Arguments from history, pt 1
Ultimately, intent (like all concepts) is pragmatic. We constructed and continue to use the category because it serves a purpose, because we update behavior on its basis.
The broad purpose of “intent” is to assist us in our future forecasting of other actors. If an action was performed intentionally, then it tells us something important about the goals, capacities, and desires of the actor. This ties in to attributions of moral blame, and to variable outcomes in judicial/regulatory systems, etc.
Humans are often ignorant of their real motivations. They have incentives to fabricate motivations, both to themselves and others. There is no good reason to believe that our motivations “exist” in some identifiable, transparent form as verbal representations, stored in our minds, which can be discovered by “being honest” with ourselves, or by “listening to our feelings.”
If we wish to understand human motivation and rationale, we cannot rely on testimony from actors as to their motivations. (Although occasionally this self-conceptualization or narrativization may be a useful datapoint.)
If Y outcome only happens, or is only likely to happen given X intentionality of a superorganism, then we can attribute X intentionality to that superorganism. Thus “The US hasn’t been invaded” tells us about the US’s goals. (Any “negative” event—i.e. lack of occurrence—can be equally conceptualized as a positive.)
In ethology, there is a similar need to treat animal motivation and intent as a black box. However, scientists studying animal signaling have the advantage of a relatively close coupling between base- and mesa-optimizer: less creative intelligence and a cultural compounding/accumulation in non-human animals makes the division between adaptive and non-adaptive behaviors stable and straightforward. In human beings, behaviors which we would consider clearly intentional (repeated, deliberate, and performed with the sanction of the conscious mind) are often deeply maladaptive, both from an evolutionary (base optimizer) perspective and also from the hedonistic (mesa-optimizer) perspective.1
From here on out, I’ll use “hedonism” and “hedonistic” to refer to behavior that maximizes reward, and the perspective on behavior that wishes to maximize reward.↩︎