On Philosophy

July 17, 2006

Even More on Intentionality

Filed under: Intentionality — Peter @ 1:20 pm

This is just a quick response to an objection to my earlier post on intentionality I found here. The objection can be summarized as follows: that in my “thought experiment” I have already assumed the conclusion that thoughts are localized in the brain. I argue that this objection is invalid because I am not discussing a thought experiment at all but a real experiment that I actually carried out in order to test the nature of intentionality, I didn’t assume a conclusion, I discovered it by experiment.

Perhaps though the best way to defend my conclusions is to explain the logic behind them more thoroughly. My reasoning was as follows: if we assume that externalism (or non-causal intentionality) is correct it some follow that the contents of our thoughts depends (non-causally) on the contents of the world. From that statement it follows that either the subjective experience of our thoughts, or our actions (specifically speech), depend on the contents of the world, since these are the only possible ways that we can make sense of the idea of “contents of thoughts” or simply have access to those contents in our lives. Thus when we run the experiment with the bubble we expect that if externalism is true there will be some difference in the contents of our thoughts when the bubble remains intact and when it pops, even if we aren’t observing the bubble (since the connection is non-causal). Since the contents of my thoughts was independent of the existence of the unobserved bubble, as far as either I or my partner could tell, either subjectively or based on how I was able to express myself about the bubble, we must conclude that one of the assumptions that lead us to this conclusion was false.

One possible defense for the externalist is to argue that the content of our thoughts doesn’t influence either the experience of thinking or the public expression of our thoughts. If this is the case it seems that the content of our thoughts doesn’t have any real influence on our thinking at all, and thus seems silly to say that it is somehow part of our minds. I could understand a position where the contents of the world were seen to have a (non-causal) impact on the objective truth of our thoughts, but the objective truth of our thoughts isn’t a factor that seems to be part of our minds (it would be much harder for people to make mistakes if objective truth was part of peoples’ minds, since they would be able to tap into their “truth sense” to correct their errors).

One could also argue that the content of thoughts influences our thinking only some of the time, or only for certain people. I will reject these responses out of hand, simply because they don’t provide explanations of why or how this could be the case. Let us make them more concrete then by insisting that the intentional relation influences our thinking only when we directly perceive the objects we are thinking about. This claim however is essentially a more limited form of the causal version of intentionality, and has the same failings.

I look forward to hearing more defenses of externalism, since it seems to fly in the face of all the experimental evidence we have regarding the relation between the brain, the mind, and our subjective experience of consciousness.



  1. WRT your clarificatory argument: first, doesn’t Clark point out that even if we assume externalism is correct, the content of thought does not have to depend on the content of the world? I’m not sure why we would want to grant the assumption that the two depend on one another if Clark is correct.

    Second, I’m not sure why an externalist cannot accept the independence of my thoughts from the existence of unobserved bubble. Suppose we have two objects, A and A*, whose macro-physical properties seem to be identical but whose micro-physical properties are not identical. When Smith asks for A and gets A* and Smith cannot tell the difference between the two, there is something about the content of Smith’s thoughts that is independent of the way the world is.

    Finally, it is great to see someone working on experimental evidence in the externalism/internalism debate. But I’m really confused about the outcome of the experiment. I’m not sure anything conclusive can be drawn from it. I’ve probably missed something, but can you give an argument for how the data you’ve discovered influences the outcome of the debate?

    Very interesting stuff!

    Comment by Joe — July 17, 2006 @ 2:19 pm

  2. If you think that the content of your thoughts doesn’t depend on the external world then you aren’t an externalist you are an internalist, or at least that is how the positions are generally presented (nor would you make the assertion that the intentional relation exists in a way dependant on the external world AND influences our thoughts).

    I am unclear as to what exactly you are trying to say in your second point. What I, and many people, would say about Smith’s thoughts are that they are caused only by certain features of the system. There is nothing independant about his thoughts at all, simply a lack of dependance on the totality of the observed physical features.

    A -> B -> C, ~C, -> ~B & ~A. A = externalism, B = content dependant on external world non causally, C = my thoughts in a particular circumstance (the experiment) dependant on external world non-causally.

    Comment by Peter — July 17, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

  3. I’ll put up a few thoughts at my blog later tonight. I’d just add that the externalist is not committed to the claim that every thought is dependent upon the world. Just that some are. (And there are dozens of kinds of externalism) So if we’re attacking externalism in general terms we have to be careful here or limit ourselves to a particular kind of externalism that makes more extreme claims.

    Secondly we need not have a change in the “qualia” (for lack of a better term) or feel of an experience. That is my thoughts might be different but my experience of my thoughts need not be. I’d argue that is the case in this example. One must be careful not to ascribe to the externalist the claim that I have full knowledge of my thoughts. Indeed many prominent externalists (say like Peirce) explicitly deny this.

    Comment by Clark — July 17, 2006 @ 8:31 pm

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