Daniel Dennett calls it the intentional stance. Long ago, in our evolutionary history, it was better to think there was a tiger behind you than to pass that rustling off as just the wind. If it’s the wind and you expect a tiger, you only look foolish, diving into cover or waving your spear. But if it’s really a tiger and you blame the wind… Well, you probably won’t be making that mistake again. Because those who blamed the sound on the wind–those who saw no intent in the sound, in other words–likely didn’t go on to mate a whole lot, very few of them became our ancestors. That means our ancestors, the ones who gave us our genes, were the primitive folks most inclined to see intent in the varied happenings of the world.
There aren’t so many tigers stalking us today, but we still encounter occurrences that can be explained either as intentional or unintentional. Take the universe. If it had a beginning–a claim that is by no means proven, let alone logically necessary–then at some point it began. What caused that genesis? Maybe something or someone did it with the intent to do it, but maybe that isn’t the case at all. Perhaps the universe sprang into existence without a mind involved, just as that snapping twig or quiet rustle was only the result of the wind. For many people, the idea of an unintentional universe is fundamentally unsatisfying. They want there to be a creator behind creation, a desire that makes sense in light of the intentional stance. If we’re wired to find intent, then we’ll probably go out and look for it. But that propensity for intent-based explanations does not make those explanations better from a strictly truth bearing standpoint. The presence or absence of a tiger is a fact about the world. Thinking there is a tiger doesn’t make it any more likely than thinking it’s the wind means we have nothing to fear. The universe was either caused or not and the tides of public opinion fail to budge that ultimate answer.
The intentional stance–the bias, inherent to the human mind, for seeing and seeking intent even when there is none–isn’t limited to these lofty cosmological concerns. We can see it played out on a smaller scale when we look to humanity’s history of appeasing volcanos or cursing crashing computers. When the world goes wrong, we look for someone, biological or not, to blame.
The search for intent isn’t only to find condemnable actors, however. Because any change in the world that isn’t directly caused by an observable agent leans us toward a conclusion of intent, we also often look to intent as the solution for bringing about desired changes. If you have a problem, you do something about it. Waiting for it to solve itself is rarely a good idea. The trouble with this line of reasoning comes when leaving it alone–or, rather, leaving the cause dispersed–is the best way to get things to work out for the best. No matter what’s wrong, we want someone, somewhere to do something about it. This is why we invest our leaders with such unfounded confidence.
I think it also explains, to some degree, the reason why certain kinds of politics don’t catch on–and why political conspiracy theories are so enticing to so many. Take, for example, the recent increase in the price of oil. This is a bad situation, one that has hurt the finances of many of us. In a sense, it’s like the rustle in the forest: we’re primed to see it as dangerous and we have a bias toward looking for some specific thing we can react to or run away from. Of course, oil isn’t a tiger, nor is it the wind, and nothing is trying to eat us. But the principle stands: we perceive a threat (spiking gas prices) and our brains immediately begin the hunt for a causal agent behind it. Furthermore, we want that agent to be specific. It’s easier to escape a tiger than a plague, and it’s easier to point fingers at a few oil companies than at the awesomely diffuse global market with its millions of uncoordinated participants. The intentional stance, therefore, leads us to blame one potential cause–the cause we perceive as motivated by an intent to create harm–and ignore the countless possible others because those others lack specific agency. To analogize back to evolutionary history, the disease of costly oil is not the result of poor diet plus microscopic pathogens and genetic propensities. Instead, the disease is caused exclusively by the village witch.
Keep this in mind in as politicians propose solutions to our problems or seek to condemn those assumed responsible. Our brains are wired to always see specific intent, even when none exists. But that wiring makes the actual presence of intent no more likely. Instead, the intentional stance causes us to waste time and resources hunting for witches when we should be listening to the wind.