mind, matter, meaning and information

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intentional information

We obtain information about any particular thing through a complex set of interactions between many different things.

The prime example is that of sight. This minimally involves a light source such as the sun, atmospheric conditions, the object concerned, the reflective properties of other objects around it, the various components of the eye, the optic nerve and the brain. Each element in this system (such as the light entering the eye) has its own physical information, that is capable of conveying information about something else (such as an apple) because it has been affected by that thing, and thus has characteristics (such as colour) that somehow correspond to it. We have evolved and learned to use such interactions to obtain information about any visible object.

As always, we have a choice as to whether to adopt the formal stance. What goes on inside a human skull, or in the nervous system of any organism, can be viewed as mere material processes, or as information processing. Having taken the formal stance here, though, there is a further choice open to us, and that is whether to adopt “the intentional stance”: information being processed neurologically can be considered to be “about things”.

The concept of intentionality originated in medieval philosophy, but was revived by Franz Brentano (1838–1916). It is related to but different from what is usually meant by “intentional”. It can be thought of as “aboutness”, and Brentano suggested that it was the “ineliminable mark of the mental”. Our beliefs, for example, are necessarily about something, and Brentano claimed that this is true for all mental phenomena, and no physical phenomena: thoughts, beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, loving, wondering, and expectation are all about something: they take an object. This object need not actually exist—we might be thinking about a unicorn, or Santa Claus—but without some object, however imaginary, there is no thought.

According to Daniel Dennett, whenever we consider a piece of writing, for instance, to be “about something”, we are adopting the intentional stance towards it. It is not an intrinsic property of this string of symbols that we call “a sentence” that it has meaning. That depends on the attitudes towards it, and the uses made of it, by its writer and readers. And my belief that you have mental states that are about things, feelings, etc., is due to (or rather, simply, is) me taking the intentional stance towards you—and vice versa.

(Some writers, unlike Dennett, distinguish between intrinsic intentionality, which they say people have, and derived intentionality, with which things like writings have to make do. These people are saying, in effect, that people are somehow special, while Dennett insists that the only thing special about people is the attitude, the stance, we take towards them. One of my biggest things, one of my main reasons for writing all this, is that I have a solution that accommodates both Dennett's skepticism and these others' (and my own) intuitions. This is explained in a section not yet online. Sorry!)

Dennett's other stances are:

  • the physical, from which things are just things (a person, from the physical stance, would have no thoughts, feelings, etc.), and which is the mainstay of science, and
  • the design stance, in which we assume things to have been designed, and ask questions like “what is it for?”
Belief in Creation is probably largely the result of taking the design stance towards natural phenomena. Asking “what is it for?” does often work when considering features of living things, but there it means not “what was it intended for?”, but “what evolutionary advantage did it confer?”

When a beam of light entering your eye carries information about an apple off which it has bounced, that information is encoded. The encoding takes place when the light encounters the surface of the apple and is filtered by the structures it finds there as it is reflected, so that the balance of the mixture of wavelengths within it is changed. The decoding takes place within the eye, the optic nerve and the brain, as that particular mixture of wavelengths is interpreted to be the colour of the apple. Only the light's own physical information enters the eye, but that can be processed to yield information about the apple. The physical information of the light is the carrier, the brain etc. is the decoding mechanism, and the apple's colour is the coded message. Without the intentional stance, all of the information in the brain etc., before and after the encounter with that particular beam of light, is “just” the physical information of its structure (however complex), but if we take the intentional stance, some of that physical information can be taken to encode intentional information about things outside the brain.

Dennett uses the concept of the intentional stance to emphasise that this is a strategy we adopt for certain purposes, even though its use is so habitual that we are not normally aware of it. If we ignore the encoding and decoding processes, taking the view that we receive information about an apple directly, when one is in sight, then we are taking the intentional stance. It is essentially a simplification, in which much processing is ignored. We take it when we think of DNA as the blueprint of the organism, as if the decoding mechanism were a person who would use it that way. When we view any information as being “about” any thing, we are taking the intentional stance. Otherwise, there is only physical information, which, as the form or structure of physical reality, is not about anything, and exists entirely for its own sake.

But it is worth noting that, where the intentional stance is adopted, it builds on the formal stance: mere matter cannot be “about” anything. Only information has that capacity. Just as we are usually unaware of taking the intentional stance, so Dennett was unaware of taking the formal stance, when he introduced the array of stances that omitted it.

The next level up in the hierarchy, above psychological information, is cultural information.

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Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder. Last modified 01-May-2005 13:14:16 by Robin Faichney.