I’m starting a new thread to discuss what I call “the hard problem of intentionality”: what is intentionality, and to what extent can intentionality be reconciled with “naturalism” (however narrowly or loosely construed)?
Here’s my most recent attempt to address these issues:
Consider this passage from Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 41: “Dualism, the idea that the brain cannot be a thinking thing so a thinking thing cannot be a brain, is tempting for a variety of reasons, but we must resist temptation . . . Somehow the brain must be the mind”. But a brain cannot be a thinking thing (it is, as Dennett himself remarks, just a syntactic engine). Dualism resides not in the perfectly correct thought that a brain is not a thinking thing, but in postulating some thing immaterial to be the thinking thing that the brain is not, instead of realizing that the thinking thing is the rational animal. Dennett can be comfortable with the thought that the brain must be the mind, in combination with his own awareness that the brain is just a syntactic engine, only because he thinks that in the sense in which the brain is not really a thinking thing, nothing is: the status of possessor of intentional states is conferred by adoption of the intentional stance towards it, and that is no more correct for animals than for brains, or indeed thermostats. But this is a gratuitous addition to the real insight embodied in the invocation of the intentional stance. Rational animals genuinely are “semantic engines”. (“Naturalism in Philosophy of Mind,” 2004)
Elsewhere McDowell has implied that non-rational animals are also semantic engines, and I think this is a view he ought to endorse more forthrightly and boldly than he has. But brains are, of course, syntactic engines.
So it seems quite clear to me that one of the following has to be the case:
(1) neurocomputational processes (‘syntax’) are necessary and sufficient for intentional content (‘semantics’) [Churchland];
(2) intentional content is a convenient fiction for re-describing what can also be described as neurocomputational processes [Dennett] (in which case there really aren’t minds at all; here one could easily push on Dennett’s views to motivate eliminativism);
(3) neurocomputational processes are necessary but not sufficient for intentional content; the brain is merely a syntactic engine, whereas the rational animal is a semantic engine; the rational animal, and not the brain, is the thinking thing; the brain of a rational animal is not the rational animal, since it is a part of the whole and not the whole [McDowell].
I find myself strongly attracted to all three views, actually, but I think that (3) is slightly preferable to (1) and (2). My worry with (1) is that I don’t find Churchland’s response to Searle entirely persuasive (even though I find Searle’s own views completely unhelpful). Is syntax necessary and sufficient for semantics? Searle takes it for granted that this is obviously and intuitively false. In response, Churchland says, “maybe it’s true! we’ll have to see how the cognitive neuroscience turns out — maybe it’s our intuition that’s false!”. Well, sure. But unless I’m missing something really important, we’re not yet at a point in our understanding of the brain where we can understand how semantics emerges from syntax.
My objection to (2) is quite different — I think that the concept of intentionality plays far too central a role in our ordinary self-understanding for us to throw it under the bus as a mere convenient fiction. Of course, our ordinary self-understanding is hardly sacrosanct; we will have to revise it in the future in light of new scientific discoveries, just as we have in the past. But there is a limit to how much revision is conceivable, because if we jettison the very concept of rational agency, we will lose our grip on our ability to understand what science itself is and why it is worth doing. Our ability to do science at all, and to make sense of what we are doing when we do science, presupposes the notion of rational agency, hence intentionality, and abandoning that concept due to modern science would effectively mean that science has shown that we do not know what science is. That would be a fascinating step in the evolution of consciousness, but I’m not sure it’s one I’m prepared to take.
So that leaves (3), or something like it, as the contender: we must on the one hand, retain the mere sanity that we (and other animals) are semantic engines, bearers of intentional content; on the other hand, we accept that our brains are syntactic engines, running parallel neurocomputational processes. This entails that the mind is not the brain after all, but also that rejecting mind-brain identity offers no succor to dualism.