My Reply to Dr. Novella’s Critique of Intentionality as a Property of the Mind

Michael Egnor

Steven Novella recently replied to my post in which I pointed out six properties of the mind that were not properties of matter. Strict materialistic theories of the mind restrict themselves to purely materialistic explanations. The difficulty is that the salient properties of the mind — intentionality, qualia, continuity of self through time, restricted access of thoughts, incorrigibility of mental states, and free will — are not known to be properties of matter, including brain matter. The important things that characterize the mind are not material. How then can the mind be explained completely by materialism?
I’ll review the first property (intentionality) here, and the other five in subsequent posts. I’ll first give my original observation about it, then Dr. Novella’s reply, then my reply to Dr. Novella.
My original observation:

Intentionality is the “aboutness” or meaning of a mental state, the ability of a mental state to refer to something outside of itself. Ink on paper has no meaning unless it is conferred by a mind, which wrote it or read it. Matter may have intentionality only secondarily (“derived intentionality”). The problem of intentionality is believed by many philosophers of the mind to be the most serious challenge to materialism. “Meaning” is imparted to matter by a mind; matter isn’t the source of meaning. Therefore matter (brain tissue) can’t be the entire cause of the mind.

Dr. Novella’s reply:

Yeah. It’s that bad – and it gets worse. If that’s the greatest challenge to materialism, then materialism is doing just fine. His argument is entirely based upon a false analogy. Ink on a page is matter, and it has no meaning without a mind to interpret it. Therefore, he concludes, the material brain can have no intention without a non-material mind. But the brain is not static matter, like ink. The brain is a dynamic organ. It is alive. It can use energy to do stuff, like process information, communicate with itself, receive outside stimulation, and even activate itself. Egnor, however, would have you believe that claiming these functions of the brain, when taken together, constitute the mind is the same thing as believing that a rock has inherent intention within its inert matter. Yep – that’s all he’s got.

My reply to Dr. Novella:
Dr. Novella doesn’t seem to understand intentionality and the central role it plays in philosophy, particularly in the philosophy of the mind. Intentionality was of fundamental importance to classical (Greek) philosophers as well as scholastic philosophers and theologians, and continues to be central to modern analytic philosophy. It’s fair to say that much if not most of the debate about the philosophy of the mind in the 20th century has been about intentionality.
The seminal modern description of intentionality was given by philosopher Franz Brentano in his work, “Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint,” published in two volumes in the late 19th century. Brentano’s classic description of intentionality is:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired, and so on.

Inexistence is an important word for Brentano. It does not mean ‘lack of existence,’ but rather ‘existence within.’ Intentional inexistence means that mental states (which are intentional) always have objects to which they refer, whether real or imaginary. Intentional states, unlike matter, are about something.
Brentano described intentionality as “the mark of the mental,” the essential characteristic of the mind, and a property not inherent to matter.
Another way of understanding intentionality is to use a linguistic analogy. Intentionality is semantics; it’s the meaning of something, as distinct from the syntax. In this sense, in the world as we experience it, intentionality is semantics, and matter and its structure are syntax.
Philosophers have described three types of intentionality:
Intrinsic intentionality: that characteristic of a mental state that is of or about something. It is always a property of mental states, and never a property of matter.
Derived intentionality: a property of matter derived from a mind. An example would be a sentence on a piece of paper, in the sense that the meaning of the writing is derived, not from the ink or paper, but from the mind that wrote it.
“As-if” intentionality: some philosophers (e.g. John Searle) invoke as-if intentionality to describe the faux intentionality imputed (figuratively) to physical objects :’the river ran to the sea as if it wanted to go home.’
Intentionality is the ‘mark of the mental.’ Thoughtful materialists admit that intentionality is the most serious problem for a strict materialist understanding of the mind, and many philosophers, even non-theistic philosophers who are quite sympathetic to a naturalistic understanding of reality, believe that intentionality is a fatal problem for philosophical materialism. Much of the literature from the materialist point of view from the past half century has been an effort to come to terms with the problem of intentionality. For example, the core of Daniel Dennett’s work is his effort to explain intentionality materialistically. He invokes the “intentional stance,” and proposes that intentionality is not real, but is simply an inference that material things (like us) make about other material things (i.e., other people) in order to predict their behavior. Dennett’s concept has not been widely accepted, and I’ll discuss it in more detail in future posts.
Other materialists have proposed that intentionality can be explained materialistically by context; that is, the meaning of a material event (a photon hitting your retina) is derived from its relationship in time and space to other photons hitting your retina, in a purely materialistic fashion. This view has been challenged by a number of philosophers, most notably Karl Popper, who have pointed out that the concept of ‘context’ of material events necessarily involves a selection of the context — there are innumerable ways in which an assembly of material events could be organized to provide context. The selection of context presupposes intentionality, so context cannot be the source of intentionality.
The intentionality problem is so profound for materialists that an entire school of philosophy of the mind has been created specifically to deal with the challenge posed by intentionality. It’s called Eliminative Materialism, and it’s most prominent advocates are “neurophilosophers” Paul and Patricia Churchland. Eliminative materialists believe that the mind does not exist. We are merely brains, and our beliefs, hopes, and experiences (which comprise our intentionality) don’t really exist at all. Our intentional states are entirely material brain events; our ‘belief’ that we love our children is merely a certain chemical gradient in our cingulate gyrus (or whatever). They call the view that beliefs and intentional states are real “folk psychology,” which they assert is the mistaken belief-system of uninformed people who don’t understand that they are nothing more than material beings. Eliminative materialist Paul Churchland writes (1):

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process…there seems no need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances of properties into our theoretical accounting of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.

