13 March 2013

Intentionality as Adaptive Mutation

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:18 pm

[This post follows my prior posts on Terrence Deacon’s 2012 Incomplete Nature entitled Why Life? and Reducing the Intentionality Problem.]

I don’t know why or how life evolved from nonlife. Other self-organizing systems, like heat convection or atmospheric currents, are dissipative structures that accelerate the production of entropy in far-from-equilibrium conditions. Organisms do it too, maintaining their negentropic functions by using free energy from their environment, thereby accelerating overall entropy. Maybe that’s what organisms are for: to accelerate the inevitable heat death of the universe. Certainly humans are highly efficient entropy production systems, using not just their own bodily metabolisms but the artifacts they create to suck free energy out of the universe, replacing it with waste, exhaust, and other entropic byproducts.

Regardless of how and why they came into existence, organisms do maintain and reproduce themselves. Organisms that through random mutations achieve incrementally better abilities to obtain access to free energy and to metabolize that energy are more likely to survive and to reproduce. A bacterium doesn’t have to have intentions motivating it to waggle its flagella in search of sunlight and nourishment. A bacterium is a self-organizing system: it spontaneously perpetuates its own equilibrium by means of genetically encoded drives that are sensitive to indicators of environmental energy sources. Presumably it’s cause-effect all the way down.

Suppose the environmental sources of metabolic energy — food — available to an organism are uncertain, quantities are limited, and access is difficult. If following its genetic program the organism pursues an unfruitful path toward food, it will die. Suppose this organism carries a set of mutations that permits it to evaluate the relative likelihood of finding food by pursuing different uncertain trajectories. Suppose the organism is further mutated such that it is able to identify and work around obstacles standing between itself and the food source. These mutations would be adaptive, enhancing the organism’s survival odds, if the extra energy expended in the exercise of its mutated food-finding abilities are more than offset by increased access to sources of energy replenishment.

This whole mutated apparatus is still following straight cause-effect, motivated by genetic instincts attuned to environmental affordances. There is still no need to invoke intentionality. Even if through more mutations this organism became aware of its own enhanced food-finding capabilities, the self-awareness does not imply or require intentionality. I’m aware that I’m presently digesting my supper, but that doesn’t imply that digestion is the result of my intentions.

What if some further mutation occurred in which the organism does achieve intentionality? This mutant creature plans for its next meal even when it has no immediate need to replenish its energy stores, even when there are no signs of food being present in the organism’s immediate environment. Would this mutation prove adaptive? The same conditions are in effect: if intentionality works, and if the exercise of intentionality more than replaces the calories it burns up, then it should enhance the organism’s survival. Is intentionality a straight-ahead cause-effect mechanism? I think it would be better to regard it as a mechanism that anticipates cause-effect based on prior experience — a temporal feed-forward loop. Intentionality is predicated on the anticipated desirable future effects of causal mechanisms that the organism itself puts into operation: if I cause myself to go to the watering hole, this action will probably result in my finding some food there; if my speed covering the distance to the watering hole causes two hours to elapse, then as a result I will probably be hungry by the time I arrive there.

Another mutation: the organism becomes aware of other organisms’ techniques for finding food, whether those techniques are intentional or not. This organism observes a creature locomoting in some direction and infers that the creature is on the trail of some food source; it then follows the creature in search of its own food. It observes a creature evading complicated obstacles to obtain food; it imitates the other creature’s behaviors and secures its own food. This organism would need the sort of intentionality that enables it to infer that the other creature’s motivated behavior is relevant to its own motivations and therefore worth imitating as a cause that will likely generate a desired effect. Adaptive? Same rules apply. Cause-effect? The feed-forward loop of intentionality is augmented by a feedback loop of observing and imitating others’ behaviors.

In short, intentionality can be built incrementally on unintentional survival mechanisms without transcending cause-effect, and intentionality offers survival benefits if it isn’t too much of an energy drain to operate.


  1. I really like this incremental approach. It even goes well with the consciousness-as-sensory-system approach I’ve been toying with. The key to both is starting with something unproblematic and working toward something that’s currently considered to be problematic. Where does the problem appear? Nowhere? Then we’re good.

    Also, I really like that you mention the energy trade-off that needs to be part of the question when asking if something is adaptive. The amount of brain and processing required for the higher-level steps might be part of why it is not more common. Also, the higher energy requirements of producing and supporting offspring that have these high-level features.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 17 March 2013 @ 10:39 pm

  2. Yes, I think we’re both taking a step–by-step walk up the path, rather than leaping from one point to another without being anywhere in between or annihilating the path altogether. No doubt incrementality strikes some as both cautious and insidious, slowly building a hegemony that is resistant to revolution and apocalypse. But not everything is a metaphor for politics and economics. Besides, the path is more a labyrinth than a straight line, a labyrinth that opens outward, with each node branching multiply onto the next step of an unpredictable variety of alternative futures with no predetermined endpoint.

