The Intentional Pro-Lifer

[Hello, my name is Elliot. This is my first post here. I’m honored. The following is a slightly modified version of a post I had on my blog, FCA, and which caught Dr. Liccione’s interest as part of a larger series of posts I did on abortion. I would like to add a supplement to this post in the near future, and, once I polish the other posts on abortion, so they are not so much in the dialogue-format in which they were initially written, I would like to post them as well.]

Daniel Dennett…or Thor?

Daniel Dennett…or Thor?

Among other things (including his awesome flowing beard), Daniel Dennett is famous for articulating what he calls “the intentional stance” (TIS) as a way of explaining minds in a material world. In a nutshell, Dennett says that “having a mind” just means displaying behavior that any other self-proclaimed “minder” recognizes, and responds to, as mindful activity. TIS is “a predictive strategy of interpretation that presupposes the rationality of the people–or other entities–that we are hoping to understand and predict” (back cover of the eponymous book, MIT Press). TIS is but the highest level of three that Dennett describes in his so-called heuristic taxonomy; the second level is the “design stance”, while the lowest is the “physical stance.”

With the design stance, we look at a system’s or entity’s functional capacity and predict what it might do given various changes; we don’t know what it’s made of except as that information would enhance or limit its functions. On the physical level we zoom in and only consider a system’s or entity’s capacity for change in light of its fundamental chemistry and physics. Within certain constraints, the “behavior” of a chemical system, or a mechanical apparatus, is predictable, on the physical level. TIS just extends this heuristic analysis to the ‘third’ level of desires, goals, action-potentials, etc. All such stances are clearly highly pragmatic. We don’t need to know what something is in some mysterious inner, essential sense; we just need to be able to appreciate and then manipulate its physical, design, and intentional tendencies. Rising from the first level to the third, we can say a being is what atoms do, what mechanics does, and, lastly, mind is as mind does.

Perhaps TIS sounds circular (and, no, not just to you), but Dennett’s point is that mind should not be reified or essentialized, but rather understood dynamically as the aspect of any organized system or organism that (even if only apparently) directs its actions and reactions. Mind, in this sense, is everywhere, as long as we can recognize “intentions” in any system or organism. (Isn’t it funny how hardcore materialism always seems to slide into hardcore idealism?) A mosquito, for example, may not have a full-blown “mind”, as we say we ourselves have, but there’s no question a mosquito carries out consistently intentional actions, like, say, buzzing in your ear when you’re trying to sleep, or sucking your blood and squirting its saliva into you, or magically evading your frantically slapping hands.

According to TIS even a thermostat can have a “mind”, but this holds only very loosely, and probably without any better heuristic value than looking at it on the design stance. After all, a thermostat not only responds to (i.e., “minds”) its environment (in terms of ambient temperature), but also in fact responds with a sort of efficacious volition, namely, changing the temperature according to its “innermost” intention (i.e., regulating the temperature at X°). But such a binary structure of intentionality hardly counts for what we understand as intentionality (i.e., “aboutness,” being about, or for, some object).

The appeal of Dennett’s intentional stance is that it is, upon reflection, paradoxically a pre-reflective viewpoint. Dennett has simply taken ordinary language seriously as the key not only to unraveling the mystery of our minds (and this with much explicit debt to Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind), but also as the basis for detecting minds in any circumstances. How often do we say: “Mosquitoes are such tenacious SOB’s!” or “The thermostat is acting up”? As often as we say these things, reflexively, naturally, about things, we are treating them as intentional subjects. Dennett has simply seized upon this linguistic phenomenon and, ironically, quasi-reified it as the basis for mind. The essence of mind, heuristically speaking, is being treated as if being mindful. (Meanwhile, of course, those in on the joke don’t really think anything has a mind, like I have an appendix—since, according to Dennett, a reified ens mentis is a metaphysical fiction.) Something earns the status of having a mind simply by doing what we typically consider minds to do. “Mind,” then, is a verb. Presumably, we recognize ourselves as minders just because enough parallel neural systems coordinate to generate a so-to-speak center of intentional gravity. We do not know our “inner thoughts,” Dennett might say, as much as we know what manifests behaviorally, intentionally, from the complex of our nervous systems on the design and physical stances.

One upshot of Dennett’s intentional stance is that, because we should not (anthropomorphically) reify mind as our species’ exceptional prize possession, we should learn to take seriously “minding” wherever we find it, at any level. Indeed, what stimulates our minds most about the world is how it constantly seems to interact with us and interrogate our own intentional stance. “This is what I am doing,” physical reality says; “now what will you do about it?” Taking the intentional stance seriously as the criterion for mindedness means taking other “kinds of minds” seriously, in terms of both practical reactions and moral priorities. Indeed, in his book, Kinds of Minds, Dennett argues that much of why animal cruelty is wrong is because, from an intentional stance, there is every reason to believe the grimaces and whimpers of a dog indicate pain it is just as malicious to inflict on the animal as it would be to inflict it on ourselves or another human. The dog need not explain to us in terms we understand rationally; its “intentional” signs of pain (i.e., consistent actions “about” pain) speak for themselves. Since it does what a minder does, then, for all intents and purposes, the dog has a mind. Our own kind of mind allows us to imagine and recognize the dog’s intentional status, and, in turn, to realize that suffering is just as bad for it as for us. The animal’s so-to-speak mental integrity and dignity need not conform to our own level (or kind) of mind to count as morally significant. As soon as we recognize “mindedness” in a system or an organism, we must take that entity seriously as both a causal agent and, to some extent, a moral being.

