The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett thinks that the folk concepts of belief and desire define a fundamental aspect of our language: they help us explain the behavior of systems (including ourselves). But he denies that they have any physical existence of their own.

 In order to explain and predict the behavior of a system one can employ three strategies: a "physical stance", which infers the behavior from the physical structure and the laws of Physics; a "design stance", which infers the behavior from the function for which it was designed (we know when a clock alarm will go on even if we don't know the internal structure of the clock); and an "intentional stance", which infers the behavior from the beliefs and desires that the system must exhibit to be rational. These are simply three different ways of speaking about the same thing. They are more like three different vocabularies, or languages, than three different sets of things. The "intentional stance" is therefore only a particular way of speaking about systems in general, and our mind in particular.

"The tree needs water", "The car wants to be washed", and so forth are examples of the "intentional stance". It is another way to describe the state of objects: the intentional stance. The "intentional stance" is merely the set of beliefs and desires of an organism that allow an observer to predict its actions. Belief and desires are not internal states of the mind which cause behavior, but simply tools which are useful to predict the behavior. No system is truly intentional.

The beliefs and desires of an organism, and how they affect the organism's behavior, have biological origins. If an organism survived natural selection, the majority of its beliefs are true and the majority of its desires are possible, and the way the organism employs them is the most "rational" (beliefs are used to satisfy the organism's desires). If this were not the case, the organism would not have survived.  Intentional systems are rational systems, by definition.  Intentionality and rationality are complementary aspects of natural selection. The fact that some intentional systems are also cognitive systems is a detail. Beliefs and desires are, first and foremost, biological products, and have a biological function. Ultimately, these intentional stances are but descriptions of the relationship between the intentional system (e.g., the mind) and its environment. An entire organism can be described by its intentional stance, since it is a product of natural selection.

Facts described from the intentional stance can be explained from the design stance, which is in turn grounded in the physical stance.

Mind is what we ascribe to objects, including other humans and ourselves, when we use the intentional stance.

It is not a different kind of matter or a different kind of property, it is just a way of describing what happens.


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