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Intentionality, or the problem of being about something
The wrongest we’ve ever been about anything
In a recent letter I outlined a world view that posits an ultimate reality which, intrinsically, is beyond categorization, but which relates to the world in a threefold manner: as a substance (Sanskrit: sat) it constitutes the world, as a consciousness (cit) it contains the world, and as an infinite quality and delight (ānanda) it experiences and expresses itself in the world. The Upanishads refer to it in the ligated form saccidānanda (or Sachchidananda). Following Schrödinger, I referred to it simply as “the One.”
A crucial feature of the world, thus conceived, is that it forms part of a cycle of self-concealment (of the One) and self-discovery (by the One), or involution and evolution. Involution is brought about by a stepwise departure from the original (all-encompassing, all-constituting) status of the One. The first step towards involution is individuation, by which the One adopts a multitude of standpoints from which it experiences and expresses its inherent quality and delight. Some of the characteristics of human experience — experience as we know it — arise as a result, including the familiar dimensions of phenomenal space: viewer-centered depth and lateral extent.
In the original status of the One, the subject is one with its object. The foundation of knowledge therefore is identity. If the One adopts a multitude of localized standpoints, knowledge by identity takes the form of direct knowledge: each individual knows the others directly, without mediating representations. (The possibility of direct knowledge rests on the underlying identity of the knower with the known. The latter constitutes the “medium” supporting the former.) Involution begins in earnest when the concentration of the one original consciousness in each individual becomes exclusive.
If the One identifies itself with each particular object to the exclusion of all others, knowledge of the others is reduced to an indirect knowledge, i.e., a direct knowledge by the individual of some of its internal attributes (such as, in our case, neural firing patterns) which serve as representations of external objects. In the philosophy of mind, this presents a huge problem: how can anything in the world, such as a neural firing pattern, represent — and, more generally, refer to or be about — anything else in the world? This is what I want to address in this letter. But let me first finish my outline of Sachchidananda’s cycle of involution and evolution.
Exclusive concentration — whereby awareness is focused on a single object or task, while other things are registered, and other tasks attended to, subconsciously if at all — is a phenomenon with which we are familiar. It can be carried further. To better understand how, it will be helpful to think of creation — the process by which the infinite quality at the heart of reality expresses itself in finite forms — as including two intermediate stages. To manifest a world of finite forms, infinite quality begins by casting itself into expressive ideas, which command a spontaneously effective formative force, which creates and maintains finite forms:
Infinite Quality >> Expressive Idea >> Formative Force >> Finite Form
By a further exclusive concentration, consciousness itself can become implicit (“involved”) in its aspect of formative force, and this aspect can in turn become implicit in finite forms. Or rather — since this force serves to create and maintain forms — it can become implicit in a multitude of formless entities. Or again — since formless entities are indistinguishable and therefore (by the philosophical principle known as the Identity of Indiscernibles) numerically identical — it can become implicit in a single indeterminate substance, which is the farthest extent to which something can masquerade as nothing.
Evolution begins with a bang. What is responsible for the bang is the emergence or activation of the force that creates and maintains forms. And because every physical form ultimately resolves into a set of relations, it emerges as a force that creates and maintains reflexive relations: relations between the One and the One. And because these relations have the character of relative positions — positions that the One adopts relative to itself — the activation of formative force mirrors the individuation by which the One adopts a multitude of localized standpoints. In either case, space as we know it comes into being. In the former case, the resulting multitude of spatial relations engenders an apparent multitude of formless relata, the so-called fundamental particles of physics. (“Apparent” because the relations are reflexive or, what comes to the same, because the relata are numerically identical.) And it goes without saying that all this needs to be discussed in greater detail, as it will be in a future letter.
Having formed an idea of the process of involution, we now have the conceptual wherewithal to make proper sense of evolution. When life emerged, what emerged was essentially the formative force that creates and maintains forms, and when mind emerged, what emerged was essentially the ability to generate expressive ideas. It follows at once that the emergence of mind cannot be the end or final goal of evolution. What is yet to emerge is the power to develop the infinite Quality at the heart of reality into expressive ideas.
Owing to the Houdiniesque nature of this self-manifestation of the One, the force at work in the world has to work under tight constraints.This is why the evolution of life requires the creation of increasingly complex organisms, and why the evolution of mind makes necessary the creation of increasingly complex nervous systems.
Which brings us back to the problem of intentionality. Cognitive science seeks for an account of intentionality that is independent of consciousness. This seems inherently absurd. I cannot but agree with Hilary Putnam when he writes:
One hears a lot of talk about “cognitive science” nowadays, but one needs to distinguish between the putting forward of a scientific theory, or the flourishing of a scientific discipline with well-defined questions, from the proffering of promissory notes for possible theories that one does not know even in principle how to redeem.
