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 blog.kennypearce.net.)