Sunday, March 18, 2012

The heterogeneity of intentionality

The problem of intentionality itself decomposes further into two interrelated but distinguishable problems. The topic of this chapter is the problem of mental representation. Formal systems of representation such as languages have, supposedly, the property of meaning (that I will usually call the semantic property or, interchangeably, the intentional property). Symbols refer to, are about, things other than themselves (the neologism “aboutness” also expresses this property) while physical things (or things described and explained in physical terms) do not have any such property (physical explanations are “closed,” that is they include only physical terms). A naturalized semantic of psychological predicates would be free of reference to non-physical properties, but even our current neurophysiology textbooks tend to present information-processing models of nervous system function (and the popular conception of the mind is of something full of images, information and language). The problem of meaning is also addressed in philosophy of language, but language and other symbol-systems are conventional (albeit the products of long evolutionary processes): the location of the ur-problem is in philosophy of mind. Consider the chair in which you sit. It (the chair) does not mean anything. Of course you can assign some arbitrary significance to it if you wish (“When I put the chair on the porch the coast is clear”), or infer things from its nature, disposition and so forth (“Who’s been sitting on my chair?”), but that doesn’t affect the point: physical objects in and of themselves don’t mean anything or refer to other things the way symbols do. Now consider your own physical body: it doesn’t “mean” anything any more than the chair or any other physical object does. Nor do its parts: your hand or, more to the point, your brain, or any parts of, or processes occurring in, your brain. Your brain is just neural tissue humming and buzzing and doing its electrochemical thing, and the only properties included in our descriptions and explanations of its workings are physical properties. But when we predicate of a person mental states such as “He believes that Paris is the capitol of France,” or “She hopes that Margaret is at the party tonight,” these mental states appear to have the property of referring to, of being about, something else: France or Margaret or what have you. It looks, that is, like the mental state has a property that the physical state utterly lacks: a non-physical property. The operationalist theories of mind developed by philosophers in the early 20th century are largely a response to the problem of representation, although there are a variety of conclusions: behaviorism is straightforwardly eliminativist about mental content, limiting the possible criteria for use of psychological predicates to intersubjectively observable things (granting that there are “strong” and “soft” versions of the theory). Computationalism holds that minds are formal rule-governed symbol-manipulating systems. It aims at radically minimizing the symbol system (as in binary-code machine language for example) but is committed to symbolic content per se, as a computer is defined, a la Turing, as a formal rule-governed symbol manipulating device. Functionalism proposes a psychology that is described purely in functional terms rather than physical terms. This allows for replacing references to representations with references to functionally equivalent, not-necessarily-representational states, but in its very abstraction functionalism does not commit to eliminating representations (functionalism may be more of a method than a theory). This chapter develops an operationalist semantic of intentional predicates that not only dispenses with any references to mental representation (as behaviorism and functionalism do) but that also develops an eliminativist account that actually rules out the possibility of mental content. The other part of the problem of intentionality is the problem of rationality. Rationality is multiply realizable (a synonymous term is supervenient). For example a human being, a dolphin, a (theoretically possible) rational artifact and a (probably existing) rational extraterrestrial can all grasp and make use of the function of, say, transitivity (“If X then Y, if Y then Z, therefore if X then Z”). But these beings are made of various different substances organized in various different ways. There are, apparently, no physical states or properties that are necessary for all rational beings: no physical criteria that fix the extension of the set of all rational beings. There are no psychophysical laws regarding rationality, generalizations to the effect that any being with such-and-such logical capacity must have such-and-such physical characteristics or vice versa. The problem of mental representation and the problem of rationality can be distinguished as separate metaphysical problems. We would still be confronted with the problem of rationality even if nobody subscribed to a representational theory of mind. Nonetheless the two sub-problems should be grouped together under the general rubric of the problem of intentionality because both are problems for the same set of psychological predicates, the intentional predicates: “believes,” “desires,” “hopes,” “fears” etc. Intentional predicates name states that apparently entail mental content, as one believes that X, fears that Y etc., and also apparently entail rationality, as it is only explanatory when I say to you about a person that he left the room “because he was thirsty” if we share the background assumption that if he believes that there is water at the fountain and desires to have water then, all other things being equal, he will form an intention to go to the fountain – that is, a person must show some minimal grasp of the logical relations between intentional states both to be a subject of intentional predication and to make use of it (this is commonly referred to as the rationality assumption). I think that I can provide a satisfactory response to the problem of propositions as bearers of logical relations and to the problem of rationality generally, although the result is somewhat surprising in the context of the overall naturalist project of this book. However the problem of mental representation will be discussed first, because it is important to see that even if we were to reject the representational theory of mind (as I think we should) we would still be confronted with the problem of rationality.


  1. I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I’m quite sure I will learn many new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

    Thank You
    RNB Research

  2. Hello. That is a good start isn't it? I have to confess I've skimmed through your work, but you seem very well educated. So I just wanted to post some sprawling thoughts to you of mine. I don't know what you'll think of them, probably that I'm insane, but its all just questioning the state of existence, following what I did today.

