Being and doing its own thing…

The problem of intentionality vis-à-vis physicalism is not an empirical problem; it is a categorical problem. Formal operations, for instance, are determinate in a way that physical operations cannot be. Intellection is, for instance, universally abstract in a way that physical “signs” cannot be. The contents of sensory experience are analytically non-identical with the physical correlates we infer as their causal substrate. And as for intentionality…

Intentionality and physical order are simply, categorically mutually irreducible. This is hardly a “pet claim” of Thomists. Read some J. Levine, or J. Searle, C. S. Pierce, or F. Brentano, or J. Kim, or W. Vallicella, or S. Kripke, or K. Gödel, or D. Melser. Indeed, read some D. Dennett: he is so committed to physicalism, and yet aware of the intentionality problem, that he denies the latter on behalf of the former.

The issue is simply not one that can be overcome by “more brain studies.” Intentionality, and its related immateriality, is, like purpose and action (cf. R. Taylor’s Action and Purpose), simply not reducible to behavioral categories. Intentionality, purpose, action, formal order––these are simply “their own things” and not to be trifled with. Certainly, it is true to say that intellection occurs “naturally” insofar as it is metaphysically contiguous with the operations of its natural agents; but this must be qualified by the fact that nature, thus, operates with both material and immaterial powers.

In any case, consider the following scenarios (which I borrow from R. Taylor):

a. A man attending a debate raises his hand in order to get the attention of debater Q, and thereby both attracts the attention of debater Q and scares off a fly.

b. A man attending a debate raises his hand in order to get the attention of the moderator, and thereby both attracts the attention of the moderator and scares off a fly.

c. A man attending a debate raises his hand in order to scare off a fly, and thereby both attracts the attention of debater Q and scares off the fly.

Behaviorally, and I should say neurologically, these events are indiscernible. Only on the supposition of a distinct purpose (“in order to”) can they be differentiated. Likewise with intentionality. Physically indiscernible phenomena can have different intentionality, different meaning. Physical causation is, to palm off of Walker Percy and Pierce, metaphysical dyadic, whereas language–-qua intentionality in action––is conceptually triadic, and, indeed, intersubjectively tetradic. Physical things only stand in formal, theoretical bonds with each others as we evoke those bonds by the intentional, immaterial power of referential language. An atom simply does not and cannot “refer to” something else; but language can and, incessantly, does “conscript” an atoms, and hordes or atoms, for such bonds.

8 Responses

  1. I don’t see how this, as it stands, is a problem for the physicalist. It seems that there could be neurological difference between a, b, and c. I am not up to date on the empirical studies of neurons, but it seems that (according to physicalists) if neurologists can discover which neuron firings cause pain [c-fibers?] and various thoughts (maybe this is yet to be done, but it seems warranted in the spirit of thought-experiment) then they could discover which combination of neuron firings, call them ‘n1’, produce the thought (desire?), “I want to get X’s attention.” If this is the case, then the physicalist could cache out a fancy detailed neurological story about how n1 causes some other set of neuron firings, n2, which produce the thought “Raise your hand to get X’s attention.” It seems coherent to say that in each of the “¬¬p in order to q” cases, the different q’s can are in fact discernable. Can the physicalist just explain intention in terms of beliefs and desires, which can be caused/reduced to neuron firings? Regardless, it seems that the difficulty arises for the physicalist if he wants to talk about intention as a choice (which it seems like it is), something not in the physical causal chain. Otherwise, I don’t see how this, as it stands, is a problem for the physicalist.

  2. Andrew:

    1. Which neurons account for the intentional ascription of intentional action to neurons for a., b. and c.? And which neurons account for the ascription between that second-order intentionality? And so on. The terms of an intentional system may be, indeed are, scientifically measurable, but intentionality itself is not measurable, and therefore not a physical reality.

    2. I think you should read R. Taylor’s book and ponder how odd the idea of “mental desires” is for explaining action in sheer causal terms. If desires cause actions, what causes the desires? Only if you are willing to reduce all behavior to sheer caused events are you able to circumvent this regress into a desire-cause spiral. There is a categorical difference between “a man’s hand being caused to go up and x occurring in succession” and “a man raising his hand in order to bring about x”. If action is just a pinball of interneuronal fireworks, no one can be said to act rationally, i.e., for a cogent end, for an intelligible reason. But ends and reasons are integral to our entire taking-of the event to be an action as opposed to an event in the first place. Smoke is caused to go up, but that is not an action. A man’s hand goes up for some reason but that is not simply a causal event.

    3a. You should look into Popper’s criticism that, without an extra-mental formally discrete grasp of the event under analysis, we have no purely physical basis for calling this neural or chemical event the “beginning” of the event and that event the “end.” What is there about this particular neural firing, or this particular phoneme, considered physically, that dictates its formal, intentional place in our analysis? (Hint: nothing.)

    3b. You should also look into D. Melser’s claim (in a way, very reminiscent of Taylor’s criticisms in Action and Purpose) that a science of language and behavior are strictly impossible, since understanding language requires cooperative use of it with the speaker being viewed. But since science by definition limits itself to an objective, non-participatory “view”, it is asymptotically removed from what it takes to understand language. The more objective science becomes, the less traction or right it has for “getting” the language events and treating them as meaningful (i.e., intentional); and the more involved science becomes in the meaning and use of language, the less objective it is. See the last section of his essay here http://www.derekmelser.org/essays/essayverbal.html

  3. Andrew:

    1a. (to add to my 1. above) ––

    I forgot to state the important obvious proviso: you can only imagine a coherent difference between the a., b. and c. actions at the neural level because you already know how those actions are formally (viz., teleologically) distinct. But if you strip the explanations of the actions I gave in listing them, they are effectively indiscernible.

