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Dan Dennett on Patterns (and Ontology)

I want to look at what Dennett has to say about patterns because 1) I introduced the term in my previous discussion, In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales [1], and 2) it is interesting for what it says about his philosophy generally.

You’ll recall that, in that earlier discussion, I pointed out talk of “free-floating rationales” (FFRs) was authorized by the presence of a certain state of affairs, a certain pattern of relationships among, in Dennett’s particular example, an adult bird, (vulnerable) chicks, and a predator. Does postulating talk of FFRs add anything to the pattern? Does it make anything more predictable? No. Those FFRs are entirely redundant upon the pattern that authorizes them. By Occam’s Razor, they’re unnecessary.

With that, let’s take a quick look at Dennett’s treatment of the role of patterns in his philosophy. First I quote some passages from Dennett, with a bit of commentary, and then I make a few remarks on my somewhat different treatment of patterns. In a third post I’ll be talking about the computational capacities of the mind/brain.

Patterns and the Intentional Stance

Let’s start with a very useful piece Dennett wrote in 1994, “Self-Portrait” [2] – incidentally, I found this quite useful in getting a better sense of what Dennett’s up to. As the title suggests, it’s his account of his intellectual concerns up to that point (his intellectual life goes back to the early 1960s at Harvard and then later at Oxford). The piece doesn’t contain technical arguments for his positions, but rather states what they were and gives their context in his evolving system of thought. For my purposes in this inquiry that’s fine.

He begins by noting, “the two main topics in the philosophy of mind are CONTENT and CONSCIOUSNESS” (p. 236). Intentionality belongs to the theory of content. It was and I presume still is Dennett’s view that the theory of intentionality/content is the more fundamental of the two. Later on he explains that (p. 239):

... I introduced the idea that an intentional system was, by definition, anything that was amenable to analysis by a certain tactic, which I called the intentional stance. This is the tactic of interpreting an entity by adopting the presupposition that it is an approximation of the ideal of an optimally designed (i.e. rational) self-regarding agent. No attempt is made to confirm or disconfirm this presupposition, nor is it necessary to try to specify, in advance of specific analyses, wherein consists RATIONALITY. Rather, the presupposition provides leverage for generating specific predictions of behaviour, via defeasible hypotheses about the content of the control states of the entity.

This represents a position Dennett will call “mild realism” later in the article. We’ll return to that in a bit. But at the moment I want to continue just a bit later on p. 239:

In particular, I have held that since any attributions of function necessarily invoke optimality or rationality assumptions, the attributions of intentionality that depend on them are interpretations of the phenomena - a ‘heuristic overlay’ (1969), describing an inescapably idealized ‘real pattern’ (1991d). Like such abstracta as centres of gravity and parallelograms of force, the BELIEFS and DESIRES posited by the highest stance have no independent and concrete existence, and since this is the case, there would be no deeper facts that could settle the issue if - most improbably - rival intentional interpretations arose that did equally well at rationalizing the history of behaviour of an entity.

Hence his interest in patterns. When one adopts the intentional stance (or the design stance, or the physical stance) one is looking for characteristic patterns.

Now let’s take a brief look at another article, “Real Patterns”, from 1991 [3], pp. 29-31:

We use folk psychology–interpretation of each other as believers, wanters, intenders, and the like–to predict what people will do next. [...] I claim that our power to interpret the actions of others depends on our power–seldom explicitly exercised–to predict them.

Where utter patternlessness or randomness prevails, nothing is predictable. The success of folk-psychological prediction, like the success of any prediction, depends on there being some order or pattern in the world to exploit. Exactly where in the world does this pattern exist? What is the pattern a pattern of?

[...] I want to show that mild realism is the doctrine that makes the most sense when what we are talking about is real patterns, such as the real patterns discernible from the intentional stance.

The important point to hold in mind is that Dennett gets this enterprise off the ground by observing that “Where utter patternlessness or randomness prevails, nothing is predictable.”

He is here piloting his way between the Scylla and Charybdis of holding that abstract objects – beliefs, centers of gravity, – are merely useful fictions and holding that centers of gravity, and beliefs as well, exist in the world as such and have causal force. If attributing beliefs to a person helps you understand and, above all, predict their behavior, then you are warranted in holding that those beliefs are real entities in their minds (and that minds are real entities).

Let’s return to his “Self-Portrait” [1] and see what Dennett has to say about intelligence (p. 240):

The best known instance of this theme in my work is the idea that the way to explain the miraculous-seeming powers of an intelligent intentional system is to decompose it into hierarchically structured teams of ever more stupid intentional systems, ultimately discharging all intelligence-debts in a fabric of stupid mechanisms (1971, 1974, 1978a, 1991a). Lycan (1981) has called this view homuncular functionalism. One may be tempted to ask: are the subpersonal components real intentional systems? At what point in the diminution of prowess as we descend to simple neurons does real intentionality disappear? Don't ask. The reasons for regarding an individual neuron (or a thermostat) as an intentional system are unimpressive, but not zero, and the security of our intentional attributions at the highest levels does not depend on our identifying a lowest-level of real intentionality.

