Intentionality is usually regarded as a strictly human property of mind. As such, any talk of intentionality in non-human or non-sentient organisms must be dismissed: it becomes part of what we mean by ‘intentionality’. But its use in biology cannot be ignored and so it is assumed that we are resorting to cognitive metaphor as a heuristic device – a way of helping us understand nature by making it sound like ourselves? To view the situation otherwise is to break the rules of semantics.
But if, like consciousness, we consider intentionality as existing in nature ‘by degree’, then we see its presence within non-conscious organisms (albeit mindlessly, unconsciously, and in crude form) in truly astonishing and real, not metaphorical, ways. When we acknowledge the reality of nature’s continuum then we naturalize both human-talk and the idea of agency in nature.
We can now study in nature many of the mental faculties that we assumed were strictly human including: reasoning, foresight, memory and hindsight, foresight, valuation, purpose, and sensation all demonstrated in nature’s purposive (functional) design.
When we use agential language like this in relation to non-human organisms, we say that we are being anthropomorphic. By using words that usually describe our own conscious and intentional behaviour,
Philosopher Dan Dennett has tackled this problem by assuming what he calls the intentional stance. He says:
‘Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.’
Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 17.
Dennett points out that, regardless of the language being used, if this method ‘works’ as a form of intentional system analysis then it is not ‘as if’ the system is intentional, it actually ‘is’ intentional. We should not be sidetracked by the language.
But most of nature is mindless. Is unconscious intent possible, or is that a contradiction in terms? (However, it does not assume conscious intent, rather it investigates the historical reasons why natural selection prioritized or ‘favoured’ particular structures, processes, and behaviours. Non-human organisms do not have conscious intentions but they are, nevertheless, mindless agents with real purposes. That is how we explain functional and adaptive behaviour: not as a heuristic device but as a way of explaining nature.
The question posed by anthropomorphism concerns the distinction between what is in the world, and what is in our minds. When, or to what extent, are we reading our own subjectivity into the world?
Sometimes anthropomorphism is blatant. Clearly a river does not ‘want’ to flow to the sea: certainly not in the same way that I ‘want’ to swim in the sea on a hot day. The river ‘wanting’ is added by my mind.
Sometimes anthropomorphism depends more subtly on our intuitions, so it is not so simple – more fuzzy, and nuanced – perhaps a matter of degree. Does a tree ‘want’ light and water? Does a worm ‘want’ damp earth? Does a dog ‘want’ its owner to come home from work when it looks out of the window at the time when the owner usually comes home? Perhaps ‘wanting’ is most closely associated with intentional human-consciousness-talk. But there is, nevertheless, a strange sense in which we understand that trees ‘need’, ‘require’, ‘depend on’ or ‘want’ light and water in a different way from rivers needing the sea. And pet lovers will certainly recognize a dog wanting, longing, or pining, so perhaps ‘wanting’ could be regarded as not just human-consciousness-talk but sentience-talk as well?
Then there is misattributed anthropomorphism – the self-evident, albeit unconscious and mindless, goals and purposes we see in nature, like the highly organized and purposive behaviour of ants and bees (but, in fact, almost every aspect of nature). There are obvious reasons, purposes, and goals for insect activity that existed in nature long before human minds came on the scene. If we insist that ‘purpose’ is consciousness-talk, then is the activity of an ant colony purposeless in the same way that the flowing of a river is purposeless? As reason-representers we know otherwise.
Part of the difficulty is that we lack the language to express functional gradation in the same way that we use the language of analogy or homology to express structural differences – so we fall back on the language of human cognition.
We can detect in all organisms, for example, the functional homologues of intention, value, sensation, memory and hindsight, learning, foresight, and reason. Clearly the language of cognition is (mostly) scientifically inappropriate. But we use putatively anthropomorphic words like ‘interests’, and ‘preferences’ – not just because we are innately anthropomorphic, but because we do not have the words that we need to express functional equivalence. Where is the anthropomorphic line to be drawn as biologists speak endlessly of ‘organization’, ‘regulation’, ‘communication’ etc. It makes nonsense of biology to regard this as unadulterated cognitive metaphor.
Being evolving creatures, organisms have the potential for ‘self-correction’, part of which is the ability to respond in different ways, to be flexible and adapt, both short- and long-term.
These elements of mindless agency warrant closer inspection.
When we say ‘The eye is for seeing’ we are acknowledging that the existence of the eye is a consequence of a selection process. Where there is selection, there is selection ‘for’. And, in nature, where there is an aim, a ‘for’, and also a beneficiary, then there is purpose that is independent of human intention – purpose that is in nature, not just in human minds as ‘as if’ metaphor.