As I mentioned previously, I radically re-wrote my VIDI application based on the referee reports I received last year. The title of the new project I submitted past Fall became “Outsourcing the Mind: Symbolic Intentionality and Tools for Thought in a Brentanian Framework”. In 1874 Brentano (re)introduced the concept of intentionality in contemporary philosophy. Since then it has been regarded as “mark of the mental” (Crane 1998) and as a fundamental characteristic distinguishing human thinking from the information processing of a machine (e.g. because it would require a biological host, cf. Searle 1983; 1984; 2008). If every mental act we perform has intentionality and machines cannot have intentionality, then what exactly is going on when we outsource information processing with signs to tools for thought, such as calculators, as we do every day? In what sense could a machine perform the equivalent of a mental act?
The hypothesis of the project is that a Brentanian approach (perhaps paradoxically) can show that there is no essential opposition between mind and machine when in the use of signs. When something is given only indirectly through signs, we have a symbolic presentation of it: symbolic intentionality. We continuously use signs, often without being fully aware of it, because they are easier to use. It is hard to distinguish at a glance a group of 20 from a group of 21 pebbles without counting them. Yet we can distinguish the numeral signs effortlessly. How do we use signs in thinking and what, if anything, changes when we outsource them to a machine?
The project will answer these questions in their original 19th century context by extending Brentano’s conception of symbolic intentionality to mechanical computation. The project builds on two breakthroughs in my research: the reconstruction of the Brentanist philosophy of mathematics and the new approach to intentionality. The innovative element lies in the combination of the concept of intentionality and the philosophy of mathematics in the School of Brentano and its application to the mechanization of mathematics and logic in the 19th century. This approach has several advantages: 1) The philosophical framework used to analyze the development of mechanical computing in the 19th century is contemporaneous to it, which avoids anachronisms in assessing the limits and possibilities of minds and machines as they were conceived at the time. 2) The central objects and concepts are examined at their origin. The concept of intentionality was re-introduced in contemporary philosophy by Brentano in 1874 and in the same year Willgodt Odhner hand-built the first commercially successful pin-wheel calculator. 3) Approaching computing machinery from the perspective of the School of Brentano has the advantage that we can use a philosophy of mathematics that serves as the foundation for symbolic intentionality.
I recently received the referee reports and things are looking quite a bit better than last year: A+, A, and “A-/B+”. I have to write a reply within a week, so stay tuned!