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The Irreducibility Of Intentionality

For philosophers who reject dualism, intentionality, like consciousness, has always been an embarrassment. How is it possible in a purely physical world, in a world composed of physical particles in fields of force, that there could be such a thing as mental aboutness or directedness? Many philosophers think it is impossible, and they have made various efforts to reduce intentionality to some materialist basis or to eliminate it altogether. Hence in the behaviorist period in the philosophy of mind, many philosophers (e.g., Ryle, 1949) felt that having a state of belief or desire was simply a matter of being disposed to behave in certain ways under certain stimulus conditions. Later on, functionalist theories of mind (e.g., Armstrong, 1993) tried to analyze intentional states in terms of causal relations to input stimuli and external behavior. A more recent variation on functionalism is to try to identify intentional states with computational states. The idea of computationalism is that the brain is a digital computer and the intentional states are just states of the computer program (Crane, 2003).

All of these efforts fail because they try to reduce intentionality to something else. But it is not something else. I believe the way to avoid dualism while recognizing the reality and irreducibility of intentionality is to recognize that intentionality is a biological phenomenon like growth or photo-synthesis or digestion. If we ask the question in the abstract: How can an animal have a belief about some distant object? that may seem like an extremely difficult question, but if we ask the more directly biological question: How is it possible for an animal to see anything or to feel hungry or thirsty or frightened? then it does not seem so difficult. We can build more sophisticated forms of intentionality, such as belief and desire and imagination, on the more biological basic forms such as perception and intentional action.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismIntentionality - Intentionality And Its History, Two Mistaken Theories Of Intentionality, The Relation Of Intentionality To Consciousness