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Karl Coryat: on 2/17/17 at 1:25am UTC, wrote Thanks Patrick! -KC

Patrick Tonin: on 2/16/17 at 20:20pm UTC, wrote Hi Karl, It is an interesting essay. I completely agree with you that...

Karl Coryat: on 2/11/17 at 1:27am UTC, wrote Hi Satyavarapu -- If you're asking whether my approach would say that two...

Karl Coryat: on 2/11/17 at 1:18am UTC, wrote Jochen, I greatly appreciate your remarks and feedback. If I had it to do...

Satyavarapu Gupta: on 2/11/17 at 0:44am UTC, wrote Hi Karl Coryat, I am sorry for the copying wrong name.... Very nice essay...

Satyavarapu Gupta: on 2/9/17 at 13:44pm UTC, wrote Hi Jochen Szangolies, Very nice essay and analysis ! Your essay is not...

Jochen Szangolies: on 2/9/17 at 13:18pm UTC, wrote Sorry, I somehow got logged out---the above is me.

Anonymous: on 2/9/17 at 13:18pm UTC, wrote Thank you for a very interesting and well-written essay. Right off the bat,...


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February 21, 2017

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Intentionality: Where Information Meets Complexity by Karl Coryat [refresh]
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This essay's rating: Community = 6.8; Public = 6.0

Author Karl H Coryat wrote on Jan. 10, 2017 @ 21:51 GMT
Essay Abstract

Humans invented the word “intentionality” to describe an aspect of certain actions we perform. However, a generalized physical definition can be applied to assess the intentionality of any dynamical system’s action. This essay proposes that the intentionality of an action depends upon two parameters: (1) the acting system’s informational complexity, which expresses the extent of informational correlations and the prevalence of bidirectional causation among its subsystems, and (2) information uptaken by the system that correlates to the subsequent action. These parameters are examined in various biological, technological, and abiotic systems, and the relative intentionality of various actions assessed. This analysis reveals that physical intentionality emerges in degrees, and that intentionality is independent from more subjective phenomena such as desire.

Author Bio

I have been a musician, music journalist, and YouTube comedian, but these days my main focus is the philosophy of science. I studied biology at U.C. Berkeley and became interested in foundational issues in physics about ten years ago. My essay “Toward an Informational Mechanics” won a Special Commendation prize in FQXi’s 2012 Questioning the Foundations contest, and I expanded that essay into a book written for a general audience, “The Simplest-Case Scenario.” It attempts to resolve problems of measurement, cosmology, and the origin of life through a radically relational development of John Wheeler’s “it from bit” conjecture.

Download Essay PDF File

Gary D. Simpson wrote on Jan. 12, 2017 @ 15:28 GMT

Thank you for an interesting read. Mentally, you seem to straddle left brain and right brain pretty well. I know an engineer that is also a musician that is similar. I'm trying to learn guitar and piano myself.

Yes, the States intended to elect Trump ... the people maybe not so much so.

Your distinction between desire and intent is significant I think. There is another way for you to think about that question rather than using a correlation factor of 0.5. Instead, look at the number of instances that fail. This is the complement of the number that succeed. So, for the case of the lottery winner, there is one winner but millions of failures. Therefore, winning is not governed by the purchase of the ticket.

On the other hand, the dog chasing the ball is definitely intentional even though a dog's desires are fairly simple.

The Geiger tube example is interesting ... the decaying atoms might not intend to register a signal within the tube, but Mr. Geiger definitely intended for it to be so:-) It was the premeditated use of physical law by Mr. Geiger that allowed the creation of the tube.

DNA/RNA transcriptions are excellent examples of intent that is presumably without desire. And honeybees are a good example for ongoing study. Do the bees have a language that can express desire, or does there language link physically to their bodies in such a way that waggle1 plus waggle2 equals distance and direction?

All in all a good effort.

Best Regards,

Gary Simpson

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Anonymous replied on Jan. 12, 2017 @ 21:59 GMT
Thank you Gary. In the honeybee waggle dance, the only thing I can imagine that might point to desire is that the movements to some extent express the desirability of the food source, but that's not really the same as desire itself. In a similar fashion, a plant's rate of phototropism (bending toward light) may be proportional to the "desirability" of a light source, but this says nothing about a plant's actual desire. However, the waggle dance does encode true communicated information: The angle of the dance relative to the plumb line of gravity represents the angle of the food source relative to the direction of the Sun, and the duration of the dance correlates (inversely I believe) to the distance to the source. This information is acted on not only immediately by other workers, but continuously as the workers retain this information in memory...quite remarkable.

The 0.5 figure is more an arbitrary number to distinguish between intentional actions (actions primarily due to the acting system's influence) and actions beyond the system's influence. The latter may or may not be desired, but I think we can leave desire out of it -- it only seems to complicate matters!

You make a good point about technology and design capturing the intentionality of the designer, which is something we (presumably) don't see in nature. Thank you for reading my essay!

