Intentionality and Theodicy
October 14, 2017 — 15:30

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 8

The following line of thought is commonly found in analytic philosophy of mind: the reason calculators, for instance, are not minds is that the symbols they manipulate in order to solve mathematical problems to not mean anything to them (the calculators). It is not that their symbols/representations lack meaning or reference. Rather, they have the meaning or reference they do because of our conventions and the aims and purposes we have for calculators. This is known as derived intentionality. Our mental states, on the other hand, exhibit original intentionality. Their meaningfulness is not due to someone else’s employment of those symbols, but our own. Now, this talk about aims, purposes, and employment (according to this common line of thought) is a hint in the direction of the proper explanation of original intentionality. What would be needed for the calculator to think would be for these symbols to play an informational or indicative role for it, for them to have a function in meeting its needs, ensuring its survival, etc. And this is what we find with respect to information encoded in human and animal brains: certain states have the function of carrying information about the environment because either evolution or learning selected for those states to occur in those circumstances so that the animal’s well-being (evolutionary fitness) would be promoted by responding appropriately to those circumstances.*

If this story is true, it opens up the possibility of a new and interesting sort of theodicy. If the story is true then it may turn out that, quite apart from any questions about free will, it is metaphysically impossible for created minds to exist in the complete absence of evil.

To see why, consider a problem. On this view, if God directly creates an adult human ex nihilo** (like swampman) and God intends the human’s brain states to represent certain states of the external world, then, one worries, the human’s brain states will have only derived intentionality and the human will therefore not exhibit genuine thought—any more than a calculator does. So what does God need to do in order to give the human genuine thought? God needs to bring it about that these brain states function as representational or information-carrying states for the human, that the interpretation of them as meaning this or that is not imposed from the outside, but part of the human’s constitution. In order to bring this about (according to the story) the human must have needs which are satisfied only by the proper functioning of the system. The only is important: there must be a contrast class of cases in which the needs are unsatisfied. It thus appears that (if this story is correct) creatures can have states exhibiting original intentionality, and hence engage in genuine thought, only if they are genuinely vulnerable to their environment, and this requires the existence of evil.

Objection One: this story does nothing to address the magnitude, kinds, and unjust distribution of evil. Well, I’m not sure it does nothing about this problem, but it certainly doesn’t solve it. But no one should expect a real solution to that problem.

Objection Two: the theist can’t endorse the story in question, since the theist holds that God, an immaterial being with no needs, has original intentionality. To this objection, I have two replies. First, many theists have accepted some form of the doctrine of analogy, according to which the thing we call ‘knowledge’ in God is not actually of the same kind as our knowledge (though our use of the same word for both is supposed to be somehow non-arbitrary), and even theists who don’t endorse this doctrine must admit (on grounds quite independent of the story I’ve just told) that God’s knowledge is quite different from ours, so this may not be very problematic. Second, since God was not made by someone else, there is no worry that God’s states might have derived intentionality, and so at least one part of the worry the story is addressing does not apply.

Objection Three: most theists believe the human mind is immaterial, so they don’t want a naturalistic reduction of intentionality. Again, I have two replies. First, although this is probably true as a sociological generalization, that doesn’t reduce the philosophical interest of this combination of views. There’s nothing inconsistent in combining theism with this approach to intentionality and it looks like it has at least one significant benefit for the theist: it has the consequence that there couldn’t have been created minds and no evil at all, and so explains why there is at least some evil in the world. (As I conceded above, it does very little if anything to explain the magnitude, kinds, and distribution of evil.) Second, the relevant portions of the account could be endorsed by someone who held that the intrinsic nature of mental states was exhausted by their phenomenal character and representation/intentionality derives from the way those states are used by the mind according to rules (as on my interpretation of Berkeley). So it is not inconsistent with immaterialism about mind, or even with some of the leading arguments for immaterialism about the mind (those stemming from the irreducibility of qualia).

* Rather different versions of (approximately) this line of thought can be found, for instance, in Fred Dretske and Ruth Millikan.

** Essentiality of origins concerns may lead one to deny that this creation is really a human, but let’s ignore that complexity.

(Cross-posted at

  • Hi, Kenny

    Briefly, I would raise the following issues:

    1. Regarding the God objection, I would say that:

    a. If God only knows, etc., in an analogous sense, then it seems that knowing, etc., in that analogous sense is no worse. Why can’t creatures have that too?
    b. If God has original intentionality without needs, why would the intentionality of creatures without needs not be original?

