Saturday, August 20, 2005

Nature's Mind

Animal behaviour is geared towards achieving various goals. But whose goals are they? Sometimes the driving force is not the animal itself, but rather, natural selection. Returning to my favourite example, ant behaviour achieves the goal of ensuring nest hygiene by removing the corpses of dead nestmates. But is not a psychological goal of the ants; they merely react to a chemical cue, and have no concept of death (or hygiene). So who recognized that this behaviour would be a good means to achieving the biological goal? Dennett explains:
Who else but Mother Nature herself? That is to say: nobody. Evolution by natural selection "chose" this design for this "reason."

Is it unwise to speak this way? I call this the problem of free-floating rationales. We start, sometimes, with the hypothesis that we can assign a certain rationale to (the "mind" of) some individual creature, and then we learn better; the creature is too stupid to harbor it. We do not necessarily discard the rationale; if it is no coincidence that the "smart" behaviour occurred, we pass the rationale from the individual to the evolving genotype. [The Intentional Stance, p.259.]

The benefit of doing so is that adopting the intentional stance towards "Mother Nature" offers great predictive power, and a robust-process explanation of why animal genotypes contain the innate information that they do. It's no coincidence that ants remove corpses from their nests. Indeed, if the decay process had released some other chemical than oleic acid, we may be fairly confident that the ant "funeral march" behaviour would have evolved to occur in response to that other chemical instead. This then means we can attribute a sort of intentionality to Nature. The ant behaviour has a function, to fulfill a particular goal (i.e. removing dead nestmates) -- but it is a goal of Nature, rather than of the creature itself. If practical intelligence is the ability to produce goal-achieving behaviour, then the intelligence behind the ant's behaviour is not the ant, but evolution.

Now, we can ascribe a weak sort of intentionality on the basis of biological functions. There is a genuine sense in which the ant behaviour is about removing dead nestmates. Evolution selected for a behaviour to fill this functional role. But we are also interested in a stronger sense of intentionality. Sometimes we want to attribute intentionality to the animal's mind, rather than Nature's. When are such attributions warranted? When it is the animal that recognizes the link between the behaviour B and the goal G; when it is the animal that engages in practical reasoning.

This is where decoupled representation becomes vital. Without a separation between indicative and imperative representations, between stimulus and response, there is no room left for practical reasoning to occur. Thus decoupled representation is a necessary precondition for fully-fledged intentionality in animal minds and behaviour.

It's worth noting that intentionality can survive a separation between nature's goals and the animal's own. For consider sex. The biological function is obviously reproduction -- having sex just happens to be a good way to make babies. But human sexual behaviour can be intentional even if the person doesn't recognize the biological goal. Rather, they might take sex itself as their goal, and engage in practical reasoning about how best to achieve it. This will still require decoupled representations, of course. My point is merely to highlight that one cannot infer non-intentionality merely from ignorance of biological function. The behaviour might be intentional under some other goal description.


  1. > Sometimes the driving force is not the animal itself, but rather, natural selection.

    Natural selection is not so much a "cause" as it is an explanation. It is the same sort of error that makes creationists so happy.

    Natural selection doesn't aim to remove dead ants from a tunnel or anything like that it just is a mechanism for supporting those ant colonies that do decide to remove ants (for whatever reason) under some circumstances. This is pretty similar to how it acts in humans (e.g. humans liking sex). If we are allocating intelligence natural selection is an inappropriate place to place that intelligence (unless some particular mind experiment demands it I guess).

    Furthermore - one thing being a "cause" or an explanation doesn't make or even imply that other things (potentially overlapping) are not also causes.

    Also - we seem to be saying
    1) "Humans have this trait" -
    2) "Rocks don’t have this trait"
    3) Therefore we will assume ants don’t until proven otherwise.

    This seems to be putting more weight on (2) than (1). I am curious about the dividing like we are drawing here.

    It seems to be a common one since i read article after article about how amazing some group of animals are because they seem to have "theory of mind" or whatever. To me it seems surprising when animals DONT have some rudimental form of these traits.

  2. You don't appear to have read the rest of my post. Of course nature doesn't literally have a mind. The point is rather that "adopting the intentional stance towards "Mother Nature" offers great predictive power, and a robust-process explanation of why animal genotypes contain the innate information that they do." (etc.)

    And if you read the linked post on robust-process explanations, you'll see that I make it quite explicit that these types of explanation are not in conflict with narrower, 'actual sequence' explanations.

  3. You can use it as a working assumption for a mind experiment but the debate over whether it is "true" still has merit independent of that.

    I.e. the debate over statements of fact like
    "Sometimes the driving force is not the animal itself, but rather, natural selection."
    As opposed to
    "Sometimes it is useful to imagine that...."

    Having said that your point sems to involve confusing these two ways of looking at things.

    Now dealing with the usefulness approach

    > Then "offers great predictive power, and a robust-process explanation"

    I don’t know what you are talking about in regard to "great predictive power". It seems to have poor predicative power (but good explanatory power). (maybe you can prove it has predictive power?)

    A classic error of confusing the concepts is your response to the ant problem. You might possibly be correct - but it is more likely that without that chemical ants would have used a totally different strategy. It seems the confusion of what is true and what is useful has tempted you to imply predictive power.

    I notice in your linked post you utilize an interesting tool to separate humans from animals as a result of the fact that we can not read their minds.

    I.e. we dont assume animals have any logic unless we have to (rather like assuming they have no brains unless they prove it) but we assume our benchmark, "humans", do.

    In other words we effectively deem animals to be irrational whenever we cannot see their rationality despite the fact that that same logic would mean that a dog looking at us might decide we are not "intelligent" (just stronger and more coordinated etc). - i.e. the arbitrary choice of methodology implies the conclusion no matter how useful you might argue the methodology is.

  4. Re: Predictive power, see Dennett, p.259: "We may fail to notice this just because of the obviousness of what we can predict. For example, in a community [which evolved in an environment] with bats but not birds for predators we don't expect moths with eye spots (for as any rational deceiver knows, visual sleight-of-hand is wasted on the blind and myopic)."

    The point is, that by treating natural selection as a rational designer, one can make predictions about the sorts of adaptations likely to be found in particular environments.

    And while one must be careful with the metaphors, we also shouldn't overlook the fact that adaptive traits don't arise purely by accident. There's a very real sense in which the moths have fake eye-spots because this deceives predatory birds. This even provides a robust causal explanation. After all, if the spots didn't deceive predators, and thus achieve the biological 'goal', they wouldn't have evolved.

    And I wish you would drop the groundless accusations about me being "confused". It's most irritating of you.


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