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Joe Fisher wrote on Jan. 15, 2017 @ 16:02 GMT
Dear Karl,

Simple natural reality has nothing to do with any abstract complex musings such as the ones you effortlessly indulge in. As I have thoughtfully pointed out in my brilliant essay, SCORE ONE FOR SIMPLICITY, the real Universe consists only of one unified visible infinite surface occurring in one infinite dimension, that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light. Reality am not as complicated as theories of reality are.

Joe Fisher, Realist

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Erik P Hoel wrote on Jan. 26, 2017 @ 20:13 GMT
Hello Karl!

Thanks for the essay, and I completely agree that there's a big gap in our sciences where a theory of intentionality should go. I think you're also right in the graded approach: starting immediately with conscious human beings that have clear intentions is too complicated, and brings in too much outside baggage (what is the nature of consciousness, etc).

Just some of my thoughts triggered by your essay:

"The second requirement for intentionality is that the system’s causal efficacy on the world must be the dominant influence contributing to the action."

I agree that this is a very reasonable and intuitively pleasing requirement. However, it may be too strict in cases where other causal influences are at work, but the agent with the intention is acting with intent, achieves their objective, but isn't the dominant causal influence overall.

Your thoughts about "informational complexity" are on target, although you lament that "more research on information and complexity is needed." I agree! There are some (newish) developments that might interest you. For instance, I think the general intuitions behind the notion of what what you call informational complexity has been quantified in Integrated Information Theory (IIT, Tononi 2004). IIT is a kind of complexity that's not highest for just random or unpredictable systems (like hurricanes) but also takes into account the complexity of the interactions between subsystems (more like brains). But I think you're correct that adding in the notion of environmentally relevant information is important to get at some quantification of intentionality. For instance, there could be systems with high or low integrated information that have different "amounts" of intentionality.

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Harry Hamlin Ricker III replied on Jan. 31, 2017 @ 13:22 GMT

I think that your thesis about intentionality is incorrect. The United States is not a being but a collective or corporate entity. The only intention involved was the intention of Donald Trump to become president. So the only person really responsible for that is Donald Trump who transformed his personal intention or goal into a social goal by his political actions. That is he shared his goals and intentions with others who desired the same goals and worked to make their collective vision of change happen. The idea that you suggest is that collectives have intentions just as individuals beings do. Collectives only have intentions to the extent that the members share a common intention as individuals with the socially defined intention.

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Author Karl H Coryat replied on Jan. 31, 2017 @ 21:02 GMT
Harry, thank you for the comment, but I could not disagree more. Are you claiming that a person is not a collective of neurons and other cells? Or is there something special about the individual -- that collectives of neurons can have intentionality, but collective intentionality must not extend beyond the boundary of one person's skin? We are applying the notion of intentionality to physical systems. A collective of individuals and a collective of neurons are both physical systems. While it may seem intuitive to constrain the boundary of intentionality at the individual, this is largely due to cultural and semantic factors rather than defensible physical principles. The philosophy of science cannot advance if we impose cultural and intuitive constraints where they are not physically justifiable.

To use a historical analogy, the Copernican revolution could not have happened if we insisted on keeping an arbitrary dotted line around the Earth indicating that which is fixed. The beauty of Copernicanism is that it allows us to consider any system as being fixed, relative to other systems. We can draw that arbitrary dotted line around the Earth, the Sun, the Solar System as a whole, or the Milky Way; each of these systems can have its own rest frame. Pre-Copernicans would have us draw an absolute line only around the Earth, which would have imposed a major roadblock to the later development of Galilean relativity. Similarly, progress on the evolution of complexity will be limited if we insist on an absolute dotted line around the individual person. It even seems a bit arrogant to say that just because I view myself as having a distinct identity and unified subjective experience, intentionality must end with me.

What is your physical justification for limiting intentionality to the individual?

Anonymous wrote on Feb. 9, 2017 @ 13:18 GMT
Thank you for a very interesting and well-written essay. Right off the bat, you definitely deserve the prize for best opening sentence: not only because of its topicality, but also, because it immediately changes the playing field---intentionality is usually thought of as something intrinsic and private, whereas you (rightly, I think) point out that collectives may well be said to themselves possess intentionality. Itself a very important point to make, and that's just the first sentence!

In the following, you provide a very clear and systematic discussion of what sort of properties are necessary to ascribe intentionality (or perhaps I should say 'purposefulness') to a system, building up from the most (informationally) simple ones, like single insects, to more complex, collective entities. In doing so, I think you clear up lots of muddle-headed thinking that often surrounds these issues.

There are times, however, when you seem to conflate the philosopher's 'intentionality'---roughly, the capacity of mental states to be about, refer to, or be directed at something in the world---with 'intentionality' as purposeful behavior. For instance, you talk about 'desire' at a couple of points.

Desire, to philosophers, is a kind of intentional state: roughly, every mental state is intentional if it contains a 'that'-clause, i.e. that the sky is blue, that there is money in the bank, and so on. What follows the 'that' is the intentional content of the thought; what precedes it typically is the propositional attitude towards that content: 'Steve believes that the sky is blue', 'I desire for there to be money in the bank'.

