The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

Intentionality as Representation

Fred Dretske’s theory of intentionality resorts to Claude Shannon's and Warren Weaver's theory of information: a state transports information about another state to the extent that it depends on that other state. By the same token, intentionality can be reduced to a cause-effect relationship: each effect refers to its cause. From Dretske’s perspective, the intentional idiom of beliefs and desires can as well be referred to primitive organisms that only have a system of internal structures. However, the relevance to the explanation of the organism's behavior resides in what such structures indicate: they mean something and mean something "to" the organism of which they are part. In other words, Dretske thinks that intentionality is not unique of mental states, but quite ubiquitous in living and even non-living systems. For example, a thermometer refers to the temperature. Having content is then not unique to the human mind at all. Mental intentional states are actually somewhat limited compared to the intentional states of  physical systems, as they miss a lot of information that physical systems would not miss. Paradoxically, the mind distorts the information that is available in the environment. Other systems are more faithful.

This argument can be summarized in terms of representations. The elements of a representational system have a content defined by what it is their function to indicate (what the British philosopher Henry Grice used to call "non-natural meaning"). Dretske distinguishes three types of representational systems: Type I have elements (symbols) that show no intrinsic power of representation (this includes maps, codes, etc); Type II have elements (signs) that are causally related to what they indicate (includes gauges); Type III (or natural) have their own intrinsic indicator functions (unlike Type I and Type II, in which humans are the source of the functions) and therefore a natural power of representation.

From these ideas Dretske developed a full-fledged theory of behavior. The term "behavior" is used in many different ways to mean different things. The behavior of an animal is commonly taken to be the actions it performs more or less by instinct or by nature. This is not necessarily "voluntary" behavior. The fact that women have menstruation is part of "female behavior", but it is not voluntary. Behavior is pervasive in nature, and cannot be restricted to animals: plants exhibit behavior too. Behavior is the production of some external effect by some internal cause. Behavior is a complex causal process wherein certain internal conditions produce certain external movements. First and foremost, behavior is a process. A process is caused by both a triggering cause (the reason why it occurs now) and a structural cause (the reason why the process is the way it is). This holds both for human behavior and the behavior of machines. For example, a thermostat turns on a furnace both because the temperature fell below a threshold and because it has been designed to turn on furnaces under certain conditions. In general, humans are interested in structural behavior, which in plants and animals has been determined by natural evolution and in machines has been built by humans.

In Dretske’s view, intentionality is not a property useful to differentiate minds from matter, but a property that can help formalize the behavior of systems, human, biological and mechanical.


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