The subject of intention and action has come up few times, so I thought I’d start a thread.
From my point of view as a cognitive neuroscientist, decision-making (which action to take) is best conceived of as a kind of winner-take-all arm-wrestling competition, in which competing programs (represented as networks of active neurons) of action exert a mutually inhibitory effect on on the other, while each receives excitatory input from various other other networks, each of which in turn are engaged in a kind of subsidiary arm-wrestling match with some networks and a mutually cheer-leading match with others.
The more activation in any one network, the greater the inhibitory effect it has on competing networks, and so the system is, in a technical sense, “chaotic” – two competing programs can be finely balanced at one moment, but once one gets ahead by more than a critical amount, its inhibitory effect on the other increase, reducing its activation and releasing its reciprocal inhibitory control. At this point, activation in the winner rises rapidly towards “execution threshold” – the point at which outflow to the muscles involved in the action are activated.
Of course this is a continuously looping process, and the actions can be as slight as an eye movement, which then brings new input to the decision-making process, or a gross-motor action, which also provide new input, so the decision-making process is constantly informed by new data. However, it is also informed by endogenous processes – processes that trigger activations in networks involved in goal-setting and reward prediction, and established through life-long learning, in which neural firing patterns that result in success become more probable and those that result in failure, or penalty, become less likely.
As the brain’s owner, of course, we call these processes “pondering”, “hesitating”, “deciding”, “exploring”, “testing”, “changing my mind”, “exercising will power”, “considering the long term effects of my actions”, “considering the effect of my actions on someone else”, etc.
Which is exactly what they are. But at a neural level they operate very like evolutionary processes, in which what replicates most successfully (neurally) is most likely to be repeated, and what replicates least successfully is least likely to be repeated. The interesting part is that this “neural Darwinism” takes place prior to actions actually being performed – and often the”winning” program does not actually reach execution threshold, but instead is fed back as input, so that we are able to imagine the results of our actions before we actually execute them, and use that information before actually allowing an action to take place.
That means that we, unlike evolutionary processes, are capable of intentional action. We can simulate the results of potential courses of action, and use those simulated results to inform the decision-making process. This allows us to take shortcuts, and pursue, in actuality, only those courses of action we deem likely to be successful. In contrast, evolution is stuck with trying anything that presents itself as an option, learning by actual, not simulated, errors. It cannot be said, therefore, to exhibit intentional behaviour, and is much slower and less efficient that we are. However, by the same token, it will often explore possibilities that a simulating – intentional – agent would reject, on the grounds that the simulations looked unpromising. As a result, some spectacular solutions are missed.
Which is why evolutionary algorithms are used by intentional designers – us – so that we can, intentionally, use the power of unintentional design to find solutions we ourselves would reject as not sufficiently promising to explore.