8. A World Beyond Our Intentions

And what about the nature inside us, especially the part of it that does all this knowing and imagining? Our own minds are also part of our relationship with the living world around us. Thanks to contemporary neuroscience, our imagination of the mind is taking on new dimensions as new investigative tools give access to processes in the brain that not long ago were impossible to study. Many differences are emerging between what our cognitive equipment is and what we imagine it to be, namely, a self that is an efficient cause. There are good reasons why we imagine the self as we do, and I’m not suggesting we can or should change that. But what I want to do here is to stand back from the self for a moment and view it pragmatically as a cognitive tool. If we can bracket the self in this way, imaginatively, I believe we can ultimately see some of its effects on our relationship with the natural world.

The life around us is not organized around our intentions and never will be. In order to imagine the world of formal cause in which we actually live – that is, the world conceived in ecosystem fashion, as opposed to the mechanistically conceived world we have been living in – we need to do something that doesn’t come easy: move our imagination out away from the self which is such an intimate part of our equipment. We need to make room in the mind for a larger reality, an effort like that Copernicus made when he mentally removed the earth from the center of the solar system. It was not easy to imagine that, given that the earth is where we are at all times. Neither is it easy to step aside from the personal reality we create in which we imagine that when something desirable happens, our intentions must be the cause. But if we do so, then I believe we can understand the living world around us better.


There are on the order of tens of billions of neurons in the brain, and each one has several thousand synapses bringing it inputs from other neurons. In the cortex of an adult, any given neuron is within connecting range of roughly a million other neurons, and each neuron maintains at least ten thousand input and output connections. The brain does not work by linear chains of efficient cause but by causal feedback loops. It is self-organizing all the time, creating ever new patterns of neural activity that have the potential to change rapidly at any moment. These patterns are chaotic in the specialized sense that applies to complex self-organizing systems: chaos harbors a hidden order that can manifest itself from one moment to the next.

Thanks to recent brain imaging techniques, neuroscientists can give a more and more detailed account of the elaborate processing outside stimuli undergo before they become the perceptions of which we are aware, and from which we make meaning. Raw sense data serve their purpose in the construction of patterns of neural activity, after which they’re over and done with, discarded; what becomes perception, thereafter, is neural patterns that have been constructed within the brain. No forms from without are being taken into our awareness. The brain creates signifiers (patterns of neural activity) that stand for things in the outside world, but neuroscientists disagree on whether these signifiers are stable or not. Our memory does not store a fixed pattern representing each past experience; there would not be room for that in the brain, given the complexity of what would have to be stored. Instead, one current hypothesis goes, what we store is a set of directions for how to create an as-if experience of a past event (via a sequence of neural events) rather than an actual copy or image of that event. If this is so, then memory is imagination. A dynamic, shifting, unfolding relationship between the brain and the outside world creates the impression of a relatively stable reality. To some remarkable extent, we’re making stability or constancy up as we go along, and this hidden property strikes me as one of the salient facts about our cognitive life, new evidence of how far we are from perceiving the thing-in-itself.

It may seem intuitively obvious to say that we act in response to what we perceive, but perception, it turns out, is already an action that involves intention. Intention – orientation toward a goal, whether it’s tiny and immediate or the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition – sets the stage for perception through a brain activity known as “preafference.” The word afferent refers to neural impulses coming in toward the brain; preafference, then, is what prepares for the afferent signals. The brain predicts sensory experiences that will occur as a result of intentional action and renders itself ready to pick those particular sights, smells and so forth out of the onrush of stimuli.

So before perception occurs, it is framed and guided by an intention to act. The brain is constantly forming and testing a hypothesis which, if it were translated into language, would take the form of “If I do this, then such-and-such will be the result.” We have an intention from moment to moment, and we form a hypothesis, fleeting and wordless, about what action we should take to achieve it. We frame our perceptions in such a way as to make the consequences of this action perceivable, we try to carry it out, we perceive the results of our action, we learn something and modify our actions accordingly.