    When Deacon expands his theory incrementally, reverse engineering from human intentionality back to the precursors of life, it’s almost as if he’s building a teleologically inevitable argument. But he’s careful to disavow that interpretation. Evolution mutates/adapts incrementally from what is already in place; ends-directed behavior is itself a product of an ateleological process. That intentionality evolves from the unintentional is what makes it so paradoxically intriguing. There is I think too much evidence for human intentionality to eliminate it entirely; neural accounts have to be integrated with a substantial body of behavioral and psychological evidence.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2013 @ 6:00 am

    • This is probably true for quite a few of what are being called “folk psychological” concepts. I’ve wondered if in the future, things like emotion and cognition won’t be considered separate things. Old philosophers had these wierd categories like “imagination” and “judgment”. Intentionality seems to fit more with newer categories like recognition, generalization, prediction, attention, etc.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 18 March 2013 @ 10:09 am

      • “I’ve wondered if in the future, things like emotion and cognition won’t be considered separate things.’

        I think a lot of that is already here. You can even hear it in modern pianists like Lang Lang, where the emotions are just the right expensively storebought Rachmaninoff ones. They are as set as the notes in the score and don’t vary from performance to performance. And I heard him in 2002. It was riveting, spellbinding, and gross. I nearly went unconscious, and when I finally ‘woke up’, I was the onty person still sitting in Avery Fisher Hall. It was breathtaking not because it was beautiful, but because it was the first time I’d heard it so overt.

        “Old philosophers had these wierd categories like “imagination” and “judgment”.”

        What’s ‘weird’ about them? Or were you being facetious?

        ” Intentionality seems to fit more with newer categories like recognition, generalization, prediction, attention, etc.”

        I don’t see why, and I also don’t see why these are new. Maybe it’s because people talk about them more, these terms have a ‘smarter’ ring to them.


        Comment by Patrick Mullins — 18 March 2013 @ 10:35 am

      • What’s ‘weird’ about them? Or were you being facetious?

        There are a bunch of things that the mind does. People (like, say, Kant), divided these things up into categories that suited the structure of their theories about thinking. But there’s no support provided for why mental activity is divided up that way (in Kant the categories are stated as given), and they turn out not to correspond with anything in particular about how brains work. That makes them feel weird to me.

        I don’t see why, and I also don’t see why these are new.

        They’re new in the sense that they’re based on how neural networks process information. Intentionality is a more complicated process than something like recognition, but it feels like something that can be mapped out in terms of neural processes. It’s yet to be seen whether that’s true or not.

        Maybe it’s because people talk about them more, these terms have a ‘smarter’ ring to them.

        Maybe. That’s not what appeals to me about them. What appeals to me is the possibility of connecting a higher-order “psychological” theory of the mind to neural processing.


        Comment by Asher Kay — 19 March 2013 @ 10:09 am

  3. Earlier this morning I had occasion to mention Robbe-Grillet on Asher’s latest post. The context was this: one commenter wrote that “What is really hard is trying to be conscious of detail without attaching meaning to it,” to which someone else responded: “Yes, hard, but what is impossible, possibly, is describing it without being meaningful.” Then I wrote that “I’m reminded of Alain Robbe-Grillet, his narrators describing in obsessive, nearly sadistic detail objects and scenes that are either devoid of meaning or that, in the opacity of their surfaces, resist the penetration of the observer’s gaze.” The R-G narrator seems dispassionate, totally empirical-rational, but what motivates him to such a concentrated focus of attention? Jealousy, sex, anger — emotion drives attention, perception, and cognition.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2013 @ 11:09 am

    • It’s funny — before you made that comment, I was thinking that I might have an easier time doing what John M was suggesting if I were watching a French film.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 19 March 2013 @ 10:11 am

  4. “The R-G narrator seems dispassionate, totally empirical-rational, but what motivates him to such a concentrated focus of attention? Jealousy, sex, anger — emotion drives attention, perception, and cognition.”

    Good way of putting it, because I never thought of those emotions ‘behind this concentration’, that’s how sustained R-G is at presenting it. Once you see that emotion drove this or another narrator to such a point, often very fetishy, it deconstructs the otherworldliness somewhat. Which is very welcome to me. I’ve spent enough years looking at R-G’s successful distancing technique, which is meant, at least partially, to alienate and impress at the same time.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 19 March 2013 @ 11:14 am

    • The New Novel aims only at a total subjectivity.… Not only is it a man who, in my novels for instance, describes everything, but it is the least neutral, the least impartial of men: always engaged, on the contrary, in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delirium.”
      – Robbe-Grillet, “New Novel, New Man,” 1961


