One of the main difficulties in addressing this problem stems from the limitations of language. Language exists for humans, so by default, many of our words convey a meaning that is primarily interpreted within a human context. As a result, when it comes to describing other living things we often find ourselves faced with terms that carry a significance that is misplaced when addressing other organisms. I want to be clear that there is nothing in the following discussion that is intended to be anthropomorphic.
The specific case I want to address are the words; "intent", "accident", and "random" from the following dictionary definitions:
Intent: "Resolved or determined to do (something)" "something that is intended; purpose; design;"
Accident: "An unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally" "lack of intention or necessity : chance"
Random: "Having no specific pattern, purpose, or objective"
If we examine any process, we can apply one of these terms to describe it. In physics and chemistry we generally conceive of specific activities as occurring randomly among the atoms and molecules involved, with associated probabilities describing the likelihood of particular results. Using this we can begin to direct how specific processes work by providing the necessary ingredients (including energy) to cause a particular reaction to occur or to favor a particular outcome. So, to obtain a specific result, these probablistic processes must be directed in some manner.
Intent can then be used to describe such directed processes. As an example, we can use the process of oxidation to "intentionally" produce a fire. In that way, we have a directed action that produces a specific result.
An accident would occur when an intended action fails or is misdirected. We may intentionally build a fire, but unintentionally burn down our house. A lightening strike is an essentially random event, that produces an unintentional fire. In this case, we can clearly recognize that the lightning didn't "intend" to produce a fire. We simply have two processes that occur under the proper conditions by either random action, or accident.
All of this is well understood and produces no real surprises in our use of language. However when we begin to consider the issue of defining life we suddenly face some difficulties.
Primarily the difficulties occur because of our concept of "intent" where we assume that in order to direct a process there must be some form of intelligence to perform that action. Of course, the word "intelligence" presents its own baggage and problems, so let's ignore it for now. In examining "intent" we must consider that this happens when some process occurs where the objective is to produce a different or specifically directed outcome. In the example of our fire, we may build one to produce light and heat, so the "intent" or objective for the fire would be the production of light and heat. So in that sense, the "director" of the process is involved in the produced result. In other words, "intent" also conveys a sense of having exploited a process to a particular end.
In other words, A + B simply produces more A + B. However, in living things, A + B produces C. A separate phenomenon which could arguably be considered the "intent" of the interaction. For example, rapid oxidation of fuel will produce fire, which releases energy as heat and light. However, no matter what fuel is used or how things are arranged, fire (by itself) will only ever produce more fire until one of the required components is exhausted. Contrast this with the oxidation that occurs in a cell and the "intent" (or objective "C") is that this process is utilized by the cell for energy. In the latter example oxidation isn't simply an uncontrolled chemical process, it is a specific process with a specific objective. Living things exploit processes to achieve objectives. This doesn't mean that there is some cognitive process at work which assigns an "intent", but rather that it is an emergent property of being alive. (1)
The lightning strike mentioned previously isn't involved in the fire that it triggers, since it ceases to exist after it strikes, so we can conclude that the occurrence of a fire is not "intentional". Similarly, fire doesn't "intend" to provide light or heat, but whatever is "directing" the production of fire may "intend" that light and heat are produced. Therefore the "director" of this process is exploiting this process for its own use. So in our definition, "intention" indicates an actor that initiates/controls the direction of a process to produce a specific outcome for their own end.
Is intelligence required for "intent" to exist?
Yes, but this presents us with the problem of defining "intelligence".
At this point it is important that we put aside notions of human intelligence and simply consider the property of "intelligence" itself. I want to try and establish some basic definition that is more broadly applicable, rather than only addressing the uniquely human aspect of it.
To keep it in general terms, we could argue that intelligence occurs for any organism that:
(1) is capable of learning about or from its environment
(2) is capable of directing its actions according to such feedback from the environment
Let's also distinguish that this concept of "intelligence" doesn't actually require "understanding". One doesn't need to understand the chemistry of fire to be able to light one. This can be as simple as a stimulus-response event. Even the concept of "learning" needs to be qualified as not necessarily possessing a long-term memory.
In effect, we can use a definition of intelligence that indicates that it is a property that provides a method of interacting with one's environment, obtaining feedback from that environment, and being able to adjust one's reactions to that environment. Note that it requires nothing associated with reasoning, nor the ability to abstract. In short, intelligence measures that ability of an organism to exchange information with its environment and act (within its capabilities) on that information. Note that this is beyond simply "interacting with the environment" since a rock rolling down a hill could be said to behave in that capacity. Rather it is the ability to direct actions based on information feedback.
This further requires a means by which this information exchange can occur, and from here we can stipulate that some sensory mechanism must be available for life to exist. Some of these principles are outlined in a paper by De Loof (July 2004).
From this we might reasonably be able to argue that one of the primary traits of life involves the ability to display "intent" by the exchange of information with its environment through some sensory mechanism and directing its actions accordingly, limited by its morphology and physiology. Why should such a characteristic exist and what does it mean? Simply put, life requires the ability to interact with its environment in such a fashion so that it can preserve itself. This is a trait that no inanimate object has and marks the beginning of why life requires "intent", "awareness", and ultimately "consciousness".
In part 2, I will develop an expansion of these ideas to demonstrate how they are integrated into life.
(1) It may seem inappropriate to use a term like "intend" to describe these activities, but if a bacteria divides, it is difficult not to argue that it "intends" to reproduce. However, if one were to extend this argument to more base functions, like the combination of Hydrogen and Oxygen, while would could claim that Hydrogen "intends" to bind with Oxygen, there is no particular preference or regard for the outcome. Inanimate objects can direct no actions, as a result, there is no "purpose" in the combination of Hydrogen and Oxygen beyond that of combining. We apply a similar criteria to describe organisms that are dead, in that they no longer possess the ability to act on their "intent" to survive.