatory, urbe et orbe, so I left it to foul my own nest. On the Baldwin effect I saw an interesting thing the other night on the BBC (Attenborough’s Ark)relating how Australian quolls (cats) are being decimated by feeding on the cane toad which is toxic to them. One response is to capture these quolls and lay out a sausage made using the skin of the toad. The filling is a non fatal but sickening mixture. After one dose or more of these sausages they learn that cane toad ain’t good vittels. Upon release back into the wild they retain this conditioning and pass it on to offspring.

    Curiousity killed the cat
    Information made him fat. (children’s rhyme rejecting calls for transparency)

    Information (knowledge) is power or enhanced conatus even at the cellular level.

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 14 November 2012 @ 7:35 am

  6. “pass it on to offspring” — presumably this is learned aversion to faux-toad sausage by the youngsters as well? I’ve read that even non-primate youngsters learn behaviors from their mothers even if they never imitate other members of their species. This learning would get locked into behavior, and when the kitten becomes a cat it would demonstrate the same learned behavior to its own kittens, thus perpetuating the learned behavior across generations. Now if the offspring of the conditioned cats avoided toads even if raised by adoptive parents who hadn’t been sickened by the sausage, then we’d have something more anomalous at the cellular level to consider. Maybe these studies have been conducted — did the television program mention anything along these lines?

    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2012 @ 7:59 am

  7. Wow. I stumbled here because I was thinking to myself/googling around: “Aren’t Carl Rogers and Deleuze quite interesting in their intersections?”
    And I see you got there 5 years ago!
    Then I click to what you’re up to today and I see stills from WALKABOUT?!?
    You are 100% awesome. Thank you for being around.

    Comment by mike — 14 November 2012 @ 9:04 am

  8. John:
    Though this experiment was being carried on by a research station, radio receivers on the cats and so forth my impression was that they were leaving training up to Mother. The objective was a practical one, to save the cats. Cane toads are advancing at the rate of 50km a year. When learned behaviour becomes so adaptive it is as good as instinctual for practical purposes I would expect.

    One thinks of Walter Matthau’s line in Grumpy Old Men “Who says you can’t train cats?”

    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 14 November 2012 @ 9:15 am

  9. Thanks Mike. I don’t even remember writing about the Rogers-Deleuze connection. An advantage of writing stuff down is that you don’t have to carry it around in your head, but if you don’t remember writing it… Walkabout I remember more vividly, but in 5 years?

    Michael: Maybe I should get one of those toad sausages to put at my place at the table, teach the cat not to lounge there so frequently.

    Comment by ktismatics — 14 November 2012 @ 9:30 am

  10. But you know, organisms do use more energy than their environments, thus increasing the entropy of the overall system. Humans are especially good at accelerating heat death through their extravagant use of fossil fuels and other energy sources. So maybe there’s no paradox to be resolved about why life evolved. Organisms serve the same entropy-accelerating function as other self-organizing systems like currents in streams and Benard convection cells in heated liquids, but with greater ability to preserve and perpetuate their entropic function when the energy gradient differential with the immediate environment has been flattened.

    Comment by ktismatics — 16 November 2012 @ 5:54 am

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