      Comment by ktismatics — 28 March 2013 @ 3:50 pm

      • Yes, and the man is always R-G, or some variation on him. The problem is that the high-strungness of the writing is so impeccable that you feel that you must gratify him by giving your own subjectivity over to his; it’s a bit more ‘taut’ than that demanded by other writers (including a number of greater ones.) You can almost believe that this fetish, which is what it is, is a less poor thing than one’s own, especially when he can get together volumes like the Magritte paintings interwoven loosely with text in that extraordinary ‘La Belle Captive’. In other words, he can make you believe so strongly in the glossy surfaces (if you want to, and I have often), that you can’t actually see the emotional aspect of the adventure–even if he tells you, as here, that that’s what it is: The details are so exotic or so highly-forced that you’re in another world from the origin of all of it. Actually, seems surprising that he would go ahead and spell it out like that, but then again, with his highy refined cabinetry work which he loved to do (i think that was it, but never saw photos), it’s the same kind of fastidiousness, and you can get lost in it as a true delirium just as he wants you to. I definitely know the feeling, which has been rising in me recently, as some new stories which I described in my latest post have risen to the surface, and I was a bit shocked that I had gone that deep into certain New York worlds. And all 4 of the stories (which I may or may not write) are much ‘deeper Manhattan’ than anything I wrote about in IDNYC. I told you about the Khedkers years ago,. and that’s one of them still. There’s a kind of ‘luxury criminality’ that I’ve discovered is always in evidence in a lot of Upper East Side stories–the appalling fact that the Khedkers had a rent-controlled apartment, almost palatial, on Park Avenue, that they were paying less than $1500 for. It had 5 huge rooms, was in a building that itself was a gorgeous Mediterranean, and of course, that’s the least of what they managed. Until they couldn’t manage, and then they started selling stuff and getting involved with criminals. The ‘romance novelist’ who robbed Crawford Greenleaf, also of Park Avenue, was on the lam for 2 years and pawned of jewels one by one to pay for a $50 a night motel in Century City, L.A., until the FBI finally found her, hidden in the boiler room of the motel. Since I don’t know nearly all the facts of some of these stories, it’s going to be a challenge to me (if I do it, and I may well, since I find myself drawing closer to these near-Gothic New York stories, although I’d really rather not do it…), to work the characters of some of these arcane types, who are mediocre as humans, but have attributes that lend themselves somehow automatically to fiction. The modernist style, though, no, I wouldn’t be going any further with that than IDNYC, which is somewhat modernist in its fetishism, but not in a traditional sense, since it sprawls messily a lot.


        Comment by Patrick Mullins — 28 March 2013 @ 6:22 pm

  5. I’ve been reluctant to write an integrative post based on these essays from R-G, in part because I’ve been writing this new fiction really aggressively over the past two weeks and am reluctant to break the momentum with too much reflexivity about technique. That’s probably superstition in part, and today the spell was broken through distractions that were no fault of R-G’s. In these essays he frequently acknowledges that the critics generally don’t like his work, at which point he takes pains to prove that the critics are 180 degrees off. The excerpt I posted yesterday, for example, he posed in response to complaints that his texts are ultra-objective — “neutral, cold, impartial.” I could imagine him taking the opposite tack: yes of course the writings are neutral, cold, impartial, objective, and that’s what makes them distinctive. He is surely accurate in asserting that a man is making all of the precise observations recorded in his novels, which he contrasts to the 3rd person omniscient Godlike narrator enshrined in Balzac.

    What’s most fascinating to me is his contention that a reader cannot, through the accumulated factual observations recorded by his narrators, reconstruct the scene being described in the text. R-G claims that it cannot be done, that too many gaps and inconsistencies emerge. This is because he is not trying to represent a reality, be it in the world or in his own head, but to create a reality by starting at some specific point, some precisely observed detail, and working outward from it. Here:

    “It is not rare, as a matter of fact, in these modern novels, to encounter a description that starts from nothing, it does not afford, first of all, a general view, it seems to derive from a tiny fragment without importance — what most resembles a point — starting from which it invents lines, planes, an architecture; and such description particularly seems to be inventing its object when it suddenly contradicts, repeats, corrects itself, bifurcates, etc… We thus see how false it is to say that such writing tends toward photography or toward the cinematographic image. That image, taken in isolation can only make us see, in the fashion of Balzacian description.”

    He’s operating like an abstract expressionist painter, where the act of painting itself dominates that which is being portrayed via paint and brush. Presumably it is through this analogy to modern painting that R-G in his fiction insistently calls attention less to his sentence-craft than to the narrator — i.e., himself — who as artist is wielding the painterly pen. He is writing a running narration of his own creative process. Explicitly and repeatedly R-G positions himself in a tradition that passes through Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, Kafka, and Beckett, all of whom write their own writerly process in one way or another.

    From here he writes several pages about Marienbad, which I’ll try to excerpt tomorrow.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 March 2013 @ 10:11 pm

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