Floridi’s Plea for Intentionalism

by rsbakker


Questioning Questions

Intentionalism presumes that intentional modes of cognition can solve for intentional modes of cognition, that intentional vocabularies, and intentional vocabularies alone, can fund bona fide theoretical understanding of intentional phenomena. But can they? What evidences their theoretical efficacy? What, if anything, does biology have to say?

No one denies the enormous practical power of those vocabularies. And yet, the fact remains that, as a theoretical explanatory tool, they invariably deliver us to disputation—philosophy. To rehearse my favourite William Uttal quote: “There is probably nothing that divides psychologists of all stripes more than the inadequacies and ambiguities of our efforts to define mind, consciousness, and the enormous variety of mental events and phenomena” (The New Phrenology, p.90).

In his “A Plea for Non-naturalism as Constructionism,” Luciano Floridi, undertakes a comprehensive revaluation of this philosophical and cognitive scientific inability to decisively formulate, let alone explain intentional phenomena. He begins with a quote from Quine’s seminal “Epistemology Naturalized,” the claim that “[n]aturalism does not repudiate epistemology, but assimilates it to empirical psychology.” Although Floridi entirely agrees that the sciences have relieved philosophy of a great number of questions over the centuries, he disagrees with Quine’s ‘assimilation,’ the notion of naturalism as “another way of talking about the death of philosophy.” Acknowledging that philosophy needs to remain scientifically engaged—naturalistic—does not entail discursive suicide. “Philosophy deals with ultimate questions that are intrinsically open to reasonable and informed disagreement,” Floridi declares. “And these are not “assimilable” to scientific enquiries.”

Ultimate? Reading this, one might assume that Floridi, like so many other thinkers, has some kind of transcendental argument operating in the background. But Floridi is such an exciting philosopher to read precisely because he isn’t ‘like so many other thinkers.’ He hews to intentionalism, true, but he does so in a manner that is uniquely his own.

To understand what he means by ‘ultimate’ in this paper we need to visit another, equally original essay of his, “What is a Philosophical Question?” where he takes an information ‘resource-oriented’ approach to the issue of philosophical questions, “the simple yet very powerful insight that the nature of problems may be fruitfully studied by focusing on the kind of resources required in principle to solve them, rather than on their form, meaning, reference, scope, and relevance.” He focuses on the three kinds of questions revealed by this perspective: questions requiring empirical resources, questions requiring logico-mathematical resources, and questions requiring something else—what he calls ‘open questions.’ Philosophical questions, he thinks, belong to this latter category.

But if open questions admit no exhaustive empirical or formal determination, then why think them meaningful? Why not, as Hume famously advises, consign them to the flames? Because, Floridi, argues, they are inescapable. Open questions possess no regress enders: they are ‘closed’ in the set-theoretic sense, which is to say, they are questions whose answers always beget more questions. To declare answers to open questions meaningless or trivial is to answer an open question.

But since not all open questions are philosophical questions, Floridi needs to restrict the scope of his definition. The difference, he thinks, is that philosophical questions “tend to concentrate on more significant and consequential problems.” Philosophical questions, in addition to being open questions, are also ultimate questions, not in any foundational or transcendental sense, but in the sense of casting the most inferential shade across less ultimate matter.

Ultimate questions may be inescapable, as Floridi suggests, but this in no way allays the problem of the resources used to answer them. Why not simply answer them pragmatically, or with a skeptical shrug? Floridi insists that the resources are found in “the world of mental contents, conceptual frameworks, intellectual creations, intelligent insights, dialectical reasonings,” or what he calls ‘noetic resources,’ the non-empirical, non-formal fund of things that we know. Philosophical questions, in addition to being ultimate, open questions, require noetic resources to be answered.

But all questions, of course, are not equal. Some philosophical problems, after all, are mere pseudo-problems, the product of the right question being asked in the wrong circumstances. Though the ways in which philosophical questions misfire seem manifold, Floridi focusses on a single culprit to distinguish ‘bad’ from ‘good’ philosophical questions: the former, he thinks, overstep their corresponding ‘level of abstraction,’ aspiring to be absolute or unconditioned. Philosophical questions, in addition to being noetic, ultimate, open questions, are also contextually appropriate questions.