Here you can see mild realism kicking in. We’re looking at a hierarchy of systems. Those at the top obviously and unambiguously exhibit a pattern of intelligent behavior. Those at the bottom do not, but there are nonetheless features about them that seem worth our consideration. The mildness comes into play, if you, in insisting that we not ask just where in this hierarchy we are to find the transition to (or, moving in the other direction) from true intentionality.

To be honest, I think there is something wrong, perhaps even profoundly wrong, with this conceptualization. But that’s not something I want to pursue now. For the moment let’s return to Dennett’s exposition, where he returns to biological evolution and to us (pp. 240-41):

...at what point in evolutionary history did real reason-appreciators, real selves, make their appearance? Don't ask - for the same reason. Here is yet another, more fundamental, version: at what point in the early days of evolution can we speak of genuine function, genuine selection-for and not mere fortuitous preservation of entities that happen to have some self-replicative capacity? Don't ask. Many of the most interesting and important features of our world have emerged, gradually, from a world that initially lacked them - function, intentionality, consciousness, morality, value - and it is a fool's errand to try to identify a first or most-simple instance of the ‘real’ thing. It is for the same reason a mistake to suppose that real differences in the world must exist to answer all the questions our systems of content attribution permit us to ask.

Obviously Dennett is now talking about evolution as an intentional system, where the intentionality is directed by a “Mother Nature” toward the creatures she “creates”. Mother Nature, of course, is a euphemism/metaphor for the natural world as a whole, but it is one that Dennett himself has employed, as we saw in my previous post on his ideas [1]. The intentional relationship Dennett is seeing is somehow between the organism and its environment. The organism is, in some sense, about the environment in which it lives. At this point, however, I want to turn from Dennett and look at my own views on patterns.

Patterns in General and Master Patterns

My own interest in patterns goes back a long way. The notion of patterns is, of course, quite a general one, so general that one could claim than we’re all interested in patterns of one sort or another. But it’s something else again to talk explicitly of patterns.

When I became a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo I studied with David Hays, a social scientist and computational linguist. He was interested in how abstract concepts could be formulated and argued that they are defined over ( patterns of objects and events interacting with one another (e.g. [5]). Charity was our paradigmatic example. What is charity? Why charity is when someone does something nice for someone else without thought of award. It is that whole state of affairs, in Hays’s view, that constitute charity as an abstracta, to borrow a term from Dennett. Charity is nowhere in that little story as a differentiated component but is rather (the pattern of) the whole thing. Anytime you see something that matches that pattern, you’ve found an instance of charity.

Somewhat later I began to think of the biological niche as a pattern. And now we enter Dennett’s territory, the relationship between an organism and the world to which it is adapted. As I put it in some old notes:

The last time I looked (in the 1970s) I was unable to find a clean definition of the niche, and of correlative terms such as environment and habitat. Environments are complex and so are organisms. The niche seems to be a pattern which exists only in the relationship between an organism and its environment.

There are biologists who talk about a niche as existing independently of any organism. The niche exists and the organism moves into it. This really isn't satisfactory. For there is a sense in which organisms create niches. And I’m not thinking of the concept of niche construction, where an animal actively modifies its environment by building nests and trails and so forth, though that is obviously as aspect of the process.

One can think of an organism as a set of capacities. Given some pre-existing organism, it creates a niche when placed into the appropriate environment, namely, an environment whose structure corresponds to the organism's capacities.

But, in fact, there is no such thing as a pre-existing organism. Organisms always exist in environments, to which they are always (more or less) adapted.

In the abstract we can imagine talking about the material, energetic, and informatic patterns which are such that organisms, perhaps of a specific chemistry (such as one based on carbon and oxygen), are evolved to exploit them. Consider the following definition […]:

A niche is a collection environmental phenomena in which low energy utilization of information allows an organism economically to obtain the energy and materials it needs to maintain its life.

As far as I can tell they only way to identify such a collection of environmental phenomena is to design and an organism which can successfully exploit them. And the best way to “design” such an organism is to evolve it.

I’m not here interested in whether or not organisms are intentional systems, or whether evolution as a whole is an intentional system. Those are the things Dennett is interested in. But we are both interested in the ‘fit’ between an organism and its world. And that’s where I talk of patterns, as the fit between organism and world. One identifies those patterns organism by organism.

But that is not quite what Dennett is doing. He seems to be looking for “master” patterns. There are only a small number of these and each has very wide scope. Taken together they embrace the world.

While his article, “Real Patterns”, talks of patterns in general, and how spotting patterns in the world is a useful thing to do, he’s not interested in patterns in general. He’s specifically interested in intentionality as a pattern, one around which the so-called intentional stance is built. The intentional stance is a way of looking at the world, of attempting to predict the actions of things and events. In Dennett’s philosophical system it runs in parallel with the physical stance and the design stance.

