Thursday, 7 March 2013

Intentionality ('Aboutness') and Mental Designation in Buddhism

Nothing but Pixels

Aboutness (intentionality) is something that only minds possess. 

Minds know and perceive objects.   In contrast, words, sentences and symbols can only be about things in a derivative sort of way, in so far as they transmit or evoke a primary aboutness in the mind of the beholder.

Physical things, such as electrical circuits, computer inputs and outputs, do not possess aboutness. As Roger Scruton pointed out recently, the pixels displaying a picture of a woman on a computer monitor are not in themselves about the woman. Only the mind of the viewer is about her. 


Intentionality, aboutness, meaning, semantics and mental designation.

This quality of 'aboutness' is known in Western philosophy as 'intentionality'  - a rather confusing term which has nothing to do with 'intention'. 

Near synonyms for intentionality are 'semantics' and just plain old 'meaning'.

The property of being about something, of having 'an intentional object', is the key feature that distinguishes psychological phenomena from physical phenomena, because physical phenomena lack the ability to generate original intentionality, and can only perform an intentional relationship in a second-hand manner: derived intentionality.

In Buddhist philosophy, intentionality is known as  'mental designation', 'mental imputation', 'mental projection' or 'mental attribution'.

Intentionality plays a much more fundamental role in Buddhism that it does in traditional Western philosophy.  Intentionality, in its role as 'mental designation' is, together with causality and structure, one of the three axiomatic foundations of all phenomena,  and is not reducible to the other two.   

Consequently intentionality, with qualia, is one of the attributes of mind that is not reducible to physical mechanisms.    

'In current artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind intentionality is a controversial subject and sometimes claimed to be something that a machine will never achieve. John Searle argued for this position with the Chinese room thought experiment, according to which no syntactic operations that occurred in a computer would provide it with semantic content.' -  Wiki

The role of intentionality in Western philosophy is weaker than in Buddhism.   Intentionality came comparitively late into Western thought, being first formulated in its modern form by Franz Brentano in the late nineteenth century.  Unlike in Buddhism, intentionality took a long time in the West to be established as a causative aspect of reality, and for much of the twentieth century was dismissed as an epiphenomenon of matter by the dominant philosophies of positivism, behaviorism and materialism: 

'So-called ‘eliminative materialists’ (see Churchland 1989) resolutely opt for the second horn of Quine's dilemma and deny purely and simply the reality of human beliefs and desires. As a consequence of their denial of the reality of beliefs and desires, the eliminative materialists must face the challenge raised by the existence of physical objects whose existence depends on the intentions, beliefs and desires of their designers, i.e., human artifacts.'  -  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mentally indwelling images of real and imagined objects

A mental phenomenon is characterized by reference to a content and/or direction toward an object, which is not necessarily a real 'thing'.  Each mental phenomenon includes something as an object within itself. That object may or may not refer to something in the real world.  That is why these indwelling mental objects ('generic images') are said to be 'inexistent'.  

The word 'inexistent' refers to two attributes of generic images:
(i)  They exist as indwelling images within thoughts.
(ii) The actual physical existence of the objects referred to is irrelevant. They can be either existent, or non-existent, or somewhere in between. 

The mind can grasp generic images of non-existent objects, including objects of its own creation. These objects can be potentially existent, such as a new device in the mind of its inventor, or formerly existent such as the Dodo, or they can be completely non-existent such as a unicorn.

Only minds possess intrinsic intentionality. All symbols, signifiers, signs,  words, computer inputs, outputs and internal states have merely derivative intentionality originating from a mind.


This property of 'inexistence' - the ability of the mind to construct internal objects before they exist - is the fountainhead of creativity and spiritual transcendence in art.  All great art has a 'spiritual' dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as 'beauty'.

Non-physical Mind

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanistic Mind.

- Sean Robsville

Related Articles

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine

Shared Etymology of 'Meaning' and 'Mind'

Minds, Machines and Meaning

Conceptual Designation 

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind

Qualia - Objective versus Subjective Experience

Objections to Computationalism


Gyan said...

I have come here from Ed Feser's blog regarding your interesting comments on quantum mechanics and many-world interpretation.

I have another perspective that may make sense but I have not seen it addressed anywhere.

QM was formulated for a small system in contact with a macroscopic measuring device.
But now the cosmologists have extrapolated it and talk about the wave function of the entire universe.
Is this extrapolation valid?
Are there limits to these extrapolation?
How much should we trust in the speculations of the quantum cosmology?

seanrobsville said...

@ Gyan

The cosmological theory that the entire universe was once a huge quantum superposition whose wavefunction was 'collapsed' into its present state by the mind of an observer is known as the 'Participatory Anthropic Principle' and was first put forward by John Archibald Wheeler.

According to this theory, the universe was created as a probability wavefunction, and throughout its early history the universe continued to develop as an immense superposition of probabilities. Not only was the structure of the universe superposed, but all logically possible states of matter, physical constants, properties and laws were simultaneously present and evolving into ever increasing diversity.

The Copenhagen Interprestation of quantum theory states that any physical system remains in a superposed state of all possibilities until it interacts with the mind of an observer.

