Sunday, September 24, 2006

Daniel Dennett’s paper is an inquiry into how humans are able to formulate predictions of the behavior of objects and other beings.

The physicalist stance is a strategy that is the most rigorous and robust; it is more or less deduction by accounting for physical properties of an object. This strategy works well for simple objects in our world, such as bowling balls, falling pianos, and spring boards, but does not work well for predicting the behavior of more complex objects such as frogs or butterflies, much less human beings.

The design stance is a strategy taken by one who supposes that a certain object is designed to behave in a certain way. This works well for all sorts of kinds of equipment and electronic devices, since we are able to infer its behavior according to a designer’s intent.

The intentionalist stance, which is the focus of Dennett’s paper, is taken by the one who assumes that the object, acting in its own self interest, has beliefs and desires that it will follow through on. This works so well, because being rational agents ourselves, once we are able to attribute those beliefs and desires, we are then somehow able to simulate their behavior based on our own.

I am convinced that the intentional stance is exactly what happens, as we often—especially during childhood—attribute beliefs and desires to anything and everything we see in the world. I might, if I so choose to, attribute beliefs and desire to my faucet; it leaks when it’s sad and gets too hot when it’s angry. Of course that’s ridiculous, but I can do it all the same, and I can certainly imagine it turning its spout up at me and say, “Why not? I have feelings, too.” Perhaps in some alternate, Roger Rabbit universe, it might spit in my eye if I think anything less of it. This certainly gives me “reason” to treat it with respect. This kind of reasoning, as I remember it, is very much alive in childhood where we do not have the capability to use a physicalist stance.

I think that this sort of reasoning might even be the cause for many if not most religious beliefs; people attribute beliefs and desires to nature, and when they predict its behavior they take those into account. Why upset nature, when she might lash back at me? I should follow God’s wishes in order not to anger him. One might be inclined to turn to the Gaia “hypothesis” because it offers an easy way of predicting the Earth’s behavior.

I disagree with Dennett on only two points, and they are perhaps small. The first is that I would not consider a thermostat to be an intentional system. I’m not sure what he means when he says that thermostats have representations of their environments, but I cannot imagine a thermostat as it is with any sort of representation. It doesn’t even hold information about its environment in the first place. There might be some rudimentary programming that can be done on it to change its behavior (such as, stay a little bit warmer in the morning), but there is no representation at all. It doesn’t “measure” anything about its environment, and thus there is nothing to represent. It reacts to a change in the atmosphere mechanically, without storing any information regarding that change. A vile of mercury inside of it reacts, directly causing a switch to be turned, which sends a signal to the boiler. What representation could possibly be going on there? But that’s a trivial point, anyway.

Second, I see the “language of thought” as a strong possibility, but I would add a clause. Dennett argues for its existence because he sees no alternative for a form of representation in our minds. We have mentalese to represent, symbolically, reality, and thus use symbols in some sort of logic natural to our minds.

I find no fault with the idea of mentalese and admit that it could possibly be true. But I do disagree that it is the only possible representation of the world that we carry; it seems fairly self evident to me that we have a robust graphical representation of the world. We are able to rotate three dimensional objects with our mind, which involves no symbolic manipulation. I think that from this graphical representation do we extricate beliefs and desires, which themselves may be represented symbolically and manipulated according to our innate rules of logic.

4 Comments:

Blogger Phillip Dreizen said...

The first is that I would not consider a thermostat to be an intentional system. I’m not sure what he means when he says that thermostats have representations of their environments, but I cannot imagine a thermostat as it is with any sort of representation. It doesn’t even hold information about its environment in the first place....It doesn’t “measure” anything about its environment, and thus there is nothing to represent.


Actually, the internal representation of the thermostat is of the current temperature in the room, represented with the mercury that intersects with a line that indicates the number of degrees in the room.

Yes, it's a simple representation. And the intentional stance does nothing to add to our ability to predict the next state of the thermostat, which is why the thermostat is not an intentional system.

