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.