In my previous post, What is the Totality of a Human Life?: Individuals and Communities, I explored some issues related to meaningfulness, using terms which might allow a slightly more disciplined discourse and thought than what is currently used by knowledgeable and insightful thinkers as well as many others.
I think it necessary to delve a little more deeply into the individual and communal aspects of intent. See one of my early essays from Acts of Being: What is Mind?: Is Christian Morality a Natural Morality? and, if you desire, some following posts which discuss the book, How Brains Make Up Their Minds, by the neuroscientist and philosopher, Walter J Freeman. In that book, Freeman tells us:
An intent is the directing of an action toward some future goal that is defined and chosen by the actor. It differs from a motive, which is the reason and explanation of the action, and from a desire, which is the awareness and experience stemming from the intent. A man shoots another with the intent to kill, which is separate from why he does it and with what feeling.
An intent might not even be consciously seen though the goal of that intent is being actively sought: a seed and then a seedling tries to grow and develop its fullness of leaves and flowers and then sets seeds to reproduce. The directedness of intent doesn’t necessarily involve consciousness, at least not within the full context of Thomistic thought of traditional biological or legal thought. The growth processes of all organisms is intentional. The cells of a crocodile embryo in the egg don’t just proliferate in any which way, but rather proliferate in an organized way toward various long-range goals but immediately toward the goal of becoming a somewhat more mature organism: an active baby crocodile. A man who regularly drinks to the point of inebriation and then drives can be said to `intend’ to commit vehicular homicide. Whether he is driven by various problems including some rare genetic disorder or whether he simply likes to drink to excess so that he’s willing to risk his own life and the life of others, he intends the development of a very dangerous habit.
Consciousness can be very good, even self-consciousness can sometimes be good—though not at all times. Musicians and craftsmen and athletes and professional mathematicians consciously develop their skills but then lose that consciousness in the very processes which are the deployments of those skills.
Jascha Heifetz practiced and thought about music and about the physical acts of playing the violin. His intent was to become a skilled violinist and he achieved true greatness. That greatness involved more practice on a particular piece and the development of an awareness of that piece that he might anticipate some very difficult acts of bodily movement. The actual playing involved a losing of himself in the music and necessarily so as the conscious regions of the human brain don’t work fast enough to actually think about such rapid movement of hand and the bow which had become part of his hand.
Evolution gifted human beings with a brain which reached conscious and even self-conscious awareness of self and surroundings. That allowed awareness also of the future and of future possibilities better than those of present possibilities. Our ancestors had become capable of planning beyond such acts as the simple food-hoarding or the positioning dens or nests for easier care and more secure protection of young ones. Consciousness and self-consciousness can guide us into a future by setting goals and forming the habits of mind and heart and hands which make it more possible to intend toward a goal such as singing well enough to be part of a good-quality choir. Even at such a higher-level, cultural process, most of our thoughts and feelings and acts won’t be consciously guided in the way of our setting a practice schedule. We become part of a choir by losing ourselves even in most rehearsals, learning to respond by habit to the hand movements of the choir director and the voices of the surrounding singers; I’m told I have a decent voice at that lower-level and I seem to have pretty good relative pitch, but I was surprised to realize I intend to the goal of singing as well as my limited talents allow partly by focusing on high-quality voices in a nearby range. I’ve also realized I instinctively stop singing when my sinuses are irritated so that I can’t hear my own voice clearly. Having come to realize these and other facts about my own self, I can use rationality in the light of conscious awareness and self-conscious awareness to do a little better—it won’t take much to reach the limits of my modest singing talents.
We modern human beings, both individual and communal, have the capability of attaining to a far higher level of consciousness—which is different from saying we can `control’ our economic or political systems in the way imagined by Marxists or Central Bankers. As communities and as individuals, we can intend good futures, proper growth and development toward a better state of human being and we can do this best in a conscious manner. Yet, there is little evidence in the United States and in other parts of the West that even the best-educated of our leaders have attained much self-awareness in an individual or communal sense. To a certain extent, this is caused by the reductionism I’ve discussed before—see A Very Simplified View of the Woes of Christianity—Now and at Two Earlier Times. In this and other writings, I dealt with the error of reductionism, that is—reduction to atoms or elements. For some reason, some are inclined to think that only individuals are real and communities are nominal, though few would claim that only hydrogen and oxygen are real and water is a substance which exists only in name. Others have a sort of reverse reductionism: they recognize complex entities, such as human communities—such as those of politics and economics, and think those entities overwhelm the individuals and reduce them to mere components fully controlled by the larger-scale forces of human history. We need a balanced, and necessarily complex, understanding of the reality of both individual human being and communal human being.
If communities are real human being, they must have their own intents, their intentional movement and development are toward some goals which might be quite difficult for individuals to perceive, though it might also be difficult for individuals to see their own goals—however much they might delude themselves. The ultimate community is the Body of Christ, more complex and more complete in its human being than the greatest of civilizations in this mortal realm.