Critics of eliminative materialism (and there are very many critics) point out that eliminative materialism, besides being… well… crazy, is essentially self-refuting. How can one believe that there are no beliefs? If eliminative materialism is true, then a discussion about eliminative materialism is merely changing chemical gradients in interlocutors’ brains, without meaning (intentional) content. The radical (some would say bizarre) nature of eliminative materialism is evidence of the depth of the problem that intentionality poses for materialists. Some materialists are willing to eliminate the mind in order to deal with intentionality.
So what to make of Dr. Novella’s casual dismissal of intentionality,

Yeah. It’s that bad – and it gets worse. If that’s the greatest challenge to materialism, then materialism is doing just fine. …Yep – that’s all he’s got.

and his invocation of a living brain:

…But the brain is not static matter, like ink. The brain is a dynamic organ. It is alive. It can use energy to do stuff, like process information, communicate with itself, receive outside stimulation, and even activate itself…

Of course all sorts of things are living and “use energy to do stuff” — my kidney for example, but are not imputed to have intentionality. Living matter is still matter (unless one is a proponent of vitalism), and “using energy to do stuff” gets us nowhere with the problem of intentionality. My car uses energy to do stuff.
Dr. Novella’s other assertion — that intentionality can arise from computation — is an argument developed most notably by philosopher Jerry Fodor several decades ago (it’s called the “computational/representational theory of thought” — CRTT), and it has been, in the view of many philosophers, thoroughly demolished, in two ways.
The first is what has been called ‘the problem mental causation.’ Consider a simple electronic calculator. It computes, in the sense that I can enter 2…+…3…= and I get …5. It’s amazingly accurate, fast, and reliable. The reason for its accuracy is that it employs a causal string of electronic events such that pushing the ‘2…+…3…=’ buttons causes the event ‘5’ on the little screen. Integrated circuits, all that stuff. Of course, the calculator doesn’t think (really quick) “hmmm…two plus three is….hmmm…five!” There’s no thinking at all. There isn’t even any ‘arithmetic’ going on in the little calculator. There’s just causal events, electrons bumping electrons and going through gates on a circuit, structured by the program to cause 5 on the little screen when 2…+…3…= is pushed. What’s going on in the calculator is a mechanism, a series of causally effective material events.
Note that the actual meaning of the numbers and arithmetic operations doesn’t really matter. My toddler can push 2…+…3…=, and still get 5, without any meaning to the computation at all. 5 comes up just because it is caused materially by the physical events. My cat could push 2…+…3…=, and still get 5. Furthermore, the causal relations need not even have anything to do with arithmetic. I could create my own language, in which 2 is “I,” + is “feel,” 3 is “happy,” = is “when,” and 5 is “it’s sunny,” and the computation would be identical (same electrons bumping same electrons), and just as true. I do feel happy when it’s sunny. So the computation is completely independent of meaning.
In other words, computation by itself has syntax, not semantics (intentionality). Material causation — even complex causation that (in Dr. Novella’s words) “…can use energy to do stuff, like process information, communicate with itself, receive outside stimulation, and even activate itself…” utterly lacks intrinsic intentionality. Computation can be given meaning from something else (a separate mind), but computation-by-itself — a series of material events, no matter how elegant — has no intrinsic intentionality. Intentionality is given to computation by a mind, and therefore cannot itself be the cause of a mind. Computation, whether on a silicon matrix in a calculator or on a carbon matrix in the cerebral cortex, does not give rise to meaning or semantics. Computation does not give rise to intentionality.
The second refutation, which is related to the first, was given in a famous thought problem proposed by Berkeley philosopher John Searle a couple of decades ago called the “Chinese Room.”
Imagine that you go to China, and get a job there. You speak only English, and don’t know a word of Chinese. You work in an information booth, in which Chinese people can write questions on a piece of paper and pass the question through a slot to you inside the booth. You of course have no idea what the question is, because you can’t read Chinese. However, the Chinese guys that hired you have given you a book that has written, all in Chinese, any question that could be asked, and along with it, the answer corresponding to each question. You take the question written on the paper and search through the book, until you match the Chinese characters exactly. Then you copy the Chinese answer, and return to through the slot.
The Chinese person who asked you the question believes, quite understandably, that you understand Chinese, understood the question, and were smart enough to figure out the answer. And of course, that is true of the Chinese guys who wrote the book. But it most certainly is not true of you. You don’t know Chinese, you don’t know what question was asked, and you don’t know what the answer was.
A Chinese person outside the booth would have believed that he was interacting with a person who understood his questions and provided good answers. But what you have done is, precisely, a computation. You have mechanically matched input to output, just as a computer program does, but you have added no meaning. You understand nothing. Only the minds of the guys who wrote the Chinese book have intrinsic intentionality. Computation-by-itself does not give rise to intentionality.
Meaning is not inherent to computation, no matter how complex the computation. Material causation — silicon-based computation in an electronic calculator, or tedious illiterate computation in a booth in Beijing, or carbon-based computation in a living brain — does not give rise to intentionality. Matter, no matter how instantiated or casually linked, does not give rise to intentionality. Intentionality — meaning — is the mark of the mind.
Dr. Novella again:

“…If [intentionality] is the greatest challenge to materialism, then materialism is doing just fine…”

Dr. Novella is wrong. Intentionality is fatal to materialism.
(1) Paul Churchland. Matter and Consciousness, 1988 p. 21.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.