    I got really emotional and stressy today as I lost inhibitions. Everything I'd practiced for and felt assured in myself all fell apart under the timed conditions.
    And time flew away. Which always happen in a human life. People are forever losing perspectives of time and then when they look around and realise where it went they struggle to comprehend how it all elapsed.
    Would my brain know if it wasn't alive? Would I still be here, even if I wasn't here? These sort of questions make studies seem really easy, as everything is chained in our world to meaning. Outside it there is none.
    It is a terrific life though, you can't understate that. I think the fear of death is natural. If we were invincible we would never have existed in the first place, life surpasses death and so on.
    I feel strange writing this out like this, but then how can you underpin 'strange' as a meaning, a subjective concept - its all tied to human understanding. Our understanding of death is purely hypothetical. Its just 'strange' that I should exist.
    Why do I exist? And why now? Why in the year 2012? 2012 years on from a supposed birth of the world, which has subsequently been proved to not have been the birth of the world. Humans are clever. To have invented such incredibly intricate constructs such as numbers and language to keep us all contextualised and labelled.
    I am working hard for exams. They supposedly are tests which provide for a better quality of life. It will seem earth shattering if I don't achieve a certain grade.
    But really what am I? Isn't that the real question I should be answering? Or is it better just to probe pre-discovered materials and not prick the layer of consciousness that is above our world.
    Human ties and bonds, emotions and urges, dreams and fantasies all seem so superficial. I know I wouldn't be writing this if I had done really well in my exam. I think being in a state of melancholy makes you more inclined to reach for 'negative' assumptions of existence.
    But is it negative, will I know I'm gone? Do I even know I'm here? Am I somewhere else?

  3. very interesting !!

  4. nice blog !!

  5. I don't know where to put this, sorry.
    What do you think of this argument:
    "This is the reason I became Atheist. Imagine there's an all knowing, all powerful, benevolent God that always existed and created everything. Now imagine there's a monkey that had a supernatural mole on its toe. That mole fell off and had properties in it that when it fell of the monkey's toe was able to create everything. Which one is more likely to be the answer to how the world was created? They're both equally as likely, right? Now imagine there's an elephant instead of the monkey, or a giraffe, or the mole was somewhere else on the body, and so on. Therefore there being a God is a one in an infinity chance."

    P.S. Nobody ever beat me with this argument, yet.

  6. Wouldn't Merleau-Ponty suggest that the physicality of 'objects' presents habitual (pre-conventional)meaning to our bodies?

    How is this habitude related to the modification of formal property by beings?

  7. Hi Vijay Vikram here,

    Seems to me that words can stand for something--collections of letters or sounds---can stand for something and so can anything else----including a chair or a tree.
    One can argue that words are just
    another kind of thing that we have
    associations with.
    I really don't see much difference.
    Some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs stood for a thing and others for a sound. The falcon was associated with the god Horus. The word Horus was associated with the god Horus.
    Is there something to meaning other than association? I can't see what.
    Seems possible to me that a chair can be associated with something and if so one may coherently ask "what does this chair mean?", just as one may ask "what does this word mean?"
    Seems to me one may say that nothing in itself necessarily means anything---what necessity is there? Does the three letter assemblage "dog" necessarily mean something "in itself"?--Don't think so.

    Isn't synapses firing a notion, idea, ideation, mental object? So how will you eliminate mental content entirely in favor of synapses firing? --other than by fiat?
    If you want to talk about your own mind what will you say--that your synapses say xyz? Doesn't seem much different from saying that your mind came up with something. You will, it seems to me, be forced to instantiate something or other that is non-physical, unless you opt to say that all is mental or all is physical or neither.

  8. Mr Brown, I find your heavy over-intellectualised language somewhat troublesome and ironic considering the content of this post. I would suggest it be considered that true understanding can only reveal its-self to the most quiet of minds and with such irrelevant over-subjective speculation on the nature of things through the process and means of their interpretation and representation with the use of symbols, sounds, language, and such heavy focus on communicating this matter in an 'intellectualised' way I fear we may be pointlessly trying to reassure ourselves of our own importance and our own intelligence through deep rooted self-perpetuative desires to avoid isolation, pain and suffering and seek out comfort, security, happiness and affirmation/validation of our identity within society, all of which constitutes clearly, undeniably to a very common self-deceptive existence that most of us lead.

    Instead of focusing our time, our intelligence on irrelevant issues such as mentioned about, may i suggest we consider something of eternally more value.

    Can we end conflict? Can we live absolutley free from conflict? Can you, Mr Brown, acknowledge and understand in all its' entirety the crisis within you? Can we be free from the self-enclosing activities of the mind?
    Can we see the truth, as it is, the truth of mankind's existence, for which we are all responsible?

    Warm Regards,

    The Speaker

  9. You need to put in to Blogger to convert your line breaks do real line breaks. Or use the p tag direct in html. Guessing you copy your direct from something else here. To give the text a bit of space besides words so to speak making it easier to converge to the meaning with less distortion.