Questions for Atheists: Why is the human mind intentional?

I’m still working on my series of posts answering the eight questions posed to atheists by Michael Egnor and some of the ones coming up have me a little baffled.  I’m digging up my notes from Directed Studies freshman year to be able to tackle the question about Aristotle’s four causes, but when it comes to question six, I don’t even know where to begin.  Here’s the prompt:

Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

I’ve got bupkis.

I have no idea what the technical philosophical sense of ‘aboutness’ is, and unless someone can link me to a few helpful papers or just give me a better sense of what the question is asking, I’m going to take a I haven’t the foggiest idea pass on this one.

Egnor is asking what explanations atheists have for his questions, and the truthful answer is I don’t understand this well enough to take a swing.  Luckily, since Egnor says he posed the challenge to find out what atheists believe, he stated in the rules that participants are free to duck a question that goes over their head, is incomprehensible, or is irrelevant.

So, I’m punting, unless one of you all can lend me a hand.

P.S. Am I correct in assuming no one wants to see me answer the Why is there Evil? question (#8) until after I tackle Does Moral Law Exist? (#7).  I know I can write #8 more easily and sooner than #7, but I understand it may not be particularly informative without an explanation of my position on moral law.  I’ll hold one back until I’ve done the other, if it’s preferable.

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  • I'll take a pass as well, but the following Wikipedia entry on "Intentionality" might help.This is a major area of interest of one of the prominent New Atheists, Daniel C. Dennett, so if Egnor wants to find out what "New Atheists" think about the matter, he might be advised to ask Dennett. I suppose that most atheists haven't thought about it at all. I know I haven't.

  • A Philosopher

    Well, there are plenty of big thick books out there on intentionality. I suppose the best short response is: how does adding God into the mix help with the problem of intentionality?

  • @Philosopher, if it's true that mental phenomenon are the only things that have intentionality, that separates them from all physical things, which undermines materialism. (E.g., if material things have no intentionality, how can the brain produce intentionality?) "Adding God to the mix" provides a framework in which to admit of other things (non-material things) that have intentionality. I'm not proposing this as an argument, just trying to guess what Egnor might be thinking.

  • Eli

    Leah, I find it helpful in this instance to refer to Egnor's answers to see just what he wants to ask:"Intentionality is the ability of a mental state to refer to something otherthan itself. Intentionality is a hallmark of mental acts. It is the central issue inphilosophy of the mind. Accepting that a mental state (e.g. imagining an apple) isinstantiated in a brain state (e.g. an electrochemical gradient), how is it that anelectrochemical gradient can be about an apple? The electrochemical gradientisn't an apple, it doesn't look like an apple, it's not connected to an apple, etc. In thematerialist paradigm, an electrochemical gradient can't be about anything. It just is."(from goes on to talk about how "the form of an apple exists in the apple and in my mind at thesame time," which means that he really wants a way for atheists to talk about forms and all that jazz. This won't work, but it doesn't need to.For one thing, it's not entirely clear that "the form of an apple" is a real thing. More likely it's just a philosopher's misguided invention. (Though not necessarily A Philosopher's.) But even if it is real, a computer-style mind wouldn't be able to have any kind of access to it. This means that, one way or the other, Egnor is looking for the wrong kind of thing. If atheism is going to be able to explain intentionality, it won't be doing so with forms.On the other hand, that doesn't mean it can't be done. Returning again to computers, I think it's fairly clear these days that we know how to make computers recognize and classify real-world objects. The way this works, roughly speaking, is that some source of input (or, more typically for humans, multiple sources of input) imports information which is then stored; over time pattern-recognition algorithms sort the stored information; eventually the patterns of stored information begin to become more and more accurate in terms of correctly predicting the way that objects will react if manipulated in certain ways; and eventually we feel confident enough in these accuracies to say that, yes, I'm thinking about an apple. Basically, the flaw in Egnor's argument is that a mental image of an apple is connected to actual apples, just not very directly. I've left out all the details, obviously, but only because my grasp of the computer science behind all of this is utterly pathetic; I think it has something to do with having data be representable in multiple ways (or interpretable in multiple ways), but that could be wrong. If you talk to someone who knows more, though, they'll certainly be able to fill in all of the details.One weakness of this view is that mental states don't actually refer to objects in the real world. At best they refer to approximations; at worst they refer to other mental constructions. But in any case they still refer. This also opens up various skeptical claims about how atheism can't justify belief in an external world or whatever, but I find these to be no more serious on atheism than on any other set of premises.Anyway, the long and short of it is this: if computers can refer, which they can, that proves that intentionality is possible without souls and forms and all that airy stuff. If computers can't refer and if computations can't be computations about anything, Egnor needs to offer up a whole new conception of how CS works.

  • A Philosopher

    Crowhill: I agree that something like this is what people tend to think. But it looks like a basic confusion to me. Why think that the problem of intentionality is easier for mental stuff than it is for physical stuff? (Also, I think it's always worth keeping in mind that "atheist" and "materialist" aren't the same thing – one can be an atheist and a Cartesian substance dualist for example. I know people who are.)

  • Eli

    "(Also, I think it's always worth keeping in mind that 'atheist' and 'materialist' aren't the same thing"Hm – fair point. In that case, I rephrase:"If materialist atheism is going to be able to explain intentionality, it won't be doing so with forms."

  • If I can make a 20,000 foot observation here, I've spent way too many years of my life obsessing on all these little arguments. A few years ago it struck me that in order to understand any of these arguments, you have to get in fairly deep. Furthermore, once you get in deep enough to understand what's going on, it's pretty obvious that while one perspective may seem a little better than another, none of them are slam dunks. IOW, the very idea that there is some argument that proves or demonstrates any particular perspective — atheist or theist or whatever — begins to seem quite absurd.