    Even if we suppose we could ask the person what he intended after each neural-behavioral episode, we would still just be resorting to the categorically autonomous, and truly explanatory, category of purpose and formal action.

    Are we to suppose there is a specific neural pattern every time for the same action? Is there not a distinct neural pattern for “raising one’s hand in order to get somebody’s attention” and “raising one’s hand to get somebody’s attention with the knowledge that this action will be examined by a neurologist after it’s completed”? The aim of doing something in order to aid an experiment is certainly distinct from just doing that action for some end. And even if we could observe a man’s brain on the sly, so he weren’t conscious of later having to talk about his intentions, we could only “decode” the neural activity by translating it into, and correlating it with, his stated aims.

  4. Elliot:
    I agree that there is a cetegorical distinctness between intention and neural-behavior.

    You said:
    “There is a categorical difference between “a man’s hand being caused to go up and x occurring in succession” and “a man raising his hand in order to bring about x”. If action is just a pinball of interneuronal fireworks, no one can be said to act rationally, i.e., for a cogent end, for an intelligible reason. But ends and reasons are integral to our entire taking-of the event to be an action as opposed to an event in the first place. Smoke is caused to go up, but that is not an action. A man’s hand goes up for some reason but that is not simply a causal event.”

    I agree with this. Didn’t C.S. Lewis make this point in ‘Miracles’, that there are two ways we use “because”, and one is more of the intentional use (not his terms). And if Naturalism is true, then there can only be one sense of “because”, and consequently we have no reasoning.

    All I was trying to say in my original post (forgive me, I am a first time ‘blogger’) is that the physicalists can try to cache the intention out in terms of neurology and thought (just as they tried to do for the thought thinking of Veinece.) And they can try to explain away the intention, “X in order to Y” in terms of a conjunction of simple beliefs and then try to explain those beliefs in terms of the brain stuff. (wouldn’t this be the physicalists move? albeit false.) But as you pointed out, there are some bad conseqeunces of this.

    Nice post.

  5. It seems to me that there might very well be a physical difference between a neural pattern for “raising one’s hand in order to get somebody’s attention” and (to take your earlier example) “raising one’s hand to brush away a fly”. Neural patterns can presumably be very complex, with plenty of room for internal variation even when the external effects — the raising of the hand — are identical.

    I do think, though, that you’re making a good point. I remember reading, some years ago, in Lynne Rudder Baker’s book Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism, a carefully constructed thought-experiment in which two clearly distinct intentional states are correlated with two identical physical states. The details, however, have fallen into forgetfulness.

  6. Andrew:

    Yes, old Clive did note the important distinction between “grounds” and “causes” in Miracles. Great little book. You should follow up with V. Reppert’s assessment of the arg. from reason in C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea.

    Don’t be bashful. At least I know you are engaging what gets posted here. It’s good to have you around.

    Cheers,

  7. Although I can’t approve pending comments, I do feel obliged to allow two comments on this post of mine to see the light day, so I will post them on the commenters’ behalf.

    “It seems to me that there might very well be a physical difference between a neural pattern for “raising one’s hand in order to get somebody’s attention” and (to take your earlier example) “raising one’s hand to brush away a fly”. Neural patterns can presumably be very complex, with plenty of room for internal variation even when the external effects — the raising of the hand — are identical.

    “I do think, though, that you’re making a good point. I remember reading, some years ago, in Lynne Rudder Baker’s book Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism, a carefully constructed thought-experiment in which two clearly distinct intentional states are correlated with two identical physical states. The details, however, have fallen into forgetfulness.”
    http://cburrell.wordpress.com/

  8. cburrell:

    Thanks for your comment.

    Would the raising of two separate men’s hands for the purpose of shooing a fly be the same action? Clearly, yes. Would their neural states, however, be proportionately identical? It seems not. The formal determinateness of an action-for-some-end is incommensurable with the complexities of specific neural acts.

    Arguably, since two different men are doing the swatting, they would be doing two different acts, and this spatiotemporal difference could be construed as analogous to the identical neural type of action.

    But I find this a weak retort, not only because the original scenario of two men doing exactly the same act-for-a-purpose preempts such a rough identity, but also, more importantly, if the same man were asked to repeat his action-for-the-same-purpose numerous times, it seems incredible that each formally identical action would correlate to one and the same neural process every time. Presumably, given enough time, the man’s brain cells would change to such an extent that it would literally be different neurons and chemicals involved in the same action.

    Furthermore, imagine if we had the man perform the action for ten minutes, then had him drink two Jolt colas and perform it another ten minutes, and then had him take a Valium to perform it ten more minutes. Over thirty minutes, his brain would undergo vast amounts of neurochemical changes, which, while admittedly peripheral to his successful performance of the action, would certainly alter the specific properties of his relevant brain matter in performing the action (e.g., a hand-raise impulse mingled with a stifle-giggle or yawn impulse). All the while, of course, the action remains one and the same. If it did not remain one and the same, on a purely formal level, there would be no way, let alone desire, to compare the neural happenings with the behavioral. I.e., if we didn’t already grasp that he is doing one and the same action in a formally identical way, we would not have any one thing to explore in relation to his brain states. We would just have numerous materially discrete happenings that we would correlate by Humean fiat.

    Cheers,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: