To our knowledge, humans are unique in that we have intentionality. We possess both self-awareness and the ability to make choices within a range of action possibilities. It is a gift of the most recent addition to our big brains, the neocortex, the outer rind of neurons that, among other things, allows for judgment, reasoning, and language. We take all this for granted, of course, but it is truly astounding—math, art, science, music, architecture, poetry, engineering, sports—these are all unique to homo sapiens.
Another major product of our neocortex is religion. It is arguable that religion was really just the earliest form of natural science, using available data and human reason to explain and predict various phenomena, such as seasonal changes or various illnesses. It has been a long strange trip from that point to modern religion. Although some religious movements still try to explain the physical world (such as the many Christians who use the Bible to determine the age of the Earth), most have moved into the more abstract domains, such as morality, transcendence, and the afterlife.
Still, the fundamental needs behind these abstract domains predate the neocortex—such as the desire for safety, social affiliation and competence. While the afterlife is a relatively new concept, for example, fear of death is primordial. Religion also serves to order society and provide guidelines for behavior, both of which address affiliation and the basic mechanisms that deal with social hierarchy (which themselves relate to resource, mating and kin dynamics). But the neocortex allows us to manifest complex abstract structures using the power of the intentional mind. As such, we have the ability, and I would argue the obligation, to continually question and reconstruct our models of value and meaning.
Intentionality as a Value
Emerson once wrote, “The education of the will is the object of our existence.” I take this to mean that the highest human virtue is our own intentionality, that it is our sacred duty both to become more aware of our power to choose and to act, and to make sure those choices and actions are well-informed. After all, intentionality is the key to a power of transformation more potent than any on this planet in four billion years—we are altering the global environment that keeps us alive while reaching into the genetic code that determines our very being. It is in this ability to imagine, reason, and direct our actions that we are become as gods and demons, and with this awesome power comes great responsibility.
There is also a less ponderous side to intentionality, which is the ability to transform our communities and ourselves so to attain greater meaning, fulfillment, and joy. There are several streams of life where one can point their intention and connect with the larger world, realize one’s potential, and experience wonder, harmony, and love. While easier said than done, the rewards are certainly profound.
Outline of Intentionality
There is a very large literature on the nature of human intentionality. Although there are other far more sophisticated models of intentionality, or will, than I might create, I would nevertheless like to offer my own conceptualization. For those philosophy fans out there, my view on intentionality draws upon the compatibilist position, which says that determinism is compatible with free will. I also recommend the works of existential psychologist Rollo May, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli (visit the wiki based on his work, WillProject). This is a bare bones model, and certainly open to change, but it gives an outline of my basic view.
I break intentionality into three broad, interrelated categories: agency, drive, and expression. Agency, the first category, can be defined as the capacity to make choices and to engage with the world based on those choices. Agency emerges from the interplay between skill and limitations. Skill is the what and how in agency—what needs to be done and how to do it—composed of knowledge (an emergent property of awareness, reason, and declarative or explicit memory) and ability (primarily arising from procedural or implicit memory, although what we call “talent” is often involved as well). Behavior requires a frame within which to act, and the boundaries of a given situation will largely determine what can and cannot be accomplished. Limitations, in this case, are both subjective (e.g. a lack of data, an injury) and objective (e.g. environmental conditions, available tools).
The second category of intentionality is drive, which is the emotional component of intentionality. Within this model, I am limiting drive to affective states that impel action—such as fear, desire, hunger, disgust, curiosity, excitement, anger, and sadness. Drive fuels action, although such feelings do not have to be arousing. For example, think of a chilly Saturday morning without any pressing need to get out of a warm bed—at some point, you will decide to brave the cold and throw the covers aside. You might have been saying to yourself for 20 minutes, “I should get up. I’m getting up now.” But it took that small bit of drive to push you past the threshold into action (more on action thresholds a bit later). Drive is influenced by many things, including temperament, personality, health & diet, rearing, and past trauma.
Both agency and drive are interrelated with the third component of intentionality, which I refer to as expression. Expression is the why of intention, and is far and away the most complex of the three. What is being expressed via intentionality are all the various elements that make up the self, including basic needs, instincts, desires, values, and, for lack of a better word, destiny.
At the bottom of the pile are the adaptive psychological components derived from the core drives of survival and reproduction, as well as the basic instincts of approaching pleasure and retreating from pain. These represent the earliest human and pre-human needs, influencing everything from the bottom up. As the brain evolved from the brain stem to the prefrontal cortex, it developed increasingly complex motivations and instincts (that are nevertheless built upon and influenced by those more primitive functions). There is a huge range of such psychological influencers, dealing with mating, child rearing, and social dynamics, through to more modern motivations built upon values and principles, and finally ending with transpersonal experiences, including the desire for personal growth, peak experiences, and communion with Nature/Universe/Deity (the latter of which, it must be noted, are in themselves optional choices rather than adaptive needs, and are, therefore, uniquely human).
Tied into all this is what I call destiny. I myself do not believe in predestination, but rather see existence as a constantly created emergent phenomenon arising out of the dynamic interplay of complex systems (that’s the Sacred River). That said, for any given person, conditions arise to produce a fully unique individual, with a singular genetic code, born into a particular circumstance during a given period of history, all interacting with a series of life experiences that literally shape the brain and the view of the self and the world. Intentionality is, in large part, an expression of this unique self, the gestalt or totality of being constantly manifested as one swims the Sacred River of existence. Remember, “the education of the will is the object of our existence”—by becoming better “swimmers”, we become ever more human, more genuine, more true to who we really are.
As a quick review, here is a rough outline of what we’ve just covered:
c) Declarative memory
a) Procedural Memory
C) Past experiences
A) Primitive needs
B) Values and principles
C) Transpersonal motivations
Passive and Active Intentionality
There are two phases of intentionality, the passive and the active. The passive includes things like imagination, evaluation, deliberation, and planning, but also includes drive, the emotional aspect of intention, often experienced as anxiety or anticipation. Passive intentionality represents a potential for action, which is often nonconscious and other times in full awareness (in the form of thinking). The active phase is much more immediate as it drives potential into action (although there is always some form of passive intentionality going on behind the scenes). Each phase has a range of mindfulness, from deeply nonconscious to full, immediate awareness. In the active phase, this range can take the form of thoughtless habit on the one end through to the state called flow on the other (which anyone who has experienced being “in the zone” can recognize).
Moving from passive to active intentionality requires overcoming what I call the action threshold. This threshold is created in the dynamic interaction between drive and resistance. Stated simply, intended action cannot occur until motivation (the drive to act) overcomes inertia (the drive not to act). Part of educating the will—of becoming a better “swimmer”—involves developing skills and traits that help one overcome difficult action thresholds in service to genuine expression.
Once again, this has been the most basic treatment of a complex topic. As I have tried to illustrate, intentionality is not an isolated construct—it is deeply interwoven into the fabric of both one’s being and surrounding conditions. These are both emergent phenomena, and so intentionality will always be in flux to some degree—as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” That said, effective intentionality is in alignment with both the deepest self and the demands in the environment, with adequate drive and the agency to be successful. To say this requires a lot of work is an understatement. It is, in effect, the work of being human. But, as with all honest work, this labor has a great payoff—a life of profound meaning, fulfillment, and joy.