Thursday, March 1, 2018

The problem of human intentionality

A few weeks ago I had in another blog a debate that confronted me with three militant atheists who stood for materialist monism, which holds, among other things, that we are determined by our neurons, that consciousness is an irrelevant epiphenomenon and that free will is an illusion. In another post in this blog I have touched on that topic, mentioning the four philosophical theories that try to explain the conscience, one of which is materialist monism.
This is the argument I offered to defend dualism against materialistic monism:
Let’s tackle the problem of human intentionality. When I say: I'm going to lend money to the bank, so I’ll be paid interest, I’m saying that the reason why I’ll lend money to the bank is to get interest. This is the kind of cause that Aristotle called a final cause, because it is the goal toward which my action is directed, something that is located in the future. On the other hand, materialist monism says that the only cause of our actions is in the electric discharges of our neurons. This is what Aristotle called an efficient cause. Therefore, to explain the same phenomenon (my lending money to the bank), we are suggested two different causes: my intention and the sparks in my neurons, this second located in the present, the first in the future. Is this possible?
The most elementary rule of causality says that the same phenomenon cannot have two different independent causes. It can have different compatible explanations, but the two alternative explanations of the phenomenon under question (my lending money to the bank) are difficult to be made compatible:
  1. The cause is my intention (the final cause), which presupposes a future prevision. If we choose this, we must probably accept a dualist interpretation. Something in my action has not been caused by the electric firing of my neurons.
  2. The cause is the electrical firing of my neurons (the efficient cause). This is the position of materialist monism. In that case we must accept that purposes do not exist, that human intentionality is an illusion. But if our acts are not motivated by intentions, it follows that free will is also an illusion. And if we are not free, we are not responsible.
The elimination of responsibility leads to the demolishment of social order, which is based on the fact that certain actions are forbidden while others are not. If we are not responsible, how can we punish murderers, rapists or the corrupt? If their actions were motivated by the discharge of their neurons, and their intentionality is an illusion, why do we punish them for what they did? It is unfair, right?
But there is something worse. Suppose a judge punishes a murderer. What is the cause of the punishment? The murder? Or the fact that the neurons in the judge’s brain have sparked in a certain way? Here we have again a single event (the punishment) that can come from two different and independent causes: the first is the crime to be punished and the second the sparks of the judge’s neurons. But in this case we have the additional problem that the two alleged causes refer to different persons. The crime was committed by one person, the murderer. The neurons that fire belong to another person, the judge.
In short: materialist monism forces us to accept that human intentionality does not exist, that it is an illusion. This attitude is anti-scientific. The fundamental basis of science is that phenomena take precedence over theories. If a fact is opposed to a theory, we must change the theory, rather than deny the fact.
Albert Einstein
I will give an example: when Michelson and Morley made their famous experiment, which proved that the speed of light in a vacuum is independent of the reference system, this fact was opposed to the current theory (Galileo’s principle of relativity and Newton’s Mechanics). This gave rise to two possible answers:
  1. Denying the fact to save the theory. Assert that the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment was an illusion, so nothing should be changed.
  2. Change the theory to adapt to the fact. That is what Einstein did. When he formulated the theory of Special Relativity, he took as an axiom the result of the experiment (that the speed of light is independent of the reference system) and from there he deduced everything else.
There is no doubt that solution 1 would have been anti-scientific and that solution 2 was scientific.
Materialist monism (the claim that all our actions are caused by the discharges of our neurons and that our intentionality is an illusion) is equivalent to solution 1 indicated above, and therefore is anti-scientific. It tries to save the theory at the expense of the facts. Because it is an incontestable fact that we all act frequently with the intention that something will happen. Any of us can attest to that.
It is curious that modern atheistic neuroscience has resurrected a theory that was discredited in physics during the twentieth century, as explained in another post in this blog. That theory is deterministic materialism, for that is what means the claim that everything depends on the sparks of our neurons and we have no free will.
The argument I have summarized here was proposed first by C.S.Lewis in chapter 2 of his book Miracles, and has been expanded by the philosopher Victor Reppert in his book C.S.Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (2003). Another summarized version of the argument can be found here. And, of course, Alvin Plantinga has also developed Lewis’s argument to refute the counter-argument that natural selection led to the appearance of beings whose automatic acts are automatically rational. But I already talked about that in another post in this blog.
As for my debate with the atheists, they just repeated once and again that everything is explained by the neurons, and added that, if God exists, it is his responsibility to prove his own existence and stop playing hide-and-seek with humanity. One of them made a declaration of atheistic faith, saying that we must resign ourselves to disappear in death (something we were not talking about). Finally, the same participant pointed out that you say that because you are a believer. In other words, the ad hominem fallacy. It’s funny, in my part of the debate I did not name God, but my opponents, the atheists, talked about Him all the time.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic thread on Natural and Artificial Intelligence: Preceding Next
Thematic Thread on Science and Atheism: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca


  1. Manuel Alfonseca,
    It seems to me your account of science is overly simple. It is a commonplace of modern philosophy of science that "observations" and "facts" are themselves often theory-dependent--and this is certainly the case in the example you cite. So when a theory clashes with a (theory-dependent) fact, it may be more scientific to deny the fact. To take a well-known case from the literature: Nineteenth century "observations" of the motion of Uranus had it departing from the course predicted by Newton's theory. But instead of the theory being rejectd, it was posited that the deviation must be the result of another, unknown planet in the vicinity. And so Neptune was discovered! There are many, many examples like this in Popper, Lakatos, and Kuhn, showing that how scientists actually argue is different from the traditional accounts of scientific reasoning.
    As for "uncontestable facts": at different times in human history it has been considered an "incontestable fact" that the earth is flat and that the Sun goes round the earth. In his famous "two tables" account, A.S.Eddington argued that almost all our common-sense beliefs about the "facts" of the external world have been disproved by modern science.
    I do agree with your conclusions. But I think that if you are going to engage in philosophical debates about science, your understanding of science has to take into account the findings of modern philosophy of science. A good example of this being done is Alasdair MacIntyre's essay "First Principles, final ends, and contemporary philosophical issues". Yours sincerely,
    Andrew Lomas.

    1. I was aware of what you say. In fact, I have used the Uranus example in other papers. But you have presented it in an incomplete way. The proper way is the following:

      When a fact or observation departs from the predictions of a theory, there are two possible explanations of the discrepancy:

      a) Either an unknown fact explains the discrepancy.
      b) Or the theory must be modified to adapt to the fact.
      In no case the fact should be denied to save the thoery.

      In the case of Uranus, the first alternative was correct. Thus Le Verrier predicted the existence of Neptune. But when another discrepancy arose in the orbit of Mercury, Le Verrier tried to repeat his success and predicted the existence of an unknown planet (Vulcan). In this case, however, Newton's theory was wrong and Einstein had to change it.

      Human intentionality is a fact to be explained, not an illusion to be explained away. To see that it is a fact, think that when an atheist makes a date with you tomorrow at 11, he is implicitly asserting that human intentionality exists.

      Yes, I am aware that the philosophical problem is far deeper and that my post is a simplification. That is why I advised the reader to look further in the literature I have indicated, or anywhere else.