Husserl’s tape recorder and intention in nature

Husserl argues somewhere that recording devices register sounds but they are not hearing. The recording device (and I betray my age by not knowing what to call it except a tape recorder) is more like a giant dumping ground for anything that causes pressure waves in the air, but hearing is a focused and intentional activity. If I’m having a conversation in a restaurant, I am paying no attention to the music or the bells on the cash drawer opening: if you asked me what music was playing or how many times the cash drawer opened I’d be completely at a loss to answer. But a recording device would make a record of everything – one could simply go back and count or observe whatever he wanted. This feature of intentionality was popularized by the selective attention test which people often try to pass off as a limitation of focus – when in fact it is precisely what makes knowledge possible.

Human beings can only learn because they are capable of focusing on the essential as opposed to all possible information that could be an object of focus. This creates blind spots in which illusionists can hide information, to be sure, and none of our faculties are infallible, but to process all possible information equally and without a filter for the essential would leave us with a heap of nonsense.  Like the recording device, we would accord equal weight to the sound of the cash drawer, the background music, the clink of knives, and the conversation we were having. But this heap of things is not information about anything. They form no unity, nor does their being together constitute anything that exists.  There is no possible science of this heap of accidental features of the world. Intention is attuned to unities, and, so far as unity is convertible with being, to real existence and essence. As far as we can tell, it’s proper to intention to have such an attunement.

But this is just what makes things interesting for natural theologians, since nature seems to have just this sort of attunement to all the possible information in its environment. To be sure, nature also uses selection mechanisms that work like sieves that shake all the potatoes until all the runts fall out of the batch, but this is not the same thing as signal processing, which focuses within and selects from a field of possible information. Human beings clearly do this, as do the higher animals, but there is also good evidence that plants do it also. It seems this sort of focus on one out of many possible outcomes occurs in the inorganic world as well, since the particles in the double-slit experiment must be given, at a minimum, a way to actualize different outcomes in a field of possible information (sc. whether someone is observing the experiment or not).

All this might lead us in the direction of Leibnizian monads, that is, nature is fundamentally units capable of processing information as opposed to being (in a view we seem to think is scientific) a vast field of locks and keys that are shaken together with the result that some fall together. Nature only seems blind because it is instinctual,  that is, capable of focusing on things in a vast field of possible information. If nature were blind like a machine, it would be like Husserl’s tape recorder.

This is a new account of teleology, which, like Aristotle’s teleology, is intrinsic to things. Nature is fundamentally instinct, and it is instinct that conditions mechanism, and not the other way around, in the same way that potato shakers are only built after we have looked at all the potatoes and made a determination of which ones will count as runts, or the way we might build a radio that only tunes in one channel after we have determined that such a radio will suffice for our needs.

Here is the basic argument:

Machines are conduits that convert free energy into something of value.

What counts as valued is determined in advance by some unified being responding to possible features of its environment. therefore, etc.


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