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Tuesday, February 01, 2011


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I have nothing of particular substance to add to your ruminations about similarities between the objects of intentional states and dispositions. But I do suspect that the problem of intentionality is a particular version of the more general problem of how to tame (logically speaking) contrary-to-fact truths.

I say that ‘this cloud resembles a unicorn’. I am using a noun phrase to describe this feature of the cloud but it doesn’t refer to or denote anything. It is consistent with nothing at all being a unicorn, and doesn’t imply ‘something is such that this cloud resembles it’. So ‘resembles’ has all the hallmarks of an intentional verb. Yet I can describe all of this in terms of the form of the cloud – it has 4 legs, a long head, a horn etc.

When I press ‘control-F’ in a word document, to search for the word ‘unicorn’, the application ‘seeks’ the right word. Actually it’s a mechanical process: the application takes the first letter and looks for a ‘u’. If it does not find it, it goes to the next, and looks again. If it finds a ‘u’, it goes to the next and looks for an ‘n’ and so on. All strictly mechanical and the seeking is all defined in terms of the word entered into the search box and the search algorithm.

Similarly for dispositions, no? The search program is disposed to search, the spell checker is disposed to check English spellings, but the application simply uses an English dictionary or look-up table, and a simple grammatical parser.

I don’t see the need for weird objects. Even Sartre sees nothing magical. He gives the example of a nail being bent then straightened again. The nail is weaker than its fellow nails, it is ‘disposed’ to bend under pressure. But really, it is all explained by molecular or atomic structure.

A lock is disposed to be opened by a key of a certain type. All explained by the similarity of shape of the lock and the key. There is no mystery. We physically live in a world of fog and dampness and shadows, but in our hearts and minds we seek to cast light, and dispel mystery.

EO -
I'll leave the parsing of linguistic forms to those who are adept at this type of philosophical investigation. But such parsing hasn't taken us very far in the analysis of dispositions. And when it comes to the non-linguistic analysis of dispositions, references to molecular or atomic structure don't get us where we need to go. It's dispositions attributed to atoms and molecules that do the explanatory work; i.e., lower-level dispositions (such as attrative and repulsive forces) interacting to produce higher-level dispositions (such as bendability).


I thought you didn't read Continental philosophers. Do you have the exact Sartre reference for me? It does sound like something he would say.

You are doing what I predicted you would do. You are denying that there are dispositions.

It was of course folly on my part to think that I could get you to understand intentionality 'from below,' from the side of dispositionality. You deny both. And there is little point is discussing intentional objects with you if you deny that there is intentionality in the first place.

>> I thought you didn't read Continental philosophers. Do you have the exact Sartre reference for me? It does sound like something he would say.

I do read them. I have read only limited Sartre, so it will have been in the following works.

Search for a Method
The Roads to Freedeom trilogy
Being and Nothingness

I strongly doubt in the first, probably not in the trilogy, possibly in Nausea, but most likely in Being and Nothingness. A long time since I read it, there is a section in the middle part about dispositions. I remember something about ‘even God has to wait for the sugar to dissolve’ (or am I confusing it with Wittgenstein).

>> You are doing what I predicted you would do. You are denying that there are dispositions.

Not at all. I am denying that dispositionality and intentionality involve some mysterious external relation to weird objects.

>>there is little point is discussing intentional objects with you if you deny that there is intentionality in the first place.

We need proof of their existence first. As well as a clarification of the meaning of 'existence'. Christopher Williams told me that all Continental philosophy involved confusion about the meaning of the word 'existence'.

There is one problem that is inhibiting this discussion, and it is the refusal of the Londonists to discuss intentional objects, without clear proof or evidence of the existence of such things (if Phoenicians don’t like the word ‘existence’, replace it with ‘clear proof or evidence that there are such things’ or if that is not acceptable, replace it with ‘clear proof or evidence that some objects are intentional’). It’s rather like discussions on ghosts or telepathy. If one side doesn’t even believe in the existence of the phenomenon – ghosts, say - they are not going to be interested in discussions about different kinds of ghosts, the properties of ghosts, where ghosts can be found, and so on.

