R. Scott Bakker: Global Elminativism and the Post-Intentional World

semantic

In social terms, you could suggest that the Semantic Apocalypse has already happened. Consumer society is a society where liberal democratic states have retreated from the ‘meaning game,’  leaving the intractable issue to its constituents.
– R. Scott Bakker, The Semantic Apocalypse

Like me Scott is not a philosopher, but rather a man thinking; or, a thinking man. What that means is that being neither an academic nor para-academic philosopher we exist in that marginal space of men and women who push the limits of thought in ways that are not restricted to the peer pressure of their respective enclaves. I’m not disparaging philosophers per se, since I explore in depth the quandaries they present and try to solve within their discourses.

Scott would say philosophers like other professionals have in-groups, a network of affiliated peers that utilize the same semantic field of intentional objects: the jargon of the trade so to speak that help them convey their thoughts as vehicles of meaning. Foucault was not the first nor the last to understand how discursive networks engender the very meanings and problems they intend to critique or eliminate, etc. Zizek following Lacan would say we are all already born into a symbolic order (think here of Heidegger’s language as the ‘House of Being’, etc.); housed within illusionary semantic worlds from the moment we are born. Other humans in their interactions with us fold us into their semantic systems of intentionality, and as we grow up and mature we become embedded in these fields of sense and meaning without ever questioning the validity of such worlds. One could say that we are denaturalized from the beginning and never return to the inhuman core of our being, but instead remain within the semantic horizon of our cultural matrix without realizing just how artificial it all is. In this sense we become naturalized in reverse, we are captured by the false semantic systems and networks of our familial, educational, and political affiliations without questioning the very illusionary power of their semantic fields of intentionality.

For Scott what we neglect is more important than what we remember. We are selective creatures who forget more than we will ever be able to retain, and we base our knowledge on this minimalistic world of intentional folk-psychology rather than on the sciences which are continually blowing holes in our smoke screen semantic worlds. One might say we are tribal semanticists, we carefully protect and defend the bubbles of meaning that we are embedded in without knowing that they are all based on mechanisms of social control.

Intentionality is how minds think in a directed manner about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. At the intersection of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language we begin to touch base with this complex of puzzles. The word itself, which is of medieval Scholastic origin, was rehabilitated by the philosopher Franz Brentano towards the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s word. It derives from the Latin word intentio, which in turn derives from the verb intendere, which means being directed towards some goal or thing. Already this implies a form of causality: final causation to be specific.

Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Like the formal cause, this is a controversial type of cause in science (some of its aspects are used for instance in evolutionary biology, chaos theory see: attractor) . It is commonly claimed that Aristotle’s conception of nature is teleological in the sense that he believed that Nature has goals apart from those that humans have. On the other hand it has also been claimed that Aristotle thought that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence. As Aristotle himself would say about final causation:

This is most obvious in the animals other than man: they make things neither by art nor after inquiry or deliberation. That is why people wonder whether it is by intelligence or by some other faculty that these creatures work, – spiders, ants, and the like… It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. (wiki)

So this notion that intentions act like attractors in the mind that guide our actions is close to the notion put forward by Dawkins in his concept of ‘memes’ as a concept he invented in his discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. (wiki) In this sense memes do not exist but act as virtual attractors around which meaning and action rotate. The notion of an attractor was conceived to explain the processes of dynamic systems: a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system. System values that get close enough to the attractor values remain close even if slightly disturbed. So in this sense the notion of beliefs, desires, etc. do not exist but act as virtual attractors that tie neurons together for specific evolutionary reasons.

The point of the above exercise is to show how we all fall into the intentional. None of what I just said is observable, but is part of a semantic unfolding of information that may or may not have any validity in the real world. As humans we love to narrate stories to fill in the gaps of our ignorance. These semantic tales become over time accepted as valid whether they are or not. It is this semantic folk-psychology of the linguistic tribe that Scott critiques.

What interests me about Scott is his global elminiativism: his attack upon the very core of our semantic illusions based as they are in the intentional mind. One of his pet peeves is how philosophers instead of exposing these illusions invent new ones, instead of filtering out the semantic systems that lead us into errors most philosophers just replace one set of intentional notions with others rather than eliminating intentionality altogether. But is such a thing possible? Scott believes the sciences are already doing this, and that the neurosciences in particular are revealing what the philosophers only dreamed of in their wildest imaginings. Is Scott right? Do we need to just eliminate philosophy as an archaic form of human thought that no longer deals with the actual world as it is, but rather seeks to engender nothing more than the old narratives in – what might be termed, the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Scott in a recent post on Adrian Johnston’s new Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism tells us that what “is transpiring today can be seen as a battle for the soul of the darkness that comes before thought. Is it ontological as so much of philosophy insists? Or is it ontic as science seems to be in the process of discovering?”1 Now this ontic-ontological divide has been around for a while. The ontic pertains pertains to being generally, rather than some distinctively philosophical (or scientific) theory of it (ontology). Science deals with the empirical facts rather than the theoretical matrix within which we interpret those facts. Yet, one must realize that at some point even scientists themselves have to interpret these physical facts they or their instruments are discovering. So that the moment they begin the process of interpreting the facts under discussion they are again caught up the semantic fold of epistemic and ontological intentionality. So I’m not sure if Scott’s distinction is a clear cut one. Even Scott’s use of the word “seems” belies the fact that there is a sense of wavering, of something that is not quite clarified but rather riddled with certain unknowns as to what the sciences are indeed discovering through their ontic investigations.

