The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Tools as Intentionality

The US philosopher Daniel Dennett advanced a theory of language based on his theory of “intentionality” (the ability to refer to something). Basically, his idea is that different levels of intentionality correspond to different “kinds” of minds.

The “intentional stance” is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of something (a living or non-living thing) as if it were a rational agent whose actions are determined by its beliefs and desires. This is the stance that we adopt, for example, when dealing with ourselves and other humans: we assume that we and the others are rational agents whose actions are determined by our beliefs and desires.  Intentional systems are those to which the intentional stance can be applied, and they include artifacts such as thermostats and computers, as well as all living beings. For example, we can say that "This computer program wants me to input my name," or that "The tree bends south because it needs more light," (both "wants" and "needs" express desire).

The intentional stance makes the assumption that an intentional system has goals that it wants to achieve; that it uses its own beliefs to achieve its own goals, and that it is smart enough to use the right ones in the appropriate way.

It seems obvious that artifacts possess only "derived" intentionality, i.e. intentionality that was bestowed on them by their creators. A thermostat measures temperature because that is what the engineer designed it for. The same argument, though, applies to us: we are artifacts of nature and nature bestows on us intentionality. (The process of evolution created our minds to survive in an environment, which means that our mind is about the environment).

Dennett speculates that brains evolved from the slow internal communication systems of "sensitive" but not "sentient" beings when they became equipped with a much swifter communication agent (the electro-chemicals of neurotransmitters) in a much swifter communication medium (nerve fibers). Control was originally distributed around the organism in order to be able to react faster to external stimuli. The advent of fast electro-chemicals allowed control to become centralized, because now signals traveled at the speed of electricity. This also allowed control to become much more complex, as many more things could be done in a second.

"Evolution embodies information in every part of every organism". And that information is about the environment. A chameleon's skin, a bird's wings, and so forth, they all embody information about the medium in which their bodies live. This information does not need to be replicated in the brain as well. The organ already "knows" how to behave in the environment. Wisdom is not only in the brain; wisdom is also embodied in the rest of the body.  Dennett speculates that this "distributed wisdom" was not enough: a brain can supplement the crudeness, the slowness, and the limitations of the organs.  A brain can analyze the environment on a broader scale, can control movement in a much faster way and can predict behavior over a longer range.

As George Miller put it, animals are "informavores". Dennett believes in a distributed information-sucking system, each component of which is constantly fishing for information in the environment. They are all intentional systems, which get organized in a higher-level intentional system, with an "increasing power to produce future".

This idea, both evolutionarily and conceptually, can be expressed in a number of steps of intentionality, each of which yields a different kind of mind. First there were "Darwinian creatures", that were simply selected by trial and error on the merits of their bodies' ability to survive (all living organisms are Darwinian creatures). Then came "Skinnerian creatures", which were also capable of independent action and therefore could enhance their chances of survival by finding the best action (they are capable of learning from trial and error). The third stage of “mind, "Popperian creatures", were able to play an action internally in a simulated environment before they performed it in the real environment and could therefore reduce the chances of negative outcomes (information about the environment supplemented conditioning). Popperian creatures include most mammals and birds. They feel pain, but do not suffer, because they lack the ability to reflect on their sensations.

Humans are also "Gregorian creatures", capable of creating tools, and, in particular, of mastering the tool of language. Gregorian creatures benefit from technologies invented by other Gregorian creatures and transmitted by cultural heritage, unlike Popperian creatures that benefit only from what has been transmitted by genetic inheritance.

A key step in the evolution of “minds” was the transition from beings capable of an intentional stance towards others to beings capable of an intentional stance towards an intentional stance.  A first-order intentional system is only capable of an intentional stance towards others.  A second-order intentional system is also capable of an intentional stance towards an intentional stance.  It has beliefs as well as desires about beliefs and desires.  And so forth.  Higher-order intentional systems are capable of thoughts such as "I want you to believe that I know that you desire a vacation".

This was not yet conscious life because there are examples, both among humans and among other animals, of unaware higher-order intentionality.  For example, animals cheat on each other all the time, and cheating is possible only if you are capable of dealing with the other animal's intentional state (with the other animal's desires and beliefs), but Dennett does not think that animals are necessarily conscious. In other words, he thinks that one can be a psychologist without being a conscious being.

Dennett claims that our greater “intelligence” is due not to a larger brain but to the ability to "off load" as much as possible of our cognitive tasks into the environment. We construct "peripheral devices" in the environment to which those tasks can be delegated. We can do this because we are intentional: we can point to those things that we left in the environment. In this way the limitations of the brain do not matter anymore, as we have a potentially infinite area of cognitive processing. Most species rely on natural landmarks to find their way around and track food sources. But some species (at least us) have developed the skills to "create" their own landmark, and they can therefore store food for future use. They are capable of "labeling" the world that they inhabit. Individuals of those species alter the environment and then the altered environment alters their behavior.  They create a loop to their advantage. They program the environment to program them.

Species that store and use signs in the environment have an evolutionary advantage because they can "off-load" processing.  It is like "taking a note" that we can look up later, so we don't forget something. If you do not take a note, you may forget the whole thing.

Thanks to these artifacts, our mind can extend out into the environment. For example, the notepad becomes an extension to my memory.

These artifacts shape our environment. Our brains are semiotic devices that contain pointers and indices to the external world.


Back to the beginning of the chapter "The History of Language: Why We Speak" | Back to the index of all chapters