Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Price Of Intention

"Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense." —Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Culture and Value" p.59.
I am sure I have often said and have certainly often heard others say: "I didn't realise until afterwards, what I was trying to do." This post is an attempt to pay close attention to the nonsense buried in this utterance and to tentatively suggest that the associated notion of unconscious striving — of unconscious desire even — is incoherent. It may already be clear that such a view runs contrary to one or two foundational ideas within psychoanalysis, some of which continue to garner significant recognition within the arts. If we shouldn't be afraid of talking nonsense, then we probably shouldn't be afraid of identifying nonsense either.

To realise something after the fact is to have learned something new; to have become aware of something that was previously unclear or inaccessible. The sentence "I didn't realise until afterwards, what I was trying to do." is commonly used as an acknowledgement that our goals are often vague, fragmentary or imprecise and only through the gradual, or sometimes sudden, accumulation of understanding do we become capable of clearly articulating this more developed knowledge. But whilst our goals can be sketchy, a vague intention is not an intention for vague outcome. A sketchy idea for a diagram is rarely a desire for a sketchy diagram.

There is nothing confused or paradoxical about such thoughts. Where the confusion arises is in the suggestion that some part of us, some inner and inaccessible intelligence, seeks to express itself through our actions; that an alleged unconscious or subconscious self is trying to tell us things that may only dawn upon our conscious awareness later. Certainly there are times when we recognise patterns or significances in our past actions. But is this sufficient grounds for the supposition that we are host to unconscious intentions that are striving to articulate themselves? I hope to show that it is not.

Trying, striving, endeavouring, pursuing, envisaging, seeking, aiming etc. are intentional goal orientated behaviours. Without goals there can be no striving  because there can be nothing to strive towards. If we were never capable of communicating an outcome of our actions in any shape or form, then we could not be said to try to achieve something either. "All 'willing' is willing something," as the neurologist Oliver Sacks puts it.

If someone asks us what we are doing and we have no answer, then we cannot be said to be acting purposefully. It is for this reason that goals are fundamentally reliant upon our powers of communication; upon our ability to offer some sort of token, word or gesture that would be acceptable to others as a representation of our intention.

In a 2006 paper, Jack Glaser and John Kihlstrom argue that: "Unconscious Volition Is Not an Oxymoron." They write:
...the unconscious, in addition to being a passive categorizer, evaluator, and semantic processor, has processing goals (for example, accuracy, egalitarianism) of its own, can be vigilant for threats to the attainment of these goals, and will proactively compensate for such threats.
Clearly Glaser and Kihlstrom recognise that volition demands goals, but it is extraordinary that they are prepared to suggest that unconscious behaviour is fundamentally intentional: that it has ulterior motives, even if these are as seemingly benign and basic as accuracy and egalitarianism etc. In its most extreme form, such a view opens the door to any number of unwitting intentions and renders us as nothing more than witnesses to motives beyond our control or ken.

If goals can be pursued without our conscious awareness or control, then we are puppets in a theatre not of our own making, and all we can do is observe our actions like passive audience members in the hope of gleaning some comprehension of the hidden goals that actually drive us. Consciousness never looked more wretched.

The alternative is to reject the notion of unconscious volition altogether and to seek a less extravagant explanation.

When in 1974 Oliver Sacks broke his leg whilst fleeing from a bull, the trauma of the injury left him with a temporary inability to properly sense or move his leg. In essence the episode had rid him of all knowhow in the use of his leg. A closely related condition is sometimes experienced by people who become temporarily blind in response to the traumatic loss of a loved one or some other major upset. These sorts of psychological responses to trauma are known as "Conversion Disorders" and it is interesting to note that the term was first coined by Freud as an alternative to "hysteria" or "hysterical blindness."

In a paper on the subject of conversion disorders, Harvey et al. (2006) point out that: "One difficulty facing research in this field is the complexity of the conceptual issues and variable ways in which terminology has been used." The authors helpfully include a table of definitions and explanations of key terminology and they also explicitly state that conversion disorders are “not intentionally produced” and cannot be feigned. It should be made clear that they do not make any suggestion that conversion disorders are the result of unconscious intention, striving, trying etc.

When overtired drivers are overcome by sleep, their unconscious is not striving to take control. If you attempt to kill yourself by holding your breath, it is not inner volition that will rob you of consciousness before the job is done. These are simply highly evolved autonomic responses that have no goals and do not have to strive, seek or endeavour to impose themselves. They have no more volition than the iris of the eye. No doubt conversion disorders are similarly rooted in complex autonomic processes.