Desires and beliefs have a special role regarding both the philosopher's intentionality, and intentional action: for the latter, the right kind of desire has to combine with the right kind of belief---for instance, I might grab for an apple (intentional action) if I think there's an apple on the table (belief), and I want to eat that apple (desire). If either of these conditions fails, I won't make a grab for it.

You take a different route, characterizing intentional acts not in terms of difficult to access mental states, but rather, in terms of objectively accessible properties of a system---its informational complexity, and the information gathered by the system that's relevant to a given task.

In a sense, this is complementary to the usual way one thinks about intentionality---whatever task is selected yields the 'desire' part, while whatever information is gathered is constitutive of the 'belief' about the world.

I'm not sure if this doesn't lead to ambiguities---the same behavior may have wildly different motivations: say, I grab for an apple because I want to eat it, while my wife grabs for it because she thinks it's rotten and wants to throw it away.

Furthermore, it seems to me that you treat 'informational complexity' as essentially an extensive quantity---i.e. if a bee has a given level of complexity, then a swarm must necessarily be more complex. But complexity is somewhat surprising in that the combination of complex things may be a very simple thing (one can formalize this in terms of algorithmic complexity, where it's for instance easy to specify the set of 'all n-bit strings', but any given n-bit string might be maximally complex, i.e. be impossible to describe in a way that's shorter than n bits).

All in all, I think it's a good approach to try and systematize the study of intentional action in the way you do, without perhaps worrying too much about how this sort of intentionality actually works. That way, one can perhaps get some real work done without getting stuck in the definitional quibbles that sometimes marr this sort of discussion.

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Jochen Szangolies replied on Feb. 9, 2017 @ 13:18 GMT
Sorry, I somehow got logged out---the above is me.

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Author Karl H Coryat replied on Feb. 11, 2017 @ 01:18 GMT
Jochen, I greatly appreciate your remarks and feedback. If I had it to do over, I may have made my thesis that intentionality can be applied to collectives as well as individuals. People seem to find that point intriguing and challenging on its own, and I took it for granted somewhat. The response I made to the previous commenter, with the Copernicus analogy, may have worked well in such an essay. I think we can learn a lot by looking at superorganism-types of animal collectives, including humans, and how they can be thought of as individuals themselves.

My approach to intentionality was to couch it in physical terms so as to tease it apart from related mental states that are more subjective and less accessible to the external observer, such as desire. One can think of this approach as removing the "why" aspect from the picture. When a physicist describes the mass of an electron, it is a physical description, devoid of any attempt to explain why the electron that that particular mass and not some other mass. Similarly, in your example of you or your wife grabbing an apple, both actions under my description would be equally intentional. The "why" reasons for those actions are not in the picture, as they are functions of more problematic, inaccessible mental states involving desire or judgment. In this way, I hoped to reduce the understanding of intentionality to its physical building blocks, so that it may be a stepping stone for understanding more complex phenomena. When I mentioned desire in the essay, it was only to distinguish it from my idea of physical intentionality; perhaps that wasn't clear.

You make a good point about informational complexity not necessarily being extensive. I initially considered Kolmogorov complexity (a measure of algorithmic complexity), but I needed a kind of complexity that actually is extensive and could be applied to collectives, which is why I ended up choosing Gell-Mann's concept of "total information." Since this includes entropy in its calculation, it is necessarily an extensive form of complexity. Thanks again for your comments, and best of luck in the contest.

Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Feb. 9, 2017 @ 13:44 GMT
Hi Jochen Szangolies,

Very nice essay and analysis !

Your essay is not clear about the intentionality of bodies (masses as in Physics), But You are exactly correct for biological things.What do you say....?

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta replied on Feb. 11, 2017 @ 00:44 GMT
Hi Karl Coryat,

I am sorry for the copying wrong name....

Very nice essay and analysis !

Your essay is not clear about the intentionality of bodies (masses as in Physics), But You are exactly correct for biological things.What do you say....?

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Author Karl H Coryat replied on Feb. 11, 2017 @ 01:27 GMT
Hi Satyavarapu -- If you're asking whether my approach would say that two masses gravitating toward each other is an intentional act, my answer would be no. GR describes them as traveling along geodesics, so their causal efficacy upon the world is not changing over time. In my treatment, intentionality requires the uptake of information from the environment AND a subsequent causal alteration of information in the world; masses in a gravitational field aren't uptaking information, as they are just trying to continue their straight-line travel through curved spacetime. -Karl

Patrick Tonin wrote on Feb. 16, 2017 @ 20:20 GMT
Hi Karl,

It is an interesting essay. I completely agree with you that intentionality should not be confined to individuals but also applied to collectives, I would say the same about consciousness.

All the best,


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Author Karl H Coryat replied on Feb. 17, 2017 @ 01:25 GMT
Thanks Patrick! -KC

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