Intentionality is an Illusion

Intentionality is an Illusion

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“The brain cannot have thoughts about stuff, it cannot make, have, or act on plans, projects, or purposes it gives itself. “

—Dr. Alexander Rosenberg, Duke University

I work in aviation as an air traffic controller, and the complexity of our airspace system in the United States is pretty amazing. It’s even more amazing to think of all of the planning that went into making air travel safe, and into building the airplanes that are whizzing about the skies. A Boeing 747-800 series jet has, for example, over 6 million parts, and over 155 miles of wiring. Consider all that went into designing and producing that aircraft. Now consider that a Richard Dawkins, a very famous biologist, has said,

“There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference…We are machines for propagating DNA…It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”

—Dr. Richard Dawkins

Does he just mean that we aren’t designed? Or does he mean that we can’t consciously design things? Does he mean that we have no purpose in being here, or that we cannot give ourselves purposes consciously?

On atheism, his statement, at face value, is perhaps sad, but indubitably true. One weirder aspect that atheism seems to commit rational atheists (that is, ones willing to take it all the way to the final conclusions) reach is the denial of design—design of any sort, not just of the human body or of the universe. For example, a Boeing 747 isn’t actually “designed” per these committed atheists. Why? In a discussion with renowned atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris (author of “The End of Faith“), biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne, himself a committed anti-theist, remarked,

“At any one point in time, it is completely the configuration of molecules in the universe—and in particular in your brain—that mandates what you do. You could not have done anything other than what you did. In other words, you don’t have any choices. You think you do, and it looks like you do, but you don’t really.”

—Dr. Jerry Coyne

Because there is no “spirit” in atheism, there is no will. Because there is no will, there are no intentional states of consciousness. You don’t actually design a Boeing 747, nor do you intend to, because as Dr. Harris notes,

“You are no more responsible for the state of your brain in this moment than you are for your height…thoughts simply arise in the mind. But the idea that we as conscious beings are…responsible for the characters of our minds, simply can’t be mapped onto reality.”

—Dr. Sam Harris

But let me explain this further. Atheism commits itself to a denial of intentional states of consciousness, for which God would be the best explanation. Intentionality is the property of being “about” something, or “of” something. It signifies the object-directedness of our thoughts.  To exemplify, I can think *about* my summer vacation or *of* Jennifer Lawrence. Because, in the view of atheism, there is no will, but only physical matter, there is no actual intentionality. A rock or spinal cord isn’t “of” or “about” anything—that is the realm of the mind and spirit.

Put another way, physical objects, like a rock, just don’t have properties of intentionality, and if you don’t have a spirit, then all you are is a physical object. The brain cannot be about something any more than a chair or a table is about something. It is only thoughts which are of something that have this kind of “aboutness” or intentionality. But on this view there is no self—there is no soul—which has the property of intentionality; instead you just have the brain, and intentionality, like free will, is in effect an illusion. So climate change models, airplanes, deodorant—none of these things are designed, as design requires both free will and intentionality.

In his book, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions,” Dr. Alex Rosenberg, a professor at Duke University, sums up this position much better than I can, writing,

“Since the brain cannot have thoughts about stuff, it cannot make, have, or act on plans, projects, or purposes it gives itself. Nor, for that matter, can it act on plans that anyone else favors it with. There are no plans. That’s just more of the illusion Mother Nature exploited for our survival.”

—Dr . Alex Rosenberg

Dr. Rosenberg further said in a dialog,

“I never think about anything; I don’t think we really think about anything.”

—Dr. Alex Rosenberg

So what does this all mean? What does it mean for humanity? What does it mean for, say, being an ally to the LGBTQI2S+ community? Well, it means that you have as much control over supporting that community as does a man who kills a member of it—that is, none. Your actions aren’t more moral than those of a rapist, because morality is itself an aid to survival, an equal and opposite reaction, an illusory chemical state; nothing else. Dr. Sam Harris, from his book, “Free Will,” seems to agree, stating,

“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making…We do not have the freedom we think we have.”

But it is Dr. Rosenberg who sums up the end-realization of atheism better than I can, once again. In “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions,” he summarizes for us all:

➤Is there a God? No.
➤What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
➤What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
➤What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
➤Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
➤Does prayer work? Of course not.
➤Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
➤Is there free will? Not a chance!
➤What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
➤What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
➤Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
➤Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden permissible or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
➤What is love and how can I find it? Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
➤Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury but signifies nothing.
➤Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.

Atheism is the conclusion that nothing has any meaning—not being, not thought; not you.

With love, always,

My friendly signature.


2 thoughts on “Intentionality is an Illusion

    1. Bertrand Russell: “Man…his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave…only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

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