Why We Want While Rivers Don’t

November 17, 2015

I’m still talking about the paradox of free will, and I promised last time to explain how people can want things even though rivers and other inanimate, material things do not.

Playground toy in Kinuta Park - July 12, 2014

Playground toy in Kinuta Park – July 12, 2014 (Enlarge)

Now here comes Edward Feser very conveniently to help me explain. Toward the bottom of his latest long essay, he writes:

Imagine a garden hose lying on the ground in such a way that it seems to “point” to a certain tree. We don’t regard this as genuine “pointing” – in the sense that deliberately aiming your finger at someone is genuine pointing – because we know that the hose does not have an intellect and thus cannot be trying to call our attention to something.

This is perfect because it’s such a simple, concrete example. By the way, that’s why I’m a great fan of Edward Feser despite our philosophical disagreements – he’s such a great writer, for a philosopher at least.

The only thing I might ask Feser to explain further would be about “intellect” – what’s that? I think I’ll just substitute the word “goal” where Feser uses “intellect.” That makes it clear, to me at least.

See, a living thing is trying to do something, whereas an inanimate thing is not. All living things try to survive in one way or another, and that’s the whole difference. We want to survive, whereas rivers (and garden hoses) don’t care one bit.

Trying is like pointing

Obviously we’re talking about intentionality. I keep saying there’s a purely materialist explanation for intentionality (here, for example), and we can summarize by saying intentionality is physical flow, like energy flowing in some direction.

Thus, a symbol means something because some energy is actually flowing from the symbol, through our sense organs and our brain, and out through our motor nerves into the world via our kinetic actions.

OK, but now Feser lays his argument on us and tries to destroy the whole materialist notion. He writes:

It would be absurd, then, to try to explain how intellect gets into the picture by starting with meaningless physical elements and their behaviors, then supposing that some kind of “pointing” arises in sufficiently complex systems – say, by means of causal relations of some sort – and then in turn supposing that intellects arise in some subset of these systems which cross some yet higher threshold of complexity.

Yep – I’m guilty because that’s exactly what I’m saying. Meaningless physical elements – like rivers, garden hoses and neuro-electric energy flows – give rise to meaning just in case they are sufficiently complex so they constitute goal-pursuit.

How do “intellects” (goals) arise in complex systems? That’s the key question that Feser dismisses, but there is actually a clear, well-established explanation. Goals arise due to evolution and natural selection. That’s the whole distinction.

What is a goal, precisely?

By the way, when I speak of goals I’m really talking about a neural construct that specifies an unfulfilled condition. A goal is a set of neurons in your brain that are connected up with each other in such a way that an input results in one of two possible outputs: either “Yes, we’re done” or else “No, keep trying.”

You could implement this kind of goal structure in an electronic circuit too, obviously. That’s what I mean when I talk about a goal.