welcome guest
login or register

Pre-cognitive intentionality

In my last post I suggested that the notion of free will might be somewhat an illusion; as, from a purely naturalistic point of view we are made up of nature, and natural reactions are governed by the laws of physical nature. But this is not just a simple issue, so let's continue with it.

When I was a teenager there were moments when I didn't want to stay at the school - I wanted to go outdoors, to wander in the woods. But I knew that I'll get punished if I go, so I had to stay at the school. And I guess everybody has this kind of basic experiences - there is an internal will to do something, and external forces working against ones own will. I think it is this kind of experiences which give rise to notions of "free will" and its opposite "external forces putting pressure on you making you to do something which you actually don't want to do." Now, if somebody says that maybe the free will doesn't exist in the strong metaphysical sense of the word, then does it mean that there is nothing left but only those external forces? Are we just marionettes, controlled by external forces like genes, hormones and brain activity?

But who says that genes, hormones and brain activity are external? Thinking about it, to me it seems that they are internal to us - also in the metaphysical sense of the word. I mean; right now I feel warm and relaxed after sauna, and I decided to start writing this entry instead of going to bed. In my mind I have some ideas I'd like to write about, and there are even some half-ready sentences waiting to be typed. These feelings, thoughts, ideas and words are "inside" my consciousness, no doubt. And I think that, plain simply, they are also processes taking place in my brains and other internal organs. I don't see my brain activity as an external force pulling strings to control a marionette of my mind - I just think that what happens inside my body is a physical counterpart of my consciouss experience; it does not make sense to ask if one of these is somehow more "real" or "fundamental".

There is this old story of Platon, about phenomenons being like shadows casted on the wall of a cave - but outside the cave there is the real world. We have to stop mistaking the shadows for reality and leave the cave to see the real world in full light of the sun. Pretty much the same dualism is easily summoned if we say that "the free will is a mere illusion - that in reality our thinking and decisions is rooted in physical processes taking place in our brains". Oh well. I think something is not quite right with these notions of "mere" and "illusion". As, to be precise, I don't think that human deliberation, decisions and choices would be merely illusions - no, they are very real just as they are. It is only that I don't feel a need of metaphysical dualism to explain or to conceive our subjectivity. I think that the natural world is awesome enough to have all the intentionality and complicated information processing we experience in our daily lives or when pondering a moral decision.

The philosophical question of nature / consciousness relation is often laid out in such a fashion that we already know what nature is. Nature is matter; particles like tiny billiard balls, moving around in empty space according to the laws of physics. And that both the particles and the laws governing their behavior exist out there, independent and regardless of human experience. The law of gravity doesn't change if we change our minds, the external world doesn't cease to exists if I close my eyes. And all the tiny atoms and molecules populated the universe long before human consciousness arrived on the planet. With our modern empirical science we have been discovering all those particles and the laws of physics - so the question remains only to explain the consciousness? Not quite, I think. As, to be precise and honest, we know very little of the material nature out there. All we have is our perceptions, theories and concepts. No-one has ever seen an atom the way it is independent and regardless of human observer - all we have seen are human perceptions. And based on those perceptions we have crafted a concept of "nature as mere objects" - once again this concept is born and lives inside a human consciousness. So where is the dualism - where are the objects which are out there regardless of a subject perceiving them? This, if anything, is an illusion =) All we have is an unbreakable subject-object relation. We don't perceive "objects as such", we perceive objects as our perceptions. And our subjectivity is mostly made up of perceptions, memories, beliefs, intentions and feedback of the "external world". So, our mental apparatus is able to create ideas of "subject" and "object" as two radically separate and different spheres of reality. But if we stop to examine this process, I think we see that strictly speaking "subject" and "object" correlates to nothing in our actual experience. If we want to learn to understand ourselves and our world better, I guess we need to find new kinds of concepts about consciousness, subject, object and matter.

And I guess this is where intentionality plays a central role. I'm not a scientist, but I'd bet that theories about human behavior or brain activity will fail if they are based on simple assumption of machine made of mechanical stimulus - reaction connections. To me it seems that both the philosophy and the empirical sciences need to study intentionality in a new way. Intentionality is about meanings, but not necessarily verbal, cognitive nor propositional meanings. In my last post I used an example of an experienced goal-keeper raising his hand to stop a ball before it is a goal. I think that what happens here is that faster than any cognitive process, other areas of his brain already interpret the visual information, picking a meaning which could be expressed with words "a ball approaching", and not even that, but also projecting the intention to stop the ball, instanlty calculating the estimated flight path of the ball and activating the muscles needed to perform an optimal movement of the hand. This is best understood as information processing, which contains elements like interpretating sensory data, using learned patterns to predict what is going to happen and planning a desired action. Is this kind of a process "external" or "internal" to the subjectivity of the said goal-keeper? I'd say that this process is part of what the goal-keeper is. His experience of the world is partly defined by the skills he has learned - somebody who would know nothing about the game of soccer, couldn't understand that meaning of "a goal" and "a ball" nor the urgency of stopping the ball - the same visual perception would carry different meanings for a different observer. We see world differently, not because of some external differences in our brains, but because we are different.

But if there is information processing which is not cognitive nor propositional, does it then mean that it is all intuitive, emotional, illogical, unreliable, inferior, weak, fussy, contradictory, primitive and something bad which we should get rid of by means of education? Well, this is another unnecessary dualism. If our goalkeeper would sit down in the sand, making calculations about his visual perception, using geometry and maths to determine the flight path of the ball ... well, that would have been an irrational thing to do, at least if we consider stopping the ball as a desired thing. So, in that situation the most rational decision was to throw in all the learned skills, acting quickly directed by the bodily sensation of where the hand should go to stop the ball. Yet, we can't say "just stop thinking and let your body work intuitively, then the right action will come out all by itself" - as it was not "all by itself". There was all the training, all the previous experience and all the skills of the goal-keeper which were essential for succesfull action.

So. this is part of the theoretical background for many of my writings and ponderings about ethics. I mean, I feel that tradtional western moral philosophy has been to heavily built on the old dualism - the idea that we should use our free will to make the right decisions, to control our primitive instincts and unreliable emotions. Especially the idea that "instincts" and "emotions" are something fixed and given, written in the stone. That we should think clearly, not letting our emotions to disturb our reasoning. Well, sure, but why such a negative attitude towards everything which is pre-cognitive? I think (and there is even empirical studies supporting the view) that our pre-cognitive processing provides a lot of valuable services for us - and in real life cognition and reason alone would not be able to guide our lives, nor to make wise decisions. So, actually, I think that moral and existential problems can not be solved with rational thinking alone - and actually some of the problems are made worse by suppressing pre-cognitive processes and over-emphasizing conceptual thinking. Hmm... seems like that would be the topic of a next blog entry =)

tags: 
philosophy
up
165 users have voted.

Add new comment

CAPTCHA
Please reply with a single word.
Fill in the blank.