All this happens over and over at such a rate that we generally don’t become aware of the process having stages. If I’m hammering a nail into a cabinet I’m building, my goal is to drive this particular nail in this particular spot. I’ve hammered untold thousands of nails in my lifetime, and dozens of nails into this particular project, but I’ve never driven this nail in this place before. There is something specific about this situation that makes my action intentional, though that doesn’t mean I need to have an especially focused consciousness of my every movement. Without thinking about it I position my body and my vision in what seems to be the most advantageous way (the result of my “hypothesis” that doesn’t take the form of words); I hit the nail and damn, I bend it. I’ve learned something: that angle didn’t work. Try again.

There are some remarkable things about this everyday experience, and all of our experience, to be learned from recent neuroscience. One is that the brain activity of forming an intention precedes the awareness of intending something, by about half a second. Initiation of the action has already begun in the brain by the time we become aware of being about to act; awareness is not the initiator. Interestingly, the law has long acknowledged that people sometimes do intentional things before their consciousness has a chance to intervene and stop them: it’s called a “crime of passion.”

Consciousness comes to the fore at the point where learning needs to happen – the instant when I bend off the nail and say “Damn it.” Consciousness is an operator in the engineering sense: it modulates future action. Awareness is forever playing catch-up; it’s not instigating the action, but rather noticing it, reflecting on it, learning from the action and creating a changed conception of action to come.

Like all organisms we are preoccupied, far below consciousness, with staying alive. We’re here because we, like all living creatures, have evolved to function in a way that promotes our survival. In common with other organisms, including those that don’t have our kind of consciousness, we intend things that keep us going. As we repeatedly test the hypothesis that “If I do this, such-and-such will follow,” what’s at stake varies enormously from moment to moment. When our intentions are as fundamental as getting enough to eat, protecting ourselves from tornadoes or tigers, reproducing and raising our offspring, we need our intentions to be fulfilled, or else. Our motivation couldn’t be more basic. As a species, our way of encountering the world must work (or we wouldn’t be here), and as individuals, we each need it to keep on working, for reasons of life and death. My point ultimately is a simple one: our survival as organisms is bound up with our imagining that what happens in the world around us is organized around our intentions – even though that is far from the whole truth.

The neural mechanisms of intentionality have a fundamental grammar, so to speak, of “I intend that, so I cause that.” There are a number of reasons why this may not be true.

It is demonstrably true that my awareness of intending something is not what causes it. Something else does the intending and awareness follows along in its wake. Even leaving that counter-intuitive fact aside, it is not necessarily true at all that my intention causes an outcome. Believing that conscious intention is a cause may be nothing but the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: “I intended it, it happened, therefore my intending made it happen.” Perhaps intending took place alongside the events, on a separate track, rather than making them happen. Even regardless of the part played by my intentions, I may not have been the only actor at work in a situation, so I couldn’t have been the cause of anything that happened; yet I may be ignorant of the other actors at work and so convince myself that I was the reason for the outcome. That is what I believe we’ve done vis-à-vis the natural world, much of the time.

There is a certain amount of blind faith involved in believing that my intention can make the reality around me line up the way I want. But I have to believe it can, so that I can operate in the world. We have no choice but to exist in a personal reality that is constructed from the beginning around our intentions; we get our perceptions in a way that’s framed by those intentions, through preafference, before they ever arrive. And if we did not believe in a causal relationship between intention and outcome, we’d be living in a world that made little sense, with far less ability to learn from our actions.

A deeply experienced sailor I know, Simon Wynn, once said that on board a boat, “You have to trust your equipment, and part of your equipment is you.” I often think about this piece of advice. One thing he meant was that sailing is risky and unpredictable, something can and usually will go wrong, and yet if you don’t trust your equipment, you can’t even get underway. On top of that, part of your equipment is you. You know that your knowledge of the situation is finite, your experience of sailing has some limits, you exist in a state of inevitable fallibility, and yet you must trust yourself or you can’t make decisions – and to be unable to take action is to lose control of your boat.

