Three Stances

by Paul O'Brien

Many people hold the belief that our humanity is somehow threatened when thinkers offer biological explanations about the human race, such as when the theory of evolution is used to account for the origin of life or the science of neurology tries to explain the workings of the mind. There appears to be something disheartening about a theory that tells us that happiness may merely be the product of chemicals in the brain, or that a sense of love may actually be a veiled desire to propagate the species. These kinds of theories can seem inhuman and insensitive to many people, perhaps because they paint a picture of the human race that seems too detached from our intuitive feelings about ourselves. We tend to regard our lives as much more special than what these theories appear to intimate at, and we would like to think that our personal humanity is more within our own control. As a result, many people find biological theories about humanity unconvincing on a personal level despite whatever scientific success they may achieve.

Perhaps this is too hasty a dismissal, however. First of all, I would like to argue that biological theories (or any variety of physical theories) do not automatically exclude the personal, more nonrational qualities that we cherish. For instance, it may be true that we are both the product of an expression of our parents' love (when they made love) and the product of an intricate and blind biological process of combining and reproducing genes (when they had sex and combined their genetic codes). Secondly, the biological theories about humanity are quite humanistic. They are made for our sake; knowing about the physical aspects underlying certain phenomena allows us to make predictions and arrive at more useful explanations. These theories improve our lives, not degrade them, but one must understand certain characteristics about the interaction between such theories and our everyday sense of the world first. That is what I hope to show now.

In an essay called "Mechanism and Responsibility" (from Essays on Freedom of Action 1973), Daniel C. Dennet offers an insightful distinction between three different types of stances or perspectives when regarding something. He applies these different stances to the consideration of how to beat a computer in a game of chess. Since that application makes the stances extremely clear, I would like to use that example here. First of all, one way to beat the computer is to look at how its program works, which is looking at the computer's actions from a "design stance." Someone designed a program that includes a series of conditional moves which commands the computer to move its pieces a certain way given a certain situation (for example, if one's king is vulnerable, then protect the king). As Dennet points out, this stance is helpful when we want to make predictions about the computer's moves, because if you have an understanding of how something is designed, you can predict its actions based upon that design. To understand the computer's gameplay from the design stance, we would look to understand the chess program's "blueprints," guiding principles, or governing laws.

Another way to try to beat the computer is to look at the computer's hardware itself, which is to open up the machine and see how it physically operates. This is the "physical stance," and it involves physical laws and factors, such as how electricity powers the device that plays the game and how certain physical capabilities of the machine affect its gameplay (like memory storage capacity). This stance attempts to see how something operates on its most basic, physical level.

But a third way to address a computer opponent in a chess match is to assume that the computer is just like any other human player; it has a desire to win and possesses rationality to pursue that end. This is looking at the computer from an "Intentional stance," as Dennet puts it.

We know that computers can play chess, and we know that they can win too. This is not a hypothetical example, then, and it is one that clearly shows three potential ways of regarding this chess-playing computer. But which is more real? Which is more accurate? Ontologically, I'm not prepared to say that any one of these stances is any more accurate than the others. Perhaps the greatest temptation is to say that though a computer needs a designed program and physical hardware to play chess, it does not possess rationality and intentions like humans do; therefore the Intentional stance is not as real as the other two stances in this case. But I want to be careful about the assumption that this response makes. It assumes that rationality really only belongs to humans, yet I would hesitate to say such a thing only because I have a very incomplete grasp of just what "rationality" is. Do you know what rationality is? Are you sure that computers can't have it? Or don't already have it? How do you know, for instance, if the author of this paper isn't a computer? (The famous Turing test comes to mind: How could you tell a human from a very sophisticated computer if all you could do was ask them questions without ever seeing them?)

Personally, I do not find the question about which stance is more real than the others as interesting as the following question: Which stance is better than the others? After all, my goal is to beat this thing, not contemplate its ontology. I want to use whichever stance helps me the most to defeat the computer; therefore, I'm seeking a pragmatic answer which doesn't look at what a thing is so much as what a thing does. The best stance will be the most useful stance in this case.

What makes one stance more useful than another will depend on how the computer plays its game. Suppose the chess game is being depicted on a computer screen; if the game keeps resetting, that is, if all the pieces suddenly appear in their original positions, I would think that a malfunction is probably taking place and I would assume a physical stance. Perhaps a part of the disk or drive storing the chess program has malfunctioned, or power fluctuations are interfering with the computer's continuity. Could the error be explained as the product of design? Possibly. Maybe someone designed the program to restart whenever it senses a losing game unfolding. Could the error be explained as the product of rationality? Possibly, because maybe this is not an error at all, but the tactic of a very timid chess-player who forfeits game after game the minute they dislike the way it's going.

Now suppose that turn after turn, the computer never moves its queen diagonally. I would probably assume the design stance in this situation, because the regularity of such a move suggests to me that this is how the computer is programmed to play. It would certainly assist me in beating the computer if I understood that it was designed to act like this; for example, I could easily predict that the queen would never capture my piece if they lie diagonally with one another, which clearly gives me more safety to move around the board. Could the moves be the product of something physical and not designed? It's certainly possible; maybe the computer chips that relay coded commands about the queen moving diagonally are faulty, and thus never get the chance to convey the information. Could the moves be the product of rationality? That too is possible. Maybe the player believes that this is actually good strategy (and how good it would be if they captured my king when I assumed that its queen would not move diagonally).

