Monday, September 18, 2006

Causality and the birth of intentionality

Some cause has an effect. Some means is used to achieve a goal. Both processes have the same time structure: A -> B. The cause precedes the effect and in most cases it is necessary for the effects, the means precedes the attaining of the goal and in most cases it is necessary for that. So, what's the difference?

Because there must be a difference. There's one thing to say that you are just a mechanical device and that all your actions are nothing else but the effects of various causes and an entirely different thing to say that you are reaching for some goals, that you have values and ideals and that your actions are directed toward them. So, what makes the difference between the soulless machine and the ideal seeking human?

What makes this dilemma disturbing is that when you look inside a human, you only find various pieces of machinery. The heart is cause and effect, the lungs are cause and effect, the neurons are cause and effect, the sexual excitation is cause and effect, and so on. Everything seems to be cause and effect. So where does the spirit stuff come from?

There are endless debates about this issue and I won't go into them. I will just present John Searle's schema of how things get from cause-and-effect to means-and-goal because it seems to be the most general and clear - and it is strikingly simple. This schema also has a thermodynamic justification hinted in this article, although Searle doesn't seem to be aware of that.

This explanatory schema has four steps:

(1) The cause A usually has the effect B. However, A also has some other possible effects, b1, b2, and so on, which sometimes come to being. (We're always dealing with a probabilistic situation – randomness can never be eliminated entirely.)

(2) There is another thing C which gets associated with A and, as a consequence, the "unwanted" effects b1, b2 etc. are eliminated (or their probability is drastically reduced). In combination with C, system A has the effect B virtually every time.

(3) The combined system A and C gets so integrated and transforms in such a way that it becomes a different system D (which is usually more complex than either A or C). System D has little in common, structurally, with systems A and C but has the same function as them: D has the effect B.

(4) Sometimes when a system D is formed, it doesn't form properly – instead of replicating the function B it is doing something else, something unpredicted. This way, a new function, E, can come to being.

This evolutionary process can be interpreted in the following way: At first it would be just a manner of speaking to call the effect B the function of A (or to call B the goal and A the means for attaining the goal). Daniel Dennett calls this manner of speaking the "intentional stance". However, when there is another system C that constrains the behavior of A in such a way that some effect is privileged over the other possible effects, one can say that the idea of dysfunctionality has appeared. If the system A does not have the effect B it is dysfunctional, it doesn't function properly.

For example, the heart is a system that has a certain function. Why is that? Why isn't just a causal system that has certain effect inside the organism? Because there is a control: the brain sends electric signals to the heart in order to keep it functioning properly. When someone dies, the brain fails to send its control signals and the heart enters fibrillation – it begins to function chaotically. Moreover, in various situations, the brain controls the heart to accelerate or relax according to what is needed.

Once one has the idea that something can be dysfunctional, one can also have the idea that some other system (with a different internal structure) could replicate the same function (maybe even better). Thus, instead of having the implication going from structure to function (step 1), one gets the opposite implication, from function to structure (step 3). This is what happens when living beings adapt - their structure changes such that it becomes more and more functional (given a certain environment).

But, when one has systems that get designed for a certain purpose (to fulfill a certain function), one can furthermore have, eventually, new goals coming into being and structures built accordingly to meet the requirements of these new goals. This is precisely what happens in the cultural domain. The new inventions and innovations (from science and technology to literature and music) come not only as new methods for solving old problems but also come with their new goals.

In the article on the concept of information, I mentioned that "in the same way as causal order appears under certain conditions when random processes constrain each other, the intentional order appears under some further conditions when causal processes constrain each other as well." Searle's schema describes in more detail this process by which intentionality appears from causality.

This simple schema can be used not only to describe grosso modo the evolution from the causal processes of physics to the functionality and adaptation of living beings and to the rampant creativity of the cultural domain, but also to understand the evolution of various aspects of human life – such as language or even society as a whole. The simplicity of this schema shouldn't thus be deceiving, as its explanatory power is quite extensive.

The evolution of language

"Everyone who reads this paper knows on the order of 50,000 words of his primary language. These words are stored in the ‘mental lexicon’ together with one or several meanings, some information how they relate to other words, and how they fit into sentences. During the first 16 years of life we learn about one new word every 90 waking minutes. A six-year-old knows about 13,000 words," wrote Joshua B. Plotkin and Martin A. Nowak from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in their essay on the evolution of language.

The question is how did humans get from animal signals to their elaborated and highly structured language? Where does this structure come from? And why?

Plotkin's and Nowak's approach is very simple. They assume that language is used primarily to convey information (in other words, lying is only a side effect and not something of primary importance) and use the mathematical theory of communication to see under what conditions miss-understandings (the number of errors during transmission) are minimized. A miss-understanding is when A used a certain signal to convey something and B thinks the signal conveys something else.

The results of the study are very interesting. Plotkin and Nowak show that when one minimizes the number of miss-understandings and increases the complexity of the communicated message certain "major transitions" must appear: sounds become incorporated into words, words into sentences, sentences acquire structure (syntax) and sentences then evolve from "messages [that] consist of components that have their own meaning" to " non-syntactic communication [which] has signals that refer to whole situations". If these major transitions wouldn't happen, the communication would be increasingly swamped by miss-understandings. Thus, it is no wonder that our languages are so highly structured – they couldn't be in any other way.

