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Cause and affect: intentionality as first mover?

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

Evolving Systems:
Open Conversations

Cause and Affect: Intentionality as First Mover?

Doug Blank
  3 December 2009

The issue:

To explore the notion of "intentionality" and how we, as complex, evolving systems, can make sense of it.   Some questions to explore: What is intentionality?  What causes it? What things have it?  Can it be rational?  Is it consistent in humans? Can intentional choices be ethical and moral? Can the ends justify the means?

Doug's presentation notes


Meeting summary (Paul)

Following a brief initial context setting about the project's aspiration to understand "evolving systems" in terms of a combination of "emergent" and "intentional" processes (see "clarifying intentionalities"), Doug provided a series of vignettes to encourage further consideration of what is meant by intentionality/story telling/counterfactualization, whether it is or is not something that can be usefully studied, and whether it is or is not something different/new given an emergent context. 

Among the points in the resulting discussion:

  • Goal-directed behavior is a property of all living organisms and of at least some non-living things as well (thermostats)
  • The "anticipation of change" as an effective cause of goal-directed behavior is a "mental state" which, at the moment, we have no way of establishing the existence or non-existence of in ourselves, in other living things, or in non-living things.
  • Most (all?) observations of behavior "from the outside" can be accounted for without appealing to "mental states," by presuming prior training/experience, luck, or .... ?
  • Change in behavior can occur without internal change (see Langton's Ant), raising intriguing questions about whether internal "representations" actually exist at all.
  • Explorations of alternate possibilities can also occur without "mental states". 
  • In some ways, the inquiry into "intentionality/story telling/counterfactualization" is an inquiry into the adaptive significance of "consciousness," and needs to be understood as being carried out without either a starting  definition of what is being explored or an operational procedure for establishing its existence in any given case.



Continuing conversation, in on-line forum below


Richard L Stover's picture

Making things happen by willing it or...

...when a thing can properly be said to be effected by the will of man...

Myself, I can only make things happen with my fingers and hands, whether I will it or not, or if it's the result of a pressing need is fuel for debate .

Anne Dalke's picture

"properly (or disproportionately?) effected"?

In preparation for a new course I'll be teaching this spring on the James family, I'm deep into (among other things) Robert Richardson's 2006 biography of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. It's a fascinating account of the wellsprings of James's thought, and along the way a really interesting account of the world in which he lived, and the thinkers with whom he consorted. Tonight I've learned that Darwin asked the American philosopher Chauncey Wright "'to turn his analytic powers to work on the problem of determining, in connection with the idea of evolution, when a thing can properly be said to be effected by the will of man.' The result was 'The Evolution of Self-Consciousness,' which Wright published in the North American Review in April 1873...Wright took it for granted that if Darwin was right, the line separating humans from other mammals would be a very small, almost imperceptible development...[an] evolution from powers obviously common to all animal intelligences'" (p. 132).

Which is to say the line Doug was drawing this morning is...

hard to draw?

And certainly, to Chauncey Wright, not very significant in what he called "cosmical weather," or "the irregular dissipation and aggregation of worlds....:Whereas most men's interest in a thought is proportioned to its possible relation to human destiny, with him it was almost the reverse" (131).

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