Husserl affirmed intentionality as characteristic of consciousness.

If matter can be conscious, as in Lucretious atoms of anima, and in Tegmarks baroque but physicalist constructions; must matter, to some extent, displat intentionality?

What does this mean for Darwins theory of evolution, in its usual form, seen as entirely unintentional?

  • With regard to the second question, why is the trivial answer, "Evolution is not conscious", unsatisfying? (It is the overwhelmingly scientifically accepted view anyway.) – Rex Kerr Jan 3 '15 at 22:23
  • 1
    Actually--do you mean intentionality in the colloquial sense or the philosophical sense (where it means roughly "can represent reality")? My understanding is that Husserl typically used it in the philosophical sense, in which case everyone may have the wrong answer. – Rex Kerr Jan 5 '15 at 7:29
  • @kerr: Evolution isn't consicious in the usual reading; I was curious if this can alter if matter is conscious to degree of displaying intentionality; I meant it in the colloquial sense, which I thought would be close to Husserls usage - but it appears you disagree. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 5 '15 at 16:13

Three answers, all of them "There is a difference between containing information and being conscious".

1) This is the exact gap I keep coming across with people who choose a computational model of thought. If lack of intention means lack of thought, then secondhand intention cannot make for intelligence, and the whole model needs a different basis. But how is one to decide? It is not until that kind of question has some grounding that folks from cognitive science and folks from the humanities can find a language in common about consciousness.

I fall on the humanities side -- we are mostly animals, and the degree to which animal behavior is similar to computation is rather low. What is the output of sharing an emotional reaction? Why make a feeling into a story? Is the output really the story? Then why tell it over and over, rehearsing the emotion? And why tell so many stories just to ourselves? Why enjoy pointless repetition and confirmation of the known? Why find comfort and dwell in, instead of constantly seeking new territory?

One can answer that in terms of intentionality, either of ourselves or our genes. But then most of our thinking does not actually display intelligence, as it does not compute new, useful information or make meaningful decisions. It is consciousness that is not about processing information.

2) Matter surely contains organizational components that resist entropy, and those sources of predictability can be transferred. But they can be transferred onto a sheet of paper, or into a wire, as well as into the actions of a being with intention. Are the letters on the page conscious? If not, then how are you imagining the more basic components of information warrant the label of consciousness. Here we have information that is not consciousness.

3) Since when do genes not have an agenda? I would argue that Dawkins' theory of selfish genes is less antrhopomorphizing than we assume. Survival, and shaping of the environment for future survival are intentions. We see genes as unintelligent because we want to be the only intelligence on the planet. But we are the second.

We are only willing to see genes as information, but information does not create new information of its own accord. Genetic selection is not a passive organizing principle like crystalization, it is an active direction of energy into rigid forms with an apparent purpose -- to maintain a given set of regularities.

This is not just information, it is consciousness.

  • Midgey disagrees with ascribing 'agenda' to genes as she doesn't ascribe intentionality to them. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 4 '15 at 15:53
  • Then you have the problem of the turning plant. This seems intentional, so either the plant is conscious, or something else is conscious of the plant's need to adapt. Maintenance of life requires some intent. If you reject both genetic intention and unintentional consciousness, I think you have a losing proposition. I buy Lovelock, so I think genetics is the consciousness of the global ecosystem, and it is intentional. I also buy Tavistock, so intelligence, consciousness, or intention need not be concentrated in individuals, but can be distributed in institutions (the species) instead. – user9166 Jan 4 '15 at 16:50
  • Fair enough; but they are qualitively different from consciousness that say Lovelock or Tavistock has; the signifying difference being a notion of inner life, in some sense. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 4 '15 at 18:48
  • Right, only humans tell stories (and maybe a few other animals, KoKo lies about her cat, and the lie can elaborate.) Stories and agenda seem related, but somewhat independent, to me. Stories do not necessarily have agenda (though they can). And mechanisms do to tend to have agenda without narrative. Those agenda come from somewhere, or they don't. We give computers agenda. What gives species agenda? If it arises naturally, that is intention, in my book. Then you can consider stories a necessary part of intelligence, or not. If you don't, genes think. – user9166 Jan 4 '15 at 19:36
  • 1
    My problem with that is infants. I think stories are something that come later than intelligence. I think that Klein's period of infant grandiosity is a period before object formation (even of "I") and therefore before you could have any characters in your stories. I think we acculturate children into a narrative worldview, and that humans originated without one. – user9166 Jan 4 '15 at 19:56

The question invokes Husserl, for whom intentionality means something very different from the colloquial sense of the word; if we are using his definition, the following answer applies.

Husserl's "intentionality" is, roughly speaking, the capacity to represent. Saying that consciousness is intentional, therefore, only says that consciousness cannot be about nothing, nor is it somehow the literal thing itself.

Now, of course matter can be used to represent things: magnetic patterns on a hard disk, genes that represent receptor proteins that represent external cAMP concentration that represents likelihood of starvation, etc..

But Darwinian evolution is seen as not intentional in the colloquial sense. Evolutionists don't spend much time thinking about whether evolution has the capacity to represent things itself. Certainly the evolved things represent an awful lot, both molecularly and, in animals with a nervous system, via neurons. And the theory of evolution represents what actually goes on, so of course it is Husserl-intentional in that (not very interesting) sense also.

So, the theory of evolution and the output of evolutionary processes are Husserl-intentional, and that's not a problem at all. The problem, if any, is with easily-confused terminology.

However, the question seems to be about the colloquial definition of intentionality; if so the following answer applies:

Because we cannot (presently, anyway) create consciousnesses with varying compositions, our formulations are necessarily mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive.

