Let There Be Intentionality

As I walked along William Street in Lower Manhattan yesterday morning on my way to the PubSub command center, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a dazzling light twenty feet or so off the ground. Looking up at it I couldn’t make out what it was for a moment, then realized that it was only a metal fixture attached to a building. It wasn’t really any sort of lamp at all, but was catching a thin shaft of sunlight (the streets are narrow, and the buildings tall, in the Financial District) and bouncing it my way. This was an interesting perceptive shift; at first I had thought I was seeing a primary light source, then realized that its illuminative virtue was not intrinsic but contextual.

I was immediately struck by what an apt metaphor this was for the topic of derived vs. intrinsic intentionality.

The shining object I had seen certainly had what we might call – I’ll make up a word for the purposes of this post – “illuminality”. Looking at it I had at first no way of knowing that it wasn’t lit from within. As it turned out, though, its illuminality was not intrinsic but derived – it was able to act as a light source only because of its reflectivity and its place in a specific contextual system. The “original” illuminality in the system belonged not to the metal fixture but to the Sun.

One of the most important philosophical questions regarding intentionality is where “original” or “intrinsic” intentionality comes from in the first place. In order to avoid an infinite regress, various sources for intrinsic human intentionality have been suggested: that our intentionality comes directly from God, that it is somehow simply inherent in us by virtue of our being conscious, or, as physicalists such as Daniel Dennett have argued, that it is built up from less-intentional subunits, with the lowest-level units having no intentionality at all. This last view is the one that feels right to me, and is the one I have defended over the past few months in an ongoing discussion at Bill Vallicella’s website, The Maverick Philosopher. I have argued that intentionality and consciousness might not be atomic in nature, but composite, and so could be built up gradually from simpler parts.

What about the “illuminality” of the Sun? Two possibilities for its source, which correspond to different philosophical concepts of the origin of intentionality, are worth mentioning here.

The first possibility would be that the Sun is assembled from component parts that themselves possess intrinsic illuminality – as if one took a trillion tiny lamps and brought them all together. The result of course would indeed be an enormous dazzling orb. This corresponds to the philosophical view known as “panpsychism” – the idea that every atom of the world contains an irreducible quantum of consciousness, and that human consciousness and intentionality is the result of the exceptionally dense and complex arrangement of these quanta inside our skulls.

Another view, though, and the one that corresponds to our current understanding of stellar physics, is that the Sun is nothing more than a truly enormous aggregation of dust and gas, made entirely of particles that themselves have no illuminality whatsoever. When enough of this ordinary matter has accumulated, though, a new, system-level property begins to emerge – the aggregate gravitational force is sufficient to cause fusion reactions between the particles of dust, and the star begins to emit light and heat. This corresponds to the view of consciousness that is known as “emergentism”, and is the model I have been defending.

Like all metaphors, this one can be pushed until it breaks – for example, a star’s “illuminality” is a function solely of its mass, whereas our consciousness depends not only on the size of our brains, but also on the astonishingly complex configuration and dynamic interaction of our neural modules. It should also be pointed out that the fusion reactions inside the Sun are transducing and releasing latent energy that is already present in the atoms themselves, though not available until a suitable global context (heat and pressure) is provided. Still, though, it is a nice example of how something very special, and infinitely precious, may arise from ordinary matter. “From dust ye came…”

It is also worth noting that the very atoms that make up our bodies – all the heavier elements that make life possible, such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and so on – were literally “cooked up” inside the stars themselves. As Carl Sagan put it:

We are made of starstuff.”

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