Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part IV: Unanticipated Intention)

"Theories of mental content attempt to solve what is often referred to as Brentano's problem: the problem of explaining intentionality, explaining how mental states can be about things or be directed on to things in this way." —Karen Neander 2012

Previously I discussed the problems that arise as a consequence of conceiving of brains as representation containers as opposed to evolved organs of embodied response. I also raised some related objections to the notion of aboutness that many theorists claim is fundamental to the explanation of intentionality. My contention is that representations can only possess aboutness by virtue of their participation within an already intentionally directed system of rules. Without a rule to govern its use, even the most basic symbol is incapable of standing-in for anything (Bickhard and Turveen 1995, Bickhard 2004). If this is so, then the problem of explaining intentionality, raised by Neander in the above quote, runs into severe difficulties. Furthermore, if an inner representation is required to initiate an intentional action then this representation must itself be either intentional or unintentional. If it is intentional then it is a necessary condition that it also be initiated by another intentional representation and so on ad infinitum. If, on the other hand, the initiating representation is unintentional then the resultant behaviour cannot be intentional. I conclude therefore that inner representations are logically incapable of underwriting any form of intentional action — human or animal.

So, how can we answer "Brentano's problem" whilst avoiding the perils of infinite regress? In his “Philosophical Investigations,” (1953) Wittgenstein writes: "When people talk about the possibility of foreknowledge of the future they always forget the fact of the prediction of one's own voluntary movements.” Wittgenstein was concerned here with the question of why we are not surprised by our own voluntary movements. Despite the fact that we need not envisage any movement of our body prior to actually moving, we are invariably unsurprised by the outcome. As Wittgenstein suggested, and Gilbert Ryle (1949) further explored, where such voluntary actions are concerned, the action and its anticipation are one and the same thing. In other words, enacting a learned action is in itself predictive of the action's unfolding and therefore no prior act of contemplation is necessary for the behavior to qualify as being intentional. The learned capacity to do something presupposes its outcome. Another way of putting this would be to conceive of kinaesthetic learning (the learning of movements) as the acquisition of dispositions to move in certain ways in certain circumstances. These acquired dispositions are then capable of underwriting future intentional behaviour of the same kind.

If the above is correct, then there may be grounds to suppose that animals are capable of intentional action. Any questions we might have concerning anticipation and mindedness will have to wait until the next post, but what of perception? Was Gareth Evans correct in his intuition that humans and animals share certain perceptual characteristics? Gilbert Ryle (1949) argued that perception is less an action or procedure than an "achievement," and as Derek Melser (2009) remarks: "achievements necessarily imply prior active strivings." Melser contends that perception is a skill that depends on language acquisition and is developed through interaction with other perceivers in a process that he calls "tokening and concerting". On this view, perceivers engage in active dialogue about perceived objects that gradually accumulates into a perceptual repertoire of associated linguistic and behavioural responses. Melser also offers an important refutation of the commonplace assumption that perception is a relation between acts of perceiving and things perceived. He writes: "The question of what thing X is has the same answer as the question of what perceiving X is. [...] Hence they are not two things and cannot be 'related.'"

If language is essential to the development of perceptual skills as Melser claims, then Gareth Evans' view that animals and humans share certain perceptual states would seem to be in difficulty. Nonetheless there may yet be hope for anti-intellectualism. Like Melser, Donald Brook (1969, 1997, 2014) emphasises the cultural basis of perceptual skills but unlike Melser, he claims that perception is not exclusive to language-users but may be reasonably attributed to other creatures capable of producing nonverbal representations of the things with which they are engaged. The challenge for this theory is to provide evidence of these hypothesised causally influential but untriggered dispositions to represent. However, if it is true that many creatures are also capable of learning new behaviours, as is widely observed, then it follows—at least in principle—that they are capable of performing these skills and demonstrating them to other perceivers in just the way that Brook suggests. Indeed, if an animal learns a behaviour by observing and imitating the actions of a parent or sibling, then we have all the evidence we need that such an animal is a perceiver by virtue of its manifest capacity to imitate (to represent) this observed behaviour.

So the non-conceptual view that Gareth Evans is often invoked to defend would seem to have healthy grounds for support — so long as we bear in mind the importance of nonverbal know-how. As the arguments develop, we will see that this Rylean approach presents yet more significant challenges for intellectualism.


Post a Comment