Intentionality vs. Non-Intentionality

There are a lot of terms bandied about regarding the metaphysical foundations of reality. Some are physicalism, materialism, panpsychism, idealism, theism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, and so on. Of course, the devil is in the details on what these really mean.  Here I’d like to distill this down to a couple of terms that I think indicate an essence of these terms. Those terms are intentionalism and non-intentionalism.  At the bottom line, the question is, is there intention or non-intention fundamental to how reality is constituted?

Intentionality has certain features.  First, there is a goal or purpose in mind.  Intention isn’t just happenstance. It is about something. If there is a goal then there must also be some value system at work. If there is a goal in mind and values at work then that means there must be options. Without live options, intentionality is meaningless. If there are live options, that means that there must be freedom to choose from them.  All this entails complexity. Intentionality requires complex processes. Goals must be determined based on values. Choices and actions must be evaluated according to their effects, and decisions must be made based on all that. We all know this intuitively from our own sense of self. Without intentionality the only thing left is fatalism — things just happen for no intentional reason. Non-intentionality has none of the features of intentionality.  Stuff just happens.

So, what has all this to do with fundamental reality? A lot. That’s because of causation.  We know things happen within a causal chain.  One thing causes another. The chain may be short, say in a rock falling to the ground or it may be highly complex like in the neural networks of the brain. But causes beget effects which, in turn, beget other causes.  If fundamental reality is non-intentional then every step in the causal chain is also non-intentional. Unless magic is invoked, there is no place for intentionality to come in. So, no freedom. No value. No meaning.

Now, if someone acknowledges the fatalism in the non-intentional approach, fine. At least they are being honest. This rarely happens. Why? Because it’s hard to swallow that worldview. So, what happens? A lot depends on influencers. These are public intellectuals who know the details of arguments and promote their worldview to others. Now, since the fatalistic worldview is abhorrent to many in the public, what are they to do? In short, equivocate. Definition of equivocation: “the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth”. The general public might not know the nuances of the argument so they are ripe for being mislead. All that is required is to throw in a few equivocated intentional terms in the non-intentional presentation and the public will be none the wiser. Examples are free-will in compatibilism or teleology when teleonomy (no real purpose) is what is meant. Terms like meaning and purpose are often used when they are vacuous in an autonomic universe.

A reality grounded in fundamental intentionality can offer so many things we existentially feel we have and would like. Meaning, purpose, free will, moral objectivity, etc. are all in the offing. So, when evaluating a particular metaphysical system perhaps it can be helpful to ascertain if what is being promoted is fundamentally intentional or non-intentional.

The Often Ignored Necessary Element for Free Will

Most people don’t like to think of themselves as automatons — just inevitably doing what they do. But that is the logical inference if reality is constituted by necessity (laws) and chance (quantum indeterminacy). So what do those who subscribe to the non-intentional model of reality do? There are numerous attempts to somehow salvage free will. Some are just nonsense like compatibilism and others try to find some way to use indeterminism. None of that works if necessity and chance determine every event in the universe.

Another thing most people want to believe is that we make conscious decisions. Here the key word is “conscious”. But how would that work? After all, we know that most of the decision-making process is done unconsciously. There are billions of neural processes going on that we have no awareness or experience of. It’s only very late in the process that we experience a decision. So, there is all this processing going on unconsciously and then after all that is done there is suppose to be some other different conscious processing that makes a decision or vetoes the decision make unconsciously. In that case there seems to be a phenomenal (experience based) homunculus (some extra something that has its own decision making processes). Seems like a weird contrivance to me.

Now, even if any of that were truth the missing necessary element in those schemes would be why a certain decision is made. The unconscious neural processes have all sorts of biases in their circuits that determine the processing at every step. Here you can think about a single neural synapse that has a chemical/electrical bias to react a certain way because of an input. Now, obviously there is an incredible complexity at work with all parts of the brain interacting but in the non-intentional model the brain just does what it does, much like a computer. In a computer each bit sets its state based on the input to it. It has a bias that responds to an input.

So in the non-intentional model, our unconscious processes do their biased thing and eventually end up with a decision (sometimes through a very tortuous process). Then the homunculus steps in and accepts or rejects that? Based on what? This is the missing necessary element in this scheme. There should be some other criterion for making a different conscious (homunculus) decision than what the neural process came up with. But what would that be? The non-intentional constitutionalists would need to come up with something here. In years of following this topic I haven’t seen anything like that.