It is certainly the case that human consciousness is intentional, and indeed we find intention-like behavior (such as the coming together as a slug or eventual transformation into a fruiting body of the slime-mold Dictyostelium) in creatures that we generally do not wish to ascribe consciousness to.

So it seems relatively safe to say that human consciousness is intentional, and then we can leave it comfortably vague what we mean by "intentional" and "consciousness"; the truth or falsity of the claim will not hinge on small details of exactly what we mean.

The rest of the questions can just be read out from this underlying insight, if one takes a physicalist perspective. Those systems that display intentionality are made of matter, so yes, of course, under some circumstances matter can be intentional. Matter can also induce pressure, can flow with viscosity, can store funny cat GIFs, and do all sorts of other emergent or bulk tasks. The philosophically contentious claim, if any, is that there's nothing special about intention beyond what the properties of matter can cover. But that's what physicalists are committed to: there's nothing special about anything, whether it be qualia or intention or consciousness or anything else.

Indeed, that some matter can be conscious is irrelevant to the physicalist's stance on intention. Intention clearly happens, in some sense, and in those senses in which it does, it is necessarily physical. End of story! Consciousness need not make an appearance.

With regards to evolution, we need not concern ourselves with consciousness or intention. For some matter we can describe a pressure; for most we can describe a pressure. Does it follow that evolution has a pressure or a single temperature? Of course not! Those properties don't describe evolution, and so they are inappropriate to use. Likewise, there is no need to ascribe intention or consciousness to evolution. It is described plenty well enough on its own terms. Instead, you should proceed the other way around: decide on a sufficiently precise definition of intention and/or consciousness, and then see if evolution has the requisite properties. If you do not like the answer, maybe you got the definition wrong.

All of this is greatly complicated by the fact that we don't understand the biological (or computational!) basis of intention or consciousness very well at all. Usually "intent" implies some sort of underlying model of the external world, some sort of goal, and some sort of computation or thought process that acts upon the model to come closer to the goal (followed presumably by actions that make the real world more closely align with that model). Evolution doesn't do this. But then again, neither does Dictyostelium.

Evolution does run a kind of optimization algorithm, but unless you say that every optimization algorithm "intends" to perform its optimization, calling it intentional is quite a stretch. And, regardless, one needn't care about consciousness in order to decide whether it's intentional or not.

  • The genome encodes a model of the outside world -- a world made of proteins. Replication is a goal. And the 'computational process that acts upon the model' is producing an animal. Survival makes the real world align more closely with the model of a construct of proteins that will replicate the genome. – user9166 Jan 4 '15 at 19:45
  • @jobermark - One can view things this way. But then one also must conclude that a thermostat is intentional. We could do that; it has the advantage of not requiring us to care how sophisticated the model is. It has the disadvantage of not aligning very closely to the everyday distinction we make between intended and non-intended acts. – Rex Kerr Jan 4 '15 at 23:09
  • No, you do not. You can keep making the same lame argument or you can listen. A thermostat does not meet your criteria, enumerated here. I am not saying they are correct, but I am pointing out how genes meet them, where you imply they do not. For a thermostat, where is the model, the encoding; where is the experiment, and the refinement? I routinely meet your requirements and you do not even think about my responses. – user9166 Jan 5 '15 at 1:32
  • @jobermark - The model (of "your desired room temperature") is the reading of the temperature sensor, encoded as position or voltage or whatever. The goal is making that value equal what you set. The action is to turn the heat on if its model is on the low side of the goal. (AC if high, if it has control of AC.) – Rex Kerr Jan 5 '15 at 1:37
  • @jobermark - Alternatively, if you need to have a model of your goal and search model-space not reality for a way to meet your goal, neither thermostats nor evolution pass. – Rex Kerr Jan 5 '15 at 1:41

through google

there are non-mental phenomena which exhibit intentionality: intentionality is not sufficient for mentality. Examples are more controversial here, but we find phenomena such as the disposition of plants to move towards the source of light offered as primitive non-mental forms of intentionality.7 Not every philosopher who rejects Brentano’s thesis rejects it for both of these reasons, but it is nonetheless fair to say that there is a tacit consensus that the thesis should be rejecte

It is also said that Husserl did NOT agree that all consciousness is intentional: not "sensations and sensation complexes".

Even if:

Husserl seems to have thought that only states of conscious awareness are intentional

  • 1
    If plants move towards the sun are 'intentional'; then do stones that fall towards the earth intentional too? – Mozibur Ullah Jan 4 '15 at 15:50
  • Rocks do not change their behavior according to other features in the environment. Plants do, if only through successive generations. Rocks don't learn, but this appears to be learned behavior -- solving a problem. – user9166 Jan 4 '15 at 19:41

I would like to identify intentionality with Derrida's Life Drive (and more circuitously Will to Power), as the drive to make sense and organise with respect to one's environment for survival at least. This organising life-drive and form of intentionality would therefore be basic to life, sentient or not.

However, definitions of intentionality may differ (see below), being for example specific to sentience. Nevertheless it's not really possible to conceive of a sentient lifeform being without intentionality.

Whether every moment of consciousness should be imbued with intentionality depends on closer examination. A blank gaze may be passive, but gazing is biologically intentional.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (Being and Time), defined intentionality as "care" (Sorge), a sentient condition where an individual's existence, facticity, and being in the world identifies their ontological significance, in contrast to that which is the mere ontic (thinghood). - Wikipedia


Although consciousness "implies" intentionality, the reverse is not necessarily valid. A more "stringent" definition of consciousness would be, the capability and ability to make choices!
Before making a choice, the subject matter may be evaluated and compared (or not), and a choice made (good or bad). With this requirement, a plant following the sun would not be conscious because it cannot choose to not follow the sun.
With regard to evolution, it is correct to regard it as entirely unintentional. Evolution is a process, and as such, it is incapable of consciousness (intent).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.