To eliminate subjectivity altogether, the physicalist/cognitive scientist must not only deny the reality of sensory qualities (“qualia”) but also the representative aspect of the mind (its intentionality or “aboutness”). This leads to eliminativism (a.k.a. eliminative materialism), a doctrine which implies that our minds cannot be causally responsible for our actions: it cannot be true that my wanting something is responsible for my reaching for it, that my itching is responsible for my scratching, and that my believing something is responsible for my saying it. And “if none of that is literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world,” Jerry Fodor exclaimed. Elsewhere he wrote:
if commonsense intentional psychology really were to collapse, that would be, beyond comparison, the greatest intellectual catastrophe in the history of our species; if we’re that wrong about the mind, then that’s the wrongest we’ve ever been about anything. The collapse of the supernatural, for example, didn’t compare; theism never came close to being as intimately involved in our thought and our practice — especially our practice — as belief/desire explanation is. Nothing except, perhaps, our commonsense physics — our intuitive commitment to a world of observer-independent, middle-sized objects — comes as near our cognitive core as intentional explanation does.
In the psychology of perception, the problem of intentionality takes an equally acute form. To lay it out, I must begin by stressing that spatial extension, just like the color of a Burmese ruby, is a quality that can only be defined by ostentation — by drawing attention to something of which we are directly aware. If you are not convinced, try to explain to my friend Andy, who lives in a spaceless world, what space is like. Andy is good at math, so he understands you perfectly if you tell him that space is (or is like) the set of all triplets of real numbers. But if you believe that this gives him a sense of the expanse we call space, you are deluding yourself. We can imagine triplets of real numbers as points embedded in space; he cannot. We can interpret the difference between two numbers as the distance between two points; he cannot. At any rate, he cannot associate with the word “distance” the phenomenal quality of remoteness it conveys to us. (Much the same goes for time. Time passes, and the only way to know what this means is to be aware of it.)
An idea that has been dominant throughout history is that representations are encodings. From the images falling on our retinas, our brains extract information, and this information is said to be encoded in patterns of electrochemical pulses. If these patterns are to be experienced as (or to give rise to experiences of) a world extended in space and time, they have to be decoded. They have to be interpreted. This decoding or interpretation presupposes acquaintance with the expanse of space and the passing of time, and this acquaintance is not something that neural processes can provide.
Unsurprisingly, attempts have been made to repudiate the interpreter. What is actually required is an understanding of the nature of the interpreter and its capacity to make us perceive an external object when all we seem to be given is an internal neural representation. To arrive at such an understanding, we need to recall that all knowledge is based on identity. It is the identity of the knower with the known that makes direct knowledge possible, and it is a secret direct knowledge that undergirds the possibility of indirect knowledge. The incomplete quantitative information provided by neural firing patterns is supplemented by a qualitative direct knowledge which springs from a source that is subliminal to our surface consciousness.
In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
In the surface consciousness knowledge represents itself as a truth seen from outside, thrown on us from the object, or as a response to its touch on the sense, a perceptive reproduction of its objective actuality…. Since it is unable to see what is within its deeper self or observe the process of the knowledge coming from within, [our surface mind] has no choice but to accept what it does see, the external object, as the cause of its knowledge…. In fact, it is a hidden deeper response to the contact, a response coming from within that throws up from there an inner knowledge of the object, the object being itself part of our larger self. [LD 560-561]
Thanks to the work of Hubel and Wiesel, David Marr, and others, a great deal has been learned about how the brain analyzes visual information, but little if anything has been learned in terms of synthesis: how the separately processed features of the perceptual world are put back together again, to result in a unified perceptual experience.
This too should not come as a surprise. As has been pointed out in another letter, the brains studied by neuroscience are themselves objects of perceptual experience, and objects of perceptual experience cannot (as such) give rise to perceptual experience. If we think of the brain as it is known to neuroscience as an aspect of something more — of a “brain-in-itself” which in its entirety is cognitively accessible neither subjectively (through introspection) nor objectively (through perceptual experience) — then we can reasonably assume that this “brain-in-itself” contributes to our having perceptual experiences, but we cannot reasonably hope to understand how it does so.
Jerry Fodor (1990). A Theory of Content and Other Essays, p. 156 (Bradford Books/MIT Press).
— (1987). Psychosemantics: The problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind, p. xii (Bradford Books/MIT Press).
David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel (1979). Brain mechanisms of vision. Scientific American 241 (3), 150-162.
David Marr (1982). Vision (Freeman).
Hilary Putnam (1997). Functionalism: Cognitive Science or Science Fiction? In: The Future of the Cognitive Revolution, edited by David Martel Johnson and Christina E. Erneling, , pp. 32-44 (Oxford University Press).
Harry Houdini was a stage magician and stunt performer famous at the turn of the 20th Century, noted for his sensational escape acts.