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Tallis in Wonderland

About Aboutness

Raymond Tallis has some thoughts about intentionality.

Philosophers often remind us, and each other, that mental contents have the property of ‘aboutness’. Indeed, this is their distinguishing feature. Perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and hopes, are all about things, events, states of affairs, past, present or future, actual or possible. So far, so obvious. Or so it should be. Nevertheless, this aboutness – or to use the philosophers’ preferred term, intentionality – has generated a vast literature in the philosophy of mind, and has been the subject of heated debate, just because it lies at the root of the fundamental differences between the mental and the physical. It makes mind difficult to fit into the cosmos as seen through what Daniel Dennett (in Consciousness Explained, 1991) called ‘the prevailing wisdom’ that “We can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth.”

We can test this claim by looking at something very basic: vision. How do I see this cup in front of me? The physical side of the story is that some of the light bouncing off the cup enters my eyes, tickles up my retinas, and sets in train neural activity terminating in and processed by the visual cortex. Is that the whole story? It doesn’t seem so. While the continuous causal connection between the cup and my brain describes how the light gets in, it hardly explains how the gaze looks out.

An effect in the visual cortex being caused by events on the surface of the cup seems to involve “the same physical principles, laws and raw materials” that operate throughout the material world. But what about the intentional relationship between my mental experiences and the cup: the fact that my experience is about the cup? My experience being about the cup seems to point in a direction opposite to that of a physical cause. Do the effects in the visual cortex reveal the cup by reaching back to their own causes on the surface of the cup? That’s not the kind of thing observed in the physical world. Besides, if the cortical activity revealed the cup by reaching back to its causal ancestors, why would it bypass more recent ancestors such as the events in the retina? Why isn’t our experience about our retinas? And, moreover, why does it stop at the goings on in the surface of the cup, and not reach further back?

This is only the beginning of the troubles besetting those who would like to assimilate mental contents, with their intentionality, into the physical world. Physical objects such as cups, unless they are hallucinations, are taken to be more than a succession of perceptions. Some hardline empiricists have suggested that our minds invent the idea of continually existing objects to make sense of our experience: that objects are mere ‘logical constructs’ out of sense data. The doyen of analytical philosophy, Willard van Orman Quine even suggested in Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951) that objects are ‘cultural posits’ fashioned out of ‘irritations on our sensory surfaces’ and on a comparable ‘epistemological footing’ to Homer’s gods. If this were the case, then it is difficult to see how homely (rather than Homeric) items such as cups could be the seat of those causal interactions with the light that are supposed to account for their being seen. And then there is the inexplicable fact that to the gazing eye, light has subjective properties such as brightness and colour that are not intrinsic to the photons themselves.

It is clear that Dennett’s ‘prevailing wisdom’ is in serious trouble. This may explain the determined attempts by many philosophers to cut intentionality down to size. Dennett himself has argued over many decades that ascribing mental contents such as beliefs to ourselves and other creatures, including our fellow humans, is merely to adopt ‘the intentional stance’ – a useful tool which will help us to understand or predict behaviour. But it is unclear why this tool should be useful unless individuals really had minds with intentional contents. There doesn’t seem to be much use ascribing beliefs to people unless they have them. Others have tried to reduce intentionality to a natural relationship of correspondence or correlation between states of the brain and states of the environment, in which the ‘tracking’ carries biologically useful information about the content of the environment. Biologically useful or not, it isn’t clear how basic correspondence or correlation would amount to the aboutness relation essential to mental contents. After all, tracking is evident throughout the physical world. The surface of a puddle tracks the clouds reflected in it. In the absence of a conscious being, however, what is happening on the surface of the puddle does not amount to an image of the cloud, even less an image that is about the cloud. What’s more, unless the correlation were due to an actual causal relationship between the tracker and the tracked, tracking would be a miracle comparable to Leibniz’s pre-established harmony.

Shared Differences

Those philosophers who try desperately hard to naturalize or marginalize intentionality are motivated by a reason opposite to that which motivates those of us who feel that intentionality is not part of the material world. They deny something that we affirm – that there are fundamental differences, first between conscious beings and the material universe, and then between humans and other conscious beings, even our nearest primate kin. To understand how central intentionality is to these differences, let’s go back to vision.