How in the world could all of this work in providing us with a necessary understanding of the growth and development of human being, individual and communal? I’ve written of some of the qualitative ideas which can be drawn from modern mathematics—see my freely downloadable book, The Shape of Reality, ideas which lead to plausible discussion of the reality of human communities on a more or less static basis. Now I’m writing about a complex entity (a large-scale community) which has intents—which involve the dynamic processes of growth and development; that large-scale community which is the pilgrim Body of Christ, or most certainly any community on the scale of a civilization, is composed of smaller-scale communities and communities of all scales are composed of individuals and each of these smaller-scale communities and each of these individuals have intents, directed movements and developments toward goals. Speaking simply, the major intents of each of these human communities and individuals is towards the goal of achieving a properly rich and complex human being.
Below the grand level of a civilization, Christ-centered or not, lie various levels of communities and the human individuals who are the members of this great complex of communities. So it is that we have major parts of the human race intending toward human being communal and individual which exercises high standards as researchers and teachers in mathematics and house-builders and doctors and priests and so on. The Elks and Lions and Moose try to build fraternal bonds by way of both recreational and charitable activities. This is also the case for a large number of groups at various churches and synagogues. Volunteers and paid employees help those in need at the Red Cross and hospitals and food-banks. Policemen keep order and, along with firemen and paramedics and others try to maintain public safety. Does anyone really think that all of this will go away if we enter the World of the Resurrected, that we strive to become not only good human beings but also good electrical engineers or metal-workers or full-time moms only to become generic angelic critters.
As some Christians have claimed: we work toward a Christ-like state by being better parents and better retail clerks and better volunteers on the committees of our town governments. We are what we achieve and will remain such even as we share God’s life in the World of the Resurrected.
Communal intent is an important issue for a charitable reason: in the strongest Christian terms, it allows the weaker among us and even those with various sinful tendencies to be saved as members of the Body Christ and as members of lesser communities within that Body. In this-worldly terms, a weaker statement could be made which would be of great importance to Christians and to other advocates of civilization(s); short of truly terrible crimes, a man with violent tendencies could be taught habits which could—no guarantees—help him to live up to better standards than might be natural to him. It would then be up to God to complete the processes involved in bringing a person with some level of sociopathic tendencies to salvation. In any case, the progress of penitentiaries from therapeutic institutions to institutions of simple incarceration to pools of cheap labor and probably a bit of all of those at most times, is just one of many examples of liberal institutions failing to help either the alleged freestanding individuals or the societies viewed as contractual gatherings of such freestanding individuals.
It’s arguably the case that the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century were settings for a war between those trying to teach us that we’re either freestanding individuals (the West) or mere components in collectives. We lost touch with even modest efforts to reach a more balanced understanding of human being, such as the teaching of Edmund Burke and others that we’re tied to not only other human beings currently alive but also to those dead and those not yet born.
How does this all come together? Sure, we can speak and write of an invisible hand, but Adam Smith and others used that concept to point to a still mysterious factor in human communal life. There has been little progress toward a better understanding, though some progress has been made in terms of potentially useful mathematical techniques by theorists of `complex systems. I’m proposing a way to move forward, one which points to a need for some sort of shared coherence, unity, and completeness of human being at the level of communities and individuals. So it is that I’d combined those three important criteria of individual or communal personhood, coherence and unity and completeness, with the concept of intent to produce the concept of growth toward some state which is more coherent and more unified and more complete, a state which allows, for the individual, survival and perhaps reproduction and perhaps even enjoyment or something akin to it. Something of the sort is also true for communities, but I’ll leave that for the contemplation of the reader as this essay has already grown in complexity and confusion. For good and bad, the reader is seeing the actual act of philosophy, the development of ideas in real-time.
A bit more simply, intentionality is the path from here to there, whether the particular complex entity knows it is moving and growing towards a goal or whether it is constituted so as to move and grow as if it knew all about that goal. Humans, individual and communal, share many unconscious processes with rattlesnakes and even stars. A healthy human baby is starting on a path where he seeks proper nutrition, proper exercise, and proper stimulus to grow to a healthy strong adult. When we consider his communal human being, at first only a seeking of something he desires but doesn’t know, then we can begin to see more in the way of higher consciousness—as is true of a grizzly bear cub out for the first time from a winter den and eating tender spring grass and running about with a sister or brother and exploring sunlit regions and all the bushes and trees and rocks and fleeing rodents he notices. And the very process of noticing something and then investigating and then more actively noticing lots of somethings will lead to more focused attention and better vision as well as some sort of global understanding of his small part of Creation.
This is a mess inviting the sort of mind, Plato or Riemann, which can find simplicity and elegance in the midst of confusion. My proposal is to use `intent’ as the organizing concept, especially for human beings, but also many other living organisms. Various levels of communities and their member organisms actively, if not always consciously, show intent toward the goal of being better or at least more mature versions of themselves. I’m proposing that not only are communities real, but so are the intentional processes of both individuals and communities. As such they can be studied and discussed and understood by way of disciplined concepts and analytic techniques, many of which can be drawn from modern mathematics and the physical sciences. Again, this is not to reduce human being to a determined thing nor is it to claim some sort of dominance for quantitative mathematics—though those sorts of mathematics will have an important role to play.