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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Intention sive context

Spinoza used the term "Deus sive natura", literally "God or nature" to express his view that the two are identical. Both imply all that is. He also believed that all that is is inevitable, a causal process. I guess, for him, the Deus sive natura was rather like energy, which can manifest as matter or message, waveform or photon. There is no division, as in Descartes, between body and soul. All is one and yet it is kind of deterministic. Yet though he denied free will, he still seemed to believe that by quieting the passions one lived a better life - reason rather than emotion. How one does that without free will has always confused me.

But I didn't start this intending to talk of Spinoza. I wanted to talk about intention.

There are plentiful examples of zebras grazing around sleeping lions, cattle unafraid as a grizzly walks past them and so on. The potential prey know when the hunter is hunting and when she's not. They are afraid when there is a cause for fear.

Here is the question: how does the cow or zebra know the bear or lion's intention?

A behaviourist will say that this demands no conception of other minds, it is simply a matter of context. By which I mean that the zebra does not attribute any intention to the lion, he merely acts on instinct to run from yellow-blur-chasing.

I wonder, though. When I get a plant pot, Bobbit is interested as he recognises that I am about to scrape some soil about on the compost pile. He may not be thinking about what I am thinking, but it's more than instinct. So, the behaviourist says, you've just described learned behaviour, stimulus-response, that implies no mentalising on the part of the robin. Well, I respond, when the ticket collector walks up the gangway in the train and I pull out my ticket, is that just stimulus-response? I am not thinking about what the ticket collector is thinking or even attributing an intention to him or her, but this is more than merely responding to context. It is an intelligent response.

Here - saying context is all or instinct is all is a "thin" explanation. It may sketch what happens, but it lacks the dimensionality of what happens.

What got me thinking about this was watching Bobbit watch the... er... rat. A rat is a threat to a robin's nest and would inspire alarm calls and so on. But a rat who is eating rouses curiosity rather than concern.

I do not think that Bobbit imagines what's going on in the rat's mind. But what good does it do us to imagine what's going on in another human's mind? Half the time, people don't fully know, really, what their intentions are anyway. Their actions will always better represent their intentions than some imaginings about the thoughts buzzing about in their minds. That does not mean we see them as automata. What it suggests is that the pragmatic approach is to observe and react to what sense we make of what they are doing.

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Nov 01, 2023

Very interesting and useful post about intentions. And what an excellent and somewhat startling example of Rattie and Bobbit! And your "pragmatic" conclusion at the end makes sense for us all methinks. We can't really read anyone's mind - human or non-human.

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