If You Don’t Mind

Dr. William Vallicella’s website, The Maverick Philosopher, will of course be familiar to readers of these pages (in fact many of you will have come here in the first place as a result of our occasional cross-linking). Bill is a professional philosopher – the real McCoy, as opposed to the loquacious amateurs who drive taxis and cut hair here in Gotham – and his site is a fascinating forum for discussion of philosophical topics. He attracts interested laypeople like me as well as his academic colleagues, and the discussions are always at a high level both of erudition and civility. I have learned a great deal by reading and participating, and have been persuaded to rethink many of my own opinions as a result.

A frequent topic at Bill’s website is philosophy of mind, and one of the more difficult areas of that subject is the matter of “intentionality”: the “aboutness” of mental acts and states. It is a conundrum that has interested me for quite a while, and in fact I wrote a little post about intentionality a short while back (I may repeat a few points here).

One philosophical view holds that there is simply no way that matter – a rock, a cloud, a chunk of brass – can be, on its own, “about” anything. “Aboutness” is exclusively the hallmark of the “mental”, it is said. Our world is full of meaningful artifacts such as books and maps, but these objects only derive the intentional content they do, it is argued, from the fact that they are created and interpreted by other, intrinsically intentional entities (namely us). Whether that is actually true – whether objects can objectively represent other objects in the absence of intentional entities to assign them their meaning – is the subject of an ongoing debate at Bill’s place, and the reader is invited to take a look, but that is not the issue here.

An obvious question, then, is what sorts of things can have mental (intentional) states? And why those things and not others?

Some argue that intentionality is associated with the phenomenon of consciousness; i.e., that all mental/intentional acts are conscious. But this seems to fall short of the mark; it appears to be a psychological truth that we have unconscious desires, angers, and so on. So, as a fallback position, it has been suggested that all intentional acts and states are potentially conscious. But if we imagine, say, an unconscious wish to wear spats, a wish that is never detected consciously during our lifetimes, even though it influences our behavior (say by causing us to be inordinately fond of Jiggs & Maggie comics) the argument that it could have been promoted to consciousness starts to seem like special pleading, when the wish has functioned throughout our lives no more consciously than if it were a few lines of computer code. Nevertheless, the idea that mental/intentional states are associated with minds has a persistent appeal.

So – can we find examples of intentionality that are NOT associated with minds?

Bill, in this post written a couple of weeks ago, gave an example of a hiker discovering rock piles left as trail markers. Bill’s argument was that the piles themselves had no intrinsic meaning, but that the fact that they were left by a previous hiker as trail markers, and subsequently read as trail markers by the later hiker, endows them with intentional content, derived from the minds of the two people involved. Now it happens that this sort of thing is done by much simpler organisms than human beings; in fact, even ants, having found food, will mark out a trail that other ants will in turn follow. I asked Bill about this in a comment on the linked post, and he agreed that this was indeed an example of intentional behavior.

So if we are sticking with the identity of the intentional with the mental, we are forced to ascribe mentality to ants. At the very least, if we define the intentional as that which is at least potentially conscious, then we must in turn ascribe consciousness to ants. Are we willing to go this far? It is perfectly reasonable to assume instead that ants might be little zombies, tiny machines that are simply wired up to follow pheromone trails to food. And if we are willing to ascribe intentionality, and therefore potential consciousness, to ants, what about even simpler creatures? Even bacteria have been shown to engage in trail-following behavior. Are we to imagine that they are conscious? Are we seriously willing to talk of a bacterium’s mental states? Even plants engage in complex, purposeful behaviors involving signalling, predator avoidance, etc. Where do we draw the line? Should we draw a line at all, or might it just be, as I have argued, that all living things are equally valid candidates for “intrinsic” intentionality, which does not necessarily have anything to do with mind or consciousness? What I am suggesting is that living things are intentional systems by virtue of their having been designed as such by evolution and natural selection, and that books and maps are intentional, in turn, in virtue of their having been designed by us. We might, on this view, leave the term “intrinsic” for those entities that were not designed by other intentional entities.

I have pressed Bill for his thoughts about this in several comments at his website, but so far the only response he has offered has been to suggest, rather brusquely, that there is nothing further to discuss. This is quite uncharacteristic – he is normally not one to shy away from a valid criticism or an unresolved issue, so I can only assume that my own exposition of the point I have been trying to make was not sufficiently clear.

So – as clearly as I can put it, the first question is: how are we to interpret the following?

1) All mental states are intentional, and all intentional states are mental;
2) All intentional states are conscious, or at least potentially conscious;
3) Even simple organisms such as ants and bacteria exhibit intentionality.

Of course, I think I remember Bill suggesting that there are some mental states (pain, for example), that are not intentional, which leaves us with:

1′) Some mental states are intentional, and all intentional states are mental;
2′) All intentional states are conscious, or at least potentially conscious;
3′) Even simple organisms such as ants and bacteria exhibit intentionality.

If we prefer 1′), then I will ask also: what, then, is the hallmark of the “mental”?

Perhaps what we need is:

1″) Some mental states are intentional, and all intentional states are mental;
2″) All intentional and mental states are conscious, or at least potentially conscious;
3″) Even simple organisms such as ants and bacteria exhibit intentionality.

It seems, though, that any one of these forces us to conclude that:

4) Ants (and perhaps even bacteria and plants) are conscious, or at least potentially so.

I suggest that we may simply say instead:

5) All living things exhibit intentionality;
6) The intentionality of living things does not necessarily depend on mind or consciousness.

Bill, might you be persuaded to weigh in on this?

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