A continuum of intentionality: linking the biogenic and anthropogenic approaches to cognition

Biology and Philosophy 36 (6):1-31 (2021)
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Biogenic approaches investigate cognition from the standpoint of evolutionary function, asking what cognition does for a living system and then looking for common principles and exhibitions of cognitive strategies in a vast array of living systems—non-neural to neural. One worry which arises for the biogenic approach is that it is overly permissive in terms of what it construes as cognition. In this paper I critically engage with a recent instance of this way of criticising biogenic approaches in order to clarify their theoretical commitments and prospects. In his critique of the biogenic approach, Fred Adams uses the presence of intentional states with conceptual content as a criterion to demarcate cognition-driven behaviour from mere sensory response. In this paper I agree with Adams that intentionality is the mark of the cognitive, but simultaneously reject his overly restrictive conception of intentionality. I argue that understanding intentionality simpliciter as the mark of the mental is compatible with endorsing the biogenic approach. I argue that because cognitive science is not exclusively interested in behaviour driven by intentional states with the kind of content Adams demands, the biogenic approach’s status as an approach to cognition is not called into question. I then go on to propose a novel view of intentionality whereby it is seen to exist along a continuum which increases in the degree of representational complexity: how far into the future representational content can be directed and drive anticipatory behaviour. Understanding intentionality as existing along a continuum allows biogenic approaches and anthropogenic approaches to investigate the same overarching capacity of cognition as expressed in its different forms positioned along the continuum of intentionality. Even if all organisms engage in some behaviour that is driven by weak intentional dynamics, this does not suggest that every behaviour of all organisms is so driven. As such, the worry that the biogenic approach is overly permissive can be avoided.

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Matthew Sims
Ruhr-Universität Bochum


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