Intentional Spontaneity


Photograph by Steve Johnson

From Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

Like many other Kantian-inspired accounts, the one Arnold offers as an alternative to cognitivism is initially quite compelling, but when carefully and closely examined, bafflingly obscure. One rather basic question unanswered in Arnold’s presentation is: could there be a being that was physically a duplicate of a normal human, but was lacking in spontaneity? And if so, what would such a being be like?

This question represents a dilemma for Arnold. Perhaps there could be such a being and she would be radically crippled, perhaps by being unable to speak or understand the world. But since there is no physical difference between her and a functioning human, we cannot avoid the conclusion that there must be spooky mind-stuff constantly causally intervening in the world, and that the laws of physics must be false. More likely, Arnold would say that there couldn’t be such a being: anything physically like a human could be brought under an intentional description, although we might miss the intentional aspects of that being’s existence by failing to bring such a description to bear. But on this horn of the dilemma, intentional phenomena will supervene on the physical, so that Arnold will fall within the broadly physicalist camp after all. Indeed, on this reading, Arnold’s view looks rather like Dennett’s “intentional stance” account, which the book rejects (75-80).

Arnold’s suggestion that our ability to get judgments out of perception depends on a mysterious Kantian faculty of spontaneity seems implausible in light of quite basic discoveries from psychology. Patients with face-blindness induced by head injuries are deficient precisely in the ability to transition from perceptual information to the recognition that “This person is Mary.” Yet surely their metaphysical capacity for spontaneity, if they ever had one, is intact. What they have lost is the physical basis for an entirely causal, subconscious form of information processing.

Meanwhile, Kant’s connection between conceptual thought and freedom contrasts starkly with one of the central claims of many Asian traditions: that the process of imposing conceptual filters on our experience is a principal source of bondage and limitation. Both Buddhists and Daoists frequently emphasize that the categories with which we understand our experience can drastically restrict the range of possibilities we can see. Artistic and technological creativity may often emerge from overcoming the limitations imposed on us by the subconscious processes that, usually without our noticing it, impose categories on our experience.

Arnold places much weight on a particular transcendental argument. He claims that “reason’s being practical is not, in fact, something that can coherently be denied, insofar as it is only in terms of reasoning that such a denial is even intelligible” (200). This would be a good argument against true eliminativists such as the Churchlands, but it fails against opponents who hold, not that there is no such thing as reasoning, but that theoretical reasoning consists in a causally describable process. It’s perfectly consistent to claim that my mental representations have been causally determined to arrive at the accurate conclusion that there is no Kantian spontaneity, and that human brains do not respond to reasons as such but only to reasons embodied in syntactically coded representations.

“Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind, reviewed by Charles Goodman”, Notre Dame Philosophical Review