Intentionally Rational

The intentional agency concept, which means humans act in accordance with their goals and is a restatement of rational choice theory, is typically thought of as an acceptable way of showing, in both a philosophical and scientific sense, that we have free will, and is also a way of predicting behavior using means-end rationality.  There can’t be any dispute that we act in goal-oriented ways, but the exact nature of how we reason when making choices and how much control we think we have affects how fair free-will is.

The utilitarian person, for whom rationality is economic rationality—the maximization of utility—does not exist.  Real human beings are not, for the most part, in conscious control of-or even consciously aware of-their reasoning.   People seldom engage in a form of economic reason that could maximize utility. [1] (i)

What I have learned is that when we are using intentional agency to reason with we can’t reduce down to the physical-level and talk about causes that involve neuroscience or biochemistry.  Trust me I have tried.  The physical and intentional are fundamentally incompatible.  This is because the concept intentional is understood relative to other concepts by logical and semantic relationships not causal.  So this is a way that philosophers maintain that intentional agency will never be reduced to the physical level.

A system of propositional attitudes must inevitably fail to capture what is going on here, though it may reflect just enough superficial structure to sustain an alchemylike tradition among folk who lack any better theory. [2]

Materialists and reductionists, which are scientists, would love to do away with intentional agency.  I am giving intentional agency a chance since Christian List claims that it’s “indispensable to the social and behavioral sciences”, and I explain it below and test with inputs.  But if it is wrong in a fundamental way on human nature, then perhaps it doesn’t capture the essence of free will.

Intentional Agency 

Despite claiming that rational choice theory—a sophisticated version of intentional agency—falls short of describing how we think and behave, intentional agency is not to be dismissed because it has practical value.  It, however, has its limits in what it can explain.  “Intentional agency” constitutes a form of free will, and thus shows its existence.  But that is not good enough since we would have to show that we have “alternative possibilities” and that we are the cause of our acts or “causal control” [2].

Free will is a lot of things, but one popular way of conceptualizing is with intentional agency, which is the capacity to act free and purposeful.  To be an intentional agent, we must have beliefs (representational states) on how things are, desires (motivational) on how we want these things to be, and have the capacity to interact with our surroundings to attain these things [2].  Beliefs are propositions that are assumed true that we act on by means of our desires.  These beliefs are about something and have meaning.

We just defined a simple model.  For the model to meet the condition of instrumentally rational, then the system’s beliefs must be consistent, the beliefs respond coherently with the information received, and its actions are effectively guided by its desires, given its beliefs [2].  This requirement of being instrumentally rational of course does not always happen as we often harbor inconsistent beliefs, and we don’t always respond effectively to our desires.  The point here is that we have the intention to do something.

Intentionality Works

We can test if an agent is an intentional agent if we can hypothesize what its intentional states (beliefs, desires, and preferences) are but assume that they will be instrumentally rational.  If they act in a rational way, then we made a correct prediction.  We must use caution because a thermostat would qualify for an intentional agent (it’s actually best modeled as a negative feedback system).  If we want to be exclusive, then we impose conditions to meet like it having to be indispensable for explanatory purposes [2].

To illustrate, suppose we believe that we can get our car washed.  We believe that we can get our car washed is an attitude reflected in reality.  Since we believe that it is true that we can get our car washed, then we are probably also motivated to do it.  So we can explain the car washing act, which is what psychology does—explains actions in terms of beliefs, desires, and preferences—by saying that the agent believed that they were capable of getting the car washed, wanted to do it, and therefore act to meet a need.

For a test on robustness, I will give a more complicated but real example.  Let us say we believe that all people are self-interested and have a desire to not share gossip.  What if we are in a situation where we spill the beans and gossip come pouring out?  This happens to people a lot, and they claim that they have no control over it.  Some social and evolutionary psychologists theorize that it has survival value to our species when we share the status of others, which may create a conflicting desire to share gossip (ii).

We can’t have two conflicting motivational states though because it wouldn’t be consistent and the model wouldn’t work — that is, the real inputs that I gave would not work with instrumental rationality.  I need to put some more thought into this because philosophers claim that it is off-limits because we can’t import neuroscience into it.  They then use it to prove free will.


i) Intentionality, which is what people do when they maximize their benefits in life, seems to imply that we have conscious control over our beliefs, desires, and preferences.  We don’t have the perceived control that we think we do.  This is not a threat to intentional agency as it is only saying that we don’t reason, which results in action, in a kind of way that is portrayed by economists.

It is not suggesting that we aren’t self-interested, but it is saying that there is more to human nature than self-interest.  We certainly are rational in the sense that we respond to consequences, tradeoffs, incentives, and can act in a purposeful way, but intentional agency does not seem to do justice to the nuances and complexity found with real human reason and behavior.

It is no surprise that the cause of a subject’s action in a psychological experiment, such as his or her hand movement, is not a conscious intention but some underlying physical, neural state. Libet’s experiments, it appears, merely confirm what theoretical considerations imply already—namely, that we do not have the intentional control over our actions that we conventionally think we have. [2]

ii) I said not to gossip is the desire because we have the belief of being self-interested.  If people are self-interested, then they will use the gossip in a way that serves their interests.  But social science says we may have a conflicting belief to share gossip because it has survival value.  So we have competing desires which the system doesn’t like.


[1] Lakoff, George. Philosophy in the Flesh.

[2] List, Christian.  Why Free Will Is Real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.