Scott himself is aware that even his own discourse is riddled with semantic overtones and intentional qualifications. In some ways we all use a language which in itself is bound to a long intentional heritage that some term folk-psychology. Some philosophers like Badiou try to minimalize this semantic heritage by opting for a mathematization of reality rather than relying on natural language or its semantic structures. Yet, Badiou’s withdrawal into mathematics presents more problems than it solves. The ontology of non-existent and abstract objects has seemed difficult to square with the ontology of the contemporary natural sciences according to which the world contains only concrete objects that exist in space and time.

Philosophers like Roderick Chisholm move this issue onto new ground by contemplating the formulation of “a working criterion by means of which we can distinguish sentences that are intentional, or are used intentionally, in a certain language from sentences that are not.” The idea is to examine sentences that report intentionality rather than intentionality itself. So this linguistic or analytical differentiation between the empirical domain and its representation centers us squarely at the point where the paradox is still unresolved. All Chisholm does is make the distinction between intentionality as conceptual meaning vs. its actual existence in the empirical domain, but this doesn’t solve the truth or falsehood of that actual validity of intentions. What it comes down to is that the intensionality of a linguistic report is not sufficient for the intentionality of the reported phenomenon. So we’re left with the failure to provide proof of the actual existence of intensional states of affairs.

W.V. Quine is a leading critic of intentional objects, agrees with Chisholm that the intentional vocabulary cannot be reduced to some non-intentional vocabulary. Chisholm took this conclusion to show the correctness of Brentano’s second thesis that intentionality is the mark of the mental. Quine for his part broke this down into both an epistemic and ontological dilemma by first accepting “indispensability of intentional idioms and the importance of an autonomous science of intention” and rejecting a physicalist ontology. Then secondly he turned it around and accepted physicalism and renounced the “baselessness” of the intentional idioms and the “emptiness” of a science of intention. His arguments for and against would have repercussions in philosophy to this day.

Daniel Dennett would instrumentalise these arguments as heuristic devices. For him the intentional idiom fails to describe or explain any real phenomenon. However, in the absence of detailed knowledge of the physical laws that govern the behavior of a physical system, the intentional idiom is a useful stance for predicting a system’s behavior. As Pierre Jacobs will tell us “Among philosophers attracted to a physicalist ontology, few have accepted the outright eliminativist materialist denial of the reality of beliefs and desires. Nor have many of them found it easy to answer the puzzling question raised by the instrumentalist position: how can the intentional idiom make useful predictions if it fails to describe and explain anything real?”2

As Jerry Fodor put it, the naturalistic worry of intentional realists who are physicalists is that “the semantic proves permanently recalcitrant to integration to the natural order”. Given that on a physicalist ontology, intentionality or semantic properties cannot be “fundamental features of the world,” the task is to show “how an entirely physical system could nevertheless exhibit intentional states”. (ibid. 2) For physicalists the question is not with Brentano’s qualification that only the mind presents mental states, but rather why do some non-mental physical things seem to manifest intentionality?

The great divide over intentionality seems to be concerned with notions of causality rather than intentionality per se. As Jacob’s will spell it out:

Daniel Dennett, according to whom the intentional stance is merely a useful predictive heuristic with no explanatory import. On Dennett’s view, there cannot be what Haugeland calls a “semantic engine.” … Intentional realists, however, will not easily concede the epiphenomenalism of intentionality, since for them, a test of the reality of a property is that it can be causally efficacious. Intentional realists who want to save the causal efficacy of intentionality divide into two broad groups. Some accept the requirement that only if it supervenes on the intrinsic physical properties of an individual’s brain can the intentionality of a mental state be causally efficacious. The challenge then is to elaborate a two-tiered account of intentionality according to which one dimension of intentionality does, and the other does not, supervene on the intrinsic properties of an individual’s brain. Other intentional realists deny the supervenience requirement and elaborate a suitable notion of what intentionality is supposed to explain—or what is the proper explanandum of a causal explanation in the explanans of which intentionality might figure prominently.(ibid. 2)

My friend Scott sides with Dennett’s use of heuristic devices that have no explanatory import, while continuing to critique any and all of those intentional realists who would like to save not the appearances but the mythical entities behind the semantic worlds; and, in fact, the semantic worlds themselves. As he tells us: “Careers will be made, celebrated ones, for those able to concoct the most appealing and slippery brands of theoretical snake-oil. And meanwhile the science will trundle on, the incompatible findings will accumulate, and those of us too suspicious to believe in happy endings will be reduced to arguing against our hopes, and for the honest appraisal of the horror that confronts us all.”

Where do you stand in the semantic void?

1. see Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis
2. Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)