So, instead of the non-intentional approach, here’s what I think may be going on. In a divine idealism every event in the universe is intentional. There are no laws and no chance. Everything happens because of intentionality — both the regularities and novelties. This includes everything in our brains. Every event happens for a reason. Those reasons are twofold. They are twofold because they include those of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. I’ve talked about this elsewhere — and will in more detail on how this might work in an upcoming essay on divine action. So, the issue at hand is what is involved in why we make a certain decision?

Now, here I’m going to speculate from physics but based on some mainstream models. I think that every event in the universe is connected and integrated with everything else. Thus decisions are not just something “magical” happening. They occur within the life giving constraints of this reality.

In the divine idealism model, there is a teleological impetus involved in every event, even at the microscopic level. I’m using the term “impetus” because it denotes an active, forceful factor. As an analogy, think of how a magnet applies a force to attract a metal object. This is not some passive “lure” like in process theology. It is an active (but not coercive) influence toward a certain direction. The force of the magnet can be resisted but it is still an important factor in a decision. God-as-transcendent provides an impetus according to the divine purposes for this reality. However, God-as-living (that’s us and everything else) also has internal impetuses at work. These ensue from being finite creatures with certain motivations, needs, and desires. Sometimes there may be a competing impetus. I think that competition can occur at every step in the decision making neural processes, not just at the end. Every step is part of an integrated whole within the Divine Life Communion. What this means is that at every point in the process a decision must fit within the statistical model of how reality is constituted and take into account what is possible within those bounds. However, novelties can also occur within those bounds. So, live options are available. At various points in the process the competing teleological impetuses can become pronounced and a decision must be made. There is a constrained free will at work here. Each decision narrows what is possible. Eventually a final decision is made. It’s a decision on what impetus we freely choose to win out.

So, where does consciousness come in? I’m not sure about this, but to avoid the homunculus scenario, I think what consciousness does is experience the decision we made unconsciously. Now some might say, well “that’s not me making the decision”. Of course it is. That would be like having a back pain and saying, “that’s not me I’m experiencing”. A person is a whole, including their unconsciousness. If that wasn’t the case then the “me” would be different from everything else going on in our bodies.

So, the necessary element in free will is the reason for making a decision. That reason comes down to making a free choice between the sometimes competing impetuses of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. God-as-transcendent has a purpose in mind for this reality. I think a big part of that purpose is the creation of love, beauty, and meaning. God-as-living, as finite constrained beings also have impetuses. The question is which impetus to embrace and act on.

Honor, Courage, Commitment

I just watched a video of a US marine getting a promotion to sergeant. In the ceremony, the marine was charged with executing his duties according to the Marine Corp’s values of honor, courage, and commitment. These soldiers sometimes face life threatening situations but they are expected to face that challenge with these highest values.

In Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be” he talks about the courage of soldiers, who in spite of the risk to their own being, face that risk with courage. It seems to me this is the ultimate embrace of finite being when faced with non-being. Now, this type of courage doesn’t have to be about life or death. It can be found in any situation where ordinary people face adversity with honor, courage, and commitment. The risk might be about finances, personal ego, family, relationships, health, reputation, etc. Life has a way of presenting situations that test our metal. How do we respond?

The actual response to those situations is often not that simple. There are consequences to how we respond that are not known. However, if we try to respond out of our value-commitments, perhaps that is the best we can do. The fact that there is a risk is why values are possible. Without risk nothing really matters.

Perhaps this is why God chose to live finite being. Without the risks that occur in life, values can’t arise. It is the very uncertainty and tentativeness of life that gives life meaning and value. When faced with adversity, we have the opportunity to probe deeply within ourselves to embracing the divine transcendent depth of ultimate values within everything.

The Problem of Evil — Who Suffers?

In addressing the problem of evil in various theological formulations, it is often said that God feels our suffering but there is still an ontological divide between God and us. God doesn’t literally do the suffering. But what if God is literally doing the suffering? In a divine idealism and aspect monism ontology that is the case. I talk in depth about the problem of evil but here let me offer a metaphor to illustrate part of this.