1:34 AM  
Blogger Phillip Dreizen said...

I am convinced that the intentional stance is exactly what happens...

You haven't commented on Dennett's central thesis.

Do you believe that being a system that is well predicted by the intentional stance is all that it is to be a system that holds beliefs and desires?

1:58 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Actually, the internal representation of the thermostat is of the current temperature in the room, represented with the mercury that intersects with a line that indicates the number of degrees in the room.

But that doesn't meet my criteria for information. As far as I see it, the rising of the mercury causes a reaction—namely a switch gets flipped, completing a circuit, which ultimately turns on the boiler or air conditioner.

Are you suggesting that merely by painting lines and numbers on top of the glass, it suddenly contains an internal representation?

Let's say that there are no lines or numbers on it. It still seems that we would be able to judge (albeit imprecisely) the temperature of the room by noticing the rising of the mercury. We certainly can't differentiate from one millimeter to the next, but I think it's reasonable to suppose that we can do so with centimeters or inches. It isn't as useful, but we would be able to say something about the temperature of the room without actually being in the room.

The fact that there are or aren’t lines on the thermostat, then, doesn’t perturb our ability to derive information from the level of the mercury. But the question is, still, does the thermostat have any internal representation? As I said before, I don’t see how it possibly could; all there is to it is an amount of mercury that contracts and expands according to the temperature and pressure of the room.

Together, the thermostat, the boiler/AC, and the atmosphere of the room form a closed system with a certain type of feedback, but it is only energy that is being transferred, not information. I think, as I said before in the meeting, the definition of information lies in how the energy is used, stored, and conveyed. But a thermostat certainly doesn’t store or use that energy; it merely conveys it.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Do you believe that being a system that is well predicted by the intentional stance is all that it is to be a system that holds beliefs and desires.

No. I think that if it is the case that the best and most efficient method of predicting a thing's behavior is the intentional stance, then you can make a strong inductive argument for the case that the thing is in fact an intentional system. For a worshipper of a Sun-God, the best method of prediction for the Sun's behavior he has is the intentional stance, and therefore he has reason to believe that the Sun is an intentional system. But we have further evidence that he does not (namely that it's just a ball of mostly hydrogen and helium), and we also therefore have a better way of predicting the Sun's behavior using the physicalist stance.

So what about the Laplacean Martians? I don’t think that the physicalist stance really could yield better predictions than the intentional stance. We really do have those things called thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, so it seems to me that the best and most efficient method of predicting our behavior will be the intentional stance, even for Martians with obscenely large cranial capacity.

(There are certain exceptions to this: obviously when our mind “breaks down” we should revert to a “psycho-physicalist” stance, to look for brain disorders. Also, using the design stance on human being seems equivalent to sociobiology—predicting and explaining human behavior according to how evolution has designed us. Whether it’s truly useful is still debated.)

If I wanted to predict the behavior of a bottle soda when shaken up, I can do a few things: I can use a very expensive calculator and I can keep track of all of the molecules of gas and liquid bouncing about after having been given an amount of energy and tell you in great detail what all of those molecules are doing; or I can apply universal gas laws and simply tell you what the pressure inside the bottle will be. Now, surely, the physicalist description is more accurate, but there really is such a thing as “pressure” that is a property of the bottle’s internals, and we are strongly inclined to speak in terms of pressure rather than velocity of the dihydrogen peroxide, carbon dioxide, and evil monosaccharides. If one of those Martians wanted to deny us of our intentionality, I think he would also need to deny the bottle of soda as having any such thing as “pressure.”

But back to the main point: is it an intentional system because the intentional stance is the best method of prediction? No, I think it’s the other way around. I think that the intentional stance is the best method because a given system is intentional, not that it is an intentional system because that method works best. That we use universal gas laws to predict behavior of gases is not what gives a system the property of having pressure; no, we use the gas laws because gas has pressure.

8:27 PM  

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