There’s been a flurry of posts over on SHAFT’s website, all having some connection to the question of whether science can disprove God’s existence, and I muddied the waters further by bringing up the problem of intentionality. But I did not take the time to explain what the problem is. So I thought I’d make some attempt to do so here.
A cool feature of mentality — and maybe the crucial one — is that ideas can be “about” things. They can be representational. But how does an idea, or a thought, or a word, or a sentence, manage to be “about” something else? That, fundamentally, is the problem of intentionality. (Note: it has nothing to do with “intending to do something,” or having “good/bad intentions.” Different matter altogether.) It’s a question of meaning.
Initially, it seems like intentionality is a problem for materialists. For how does some hunk of matter ever come to be “about” some other hunk of matter? We can complicate the hunks by putting them into activity, and into causal relation with the hunks of matter they are supposed to be about, but it still is initially puzzling how one dynamic system can be about another. It is for this reason that some philosophers have thought materialism can’t handle intentionality, and so they have posited something special (special properties, capacities, or substances) in order to explain aboutness.
In the early 1960s, W.V. Quine worked through a careful thought experiment meant to show that determinate meanings, or intentionality, cannot simply surface out of physical behavior. His thought experiment was about a couple of linguists who confronts a bunch of people speaking a language no one else has encountered before. He argues that these two linguists could come up with two very different translation books, each of which did a perfect job of capturing what the people say and do. (So, for example, the term “Gavagai” could be equally well translated both as “Lo, a rabbit!” and as “Look — undetached rabbit parts!”). But Quine didn’t take the conclusion to be that we need to invent some special stuff to settle the matter, since he was a hard-headed materialist (except when it came to logic). Instead, he concluded that there was no fact to the matter about which translation was right. This result is called “the indeterminacy of translation.”
One may agree or not with Quine’s conclusion. But his thought experiment seems quite sound: no amount of physical behavior can be interpreted in only one way. There are always alternative and equally apt interpretations.
The same goes for computers. You can’t read a unique program off the behavior of the machine. (You can always come up with some program, but you can always come up with more than one.) The question about what the program really is cannot be settled empirically. And the same, it seems, for human beings and their behaviors, which are just like super complicated computers.
This seems like a puzzling conclusion, since don’t we all actually mean something when we say something or think about something? The indeterminacy of translation does not seem to jibe with first-person experience. So how do we get at least the appearance of determinacy of meaning out of a fundamental indeterminacy (if materialism is true, and we don’t call in special stuff to solve the mystery for us)? Indeed: how do we get any appearance of meaning at all?
That’s the question materialists have to answer. I’m not saying they can’t answer it, but I am saying it is a toughie.
The question was dramatized with John Searle’s “Chinese Room” idea. So you are in a room, and your job is to take inputs in the form of written Chinese, look them up in a great big book, where you find an appropriate Chinese response, and return it as output. Anyone outside the room says “Hey! The guy in there understands Chinese!” But there is no real understanding of Chinese anywhere in the room. So, Searle concludes, the behavior of “understanding” does not constitute genuine understanding.
There’s more to say, maybe in a part 2 of this post, but I’ll leave it at that for now.