When I see a cup, there is an explicit distance between me and the cup. My knowing the cup is not explained by immediate, causal, contact with it. The intentional object of vision is explicitly other than myself, the one who sees. It is ‘over there’, and I am ‘over here’. By contrast, there is no ‘over here’ and ‘over there’ in the material world. Someone needs to experience them for ‘here’ and ‘there’ to exist. ‘Here’ and ‘there’ are locations in phenomenal, not physical, space. This is crucial for the difference between conscious organisms and nonconscious entities. It is also additional to the ‘what is like to be’ of subjective experience, which has been frequently identified as the irreducible feature of consciousness. But what of the difference between human consciousness, and indeed human being, and animal consciousness, and animal being? The difference is rooted in the extraordinary elaboration of intentionality in human beings.

The space opened up and reached across, but not closed down by, aboutness, is most clearly evident in vision. It is a non-physical distance between the seer and the seen, the basis of a separation between conscious beings and their environment. This space becomes wider, more complex, and of a different character, as human consciousness evolves. There is a progressive ‘unwiring’ of the individual from the physical causal net of which the material of the organism is a part.

The most potent driver of the transformation of human consciousness is the joining, sharing, or collectivization of intentionality. In A Natural History of Human Thinking, the comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello has identified the distinctive power of human minds to be jointly directed towards objects, matters of fact, states of affairs, goals or values, as the key to our uniqueness. Collective intentionality, he points out, encompasses shared intention, joint attention, shared belief, collective acceptance, and collective emotion. This sharing presupposes a sense of other individuals as being fundamentally like oneself and located in a common public space in which all participate. Obvious facilitators of joined intentionality are the various modes of communication. Of course animals communicate, but not in the way that humans do. The difference is evident at a basic level, in the gesture of pointing, which is universal in humans and not seen in beasts. By the time it is one year old, a child will be incessantly pointing to things that it wants its parents to see, soliciting shared attention to an object of interest, and importantly affirming a common world at the distal end of a shared intentional relation.

The intentionality in verbal communication permits further unwiring of the organism from the causal net. Linguistic aboutness – clearly seen in referential, factual assertions – allows subjects to know more while being exposed to less. Although they are tested against experience, facts are remote from experience. This is one of the reasons why no amount of objective, factual knowledge of the visual system will give me a sense of what it is like to see the colour blue if I am blue colourblind. Importantly, facts are uprooted from physical time and space. While my seeing a cup was an experience that occurred at a particular place and time, and my telling you about it is also occurring at a particular place and time (here and now), the fact that I saw a cup at a particular place and time is not itself anchored to either a place or a time.

Digging deeper, we may note that joined intentionality is the opening up of the very possibility of possibility in a material world that has no option but actuality. That is to say, in a culture shared through language, it is possible to create intentional objects to which nothing actual corresponds. For example, to create stories about things that don’t exist. Prior to referential discourse there is no falsehood (or indeed, truth). This collaboration in what we’re communicating about also opens up a common factual past and a common factual future from which we may approach the world in such a manner that our actions are not mere reactions to it. Agency is empowered through being joint; and magnified by the sharing of skills, customs, institutions, artefacts, a thousand patented ingenuities, and by documentation of what works and what doesn’t. In short, a distinctly human world expands through a trillion cognitive handshakes that permit us to act upon nature as if from outside it.

I have scooped a thimbleful from an ocean, but I hope I have said enough to illustrate how the degree to which we are unwired from the physical universe by intentionality is hugely increased by the sharing of intentionality that establishes a community of human minds.

Intentionality Matters

It is no wonder then that aboutness, connecting subjects to and yet separating them from objects, is so vigorously contested by those like Dennett who want to incorporate humanity into a world defined by “the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition and growth.” In such a world it would be impossible to see how human organisms could have stepped back sufficiently to see those physical principles, laws and raw materials that supposedly define the universe, and see also that they were subject to them; how we could place ‘matter’ in inverted commas and assert that we are made of it. If human beings were as entirely stitched into the causal net as tectonic plate movement and photosynthesis, we would be unable to understand how we could seem to manipulate it ever more effectively, or even entertain the illusion that we do so.

‘Aboutness’ sounds harmless, or even banal. However, it lies at the heart of what it is that sets apart animals with complex consciousnesses from the material world. And the joining together of intentionality drives the widening of the gap between humans and other animals, even our nearest primate kin. No wonder those who want to reduce human beings to pieces of matter try to hide it from sight.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2019

Raymond Tallis’s next book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God and Science, will be published by Agenda later this year.

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