When a woman becomes pregnant and the baby grows in her body, if the baby has some distress, the mother literally suffers that distress. The baby is an aspect of the mother’s body so she literally experiences the suffering of the baby. The baby’s life is part of the mother’s life. Even after giving birth the mother also suffers when the child suffers. Is that just because of an abstraction within the mother’s mind or is there also a deep ontological connection between the mother and the child? I think there is both.

In the Divine Life Communion, both parts of the metaphor that can be illustrative. The child in the womb is illustrative of the ontological unity of God with each individual life – an individual life of God-as-living. When we suffer, God literally does the suffering. The child after birth illustrates that life is finite and constrained. There is distinction to be made between God-as-transcendent and God-as-living but not as some ontological divide, instead as a decision of God to take finite life into God’s self.

If God chose to take on the suffering of finite life, that must mean there is something so very valuable to God about what constrained being can offer. When we or others suffer it can be difficult to understand the reason for it. But perhaps knowing that God is suffering as us can help us through it and feel there is some positive meaning at work.

Other Divine Lives

It can be tempting to think that this life, this universe is all there is. That seems arrogant. If one of the fundamental attributes of God is creativity, then there would be no reason to think there couldn’t be other Divine Lives also, each with its own purpose. One of things that is so apparent in this universe is that it is value-laden. Value permeates everything. Some of the things we value so greatly are love, courage, integrity, honor, sacrifice, vitality, work, and on and on. This reality offers opportunities for those values to become actualized. However, this reality could be just one set of circumstances where those values or others are possible. After all, this universe has a certain set of fine-tuned parameters that make life, as we know it, possible. Perhaps there are other universes where things could be very different but also value-laden in different ways.

Leibniz said that we live in the best of all possible worlds. I also think we do but just for a certain set of purposes God has in mind. There could be many other “best of all possible worlds” with a somewhat different set of purposes in mind.

Now, if this is true, it doesn’t denigrate our world. To the contrary. It means that this world is important for certain divine reasons. In fact, what it means is that we are part of a grand divine multi-world narrative where values are of ultimate importance and we can contribute to that narrative in a powerful way.

Suffering by Choice

The problem of evil or suffering is often given as a powerful reason to reject the idea of a good and powerful God. The problem of suffering is a significant problem for theism. If God “stands from afar” and watches creatures suffer when God could do something about it does seem to be cruel.

So, I’ll raise the question of who is suffering? In many forms of theism it is we creatures who do the suffering while God (although maybe feeling our suffering) does not literally suffer (God’s impassibility). However, in a divine idealism and aspect monism ontology, it is literally God who is suffering. This is because God literally lives each life in this reality. Here one might think of the stories about the incarnation in Christianity or the avatars in Hinduism. God self-empties (kenosis) and takes on the constraints of life. For instance, in the story of the Cross in Christianity, it is literally God who suffers and dies. There is a powerful truth to this except I think the incarnation should be expanded to include everything in this reality.

However, if God is literally suffering in each aspect of the Divine Life then the question could be why? Since God is the creator, why would God choose to suffer? Let’s take a look at what suffering is about.

As I’ve said in the ontology, I’m characterizing life as constrained being. There is a finitude to life. This means that at some point a certain life will end. From an evolutionary standpoint this promotes change. The old dies away and the new takes its place. Biological systems try to stay alive. If they do then their genes get promoted into the next generation. If they don’t then those genes do not move on. This is the process of selection that has led to life in this world. But since there is a built-in impetus to live, there is also a pain or suffering that, at least partially, is included in this impetus. So there is suffering. If life is constrained being, then suffering is inevitable and necessary for life as a whole to proceed and change (hopefully for the better).

So, God’s choice to suffer is part of choosing for there to be life. No suffering, no life. I think that is part of the choice. However, I think there is also another part.

Let me offer an example. Many people enjoy learning or being creative. However, don’t those endeavors also create suffering. Every creative act entails both creation and destruction. The old dies (to some extent) and the new takes its place. I’m sure anyone who has tried to learn new material, feels the pain involved. There is a struggle and some amount of pain involved. But we do it anyway. Why? Because there is a goal in mind that accepts the momentary pain to reach that goal. The famous mystery writer Dorothy Parker once said “I hate writing, I love having written.” As a writer myself, I have also found this to be true. However, it’s not just the end of the project that is fulfilling but every step along the way has it’s own reward when something is created.