Where does the onus lie? Well, if Phoenicians refuse to give arguments or reasons or evidence for intentional objects, Londonists will reasonably refuse to discuss the matter further. So the onus lies with Phoenicians. Please give Londonists a good reason to believe in intentional objects.

Now there have been reasons and arguments given. In fact, two. But the first argument has now been rejected by the Phoenicians themsevles. Bill has now agreed that the consequence “John’s seeking is directed towards an intentional object, therefore there is an intentional object which John’s seeking is directed towards” is NOT valid. (See his comment here http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2011/01/does-a-cube-have-12-edges.html [Monday, January 31, 2011 at 01:54 PM]).

The second argument was given here. http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2011/01/the-intentional-object-an-aporetic-triad.html [comment on Friday, January 28, 2011 at 12:03 PM] . I reproduce it below with minor changes. I still don’t follow the logic of the argument. It seems to be that every mental act has directedness or is object-directed (step 4). The claim is repeated in step 9. Then in step 10 it is argued that the content is an intentional object or object of thought.

But the argument doesn’t follow. Even if we agree that some mental act is object-directed, or that it is directed towards an object, how do we conclude that there is an object to which the act is directed? For the Phoenicians have already conceded that the consequence “John’s seeking is directed towards an intentional object, therefore there is an intentional object which John’s seeking is directed towards” is NOT valid. See the first argument above.

So the Londonistas demand an argument or reason justifying the existence of intentional objects (or that there are such things, or that some objects are intentional).

-------------------------- Vallicella argument (2) for intentional objects------------------------------
1. Tom's thinking is a mental act.

2. The act may be an act of desire or expectation or imagination, etc.

3. But there is more to a particular mental act than that.

4. There is also what could be called the content, that which gives the act the SPECIFIC directedness that it has.

5. Every act is object-directed by its very nature as a mental act, but there can be different directednesses even if the type of act remains the same.

6. Thus imagining a centaur is different from imagining a winged horse.

7. We need to distinguish between the act, as a particular occurrence at a particular time, and its content.

8. If I imagine a winged horse at noon and do so again ten minutes later, then the content is the same but the acts are numerically different.

9. There are two numerically different acts of the same type or quality (imagination); both acts are object-directed just in virtue of being acts; but the specific directednesses are different because the contents are different.

10. Phenomenologically, the content is before my mind in a manner to warrant calling this content an object of thought, or intentional object.

Let us suppose that the only properties are colour properties and that the only colours are Red, Green, and Blue. Suppose further that the only objects are balls with surface regions of these three colours. Then the contents of our thoughts are limited to the seven combinations R, G, B, RG, GB, BR, and RGB (suppose we cannot conceive of no colour at all). These combinations can be thought of as labelling seven directions in a three-dimensional space. It's plain that we can imagine a ball at the terminus of each of these directions. Indeed, we may have seen examples and may be able to remember how they looked. But of course there is no guarantee that the world contains an instance of every colour combination. The ones we may have seen may have been destroyed. We can also imagine being in such a mental state that we are convinced that a ball of a certain combination exists, when it doesn't. We make this kind of mistake all the time. Our problem is that there is nothing in the mental state itself, in the content of the thought, to distinguish states that mirror the world from those that don't. In a slogan: conceptual space is but sparsely populated by the actual world.

Now, my contention here is that I'm using exactly the same spatial metaphor to describe subjective thought experience as Bill does. Bill may feel otherwise, but I think I have captured the crucial feature of intentionality that we are discussing. But I haven't found it necessary to talk about 'intentional objects'. They are an artifact of the metaphor: Bill's 'intentional object' equals my 'point in conceptual space'.

