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Intentional Causation

Explanations of human behavior rely essentially on the causal functioning of intentionality. When we say "Jones voted for the Republicans because he wanted lower taxes and believed the Republican candidate would produce lower taxes," we are giving a causal explanation in terms of the intentionality of desire and belief. This form of causal explanation is important not only in practical affairs but also in theoretical accounts of human behavior in the social sciences such as sociology, political science, and economics.

Such disciplines necessarily use an intentionalistic explanatory apparatus that is in several ways quite different from that of the natural sciences. First, in explanations appealing to intentional causation, the intentional content in the explanation must match the intentional content that is actually functioning causally in the mind of the agent. So the explanation, Jones "wanted lower taxes" must match Jones's desire: "I want lower taxes," and this content functions causally. This is quite unlike physics, where the content of the explanation reports a cause, such as gravity, but the content as content does not function causally. Second, explanations using intentional causation are subject to constraints of rationality in a way that physical forces are not. And third, typical intentionalistic explanations allow for free will in a way that is unlike explanations in classical physics. When I say the ball fell because of the force of gravity, the explanation is deterministic in the sense that given the forces acting on it, there is no other way the ball could have behaved. But if I say Jones voted for the Republicans because he wanted lower taxes, the explanation is not deterministic in form. It does not imply that Jones could not have acted otherwise in that situation.

Intentionality, along with consciousness, is the main problem in contemporary philosophy of mind, and under the name information processing, it is the main topic of cognitive science.


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John R. Searle

Additional topics

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