But when an observer's mind makes contact with a superposed system, all the numerous possibilities collapse into one actuality. At some instant one of these possible alternative universes produced an observing lifeform. The first act of observation by this mind caused the entire superposed multiverse to collapse immediately into one of its numerous alternatives.

That one alternative version of the multiverse was not just the first configuration to be inhabitable by mind. The fact that it was the first configuration also guaranteed that it was the only configuration. All uninhabited alternative universes, ranging from the nearly-but-not-quite habitable few, to the anarchic and unstructured vast majority, were instantly excluded from potential existence. According to the participatory anthropic principle the evolving multiverse was thus always destined to resolve itself into a sufficiently ordered state to allow itself to be observed.

The Participatory Anthropic Principle is thus a particularly strong version of the 'Copenhagen Interpretation' of quantum mechanics, which states that the act of observation by a mind is required to collapse a quantum superposition.

But as you say, QM was formulated for a small system in contact with a macroscopic measuring device, and there are other interpretations of quantum mechanics which state that the act of measurement by a non-superposed device is all that is required to collapse a quantum superposition.

This interpretation excludes the universe being created as a superposition, for in a superposed universe even the physical measuring devices and their components would be parts of the superposition, so the wavefunction could never collapse.

As to the validity of the PAP, it makes potentially verifiable statements about the early history of the universe, the speed of evolution and the occurrence of extremely unlikely evolutionary steps, including the first appearance of life itself.

The series of events needed to make the universe habitable by sentient mind, up to and including the evolution of animals complex enough to support sentience, would have proceeded at the maximum possible rate and efficiency (almost by definition - because the myriad strands of the superposition were essentially racing against one another for 'winner takes all').

Because a myriad parallel universes were simultaneously evolving, the most highly improbable combinations of chemical and cellular building blocks needed to bring about living organisms would inevitably appear, even if the probability of them doing so in an 'ordinary' universe were infinitesimally small.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am a Buddhist in China and I just discovered your fascinating blog. Thanks for the high quality posts.

Your comments above point to a possible rational basis for the Buddhist belief in a moral universe, governed by the law of Karma (or in everyday language: "you reap what you sow"). If existence in its most fundamental form is a superposition that requires a mind to collapse to one outcome, then it seems highly probable to me that the state of this observing mind somehow determines (at least to some extent) how the wavefunction collapses, i.e. which outcome, out of an infinite number of possibilities, is actualized.

On the level of an individual sentient being, wouldn't it then be a natural result that as you continuously create, affect, and alter the state of your mind by performing meritorious and dis-meritorious deeds, you continuously determine how this superposition collapses to form your personal reality?

What are your thoughts?

On a side note, can I translate some of your posts into Chinese and post it on the internet in China (with a link back to your original English version)? Currently, Chinese Buddhism, traditionally a bastion of Mahayana, is booming but also undergoing tremendous intellectual challenge from computationalist philosophies (similar to the issues you addressed in some of your other posts), as well as from challenges stemming from a naive and erroneous understanding of the history surrounding Mahayana's origin. I believe many of your posts will serve to strengthen practitioners confidence in the Great Mahayana.

-Mahayanist from China.

seanrobsville said...

Hi Mahayanist from China,
Thanks for your comments and please feel free to translate any articles in this blog and the parallel Transcultural Buddhism blog into Chinese.

As regards karma, if the universe is created by the minds of its inhabitants, and this universe is far from being a perfect place for them to inhabit ('Samsara'), then the imperfections probably originate from the imperfections and delusions existing in the minds of those inhabitants. If we go through life committing negative actions, then our delusions will gain strength and the Samsaric aspects of our universe will dominate our minds. If we perform positive actions, then we will weaken our delusions and we will be able to see beyond the samsaric imperfections.

It's interesting that you mention that the Mahayana in China is undergoing tremendous intellectual challenge from computationalist philosophies. This can be turned to the Mahayana's advantage, as I explained in my post on the significance of Alan Turing. .

Computationalism is the ultimate 'materialist', 'physicalist' or 'mechanistic' theory of mind. Computationalism, in the form of the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle, proposes that all physical processes can be modelled by a universal Turing Machine, which for practical purposes is the instruction set of a general purpose computer. If we can demonstrate any functions and activities of the mind which are beyond the capabilities of a Turing Machine (or computer instruction set) then we have produced strong evidence that the mind is a non-physical entity.

We can therefore challenge computionalism by dissecting its claims in detail by examining the components of the TM or instruction set (A basic repertoire of only around 20 instructions are needed for a universal computing machine). We find that none of them...

(i) are capable of holding meaning. They do not possess any semantic capabilities, or 'intentionality' to use the technical term.

(ii) are capable of registering qualitative states ('qualia') such as sensations of greenness, pleasure, pain etc.

And we fail to find any combination of these operations that can operate on the components to produce semantic or qualitative phenomena. Thus two of the main aspects of sentience are missing from any computationalist model of the mind.

If the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle is true, then by defeating computationalism we have also defeated all other physical/materialist explanations of the mind.