The thing about finite being is that it offers opportunities for things we admire so much. What do we admire so greatly? Love, beauty, courage, resolve, creativity, justice, self-sacrifice, honor, hard work, integrity, etc. All of these would not be possible without some level of risk and suffering. It is the carrying on “in spite of” that we admire so much. I speculate that God admires these things as well and therefore chose to enter finite being and suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” because God saw such great worth and value in facing finitude where those admirable traits could become real.

It may not be about the Problem of Evil

For a long time I’ve thought that the problem of evil was the major stumbling block for a belief in God. However, more recently I’ve come to think that it may not be the root problem for many people.

Absolutely, the problem of evil is a major concern for theism. How can one see all the horrid examples of evil in the world and not question that there is a powerful, good God. There would have to be major mitigating factors to resolve this issue. I’ve talked about those here. Still, a totally satisfying answer may just allude those who believe.

One reason I question that the problem of evil is the major reason some people reject the idea of God, is that many of those same people are nature lovers. They wax poetic about the beauty and awe in nature. To be consistent those same people should rather be neutral about nature. After all, nature would be responsible for the same horrors propounded in the problem of evil for theism. If anything those senses of awe and wonder would just be nature’s trick to propagate our genes somehow. There would be nothing to venerate.

Instead, I think a lot of these theism rejecters just don’t like the idea of a God. They don’t like the idea of being subordinate to something. Now, to be fair, many of these people have a rather sunday school conception of the idea of God. For those exposed to the fundamentalist precepts early on, God is some judgmental, overbearing monarch who tells them in the strictest terms what to do and not do. In this age of individuality accentuation it’s understandable why this would not be appealing to many. So, any more sophisticated theology is truncated and never revisited. This is evident if one listens to the theology of the prominent anti-religious atheists in social media and books. It is well known in liberal theological circles that these individuals don’t have any clue about the sophisticated thought of the best minds in theology.

Now, of course, this is psychologizing but, if true, it may reduce the wasted time of theists addressing the problem of evil for these people. It won’t make dent and that time may be better served elsewhere.

Honoring Those Who Suffer

Life isn’t easy. I was just watching a video about Karen Carpenter and her struggles. In my view, she was one of the best pop singers of all time. She struggled with self esteem all her life and eventually it led to her death. Even so, she went on to enrich the lives of many with her wonderful music. However, she is not alone in her struggles. Sure, she was famous but everyday people also struggle. They don’t get the headlines but somehow they persevere and make a contribution. In spite of their struggles, many face life with courage and a positive attitude. It may be just in simple acts of love for family and friends but it has an impact. Is it any less impactful than those of the famous? No. Every act of love impacts the whole — the communion of all things. Those simple acts accumulate and become a resounding impetus for everything to aspire to and create the good and beautiful.

The thing about suffering is that it forces us to look deeply into what really matters. That focus can plum the depths of our existence and ask profound questions. It can create powerful expressions of longing and hope, just like Karen’s songs do. Now, most of us will seek ways to thwart suffering. It hurts, so why not find ways to avoid it. This can manifest itself into distractions like consumerism or other addictions. Still, in the long run they don’t work. In fact, they can lead to more suffering.

Now, I’m not advocating some sort of masochism — seeking out suffering and reveling in it. Absolutely not. But suffering is telling us something. It’s telling us that being finite will include suffering and evil. To live entails the potential for suffering and evil. There is a fight on. Either we engage in the fight or we succumb to fatalism and despair. The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote a book called “The Courage to Be”. Life is not some utopia with no pain or suffering. It takes courage to be. A utopia or heaven would be so boring and unfulfilling I don’t think anyone would really want it. Instead life offers the potential to be creative. Even amidst the suffering such wonderful things can come about. Those who suffer also experience great moments of fulfillment and meaning. We should revel in that and continue to fight for the good and beautiful.