    2. At any rate, why would needs be a requirement?
    Humans often want and intend to obtain things we don’t actually need.

    3. Most theists believe in angels, who do not seem to have needs. They aren’t vulnerable to the environment (i.e., according to usual theistic beliefs).

    October 15, 2017 — 22:21
  • Hi Angra,

    This post is drawing on a certain sort of view, common in the philosophy of mind literature, about the necessary conditions for a created being (e.g., a computer) to have states that mean something to it and not just to its creator. So the claim is that, if this view is right, then if we didn’t have needs or weren’t vulnerable to our environment, then our mental/brain states might mean something to God (our creator), but wouldn’t mean anything to us. The requirement that a system has needs, or that there is such a thing as what is good or bad for the system, is just an explicit part of this kind of naturalistic theory of intentionality (in, e.g., Dretske’s “If You Can’t Make One You Don’t Know How It Works” or Millikan’s “Biosemantics”). In other words, the response to 1b and 2 is: that’s just part of the story that these secular philosophers of mind are defending. (Of course, there’s a longer story about how/why these philosophers defend that view, but I wasn’t trying to get into that here.)

    As for 1a, it’s a standard part of the Thomistic/classical theistic story that God, precisely in virtue of being a necessary/uncreated being, is radically different from any created being that does or could exist. In other words, no created being could have God’s form of knowing.

    As for 3, I have already indicated that this approach may be inconsistent with the religious commitments of some theists, but it is not inconsistent with theism just as such. But even if a particular theist regards the literal existence of angels as important (and by no means all theists do!) the claim that angels do not have needs, or some sort of environment that is sometimes hostile to them is surely not an important commitment (or something that is clear from Biblical texts, for instance) . I suspect that probably most traditional Christians would just say we don’t know anything about that.

    October 17, 2017 — 2:40
    • Kenny, thanks for the reply.

      With regard to the theory of mind in question, a difficulty is that it’s not (at least as far as I know) as theory about created minds, but about minds. If God exists and his mind is not of that sort, then it seems the theory in question is false. But if so, then why would it be true of created minds? As for 1a., even if God is radically different from any created beings, that does not entail or explain why the intentionality of creatures without needs would not be original. The fact (let’s assume) that God is like that shows that it’s not a requirement of all minds. So, one question is: why would it be a requirement of created minds?

      Regarding angels, the Catholic view is that they’re not corporeal but “purely spiritual” (source: Catechism 325-336). While I don’t think the definitions are as clear as they should be, they do seem to indicate at least entities not vulnerable to the environment. Moreover, the Catechism specifically states that angels are immortal, so there is no issue about ensuring the angel’s survival, etc., at least on Catholicism.

      At any rate, instead of angels, one can ask about creation after the final judgment. Would those creatures (humans in Heaven, non-fallen angels) also be vulnerable to the environment, have needs and the like?
      On that note, regarding the thesis that it is metaphysically impossible for created minds to exist in the complete absence of evil, wouldn’t that entail that there is evil in Heaven?

      Granted, the objections involving heaven, angels, etc., do not apply to theism in general; but the vast majority of theists consider at least some of those things to be a key part of their religion.

      October 24, 2017 — 12:48
      • My reply to this first concern was that insofar as this theory of mind is motivated/framed in part by questions about what it would take for a system to have original rather than derived intentionality, but God could not have only derived intentionality, and insofar as God is already (on independent grounds) held to be radically, fundamentally different from creatures, the restriction to created minds is not ad hoc. Most of the people who endorse this theory are atheists, so if you believe in God it’s an open question (not obviously answered by the theory) whether the theory should apply to God or not.

        I’m skeptical of the claim that it is Catholic dogma that angels are not vulnerable to their environment (note that one need not conceive of angels’ environment as physical, but only as containing some sort of threats to their well-being), but in any event if it turns out that this line of thought can’t be endorsed by orthodox Catholics, that’s an interesting observation, but there are tons of interesting philosophical views that are inconsistent with Catholic dogma. I don’t regard that as an objection to the view (I’m not Catholic). Further, I haven’t been claiming that the view is true, but only that if one combines with theism a certain popular view in philosophy of mind this yields interesting consequences for theodicy, favorable to the theist. I don’t see how the fact (if it is a fact) that the view is inconsistent with Catholic dogma could possibly be an objection to that claim.

        As for heaven, I don’t think the view has the consequence you claim for it. This is a claim about how a state can develop or acquire original intentionality. It is not necessary that the agent continue to be vulnerable. In this respect, the strategy suggested here is similar to ‘soul-making’ theodicies.