All organisms are in this state, I think, of having to trust their fallible, vulnerable equipment amid the various risks and threats of being alive.We humans, as single-handed sailors of our own bodies, have to trust our cognitive equipment, which identifies us totally with the way our intentions interact with the world around us. We experience our perceptions as being funnelled into an elusive mental image: a self, an abiding yet indescribable essence that continues as long as I continue. The idea of the self is our intuitively accessible interface for the workings of the brain. It enables me to say that I have this single thing, my #1 piece of equipment, which does the thinking, perceiving, intending, etc., and crucially, it makes things happen in the world. I’m suggesting here that the self as efficient cause is a useful fiction which we are hard-wired to believe in. The self as efficient cause is the perfectly comfortable tool that the “I” of awareness uses in order to operate the autonomous organism that we are.

By thinking that there is an abiding essence and prime mover within us we imagine, and thus create, the trustworthy equipment that has accumulated a lifetime’s learning. The self is the place all that hard-earned survival skill is nominally stored, in the form of feelings and intuitions as much as anything else. We have everything to gain by thinking there is such an essence within. But it isn’t a thing or a given; it’s our creation. Nonetheless it is potent, and made moreso by our imagining it as a sovereign prime mover. The poem “Invictus” has appeared in countless anthologies not because it is a good poem but because it says what people want to hear: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”

So there are deeply pragmatic reasons why we believe in the power of the self, even though it isn’t the causal center of the mind (which, as a complex system, doesn’t have one), let alone the world. At the same time, I believe that this understanding of how we ourselves work subtly stands in the way of imagining how the complex natural systems around us work. It’s easy to see the aspects of the world that are analogous to our own way of functioning; it’s much more difficult to imagine those that are not. Of Aristotle’s four causes, three of them – material, efficient, and final – correspond to our own experience of life and self, in a most personal way. Material cause: we know that we need to eat and drink, we require physical things of all kinds. Efficient cause: few waking minutes pass without our knowing that in some way we alter something around us. Final cause: we operate all the time, moment by moment, on the basis of purpose, intention. The one kind of causation that we do not identify with is formal cause – that which is caused by structure, by an organization of things – because it is a relational cause rather than a material or efficient one, and because it involves multiple agents. The set of relationships that is a formal cause does not require consciousness or intention in order to have an effect, and that makes it absolutely unlike our self-awareness. Formal cause by definition involves multiple agents acting simultaneously, and we don’t experience ourselves as multiple beings. But formal cause is crucial because it is the basis of aliveness. Formal cause in the living world around us and including us among the multiple agents – a complex system from which we cannot stand apart – is what we need to imagine, even if we can’t identify with it, in order to envision our own place in that world.

Thinking about the self is a tricky intellectual effort, but one of its key outcomes is a lived experience rather than an idea. Reflecting on the self raises a question that at first glance seems absurd because it implies an infinite regress: “What is this ‘I’ that is having a self?” Yet running up against this seeming absurdity is not a sign of error. Here in our own mental world we experience the closed causal loop, the “circular reasoning” characteristic of life. You try to look back up the road of causation to find the first cause, the essence of self, and instead you have a feeling of not even being able to get started, a sensation of “there’s nothing here but me thinking.” You never find it because the “I” of awareness and the self that the “I” “has” form a causal loop. When you think about the self, or try to, autopoiesis ceases to be an abstract concept; you feel your own aliveness as a mystery. You experience subjectively what it feels like for a system to be self-organizing. The encounter is opaque, unexpected, intriguing. You reach a limit of thought; something else is going on which your consciousness cannot penetrate or direct. And the mystery you experience at such a moment, in your own inner world, is going on all around us as well.


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