Now suppose one last thing: Suppose that after a few games of chess, the computer moves its pieces in ways that reveal no malfunctions nor suggest any simple designed moves. Wouldn't it be just as well to treat the computer as if it were really some human playing the game? After all, if the computer plays a complex enough game of chess, the effort to chart its design or hardware and make predictions based upon that would become incredibly difficult; just imagine the complexity of calculations that it would require. It would be far easier and faster to just pretend its human, wouldn't it? And imagine trying to assume the physical or design stance with a normal human opponent; would you chart all of their firing neurons and brain states, or track the intricacies of the person's teachings and psychology regarding chess moves in order to win the game, even if you could?

Well, yes, I actually believe you would if given the proper situation. If a human opponent kept knocking over your pieces, even when they weren't captured, there might be something wrong with their physical dexterity or mental capacity, or maybe someone taught them how to play chess the wrong way. Unless this person was trying to make you mad, the Intentional stance just doesn't seem to stand out as the best stance in this situation, even though we believe that they really have rationality. Or imagine that a human opponent thoroughly defeated you every single time you played; if some neurologist explained to you that this person's brain works far faster and more efficiently than yours given the way its chemicals and neurons work, then that would be a good explanation for why you were beaten. If someone else explained to you that this person was the star pupil of the great Bobby Fischer, that would also be a good explanation for their victories; they were simply taught by a master and learned his winning strategies accordingly. And if someone simply told you that this person has a great intellect, sense of timing, intuition, and strategy, then you would probably believe that to be a good explanation too.

But it isn't very far of a stretch to ask if rationality itself is the product of design or physical limitations. After all, I can make someone feel very happy by giving them a certain amount of a certain chemical, can't I? And can't I make someone feel happy if, say, they psychologically associate the ocean with happiness, and I show them the ocean? But one could also consider whether the design of something is the product of physics or intentions. A computer program certainly needs physics to operate; what good is a computer program without the ability to be physically stored or physically executed? And from a different stance, how could a computer program ever have been made without a human programmer who had the rationality and intention to create it in the first place? Lastly, consider just how often we grant physical objects designs and intentions, and not in any irrational way. When moving bodies collide and interact a certain way, laws governing their motions seem very much like the stuff we see from the design stance. And many times, forces of nature act so strangely to us that we practically believe that they're moving from intentions. Isn't it revealing how humans used to worship aspects of nature as if they were connected to something sentient, like Thor when lightning struck? And isn't it peculiar to think that even today we still give proper names to hurricanes? In a way, then, any one stance could potentially do all the explanatory work you wanted, and yet no one stance seems automatically to ontologically precede or dominate the others.

The most interesting aspect about these three stances is that their real power lies in their explanatory power and not in what something or someone "really" is. What is really real about something as opposed to another thing, anyway? Is my mental life the product of rationality, intentionality, and consciousness? Or is it the product of what I was taught to believe and how my experience teaches me to think? Or is the product of how my brain and body operates? In reality, it could be any of those things, or all of those things. It may be none of those things for all I know! I simply don't know for sure, but I believe that all three stances play a part. I don't believe, for example, that someone could be conscious without any physical hardware, be it a brain or computer processor; take away my brain, and I believe you have taken away the mind as I know it. I also don't believe that someone could be conscious without some sort of program; take away the way I process information and think, and my brain is useless and my consciousness never gets enough organization to form. But take away my rationality and I believe you get a creature that I don't identify myself with; something with just a brain and a program that is not the "me" I regard as myself. (Though controversial, rationality does not need to really exist as something beyond physical form and program for its idea or belief to serve practical, explanatory purposes.) All three stances seem to make their contributions.

Biological theories succeed in offering us as good a physical stance as possible. This is very useful; if I have a headache, I want a chemical that can make it go away. But notice three things: First of all, the physical stance does not automatically explain everything. There is probably a lot more that we don't know about the brain, the origin of species, and the physical world in general than we do. And even if we could explain things in physical terms, it may require such a Herculean undertaking that it wouldn't be worth the trouble. The design stance and Intentional stance still explain many things better and in more useful ways than the physical one. Therefore my second point is that the physical stance does not necessarily exclude the other two stances at all. We can beat the chess computer three different ways, or all three ways, or with any combination thereof. This suggests to me that evolution doesn't need to destroy my belief that humanity is good, or that neurology doesn't need to threaten my feelings of love and passion. As long as I understand that there are different ways of looking at the same thing, then I feel there's no need to feel worried. Since I know so little about what anything really is anyway, I feel satisfied in the belief that what something does is a good enough way to look at the world philosophically.

Finally, notice that understanding things from the physical stance is beneficial. It explains many things far better than the other two stances do, and that makes life better, not worse. Scientists aren't out to burst people's bubbles; they want to explore one aspect of reality that will ultimately help humankind. They do what they do because it pushes humanity up, not down. Perhaps people's negative feelings toward biological theories stems from their belief that one stance really is better than the other two; perhaps people become disheartened by the physical stance when they look upon it from the wrong perspective; perhaps the physical stance seems insensitive only because many of its advocates have tried to make it seem like the only real or sensible stance (extreme reductionists come to mind).

But these opinions simply seem myopic to me. Which stance reflects the real world? Is the real world anything more than the various perspectives and their respective contents (and how would we know it if it was)? Is any one stance ultimately better than any other?

It depends on how you look at it.