NoR 3.1: Source intentionality

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

Back in my first post, I set out an account of the nature of representation (or at least: core kinds of representation) that broke the task into three layers, each building on the next. I then started in the middle, by setting out a story about how representational properties of beliefs and desires are grounded (layer 2 representations). That story was radical interpretation, and the key thesis was this:

* The correct interpretation of an agent x is that one which best rationalizes x’s dispositions to act in the light of the courses of experience x undergoes.

To further unpack that story, I distinguished between the base and the selectional ideology. The base consisted of what our interpretee (Sally) is disposed to do, given various courses of experiences she might undergo (another base fact, somewhat more implicit, is facts about the reidentification of Sally over worlds and time). The selectional ideology is then whatever else is needed to pin down a correct interpretation from these base facts. The key notion here is that of “best rationalization”.

At that point, I set the question of the grounding of base facts aside, since the immediate problem that we encountered (the bubble puzzle) would arise on any plausible story about these facts and their nature. What we needed to get clear about to address this problem, I argued, was the other element of the story—rationalization. The key to resolving the bubble puzzle was to set aside a traditional construal of “rationalization” as picking out only formal, structural rationality. Instead, the needed selectional ideology is “substantive” rationality, which makes a broader appeal to what particular contents Sally ought believe, given her evidence (what she is justified in believing) and how she ought act, given a set of beliefs and desires. We then moved to investigate the consequences of that theoretical setting, showing radical interpretation offers quite specific predictions and explanations on the denotations of concepts of various types. Substantive rationality was again central here, since normative assumptions in epistemology or practical reason always played a key role, alongside assumptions about the internal cognitive architecture of the agents in question.

While rationalization has to this point played the starring role, it is only one half of the resources needed to get Radical Interpretation up and running. The base facts, as well as the selectional ideology, need to be in place. Indeed, Radical Interpretation can be viewed as a story about how one set of representational facts is “transformed” to bring about another. So we need those “source” representational/intentional facts to be in place so we have something to work with (I am here borrowing Adam Pautz’s nice terminology). That is why I think of Radical Interpretation as a story about a second layer of representation, built on and presupposing a more primordial kind of representation: that of perception and action.

My formulation assumes that facts about action and experience are representational facts. I think the true, layered structure of radical interpretation has been hidden from view by equivocation on this point. Both action and experience are closely related to other nonrepresentational facts—facts about motions of the body, and about patterns of sensory (e.g. retinal) stimulation. Just as there is a possible project—a cousin of my own—which reads “rationalization” as thin, structural rationalization, and seeks to develop radical interpretation on that basis, there is another possible project which seek to develop radical interpretation with only non-representational facts about behaviour and sensation in the base. We have already seen the primarily obstacle to the former approach—the bubble puzzle. This time, I’ll reverse the order, and first of all develop the positive account of first-layer intentionality which would underpin radical interpretation as I set it out, and only afterwards consider the relative attractions of an account build on the thinner, non-representational base. From now on, therefore, I will assume that to give a full account of radical interpretation, we need a prior and independent account of the first-layer, source intentionality of experience and action.

At this point, there is a fork in the road. Well, maybe more than a fork: we could head off-road in several directions, but here are what I see as the two theoretical highways.

  • We could, following Adam Pautz’s lead, pair radical interpretation with a non-reductive account of the intentionality of experience and action. More specifically, Pautz contends that we should take the intentional features of phenomenology of conscious experience as a metaphysical primitive.
  • We could preserve the original ambition to reduce representational facts to the non-representational. Having reduced belief/desire intentionality inter alia to representational facts about experience, we then stand in need of another reductive story about this “source intentionality”. This story will have to be prior to and independent of facts about belief and desire representation, so that we don’t go round in circles. And it won’t be radical interpretation, since that shot has already been fired.

My proposal is that we go for the second of these options. More specifically, I intend to build on Karen Neander’s work. This is an account of representation that sits squarely in a tradition often opposed to radical interpretation—teleosemantics. But Neander explicitly presents her theory just as an account of the intentionality of experience, and the narrowing of focus (setting aside the analysis of representational facts about belief and desire for another day) helps her defend the account against objections that bite against other views in that tradition. This looks like a match made in heaven! Neander has a story about what grounds (some) layer-1 representational facts. The Radical interpreter has a story about how layer-2 representational facts emerge from the layer-1 facts. Plug and play, and the job is done. (Well, actually, it’s not going to be that simple, as we’ll see).