Can we aim for one thing only to find that we were actually aiming for something else? If goals are necessarily communicable, then it follows that we cannot be oblivious of those we are pursuing. We can certainly aim for inappropriate goals or be confused, uncertain or vague about our goals, as I have already mentioned. But I don't think we can be mistaken that the thing we are intent upon is actually the thing we are intent upon. That would come at an extremely high price; the price of intention itself.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Indivisible Atoms of Intention

We are purposeful creatures. That would seem to be a fact beyond all doubt. Aside from the odd twitch, sneeze, hiccup, yawn, blush and a whole variety of other much more common autonomic processes, our purposeful — as distinct from merely efficacious — behaviours are invariably of the intentional sort. They are actions.

We are intentionally directed creatures not because we think of every action in anticipation but because we are prepared to communicate our goals when appropriately prompted. But how can a preparedness, readiness or disposition to communicate a goal be sufficient to justify purposeful behaviour? This post is intended to offer an explanation.

When you arose from your bed this morning no doubt you did it intentionally. My aim is to show that the intention to do so, was not initiated by a special pattern of neural activity but by a special constitution of you as an organism — including your brain of course. Certainly there was activity in your brain prior to your getting up, but it would be mistaken to suppose that this activity constituted a nascent intention. There is no intender in your brain pulling any strings to lift you from your slumber or to remove you from your bed.

Intention is not an activity of brain cells so much as a state of you as an organism in which certain causal influences lead to certain patterns of behaviour. In other words, when you get up, you simply act out of habit. This is not to say that habits are unintentional. What I am suggesting is that many—perhaps all—of our actions are a consequence of the way we are configured; of our dispositions to respond to certain causal influences in certain ways. This is surely what we mean when we say that someone “acts in character.” What we need to examine in order to understand intention is these dispositions to act — in particular our dispositions to represent.

If at any point in time I were to interrupt you and ask what you are doing, I’m pretty sure that you would have an answer at the ready. It would certainly be disconcerting for us both if you didn’t. Now it cannot be true that you are covertly narrating your life as you live it just in case someone asks you to explain yourself. You are simply adept—as we all are—in the skill of offering representations of your causal engagements on demand. So I am saying that this preparedness to produce representations is is necessary to explain intentional behaviour because the preparedness in itself is causally influential upon behaviour.

Certainly there are times when we are thrown into unfamiliar circumstances where we need to consider the possible consequences of our actions. But it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing about these forms of activity that makes them any more intentional than our more ordinary acts of habit. Some of our actions are the result of explicitly contemplating reasons or anticipating future states of affairs. Others are the product of images, objects, gestures and enactments that we are capable of producing, performing or describing.

Representations are intentional artefacts and behaviours. It is for this reason that we need to distinguish  sharply between the objects and behaviours that representations are from the indivisibly intentional creatures — the individuals — that produce them. The only way a creature can contain an intentional artefact or behaviour is by an intentional act. There are no intentional agents or behaviours within us. If we assume that the agency capable of producing representations exists within us — as opposed to being a state of us — then we undermine the whole project of examining and explaining what it is to have agency in the first place — to be an intentionally directed creature and to have a mind.

There has to be a cutoff. Intention doesn't reach all the way back. I am arguing that the cutoff is at the level of the organism, not its organs, its cells or its atoms.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Animal Minds?

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote "The ancestor of every action is a thought." Superficially this idea seems plausible enough, but on closer examination it turns out to conceal a vicious paradox. If every purposeful action necessitated a prior thought, then every act of thinking – every thought – would itself have to be initiated by a further motivating thought. This inextinguishable spiral of antecedent thoughts is sometimes known as a “Rylean regress,” named after the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle who took the view that “intelligent practice is not a step-child of theory.”

At the core of Ryle’s philosophy was the conviction that intelligent behaviours are not the result of practical knowledge but are instead instances of practical knowledge. Confusion arises because we tend to conceive of knowledge as an independent "thing" that leads to, results in or produces actions. Ryle exposed the “category mistake” implicit in this reified conception. Knowledge for Ryle is neither an entity nor a neurological region that we can point to on a fMRI scan – it is a repertoire of aptitudes, skills and dispositions. For Ryle, skillful action is a form of thinking. And if thought and action are indivisible in this way, then there need be no prior “thought processes” driving intelligent behaviour. Actions are already integrated processes of intelligent engagement with the world.

So, do animals think before they act? A Rylean analysis would suggest not. But this is not to support the view that only language users are capable of contemplating the future or of making plans. Many plans are diagrammatic objects after all. Nonetheless what it does strongly suggest is that the skills involved in planning and other sophisticated forms of future directed activity, rely upon techniques that must be learned and practiced through trial and error. In the human case this is achieved through publicly negotiated forms of communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Without such public exchanges it is extremely doubtful that any creature could ever develop the capacity to ponder with any degree of complexity or proficiency. Skills are demonstrated and tested in the unforgiving crucible of actuality, not in the cosseted ether of thought or imagination.