Dan Dennett on “Intentionality” – a brief explanation

Posted: February 1, 2015 in Musings
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Excerpted from “Philosophy Bites Again” by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. Copyright © 2014 by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.

Nigel Warburton:

“I’m still having trouble understanding what an intention is. We usually think of intentions as ‘introspectible’ mental events that precede actions. That doesn’t seem to be quite what you mean by an intention.”

Daniel Dennett:

“When discussing the ‘intentional stance’, the word ‘intention’ means something broader than that.
It refers to states that have content. Beliefs, desires, and intentions are among the states that have content.

To adopt the intentional stance towards a person – it’s usually a person, but it could be towards a cat, or even a computer, playing chess – is to adopt the perspective that you’re dealing with an agent who has beliefs and desires, and decides what to do, and what inten­tions to form, on the basis of a rational assessment of those beliefs and desires.

It’s the stance that dominates Game Theory.
When, in the twentieth century; John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern invented the theory of games, they pointed out that game theory reflects something fundamental in strategy.

Robinson Crusoe on a desert island doesn’t need the intentional stance. If there’s something in the environment that’s like an agent – that you can treat as an agent – this changes the game.

You have to start worrying about feedback loops. If you plan activities, you have to think:
‘If I do this, this agent might think of doing that in response, and what would be my response to that?’
Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have to be sneaky and tiptoe around in his garden worrying about what the cabbages will do when they see him coming.
But if you’ve got another agent there, you do. 
As soon as Man Friday appears, then you need the intentional stance.”

Further analogy:

If I want to know why you pulled the trigger of a gun, I won’t learn that by having an atom-by-atom account of what went on in your brain. I’d have to go to a higher level: I’d have to go to the intentional stance in psychology.

Here’s a very simple analogy: you’ve got a hand calculator and you put in a number, and it gives the answer 3.333333E. Why did it do that? Well, if you tap in ten divided by three, and the answer is an infinite continuing decimal, the calculator gives an ‘E’.

Now, if you want to understand which cases this will happen to, don’t examine each and every individual transistor: use arithmetic. Arithmetic tells you which set of cases will give you an ‘E’. Don’t think that you can answer that question by electronics. That’s the wrong level. The same is true with playing computer chess. Why did the computer move its bishop? Because otherwise its queen would have been captured. That’s the level at which you answer that question.

We’re often interested in intention where this is linked to moral or legal responsibility. And some cases depend on information that we get about people’s brains. For example, there are cases where people had brain lesions that presumably had some causal impact on their criminal behaviour.

DD: I’m so glad you raised that because it perfectly illus­trates a deep cognitive illusion that’s been fostered in the field for a generation and more.

People say, ‘Whenever we have a physiological causal account, we don’t hold somebody responsible.’ Well, might that be because whenever people give a physiological causal account, these are always cases of disability or pathology? You never see a physiological account of somebody getting something tight. Supposing we went into Andrew Wiles’ brain and got a perfect physiological account of how he proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. Would that show that he’s not responsible for his proof? Of course not. It’s just that we never give causal physiological-level accounts of psychological events when they go right.

“Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts
(La parole a été donné à l’homme pour déguiser sa pensée).” – Talleyrand. (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, 1754 – 1838).

I think that’s a deep observation about the role of language in communication. It’s essential to the understanding of communication that it’s an intentional act, where you decide which aspects of your world you want to inform people about and which you don’t.


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