Philosophy, then, pertains to questions involving basic matters, lacking decisive empirical or formal resources and so lacking institutional regress enders. Good philosophy, as opposed to bad, is always conditional, which is to say, sensitive to the context of inquiry. It is philosophy in this sense that Floridi thinks lies beyond the pale of Quinean assimilation in “A Plea for Non-naturalism as Constructionism.”

But resistance to assimilation isn’t his only concern. Science, Floridi thinks, is caught in a predicament: as ever more of the universe is dragged from the realm of open, philosophical interrogation into the realm of closed, scientific investigation, the technology enabled by and enabling this creeping closure is progressively artificializing our once natural environments. Floridi writes:

“the increasing and profound technologisation of science is creating a tension between what we try to explain, namely all sorts of realities, and how we explain it, through the highly artificial constructs and devices that frame and support our investigations. Naturalistic explanations are increasingly dependent on non-natural means to reach such explanations.”

This, of course, is the very question at issue between the meaning skeptic and the meaning realist. To make his case, Floridi has to demonstrate the how and why the artefactual isn’t simply more nature, every bit as bound by the laws of thermodynamics as everything else in nature. Why think the ‘artificial’ is anything more than (to turn a Hegelian line on its head) ‘nature reborn’? To presume as much would be to beg the question—to run afoul the very ‘scholasticism’ Floridi criticizes.

Again, he quotes Quine from “Epistemology Naturalized,” this time the famous line reminding us that the question of “how irritations of our sensory surfaces” result in knowledge is itself a scientific question. The absurdity of the assertion, Floridi thinks, is easily assayed by considering the complexity of cognitive and aesthetic artifacts: “by the same reasoning, one should then try to answer the question how Beethoven managed to arrive at his Ode to Joy from the seven-note diatonic musical scale, Leonardo to his Mona Lisa from the three colours in the RGB model, Orson Welles to his Citizen Kane from just black and white, and today any computer multimedia from just zeros and ones.”

The egregious nature of the disanalogies here are indicative of the problem Floridi faces. Quine’s point isn’t that knowledge reduces to sensory irritations, merely that knowledge consists of scientifically tractable physical processes. For all his originality, Floridi finds himself resorting to a standard ‘you-can’t-get-there-from-here’ argument against eliminativism. He even cites the constructive consensus in neuroscience, thinking it evidences the intrinsically artefactual, nature of knowledge. But he never explains why the artefactual nature of knowledge—unlike the artefactual nature of, say, a bird’s nest—rules out the empirical assimilation of knowledge. Biology isn’t any less empirical for being productive, so what’s the crucial difference here? At what point does artefactual qua biological become artefactual qua intentional?

Epistemological questions, he asserts, “are not descriptive or scientific, but rather semantic and normative.” But Quine is asking a question about epistemology and whether what we now call cognitive science can exhaustively answer it. As it so happens the question of epistemology as a natural phenomena is itself an epistemological question, and as such involves the application of intentional (semantic and normative) cognitive modes. But why think these cognitive modes themselves cannot be empirically described and explained the way, for example, neuroscience has described and explained the artefactual nature of cognition? If artefacts like termite mounds and bird’s nests admit natural explanations, then why not knowledge? Given that he hopes to revive “a classic, foundationalist role for philosophy itself,” this is a question he has got to answer. Philosophers have a long history of attempting to secure the epistemological primacy of their speculation on the back of more speculation. Unless Floridi is content with “an internal ‘discourse’ among equally minded philosophers,” he needs to explain what makes the artifactuality of knowledge intrinsically intentional.

In a sense, one can see his seminal 2010 work, The Philosophy of Information, as an attempt to answer this question, but he punts on the issue, here, providing only a reference to his larger theory. Perhaps this is why he characterizes this paper as “a plea for non-naturalism, not an argument for it, let alone a proof or demonstration of it.” Even though the entirety of the paper is given over to arguments inveighing against unrestricted naturalism a la Quine, they all turn on a shared faith in the intrinsic intentionality of cognition.


