Three levels of intentionality
I'm redating this, partly because it provides a context for discussing eliminativism.
VI. Three levels of intentionality
Intentional states are at the heart of the argument from reason. In philosophy of mind, the term “intentionality” refers to “aboutness.” Our thoughts are about other things, surely. The first thing that we notice about our mental states is that they are about certain other things. If there is to be rational inference, there has to be something to reason about.
However, intentionality is a rather complex phenomenon. Consider the following passage by Lewis:
The strength of the critic lies in the words "merely" or "nothing but. He sees all the facts but not the meaning. Quite truly, therefore, he claims to have seen all the facts. There is nothing else there, except the meaning. He is therefore, as regards the matter at hand, in the position of an animal. You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. His world is all fact and no meaning.
What is interesting about this passage is that although it is clear enough the dogs don’t understand pointing, it is equally true that dogs can be very good at tracking things. There are certainly states of the dog that link up to previous positions of a fox. The dog certainly can “track” a fox, and in one important sense we can say that the dog has states that are “about” the fox. But nevertheless the dog doesn’t understand pointing. It does not recognize the “aboutness” of our mental states. It does not understand the between its own fox-tracking activities and the fox.
So we might distinguish between simple representation on the one hand, with representation that is understood by the agent, what I will call understood representation. But clearly the latter type of intentionality is necessary for the kind of rational inference employed by the natural sciences. We have to know what we mean when we think, if we are to infer one claim from another. Consider the following joke syllogism, invented by a freshman student at the University of Illinois years ago.
1) Going to class is pointless.
2) An unsharpened pencil is pointless.
3) Therefore, going to class is an unsharpened pencil.
Recognizing that this is not a good argument is a matter of seeing that the meaning of the term “pointless” does not remain invariant between the first and second premises. And, as a recent President of the United States once observed, even the meaning of the word “is” does not remain constant from context to context. No rational inference, in or out of a scientific context, could occur if we never know what we mean when we use words.
So there is another characteristic of intentional states that is critical to their use in rational inference, and that is states of mind that are about other things are formulated together to provide us with a state with propositional content. This is a further development, which results in agents who have beliefs, desires, and other propositional attitudes. If we have propositional attitudes, not only do we understand what our thought are about, we also are able to formulate those thoughts in a sentential format. This I am going to call propositional intentionality.
Naturalistic discussions are going to have the easiest time with simple intentionality. But, I maintain, understood intentionality and propositional intentionality are essential for the possibility of science, and these are more difficult for naturalists to deal with.