In metaphysical thinking, often the focus is on the evil present in the world. It is true that there are horrific evils. It makes headlines — “if it bleeds, it leads”. But what about the good? The problem of evil should be countered by the problem of good. Why is there so much good in the world? It may not make the headlines but every day people and other animals constantly act out of kindness, generosity, and concern for the other’s well being. For the most part it goes unnoticed but if we think about the communal impact, it is enormous. I think it speaks to something deep within everything that strives for the good. We tend to focus on the dramatic and off the charts. Instead I think we should acknowledge the pervasive everyday acts of kindness and love that pervade everything in the world. We all suffer, but by embracing the divine within us the good and beautiful becomes real. Let’s keep at it.

On Focus

I just watched some videos on panpsychism.  Since I affirm a divine idealism, I think panpsychism is a step in the right direction.  However, I think the focus of this approach is too narrow.  By focus, I mean, to use a photographic metaphor, what is in the frame of interest and concern?  There is a tendency towards reductionism in current scientific and philosophical investigations.  So, the “frame” is narrowed down to what might be considered a manageable level.  This can make things easier to deal with but it can also end up being problematic.

I’ve mentioned this before with regard to religious sentiment on the matter of emphasis. If a particular issue is focused on without paying due regard to other issues, then the resulting “solutions” run the risk of being discarded or in need of major modification when confronted with other big-picture problems.  The thing about a systematic approach is that everything needs to be taken into account and fit together coherently and reasonably.  If certain issues are ignored, they will, more than likely, come back to bite.

So, what’s wrong with the panpsychist approach?  First of all, it has such a laser focus on consciousness.  The thinking might go something like this.  Consciousness is such a real problem for the current materialist paradigm so let’s make that fundamental — it’s all consciousness. How this would work in the grand scheme of things isn’t talked about, as far as I’ve seen.  If the issue is subjective experience (phenomenal consciousness) then how does experience fit into the complex causal network that we see?  How do experiences interact? Are there some additional properties at work?  If so then experiences aren’t fundamental.  I think what we’re seeing here is an attempt to solve a problem without including the broader explanatory picture.  The focus is too narrow.

The other problem with this near-sightedness is that is doesn’t take into consideration existential issues.  Now, many of today’s philosophers may shy away from these issues because it’s not fashionable to talk about deep metaphysics.  So they ignore this and just “talk among themselves” in their cloister or avoid these issues in public discussions.  The problem with this is that it eventually comes out.  I saw a Zoom discussion on panpsychism with prominent philosophers where a viewer asked about the practical implications of the view. That question was totally ignored.  Broadening the focus presents major issues to deal with.

So, what existential issues am I talking about? Here are some:

  • Meaning and purpose
  • The problem of evil
  • Teleology
  • Free will
  • Morality

If a philosophy doesn’t address these, then who personally cares?  It would be just some intellectual tempest in a teapot, signifying nothing.

Most people probably can’t assess very well the technical details of a philosophical discussion. They are not educated or trained for that.  They want to know if a particular system seems right (more in an intuitive sense) and how it affects their worldview and way of thinking and living.  If philosophy is just some intellectual exercise without real-world implications, then why bother? I think these explorations can be but they must broaden their focus just as it did in past centuries.

So, what is the alternative to this near-sightedness?  Obviously, from this site, I think a divine idealism is a viable option that addresses both the problem of consciousness and the existential issues I mentioned.  In a divine idealism, where everything is in the divine mind, consciousness seems to fit in seamlessly.  So, what do we know about mind?  We know that minds are complex with both conscious and unconscious processes going on. There is a lot happening with many interactions.  There is intent, choices, morality, meaning and purpose. The full gamut of existential issues are in play within the mind.  If there is a divine mind as the source of all this then our minds are part of that mind and have a share, within limits, of the Divine Mind.  Of course, even with that model, much must be explored but I think, at least it has a broad enough focus to be meaningful.

The “I’m Sorry”

There are times of regret for all of us.  We fall short of something we perceive as an “ought”.  We know it’s there and we fail, at times, in following it.  What does this universal “I’m sorry” mean?  I think it means that there is something within everything that speaks to a higher purpose.  It says there is a better way to live that we can embrace or not.  When we don’t, it creates regret.  We even see this among those we would consider the most depraved individuals in society.  It might be just regret for what happens to their families or friends. Still, that “I’m sorry” says something.