Here’s what the Wikipedia says about those stances [4]:

The core idea is that, when understanding, explaining and/or predicting the behavior of an object, we can choose to view it at varying levels of abstraction. The more concrete the level, the more accurate in principle our predictions are; the more abstract, the greater the computational power we gain by zooming out and skipping over the irrelevant details.

Dennett defines three levels of abstraction, attained by adopting one of three entirely different “stances”, or intellectual strategies: the physical stance; the design stance; and the intentional stance:

• The most concrete is the physical stance, the domain of physics and chemistry, which makes predictions from knowledge of the physical constitution of the system and the physical laws that govern its operation; and thus, given a particular set of physical laws and initial conditions, and a particular configuration, a specific future state is predicted (this could also be called the “structure stance”). At this level, we are concerned with such things as mass, energy, velocity, and chemical composition. [...]

• Somewhat more abstract is the design stance, the domain of biology and engineering, which requires no knowledge of the physical constitution or the physical laws that govern a system's operation. Based on an implicit assumption that there is no malfunction in the system, predictions are made from knowledge of the purpose of the system’s design (this could also be called the “teleological stance”). At this level, we are concerned with such things as purpose, function and design. [...]

• Most abstract is the intentional stance, the domain of software and minds, which requires no knowledge of either structure or design, and “[clarifies] the logic of mentalistic explanations of behaviour, their predictive power, and their relation to other forms of explanation” (Bolton & Hill, 1996, p. 24). Predictions are made on the basis of explanations expressed in terms of meaningful mental states; and, given the task of predicting or explaining the behaviour of a specific agent (a person, animal, corporation, artifact, nation, etc.), it is implicitly assumed that the agent will always act on the basis of its beliefs and desires in order to get precisely what it wants (this could also be called the “folk psychology stance”). At this level, we are concerned with such things as belief, thinking and intent. [...]

A key point is that switching to a higher level of abstraction has its risks as well as its benefits. For example, when we view both a bimetallic strip and a tube of mercury as thermometers, we can lose track of the fact that they differ in accuracy and temperature range, leading to false predictions as soon as the thermometer is used outside the circumstances for which it was designed. The actions of a mercury thermometer heated to 500 °C can no longer be predicted on the basis of treating it as a thermometer; we have to sink down to the physical stance to understand it as a melted and boiled piece of junk. For that matter, the "actions" of a dead bird are not predictable in terms of beliefs or desires.

Make of that what you will. What matters for the present discussion is that these three stances appear to be something like master patterns that one applies to the world. Those are the patterns that Dennett has introduced into his philosophical system.

My own interest in patterns is somewhat different from this. I certainly agree with Dennett’s assertion that “the success of any prediction, depends on there being some order or pattern in the world to exploit.” When people in cognitive science talk of pattern-matching they’re talking of a very general perceptual and cognitive activity, one, incidentally, which humans are good at and computers not so good. When Hays was stalking the psycholinguistic account of charity, he saw it as a state of affairs in the world that the mind exploited by creating conceptual and linguistic machinery for recognizing, thinking about, and talking about that state of affairs. And so it is with every other abstract state of affairs: fate, gravity, god, benevolence, you name it.

In this view Dennett’s stances are just three more patterns one can discern in the world. In this view we may note that Dennett gives those patterns a great deal of conceptual privilege, arguing that everything in the world is to be seen in terms of one or more of these master patterns, as appropriate. In this view, that is a fact about Dennett’s thought, not about the world. Whether it is true of the world is a different matter.

And that’s where I want to go in the next, and I hope last, post in this series, to how the mechanisms of thought. There I’m going to argue that when Dennett (or anyone else) invokes this intentional stance they’re accessing our neural machinery for interacting with others. For the moment, call it a module if you will, but that’s not, in my view, the best way to think of it. They’re calling on it because its computational facilities are the richest we’ve got and so it is useful to thinking about many things besides other people.


[1] Bill Benzon. In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales. New Savanna (blog), July 1, 2015. URL: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2015/07/in-search-of-dennetts-free-floating.html

[2] Dennett, Daniel C. “Self-Portrait.” A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, edited by S. Guttenplan. 236-244, Oxford: Blackwell Press, 1994.

[3] Dennett, Daniel C. “Real Patterns,” Journal of Philosophy, LXXXVIII, 27-51, January 1991.

[4] Intentional Stance. Wikipedia. Accessed July 14, 2015. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_stance

[5] David G. Hays. On "Alienation": An Essay in the Psycholinguistics of Science. In (R.R. Geyer & D. R. Schietzer, Eds.): Theories of Alienation. pp. 169-187. Available at this URL: http://www.academia.edu/9203457/On_Alienation_An_Essay_in_the_Psycholinguistics_of_Science