Re-reading Bill's post I'm struck by the generosity with which he grants object status. Dissolvings, shatterings, swellings, which I'd prefer to call events, or better, processes, Bill accords as objects. In light of this, and also pursuing the metaphor outlined in my previous comment, I propose we identify 'intentional object' with the conceptual 'direction' inherent in a thought. With some slight adjustments, the directedness metaphor (and surely it is a metaphor, for though I can think of Caesar, in what direction can he be?) works quite nicely. We may sensibly say that a thought has a direction (=intentional object) though directions are not the kind of things we normally quantify over, yet in certain contexts, eg, 'there was nothing but sea in all directions' quantifying over them does make sense. It also makes sense to say that some directions fail to terminate on real objects. Lastly, directions are radically different from real objects, just as intentional objects, being incomplete or indeterminate with respect to certain properties, are utterly different from real objects.

This may work quite well but the thought occurs, Why are we tussling so hard over what in the end is just a metaphor? We know metaphors are imperfect. We use them when forced onto the back foot* by lack of adequate language.

* For Phoenicians, if required, a metaphor from cricket.

>> I propose we identify 'intentional object' with the conceptual 'direction'

The only problem is the 'Reidian objection'. If Tom is thinking of a unicorn, he is not thinking of a direction. The thought may be object-directed, and it may involve a direction, but it is about a unicorn, not an object-direction. The same objection (for Intentionalists) applies to the view that intentional objects are images of unicorns or ideas of unicorns. Tom is thinking of a unicorn, not the thought of a unicorn.

Yes, that's one of the minor adjustments. We have to change from 'thinking of' to 'thinking at'. That's directness for you.

Thinking this through once more, I'm not sure the Reidian objection applies. Consider what Bill says here

The point I just made is that when I think of Peter, it is Peter himself that my thought reaches: my thought does not terminate at a merely intentional object, immanent to the act, which merely stands for or goes proxy for or represents Peter.  This  point is well-nigh datanic.  If you don't understand it, you don't understand intentionality.  One will be tempted to accommodate this point by saying that when one thinks of what exists, the IO = the RO.  But this can't be right either.  For the intentional object is always an incomplete object, a fact that reflects the finitude of the human mind.  But Peter in reality is a complete object.  Now identity is governed by the Indiscernibility of Identicals which states, roughly, that if x = y, then x and y share all properties.  But the IO and the RO do not share all properties:  The IO is indeterminate with respect to some properties while the RO is wholly determinate.  Therefore, the IO is never identical to the RO. [my italics]
Elsewhere it may have been suggested that 'intentional object' and 'target of thought' have the same meaning, but I think we now have to rule this out. Firstly for the reason Bill gives above and secondly because in the 'Tom thinks of a unicorn' case, it's clear that there is something going on to which we can attach the label 'intentional object' but that the thought fails to 'connect' with a genuine object in the way that Bill's thought of Peter does connect.

Summing up, in both the 'Bill thinks of Peter' and 'Tom thinks of a unicorn' cases we can assign an intentional object, and we can find a sense in which the thought has an intentional object. In the first case the thought succeeds in referring, but in the second it fails. In neither case does it make sense to say that the thought is of the intentional object, though there is a strong temptation to do so.

I looked at Bill's comment again but I'm afraid all I can see is faulty logic.

I see not so much illogic but rather a valiant attempt to say the near unsayable. We acquire a vocabulary for properties of ordinary objects readily enough when others supply the appropriate words for objects placed before us. We learn emotion words when others judge that in the circumstances we are feeling a certain emotion and can supply the appropriate word. But Tom can't place his thought of a unicorn on the table for us to dissect and name parts, nor can we judge with any confidence that Tom is having a certain thought. So here we run out of vocabulary. All Tom can do is tell us what aspects of the unicorn he has in mind. Then we can say Yes, that's a unicorn, or, No, you're thinking of a centaur. We shouldn't be surprised that we resort to metaphor to convey the feel of having a thought. One feeling we have is that some thoughts reach out and connect to things in the world. This too must be a metaphorical reaching and connecting. We could speculate as to why this metaphor is appropriate but we shouldn't expect the metaphor to withstand the degree of logical analysis that we do our speech of ordinary objects.

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