Now, this regret could be just considered some local psychological encoding in biology or culture that has no profound significance.  Is that convincing?  Not for most.  If so, it could be cavalierly dismissed as sentimentalism but who really does that?

Instead, I think this regret reflects the divine transcendent depth within everything that powerfully tries to express itself within the limitations, trials, and ambiguities of life. It is ever-present, urging us on to be the best we can be. When we follow that urging there is something within us that feels good about it. It says we are at least partially in tune with the eternal potential for love and beauty in the world.

On Faith

A question came up in the TLDC discussion group about faith. It’s an important question, especially as the pandemic wreaks havoc around the world.  Not only are many people dying but deep economic hardships also threaten the well-being of countless others. It’s a frightening situation.

Naturally, this can be a time to question or be skeptical about the benevolence of God. How could a benevolent God allow this tragedy to happen? It’s a valid question.  Perhaps surprisingly, however, in times of hardship many believers do not reject God but instead, turn to God in prayer and faith.  They have faith in God.  What could this mean?

In short, I think it means a whole person affirmation of God’s benevolence even in the face of personal or global trials. This is not just some cognitive assent. It is a deep conviction that whatever happens, God cares and is involved in every event.  It is also a passionate conviction that there are things more important than personal wellbeing or goals.  There is “something more” going on that is so important that one’s own well-being does not necessarily take precedence.

In theologian Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be” he talks about the courage of soldiers.  They are willing to put their lives at risk for something more.  That “more” may be about freedom, nation, or even just their brothers and sisters in the fight.  As they face the gunfire, perhaps with great fear, their passionate commitments still push them onward into harm’s way.  Today, we see this with the health care workers, doctors, police, first responders and so many ordinary people trying to make a difference in spite of their own personal risk.  How can one not be brought to tears at this great courage and sacrifice?

But even without a global crisis, events in “normal” life can be devastating as well. Who has not faced hardships, loss, uncertainty, and pain?   This is part of what it means to live.  Faith says that we have within us a transcendent divine transcendent depth that will see us through, even unto death. It also says that our lives, no matter who we are or our situation are part of something profoundly important. Each life matters. Each struggle contributes to and affects the whole. We are part of the Divine Life Communion — a grand narrative created and lived by God. The meaning, both personally and globally, is profound.

It can be difficult to get beyond our own self-interest.  The fear and pain are real. But just like the soldiers and healthcare workers, we can dig deep and find the divine within to become part of the “something more”.  In that probing, we recognize our most profound self.

Then, even with the prospect of death, faith can sustain us.  Who knows what happens after death?  Is it just the end?  Perhaps but perhaps not.  If this reality is a creation in the Mind of God, then what we can be sure of is that who we are and how we lived will be eternal in the Mind of God.  Perhaps we would like to continue living in some fashion. Perhaps we will.  Faith would say that we are okay with whatever God chooses to do or not do with that memory.

On Free Will — Characters Surprise the Author

Is there free will with God as the author of all things?  In my metaphor Author/Story, I mention that although an author creates the general narrative and guides it along, sometimes the narrative takes a surprising turn. Characters seem to have a life of their own and surprise the author with what they do.  I wrote a novel (a techno-thriller) years ago and also found this to be the case.  You think you have the plot in hand but at some point, a character goes off-script.  Huh?  Where did that come from?  What I suggested in the metaphor was that this might represent free will in the grand narrative that God authors. God has an idea of how God would like the narrative to unfold but God also respects the freedom of the characters to influence how things proceed. In fact, God imbues that freedom such that life has meaning but also risk.

Here are some examples of authors supporting the idea that characters do seem to have a life of their own.

Raine ThomasEven though I create detailed character sketches before I write a book, my characters love to surprise me. My character Skye, in the Daughters of Saraqael Trilogy, for example, revealed that she could teleport in the midst of me writing her book, Foretold. That completely took me by surprise, and it took the book in a wonderful new direction!

Scott Bury: Many writers refer to their books as their “babies,” but it seems that the characters are the children—we create them, but then they develop minds of their own and continue to surprise, exasperate and delight us.

My characters surprise me constantly. My characters are like my friends – I can give them advice, but they don’t have to take it. If your characters are real, then they surprise you, just like real people.”

Remember, this is an idealism metaphor but sometimes metaphors point to a deep truth.