        Regardless, though, let me repeat: theism would still be an interesting philosophical view even if it turned out that the most philosophically plausible version of theism was inconsistent with the religious commitments held by most theists. Indeed, that last claim would be very interesting, if it could be defended.

        October 25, 2017 — 7:41
        • Regarding the theory of mind, do you have a specific paper(s) in mind?
          I was under the impression that on this sort of theory give arguments in a framework in which all minds have certain properties, including being embodied. If we’re talking about unembodied minds, it’s unclear to me how the arguments supporting this sort of theory might still work (if they ever do, but let’s assume that they do), but at any rate, even if they do apply to embodied minds, it’s unclear why they would have to hold for unembodied ones (God or not).

          As for the issue of acquiring vs. keeping original intentionality, I’m not sure why the former would require vulnerability but not the latter. For example, if E is a possible intelligent and free entity with original intentionality but no vulnerability (anymore), would a copy of it (without its past) not be an intelligent and free agent with original intentionality but no vulnerability (ever)? Being a copy of another entity does not preclude freedom or intelligence – at least, I think that that would require argumentation -, and while there is a sense of “original” in which a copy is clearly not original, being a copy does not seem to preclude original intentionality in the sense we’re discussing (e.g., a transporter accident in Star Trek makes a copy of a person; the copy has original intentionality in the sense we’re talking about). Then again, maybe you’re thinking about a specific argument, and I may not be familiar with it, so I’d like to ask in that case for a reference.

          Incidentally, and while this is not an objection to the theory, on the view that acquiring original intentionality requires certain mental development in the presence of some evil, would newborns (or at least fetuses) who die can’t go to heaven and have original intentionality (not without a previous reincarnation or something), given that they were apparently unable to develop it?

          October 25, 2017 — 21:20
          • The clearest treatment of this (that I know) is Dretske’s “If You Can’t Make One, You Don’t Know How it Works” (also known as “A Recipe for Thought”). Here the focus is quite explicitly on what it takes to have original (as opposed to derived) intentionality, and in particular how original intentionality could arise from purely natural ingredients.

            As for the question about acquiring vs. keeping original intentionality, it might matter here whether we focus (with Dretske) on the producer of the states or (with Millikan) on the consumer. On Dretske’s view, it’s pretty much just the causal history that matters, so there shouldn’t be any worry here.

            As for infants, depending on the details of the theory and the details of neurology, etc., selection of states in evolutionary history may be sufficient for at least some original intentionality, even without individual learning. Further, some degree of individual learning occurs from the beginning of consciousness, which is likely before birth. Of course Catholic orthodoxy holds that there is a person who will have an afterlife from even before this point.

            October 27, 2017 — 12:29
  • Heath White

    Hello Kenny, what a creative and interesting post.

    My first thought is that you don’t need *needs* to get original intentionality, you just need interaction with the environment. (So, robots could think; calculators could not.) The view you are pushing makes an eternal contemplator of the universe impossible, for example; I wouldn’t think it is. It also makes the existence of a being who doesn’t have any needs, per se, but has some desires or intentions, impossible; I wouldn’t think it is. (Cf. AM’s comments about angels.)

    But even aside from that, I think you’ve got an argument for the possible existence of evil, but not for the existence of evil. Why couldn’t all needs be met? For example, if God creates swampman in heaven, where everything is peachy, can swampman not think?

    October 17, 2017 — 12:45
    • Hi Heath,

      The question here (according to this particular family of theories about intentionality, which I don’t necessarily endorse) is: under what circumstances the created entity counts as *using the sign to represent the environment*. And, of course it’s crucial that the entity itself use them as representations, not its creator. The answer this theory gives is that the entity would have to have a use for that state, which involves the entity having aims. Further, the aims have to be such that if the entity doesn’t represent the environment correctly, the aims won’t be achieved. Finally, it needs to be the case that the entity itself develops the representations (rather than them being preprogrammed by its creator). So it seems to be a consequence of this theory that heavenly swampman doesn’t think. (Maybe the theory is implausible, but it’s a popular one in analytic philosophy of mind, which is why I’m interested in exploring its consequences here.) It also seems that in order for the being (or species) to develop the representation (by evolutionary adaptation, learning, or some other similar process) there’s going to have to be some trial and error. But that error is going to mean the being’s aims are not accomplished, and that will be, in some sense, an evil.

      October 17, 2017 — 13:22
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