Interminable Intentionalism: Edward Feser and the Defence of Dead Ends

by rsbakker

For some damn reason, a great dichotomy haunts our thought.

One of the guys in my weekly PS3 NHL hockey piss-up is a philosophy professor, and last night we pretty much relived the debate we’ve been having here in terms of the famous fact/value distinction. One cannot, as the famous paraphrase of Hume goes, derive ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ So, to advert to the most glaring example, no matter how much science tells us about reproduction—what it is—it cannot tell us whether abortion is right or wrong—what we ought to do with reproduction. As the example makes clear, the fact/value distinction is far from an esoteric philosophical problem (though the vast literature on the topic waxes very esoteric indeed). You could claim that it is definitive of modernity, given the way it feeds into so many different debates. With science, we find ourselves dwelling in a vast, cognitive treasury of ‘is-claims,’ while at the same time bereft of any decisive way to arbitrate between ‘ought-claims.’ We know what the world is better than we have at any time in human history, and yet we find ourselves more, not less, ignorant of how we should live our lives. Science gives us the facts. What to do with them is anybody’s guess.

When I mentioned my ongoing debate with Edward Feser my buddy immediately adverted to the distinction, cited it as ‘compelling evidence’ of the ‘irreducibility’ of normative cognition.

But is it? Needless to say, there’s nothing approaching consensus on this matter.

But there are some pretty safe bets we can make regarding the distinction, given what we’re learning about ourselves via the cognitive sciences. One is that the fact/value distinction engages two distinct cognitive systems. Another is that these systems possess two very different heuristic regimes—that is, they neglect different kinds of information. I’m not aware of any theorist who denies these observations.

So Feser has written a follow-up of his initial critique of “Back to Square One” entitled “Feynman’s Painter and Eliminative Materialism” that I find every bit as curious as his previous post. In this post he takes aim at my claim that his original critique simply begs the question against the Eliminativist. Since the nature of intentional idioms is the issue to be resolved, any argument that resolves the issue by presuming the issue is already resolved is plainly begging the question. Thus, Feser’s insistence that any use of intentional idioms presupposes some prior commitment to intrinsic intentionality is pretty clearly begging the question.

So, for instance, I could simply reverse Feser’s strategy, insist that his every attempt to warrant intrinsic intentionality presupposes my position insofar as he employs intentional idioms. I could just as easily insist that he must somehow explain intentional idioms without using those idioms. Why? Because the use of intentional idioms presupposes a heuristics and neglect account of their nature.

But of course, Feser would cry foul—and rightly so.

Pretty obvious, right? Apparently not. For some reason he thinks the tactic is entirely legitimate when the shoe is on the intentionalist’s foot.

In “Feynman’s Painter and Eliminative Materialism,” he relates the Feynman anecdote of the painter who insists he can get yellow paint from white and red paint. When he inevitably fails he claims that he need only ‘sharpen it up a bit’ to make it yellow. Feser wants to claim that this situation is analogous to the debate between him (the brilliant Feynman) and me (the retarded painter). I have to admit, I have no idea how this analogy is supposed to work. The outcome in Feynman’s case is a foregone conclusion. Intentionality, on the other hand, is one of the great mysteries of our age. Feynman knows what he knows about yellow on empirical grounds; Feser, however, believes what he believes on occult grounds—‘apriori’ I’m guessing he would call them. It would be absurd for the painter to accuse Feynman of begging the question because, well, Feynman doesn’t beg the question. Moreover, one might ask why Feser gets to be Feynman? After all, I’m the one making the empirical argument, the one insisting that science will inevitably revolutionize the prescientific domain of the human the way it has revolutionized all other prescientific domains. I’m the one saying the science suggests white and red give us pink. He’s the one caught in the ancient intentional mire, committed to theories that make no testable predictions and possess no clear criteria of falsification…

This is the fact the intentionalist always wants you to overlook. For thousands of years, now, intentionalists have been trying make their theories stick—millennia! For thousands of years the claim has been that we need only get our concepts right, ‘sharpen things up a bit,’ and we will be able to get things right.

To me, it seems pretty obvious that something has gone wrong. Intentionalists are welcome to keep trying to sharpen things up, using whatever it is they use to make their claims (they can’t agree on that, either). Since I think chronic theoretical underdetermination of the kind characterizing intentionalist theories of meaning is an obvious sign of information scarcity and/or cognitive incapacity, I have my money on the science—where the information is. Ask yourself: If the interpretative mire of intentionalism isn’t a shining example of information scarcity and/or cognitive incapacity then what is?