Reasonably Reiterable Queries

Floridi defines ‘strong naturalism’ as the thesis that all nonnatural phenomena can be reduced to natural phenomena. A strong naturalist believes that all phenomena can be exhaustively explained using only natural vocabularies. The key term, for him, is ‘exhaustively.’ Although some answers to our questions put the matter to bed, others simply leave us scratching our heads. The same applies to naturalistic explanations. Where some reductions are the end of the matter, ‘lossless,’ others are so ‘lossy’ as to explain nothing at all. The latter, he suggests, make it reasonable to reiterate the original query. This, he thinks, provides a way to test any given naturalization of some phenomena, an ‘RRQ’ test. If a reduction warrants repeating the very question it was intended to answer, then we have reason to assume the reduction to be ‘reductive,’ or lossy.

The focus of his test, not surprisingly, is the naturalistic inscrutability of intentional phenomena:

“According to normative (also known as moral or ethical) and semantic non-naturalism, normative and semantic phenomena are not naturalisable because their explanation cannot be provided in a way that appeals exhaustively and non-reductively only to natural phenomena. In both cases, any naturalistic explanation is lossy, in the sense that it is perfectly reasonable to ask again for an explanation, correctly and informatively.”

This failure, he asserts, demonstrates the category mistake of insisting that intentional phenomena be naturalistically explained. In lieu of an argument, he gives us examples. No matter how thorough our natural explanations of immoral photographs might be, one can always ask, Yes, but what makes them immoral (as opposed to socially sanctioned, repulsive, etc.)? Facts simply do not stack into value—Floridi takes himself to be expounding a version of Hume’s and Moore’s point here. The explanation remains ‘lossy’ no matter what our naturalistic explanation. Floridi writes:

“The recalcitrant, residual element that remains unexplained is precisely the all-important element that requires an explanation in the first place. In the end, it is the contribution that the mind makes to the world, and it is up to the mind to explain it, not the world.”

I’ve always admired, even envied, Floridi for the grace and lucidity of his prose. But no matter how artful, a god of the gaps argument is a god of the gaps argument. Failing the RRQ does not entail that only intentional cognition can solve for intentional phenomena.

He acknowledges the problem here: “Admittedly, as one of the anonymous reviewers rightly reminded me, one may object that the recalcitrant, residual elements still in need of explanation may be just the result of our own insipience (understood as the presence of a question without the corresponding relevant and correct answer), perhaps as just a (maybe even only temporary) failure to see that there is merely a false impression of an information deficit (by analogy with a scandal of deduction).” His answer here is to simply apply his test, suggesting the debate, as interminable, merely underscores “an openness to the questioning that the questioning itself keeps open.” I can’t help but think he feels the thorn, at this point. Short reading “What is a Philosophical Question?” this turn in the article would be very difficult to parse. Philosophical questioning, Floridi would say, is ‘closed under questioning,’ which is to say, a process that continually generates more questions. The result is quite ingenious. As with Derridean deconstruction, philosophical problematizations of Floridi’s account of philosophy end up evidencing his account of philosophy by virtue of exhibiting the vulnerability of all guesswork: the lack of regress enders. Rather than committing to any foundation, you commit to a dialectical strategy allowing you to pick yourself up by your own hair.

The problem is that RRQ is far from the domesticated discursive tool that Floridi would have you believe it is. If anything, it provides a novel and useful way to understand the limits of theoretical cognition, not the limits of this or that definition of ‘naturalism.’ RRQ is a great way to determine where the theoretical guesswork in general begins. Nonnaturalism is the province of philosophy for a reason: every single nonnatural answer ever adduced to answer the question of this or that intentional phenomena have failed to close the door on RRQ. Intentional philosophy, such as Floridi’s, possesses no explanatory regress enders—not a one. It is always rational to reiterate the question wherever theoretical applications of intentional cognition are concerned. This is not the case with natural cognition. If RRQ takes a bite out of natural theoretical explanation of apparent intentional phenomena, then it swallows nonnatural cognition whole.