First issue. One thing that stands out right from the start—and afflicts Pautz’s proposed primitivism as well as Neander’s reductionism—is that both accounts are developed as an account of the representational properties of experience. But radical interpretation, as I developed it, includes in its base the representational features of action, as well. So having a story about the representational features of perception is not enough—some extension or supplementation is called for. And, for the case of Neander’s treatment of perception, I’ll be providing the required extension in this subsequence of posts.

Second issue. Going back to the case of experience, even if we ground the representational content of some experiential states teleosemantically, it’s not automatic that those states and their content is suited to play the role demanding by radical interpretation. For example, I see a chicken with nine spots. My visual system may represent nine spots, but I do not attend to or count the spots. I may be unsure how many spots the chicken has. In this case, some of the representational content of my visual system has not been “uptaken” by the wider cognitive system. This is a place the radical interpreter must tread with care. On the simplest Bayesian models of rationality, for example, the “evidence” we need to extract from layer-1 intentionality is something on which we update by conditionalization, and so, post-update, we are certain that the world is that way.  On that model of rational update, the contents of the perceptual states are not suitable relata of the rationalization relation; they do not play that particular “evidence” role (this is even before we come to consider cases such as perceptual illusions and the like). Now, of course, the lesson to draw from this may just be that the simplest Bayesian models are wrong. Be that as it may, it illustrates that once we have layer-1 representation in place, we have further work to do to integrate it with the layer-2 story we’ve seen so far. (There are analogous issues to consider also on the action/intention side, where the output of a system of rational decision is presumably much coarser than the detailed content of motor states).

Third issue. Suppose we had a fix (somehow or other) on layer-1 facts about what an agent is experiencing, and what she is doing. Suppose we had succeeded in getting this at the right level of “grain” to mesh with belief and desire. There’s still a missing element that I will argue is critical to getting an adequate set of base facts for radical interpretation. This is to give an account of what the agents options were amongst which she chose (on the basis of her evidence) to do what she did. The agents options, in the sense that matters for rationalization, are not simply behaviours that are physically possible for her. It is possible for me to it the bullseye with a dart from ten metres away, but that doesn’t make it an option in the relevant sense (e.g. even if the dart hitting the bullseye would bring great benefits to me and no costs, the rational thing for me to do may be to put down the dart and walk away, for fear of the consequences of failing to hit the bullseye). Options in the relevant sense are things the agent has control over; what they can “do at will”. And this relation to what the subject wills or intends means that an adequate account of options is likely to involve representational resources. (Options don’t figure as such in the gloss on radical interpretation I gave above. By the end of this series of posts, we’ll be in a position to put forward a more refined version of way the various base facts, including options, show up).

Accounting for options is the challenge that I would pose to anyone wishing to claim the base for radical interpretation consists in non-representational facts about sensation and behaviour, non-representationally described. Options not taken have no behavioural signature. If I throw a ball at a window, then my limbs are moving in distinctive ways with relation to things in my environment. But if I have an option to throw a ball at the window, but do not take that option but continue typing, the trajectory of my body is keyboard-orientated, and I stand in no obviously special physical relation to the ball and window. So while there are purely physical correlates to experience and action, I simply don’t know how the advocate of the more austere alternative is planning to set up their theory.

I’ll be exploring the reductive approach to source intentionality. I hope I’ll also, down the linem have the chance to compare and contrast my approach to Pautzian primitivism, but for now, some initial remarks will have to do. Even at this stage, we can see that buying into primitive representational features of conscious experience is only the start of the commitments we would need to prosecute a primitivist approach to source intentionality. Actions/intentions also demand treatment, and it’s unclear from Pautz’s published work how he would cover that case. One approach is to multiply representational primitives. Perhaps the representational properties of intentions as well as experiences are metaphysical bedrock. An alternative is to seek a reduction of all kinds of source intentionality to the intentionality of experience—for example, by appealing to our experience of our own actions. Neither route is straightforward or cost-free, and those who are tempted to follow him should bear in mind also the need to provide not only for the representational properties of actions and intentions, but also for (intentional) truths about the agents’ options.


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