So Feser’s Feynman analogy is problematic to say the least. Nevertheless, he forges ahead, writing,

“In stating his position, the eliminativist makes use of notions like “truth,” “falsehood,” “illusion,” “theory,” “evidence,” “observation,” “entailment,” etc. Everyone, including the eliminativist, agrees that at least as usually understood, these terms entail the existence of intentionality. But of course, the eliminativist denies the existence of intentionality. He claims that in using notions like the ones referred to, he is just speaking loosely and could say what he wants to say in a different, non-intentional way if he needs to. So, he owes us an account of exactly how he can do this—how he can provide an alternative way of describing his position without saying anything that entails the existence of intentionality.”

Once again, I feel like I must be missing something. Sure, I use intentional idioms all the time, and each time I use them, I either evidence my heuristics and neglect approach, or one of the thousands of different intentionalists approaches. Sure, I agree that the tradition is dominated by intentionalist accounts, that for thousands of years we’ve been spinning our collective wheels in the mire of intrinsic intentionality. Sure, I think science will eventually give us a more complete understanding of our intentional idioms the way they’re presently revolutionizing our understanding of things like consciousness and language, for instance. And sure, I think my account will be more convincing the degree to which it explains what these future accounts might look like without saying anything that entails the existence of intentionality–thus the parade of pieces I’ve pitched here on Three Pound Brain.


But Feser, of course, thinks my use of intentional idioms commits me to some ancient or new or indeterminate theoretically underdetermined account of intrinsic intentionality (apparently not realizing that his use of intentional idioms actually commits him to my new empirically responsible heuristics and neglect account!). He begs the question.

Through all the ruckus my Scientia Salon piece has kicked up over the past few months, it hasn’t escaped my attention how not a single intentionalist—that I can recall at least—has actually replied to the penultimate question posed by the article: “Is there anything else we can turn to, any feature of traditional theoretical knowledge of the human that doesn’t simply rub our noses in Square One?”

The thesis of “Back to Square One,” remember, is that we really don’t have any reason to trust our armchair intuitions regarding our intentional nature. Insofar as intentionalists all disagree with one another, then they have to agree that everybody but them should doubt those intuitions. The eliminativist simply wants to know when enough is enough. Do we give up in another hundred years? Another thousand? Or do we finally admit that something hinky is going on whenever we begin theorizing ourselves in intentional terms? In this case the incapacity has been institutionalized, turned into a sport in some respects, but it remains an incapacity all the same. What does it take for intentionalists to acknowledge that they have a bona fide credibility crisis on their hands, one that is simply going to deepen as cognitive science continues to produce more and more discoveries.

This is what I would like to ask Edward directly: What evidences intentionalism? And if that evidence is so compelling then why can’t any of you agree? Is it really simply a matter of ‘sharpening things up’? At what point would you concede that intentionalism has a big problem?

The fact is—and it is a fact—you don’t know what truth is. All you have are guesses like me. So how could you claim to know, apodictically, apparently, what truth isn’t? How are you not using an obvious, apriori dead end (over two thousand years of futility, remember) to claim that a relatively unexplored empirical avenue has to be a dead end?

Shouldn’t people be falling all over alternatives at this point?

These are difficult questions for intentionalists to answer, which is why they don’t like answering them. They would much rather spend their time attacking rather than defending. And without a doubt the incoherence charge that Feser levels is their primary weapon of choice. Even if you still think the intentionalist is onto something, at the very least, I hope you can see why it only leaves the eliminativist scratching their head.

For eliminativists, the real question is why intentionalists find this strategy even remotely compelling. Why do they think it simply cannot be the case that their use of intentional terms commits them to a heuristics and neglect account of intentionality? Why, despite two thousand years of evidence to the contrary, are they so convinced they have their fingers on the pulse of the true truth?

This is where my drunken debate with my philosophy professor friend comes in. The two safe things we can say about the nature of the fact/value distinction, remember, are that two distinct cognitive systems are involved, and that these systems are sensitive-to/neglect different kinds of information. Whatever’s going on when humans shift from solving fact problems to solving value problems, it involves shifting between (at least) two different systems using different information to solve different kinds of problems. Different capacities possessing different access.

To this we can add the obvious and often overlooked fact that we have no means of directly intuiting this distinction in capacity and access. The fact/value distinction, in other words, is something we had to discover. We learn about it in school precisely because we lack any native metacognitive awareness of the distinction. We neglect it otherwise, and indeed, this leads to the kinds of problems that Hume famously complains of in his Treatise.