Raising the question, Why bother with theoretical applications of nonnatural cognition at all? Think about it: if every signal received via a given cognitive mode is lossy, why not presume that cognitive mode defective? The successes of natural theoretical cognition—the process of Quinean ‘assimilation’—show us that lossiness typically dwindles with the accumulation of information. No matter how spectacularly our natural accounts of intentional phenomena fail, we need only point out the youth of cognitive science and the astronomical complexities of the systems involved. The failures of natural cognition belong to the process of natural cognition, the rondo of hypothesis and observation. Theoretical applications of intentional cognition, on the other hand, promise only perpetual lossiness, the endless reiteration of questions and uninformative answers.

One can rhetorically embellish endless disputation as discursive plenitude, explanatory stasis as ontological profundity. One can persuasively accuse skeptics of getting things upside down. Or one can speculate on What-Philosophy-Is, insist that philosophy, instead of mapping where our knowledge breaks down (as it does in fact), shows us where this-or-that ‘ultimate’ lies. In “What is a Philosophical Question?” Floridi writes:

“Still, in the long run, evolution in philosophy is measured in terms of accumulation of answers to open questions, answers that remain, by the very nature of the questions they address, open to reasonable disagreement. So those jesting that philosophy has never “solved” any problem but remains for ever stuck in endless debates, that there is no real progress in philosophy, clearly have no idea what philosophy is about. They may as well complain that their favourite restaurant is constantly refining and expanding its menu.”

RRQ says otherwise. According to Floridi’s own test, the problem isn’t that the restaurant is constantly refining and expanding its menu, the problem is that nothing ever makes it out of the kitchen! It’s always sent back by rational questions. Certainly countless breakdowns have found countless sociocognitive uses: philosophy is nothing if not recombinant, mutation machine. But these powerful adaptations of intentional cognition are simply that: powerful adaptations of natural systems originally evolved to solve complex systems on the metabolic cheap. All attempts to use intentional cognition to theorize their (entirely natural) nature end in disputation. Philosophy has yet to theoretically solve any aspect of intentional cognition. And this merely follows from Floridi’s own definition of philosophy—it just cuts against his rhetorical register. In fact, when one takes a closer, empirical look at the resources available, the traditional conceit at the heart of his nonnaturalism quickly becomes clear.


Follow the Money

So, what is it? Why spin a limit, a profound cognitive horizon, into a plenum? Floridi is nothing if not an erudite and subtle thinker, and yet his argument in this paper entirely depends on neglecting to see RRQ for the limit that it is. He does this because he fails to follow through on the question of resources.

For my part, I look at naturalism as a reliance on a particular set of ‘hacks,’ not as any dogma requiring multiple toes scratching multiple lines in the sand.  Reverse-engineering—taking things apart, seeing how they work—just happens to be an extraordinarily powerful approach, at least as far as our high-dimensional (‘physical’) environments are concerned. If we can reverse-engineer intentional phenomena—assimilate epistemology, say, to neuroscience—then so much the better for theoretical cognition (if not humanity). We still rely on unexplained explainers, of course, RRQ still pertains, but the boundaries will have been pushed outward.

Now the astronomical complexity of biology doesn’t simply suggest, it entails that we would find ourselves extraordinarily difficult to reverse-engineer, at least at first. Humans suffer medial neglect, fundamental blindness to the high-dimensional structure and dynamics of cognition. (As Floridi acknowledges in his own consideration of Dretske’s “How Do You Know You are Not a Zombie?” the proximal conditions of experience do not appear within experience (see The Philosophy of Information, chapter 13)). The obvious reason for this turns on the limitations of our tools, both onboard and prosthetic. Our ancestors, for instance, had no choice but to ignore biology altogether, to correlate what ‘sensory irritants’ they had available with this or that reproductively decisive outcome. Everything in the middle, the systems and ecology that enabled this cognitive feat, is consigned to neglect (and doomed to be reified as ‘transparency’). Just consider the boggling resources commanded by the cognitive sciences: until very recently reverse-engineering simply wasn’t a viable cognitive mode, at least when it came to living things.

This is what ‘intentional cognition’ amounts to: the collection of ancestral devices, ‘hacks,’ we use to solve, not only one another, but all supercomplicated systems. Since these hacks are themselves supercomplicated, our ancestors had to rely on them to solve for them. Problems involving intentional cognition, in other words, cue intentional problem-solving systems, not because (cue drumroll) intentional cognition inexplicably outruns the very possibility of reverse-engineering, but because our ancestors had no other means.