So much for appraisal. Let me sink some teeth in here. Why is this post titled “The intentional pro-lifer”?

Something interesting, to say the least, that I think Dennett ignores about TIS, is how his views figure into the abortion debate. (Can you guess if Dennett is pro-life or pro-choice?) If we should take minds seriously as (at least provisionally) the powers of moral agents, then we have no choice but to take embryos just as seriously. They display intentionality in numerous ways, possessing not only organic integrity directed towards growth and adaptive change but also particular responses to painful or pleasant stimuli. Moreover, they impinge on a separate system (i.e., the mother) in distinct and intentionally “self-centered” ways (e.g., their appetite augments the mother’s appetite, alters her palate). If animal pain is a moral concern on TIS, then a fortiori fetal pain is an ineluctable consideration in the abortion debate. Fetuses have as much mental and moral “weight” as dogs and mosquitoes, so they should not be callously discarded for the sake of designer humanism.

As a final, more technical point, let me add: fundamentally, Dennett and associated “noetic anti-realists” skirt the irreducibly intellective nature of intentionality, such that, even beneath the physical stance, the intellective power of the mind operates by grasping meaning in terms of, say, physical signs, design compositions, and intentional concepts. For Dennett, mind is as mind does. Grasping that fact about the mind, however, is a metaphysical act that transcends any particular case, or even series, of mind-doings, and is thus eo ipso prevenient to formulating that intentional statement about functional minds. The intentional relation formed between a perceived mind-doing and the properly explained “nature” of mind, is not itself a mere mind-doing. If it were, it would utterly fail to explain the stated link between those two things, and would just add one more case of a mind-deed that stands, back one step now, in need of linking intellectively with the nature of mind. Intellection must and does trump intentionality, otherwise intentionality is not even properly intentional (i.e., it is propositionally void and literally not about anything). To recall Hugo Meynell’s distinction in The Intelligible Universe, while TIS may not be self-contradictory, it is almost certainly self-destructive.

Cf. Wikipedia’s “Intentional stance” for more and for various sources of this post.

3 Responses

  1. For Dennett, mind is as mind does. Grasping that fact about the mind, however, is a metaphysical act that transcends any particular case, or even series, of mind-doings, and is thus eo ipso prevenient to formulating that intentional statement about functional minds.


    I think that gets it right, if I understand it right. But it needs to be put in a form that is at once more rigorous and less technical.


  2. All right. Here’s a stab. By way of an analogy.

    If I were to write one vertical hash mark, on an infinitely long slip of paper, for every number in the set of natural numbers, I would have to do so by mentally producing each number and then writing it down. Even if you were to try to do away with something like “mental actions” and say that the act of writing a number just IS my mind-deed for producing each number (which is what Ryle, Wittgenstein, and, more recently and radically, D. Melser, would probably say), the mind-deeds still count as one of three elements in the process: 1. the numbers themselves, 2. the neural-mental act of minding them, and 3. the marks on the paper. All three elements are distinct, since a number is not a hash mark, a hash mark is not a mental deed (even if the ACT of writing a hash mark were construed as a mental deed), and a mental deed is not a number.

    The problem is that, without a fourth element, namely, an act of the intellect enclosing, as it were, or pervading, as it were, all three other elements in a unified idea, the three elements have no meaningful connection. And unless they have a meaningful connection as constituents of one complex, then they have no meaning on their own. United they mean, apart they don’t mean.

    Even if I posted a flashing bright red sign on the wall that explained the intended correlation between the hash marks, the numbers, and my mental counting (e.g., moving my lips, moving my eyes in abtract neural space, wiggling my fingers as I count, etc.), unless a visitor to my room added a fourth element, namely, an intellectually integrated idea of the sign-paper-writer complex, the elements of my counting, writing, and posting a sign would have no meaningful connection. And without that connection, they cease to become what I intend them to be. Without a knowledge of how they relate, there is no way to say my counting isn’t really a form of dancing, or that the hash marks aren’t a portrait of my mother, and so on. No concept can really be a concept without an overriding intellectual conception of what those concepts a manifesting at a formal level. To believe otherwise is to go head to head with Hume and the lose metaphysics as the grid in which empiricalia become theoretically significant, and is to ignore the problem of ‘grueness’ and related problems.

    Even though the writer (or some visitor) intellectually conceives of the connection between abstract numbers, visible hash marks, and human mental operations BY MEANS OF a mental operation (and, for that matter, may emphasize the connection by writing down his mental conceptions, and, if he liked, may even more strongly assert the connection by encoding it with a natural-number sequence), but that intellectual conception is not itself a mental operation. If it were, it would just be one more dangling element in the complex, which still lacked any intellectually meaningful relation to (or intentionality with respect to) the other elements. The intellectual conception is the form of the complex as it is variously dematerialized BY MEANS OF the hash marks and tabulations. Forming an intellectual conception by means of mental operations no more means the former is the latter than drinking a glass of water means the water becomes glass when I drink it, or that a sinusoidal wave on the surface of a lake is itself a sheet of water.

  3. To cite St. Thomas, SCG 1, 3:

    “Hence if the human understanding comprehends the substance of anything, as of a stone or triangle, none of the points of intelligibility about that thing will exceed the capacity of human reason.”

    To relate this to analogy I proposed, I would replace “substance” with “intellectual conception of the mentally observed complex”, and “the points of intelligibility” with “‘mindable’ elements of the complex.”

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