In other words, not only do the systems themselves neglect different kinds of information, metacognition neglects the fact that we have these disparate systems at all.

So my drunken professor friend, perhaps irked by his incompetence playing hockey (he often is), first claimed that the fact/value distinction raises a barrier between is-claims and ought-claims. To which I shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘Of course.’ We’re talking two different systems using two different kinds of information. Normative cognition, specifically, solves problems regarding behaviour absent any real causal information. So?

He replied that this must mean that values, oughts, commitments, truths, goods, and so on lie beyond the pale of scientific cognition, which consists of factual claims.

But why should this be? I asked. We evolved these two basic capacities to solve two basic kinds of problems, is-problems and ought-problems. So it’s understandable that our fact systems cannot reliably solve ought-problems, and that our ought systems cannot reliably solve is-problems. What does this have to do with solving the ought system?

Quizzical look.

So I continued: Isn’t the question one of what the ought system is itself an is problem? Surely the question of what values are is different from the question of what we should value. And surely science has proven itself to be the most powerful arbiter of what is the human race has ever known. So surely the question of what values are is a question we should commend to science.

He was stumped. So he repeated his claim that values, oughts, commitments, truths, goods, and so on lie beyond the pale of scientific cognition, which consists of factual claims.

And I repeated my response. And he was stumped again.

But why should he be stumped? If we have these two systems, one adapted to solving is-problems, the other adapted to solving ought-problems, then surely the question of what oughts are falls within the bailiwick of the former. It’s a scientific question.

If there’s a reason I’ve persisted working through Blind Brain Theory all these years it lies in the stark clarity of little arguments like this, and the kind of explanatory power they provide. The reason intentionalists always find themselves stranded with their ancient controversies, unable to move, yet utterly convinced they’re the only game in town has to do with metacognitive neglect. If one has an explicit grasp of the fact/value distinction alone, and no grasp of the cognitive machinery responsible, then the possibility that we need to match problems to systems simply does not come up. The question, rather, becomes one of matching problems to some hazy sense of ‘conceptual register.’ Since is-cognition cannot solve normative problems, we assume that it cannot solve the problem of normativity. So we become convinced, the way all normativists are convinced, that only normative cognition can tell us what normativity is—that sharpening thoughts in our armchairs is the only way to proceed. We convince ourselves that philosophical reflection (the thing we happily happen to be experts in) is the only road, if not the royal road, to second order knowledge of normativity, or intentionality more generally. We become convinced that people like me, eliminativists, are thrashing about in the muck of some kind of ‘category mistake.’

As any researcher who deals with it will tell you, neglect can convince humans of pretty much any absurdity. Two thousand years getting nowhere providing intentional explanations of intentional idioms, as outrageous as it is, means nothing when it seems so painfully obvious that intentional idioms can only be explained in intentional, and not natural, terms. But switch to the systems view, and suddenly it becomes obvious that the question of what intentional idioms are is not a question we should expect intentional cognition to have any success solving. Add metacognitive neglect to the picture and suddenly it becomes clear why we’ve been banging our head against this wall for all these millennia. Human beings have been in the grip of a kind of ‘theoretical anosognosia,’ a cognitive version of Anton’s Syndrome. Blind to our metacognitive blindness, we assume that we intuit all we need to intuit when it comes to things like the fact/value distinction. So we compulsively repeat the same mistake over and over again, perpetually baffled by our inability to make any decisive discoveries.

I understand why those invested in the tradition find my view so offensive. As a product and lover of that tradition, I find myself alienated by my position! I’m saying that traditional philosophy is likely largely an artifact of the systematic misapplication of intentional cognition to the problem of intentionality. I’m saying that the thousands of years of near total futility is itself an important data point, evidence of theoretical anosognosia. I’m relegating a great number of PhDs to the historical rubbish heap.

But then this is implicit in the work of any philosopher who (inevitably) thinks everyone else is wrong, isn’t it? So if you’re going to think most everyone is wrong anyway, why bother thinking they’re wrong in the old way, the way possessing the preposterously long track record of theoretical failure? This is the promise of the kind of critical eliminativism that falls out of Blind Brain Theory: it offers the possibility, at least, of leaving the ancient occultisms behind, of developing a scientifically responsible means of theorizing the human, a genuinely post-intentional philosophy.

After all, what is the promise of intentionalism? Another thousand years of controversy? If so, why not simply become a mysterian? Why not admit that you cleave to these guesses, and have no way of settling the issue otherwise? One can hope things will sharpen… at some point, maybe.