Recall Floridi’s ‘noetic resources,’ the “world of mental contents, conceptual frameworks, intellectual creations, intelligent insights, dialectical reasonings” that underwrites philosophical, as opposed to empirical or formal, answers. It’s no accident that the ‘noetic dimension’ also happens to be the supercomplicated enabling or performative dimension of cognition—the dimension of medial neglect. Whatever ancestral resources we possessed, they comprised heuristic capacities geared to information strategically correlated to the otherwise intractable systems. Ancestrally, noetic resources consisted of the information and metacognitive capacity available to troubleshoot applications of intentional cognitive systems. When our cognitive hacks went wrong, we had only metacognitive hacks to rely on. ‘Noetic resources’ refers to our heuristic capacities to troubleshoot the enabling dimension of cognition while neglecting its astronomical complexity.

So, take Floridi’s example of immoral photographs. The problem he faced, recall, was that “the question why they are immoral can be asked again and again, reasonably” not simply of natural explanations of morality, but nonnatural explanations as well. The RRQ razor cuts both ways.

The reason natural cognition fails to decisively answer moral questions should be pretty clear: moral cognition is radically heuristic, enabling the solution of certain sociocognitive problems absent high-dimensional information required by natural cognition. Far from expressing the ‘mind’s contribution’ (whatever that means), the ‘unexplained residuum’ warranting RRQ evidences the interdependence between cues and circumstance in heuristic cognition, the way the one always requires the other to function. Nothing so incredibly lossy as ‘mind’ is required. This inability to duplicate heuristic cognition, however, has nothing to do with the ability to theorize the nature of moral cognition, which is biological through and through. In fact, an outline of such an answer has just been provided here.

Moral cognition, of course, decisively solves practical moral problems all the time (despite often being fantastically uninformative): our ancestors wouldn’t have evolved the capacity otherwise. Moral cognition fails to decisively answer the theoretical question of morality, on the other hand, because it turns on ancestrally available information geared to the solution of practical problems. Like all the other devices comprising our sociocognitive toolbox, it evolved to derive as much practical problem-solving capacity from as little information as possible. ‘Noetic resources’ are heuristic resources, which is to say, ecological through and through. The deliverances of reflection are deliverances originally adapted to the practical solution of ancestral social and natural environments. Small wonder our semantic and normative theories of semantic and normative phenomena are chronically underdetermined! Imagine trying to smell skeletal structure absent all knowledge of bone.

But then why do we persist? Cognitive reflex. Raising the theoretical question of semantic and normative cognition automatically (unconsciously) cues the application of intentional cognition. Since the supercomplicated structure and dynamics of sociocognition belong to the information it systematically neglects, we intuit only this applicability, and nothing of the specialization. We suffer a ‘soda straw effect,’ a discursive version of Kahneman’s What-you-see-is-all-there-is effect. Intuition tells us it has to be this way, while the deliverances of reflection betray nothing of their parochialism. We quite simply did not evolve the capacity either to intuit our nature or to intuit our our inability to intuit our nature, and so we hallucinate something inexplicable as a result. We find ourselves trapped in a kind of discursive anosognosia, continually applying problem-parochial access and capacity to general, theoretical questions regarding the nature of inexplicable-yet-(allegedly)-undeniable semantic and normative phenomena.

This picture is itself open to RRQ, of course, the difference being that the positions taken are all natural, and so open to noise reduction as well. As per Quine’s process of assimilation, the above story provides a cognitive scientific explanation for a very curious kind of philosophical behaviour. Savvy to the ecological limits of noetic resources, it patiently awaits the accumulation of empirical resources to explain them, and so actually has a chance of ending the ancient regress.

The image Floridi chases is a mirage, what happens when our immediate intuitions are so impoverished as to arise without qualification, and so smack of the ‘ultimate.’ Much as the absence of astronomical information duped our ancestors into thinking our world stood outside the order of planets, celestial as opposed to terrestrial, the absence of metacognitive information dupes us into thinking our minds stand outside the order of the world, intentional as opposed to natural. Nothing, it seems, could be more obvious than noocentrism, despite our millennial inability to silence any—any—question regarding the nature of the intentional.