Friday, August 17, 2007

The intentional pro-choicer

[I've updated this post with a somewhat lengthy comment {#4} but thought it tacky to jam it in this post.]

Daniel Dennett is famous for, among other reasons (including his beard, in my book), 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 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" and the lowest is the "physical stance." On the design stance, we look at a system or entity's functional capacity and predict what it might do given various changes. On the physical level we zoom in and only consider a system 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. tIS just extends this heuristic analysis to the 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, but rather understood dynamically as the aspect of any organized system or organism that (apparently) directs its actions and reactions. Mind, in this sense, is everywhere, as long as we can recognize "intentions" in any system or organism. 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. According to tIS even a thermostat can have a "mind", but this, only very loosely, and probably without any better heuristic value than looking at 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 on this linguistic phenomenon and, ironically, quasi-reified it as the basis for mind. The essence of mind, heuristically speaking, is to be treated as if being mindful. (Meanwhile, of course, we 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. "The mind," then, is a verb. Presumably, we recognize our selves 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 singular 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 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 its mental 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.

Something I think Dennett ignores, though, is how his view figures into the abortion debate. 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 palette). If animal pain is a moral concern on tIS, 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.

[What Dennett, of course, appears to skirt is the irreducibly intellective nature of intentionality, such that even beneath the physical stance is the intellective power of the mind to grasp meaning in terms of, say, physical signs, design compositions and intentional concepts. Mind may be as mind does, but grasping that fact is, as a metaphysical, eo ipso prevenient on formulating it. Intellection trumps intentionality, otherwise intentionality is not intentionality {i.e., it is propositionally void}. Cf. Wikipedia's "Intentional stance" for more.]


Michael Turton said...

The teleological thinking you've discussed here is the basis of religious belief. Humans impute intentionality to other things as part of their evolutionary equipment for getting along in the world. The imputation of intentionality -- purpose -- to the universe -- inventing gods -- is one outgrowth of that. Gods are simply Other Minds blown up to galactic scale.

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

You know, I was just over on Amanda's blog watching a bunch of Christian a$$holes bully a family into keeping a baby that has birth defects. It's hard to fathom the level of control that such action takes, or the deep need for control that it exhibits. It would be possible to take ya'll seriously in the abortion debate, if the Church actually cared about human life, and if there was some other dynamic at work -- other than the desperate, patriarchal need to control the bodies of women.


the Cogitator said...

"...if there was some other dynamic at work -- other than the desperate, patriarchal need to control the bodies of women."

Said the man, to another man, about other men.

Stop murdering babies and then lecture me about biophilia.

the Cogitator said...

Also, lest we forget,

BTW, who is this Amanda you mention? I assume I know her, but I don't any such blog.

the Cogitator said...


What you say about gods as pragmatic intentionality on a cosmic scale is just the old Freudian angle about gods as father figures on a biological scale. The old Freudian attack (“You invented God because you need the psychological security of a Big Dad”) cuts the other way (i.e., “You reject God because you have deep issues with father figures”) just as well – and just as poorly. Remember the old line about geese and ganders. Your deflation of cosmic Intentionality can be turned around with the very tools you wield (i.e., evolutionary theory).

As Fr. Edward Oakes has noted, part of reverse engineering (one of Dennett's favorite pastimes) is working from the artifact before us to conjecture how and why natural selection has brought it to be. Given that such an artifact exists, how did it come about? Birds' wings, to borrow from Fr. Oakes, are understood as a natural development of Earth's atmosphere, given properties of air density, bird's bone density, aerodynamics, gravity, etc. The evolutionary field informs us retrospectively about the development of wings. Unless nature already had the inherent capacity for evolving birds' wings, no such wings would have developed.

This retro-heuristic goes the other way, too, though, since what we know about birds' wings also gives us clues about the environment in which it developed. If a Martian visitor analyzed a bird's skeleton in abstraction from the terrestrial environment, it could retro-conjecture about the environment's capacities. The very presence of such wings indicates the environment is a wing-bearing, wing-producing state of affairs. We can reverse engineer from the environment to artifacts and vice versa. This does not mean there is a Great Wing in the heavens, but that one of nature's intrinsic capacities, and therefore features, is the capacity and propensity to bring about wingedness (I'll call this capacity “wingability”). Wingability is prevenient to wingedness, otherwise there would be no engineering potential for wings as such.

Now apply this heuristic to minds. Just as we can gain insight into our cognitive affairs by learning about the environment, selection pressures, neural complexity, etc., so we can learn about the evolutionary field by the very presence of mind. Unless there were already a mind-bearing capacity in nature, there would be no minds in nature. The inherent capacity of nature to produce “mindability” points to mind as a category prevenient to all concretely developed minds. Mind, then, writ large, trumps minds.

The personal-relational, minded-conceptual, lawlike-ordered dimensions of nature are everyday becoming clearer. Humans are, from the very roots of our neurology, language-users, face-recognizers, person-responders, mind-havers – and all such features point “retrojecturally” to the prevenient capacity, indeed quality, of the environment field, traditionally known as Creation, the mirror of God's glory.