But the evolution of language doesn't stop here. Modern English differs from Chaucer's English although the structure remains largely unmodified. We are just not using the language in the same way. Where do these changes come from?

Here is where Searle's schema comes in handy. Each sentence or discourse has to be understood as a speech act – it isn't just something that conveys information, it is something that does something, that has certain effects.

Thus, a sentence A has a certain effect B on somebody. But it can also have some other unwanted effects b1, b2 etc. This is why sentences don't come alone, but constrain each other (taken alone a sentence might be "dysfunctional"). But sentence (or set of sentences) C might eliminate the unwanted meanings. But then, somebody comes up with a different sentence or expression D. This new expression has the same effect as the combination of A and C.

Such an expression like D is usually a comparison or a metaphor – a clever way of expressing something that otherwise requires a lot of explaining. This is why metaphors, unlike absurd statements, have meanings (they can be explained) but nonetheless, they always seem to get to the point better that the explanation (sometimes the length of an explanation alone can be a serious deterrent).

But the story, of course, doesn't stop here. We also have people that come up with metaphors that don't just express what we already know, they are expressing novel things. Such complex metaphors, the "E" stage in Searle's schema, are more than just the elliptic comparisons we are taught about in primary school. They are not subordinated to a predetermined meaning but they are creators of new meanings.

Thus, there is also this poetic drive behind the evolution of language once a complex syntactic structure is in place.

The evolution of society

In society, people do certain things and this affects other people. Without the fact that what one does creates constraints on other people there would be no society.

An individual's behavior A has the effect B on other individuals – others relate to that behavior in certain way. But that behavior might also be miss-understood and have other unwanted effects b1, b2 etc. Thus, one has some other behavior C that is designed to prevent such miss-understandings. The set of such behaviors (like C) is called politeness – the rules of how to be polite, designed to eliminate the social dysfunctionalities. Sometimes, these rules can get quite complex and then we're talking about traditions.

Not all the rules apply the same to everybody. There are rules by which a certain function is attributed to a certain individual and not to others. For example one can be a father, or a child, or a sage, or a concubine etc.

The attribution of a function by an individual to another individual can be unidirectional (which is an authoritarian relation) or bi-directional (which is cooperation – the relation is mutual, each individual acquiring a different function).

Besides such traditional rules, there are also formal rules, D, such as the contracts or the laws. These are designed from scratch and their internal structure is not necessarily related to that of traditional rules, but they try to accomplish a function. This function can be an enforcement of traditional rules – for example many laws are like that (the ones condemning theft or murder etc.) – or can be the creation of new rules E (like most contracts and many of the modern laws).

The evolution of modern societies has a certain "poetic" component analogous to the evolution of languages – as new rules are created and thus new social functions (and one could say new ways of having a meaningful life in society). For example, entrepreneurs might invent new ways of organizing their businesses and these new ways might prove so successful that they are adopted by others and eventually even by the society as a whole. Such an example is the division of labor which was invented by manufacturers and initially existed only inside these early factories, but eventually became the very structure of capitalist society as a whole (where no one is self-sufficient but offers one service to others and receives thousands of services from others). Another example is the modern politician that invents new rules which often have far ranging effects through society.

The evolution of personal happiness

In society, individuals are assigned functions by other individuals, but happiness seems to be related more to the function one assigns to oneself. What one does has effects not only upon others but also upon oneself – when you are doing something (A), that changes you (has a certain effect B on you).

But there are all sorts of psychological mechanisms (C) that do a sort of damage control and under normal conditions, don't allow the dysfunctional effects to manifest or to accumulate. Moreover, there are other psychological mechanisms, such as remorse or the sense of right and wrong, which prevent you from acting, or from acting again and again, in certain self-destructive ways (or that would eventually prove that way). Thus, these psychological mechanisms C constrain your actions A in order to allow largely functional effects B to accumulate.

Such mechanisms get formalized into what we call personal morality – what you think you should or shouldn't do. Morality is the stage D in Searle's schema. The moral rules don't necessarily mimic the feel-good psychological mechanisms – some of them do, some don't. This personal morality has a lot to do with the social rules I've mentioned above only because when one lives among other people, most of one's actions involve others. But still, personal morality and social rules remain distinct entities. (And one often observes that lonelier individuals have a less traditional personal morality.)

Social rules assign you a function from the exterior, the personal morality reflects the function you attribute to yourself. These are two different oughts. Your actions have meaning because they are part of that self-attributed function: if you cannot incorporate them in that, or if you are incapable of deciding for a certain function, your actions feel meaningless.

The standard theory about happiness, that more or less remained the same from Ancient Greece, is that one is happy if one thinks one's life has meaning. In other words, if one's actions have meaning – if they are part of that self-attributed function. And, the theory goes, one desires that one's actions acquire as much meaning as possible – all the individual desires are more or less subordinated to this larger desire.

If one thinks in terms of the Searle's scheme, one understands personal happiness as an evolving thing as well. There is that "poetic" component again (the stage E). The function is not given once and for all, but the personal morality is under constant change as new goals come into being – as one reinterprets one's life again and again.

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