Archive for November, 2014

Banca RuritaniaPersonhood Week, at National Geographic is a nice set of short pieces briefly touring the issues around the crucial but controversial issue of what constitutes a person.

You won’t be too surprised to hear that in my view personhood is really all about consciousness. The core concept for me is that a person is a source of intentions – intentions in the ordinary everyday sense rather than in the fancy philosophical sense of intentionality (though that too).  A person is an actual or potential agent, an entity that seeks to bring about deliberate outcomes. There seems to be a bit of a spectrum here; at the lower level it looks as if some animals have thoughtful and intentional behaviour of the kind that would qualify them for a kind of entry-level personhood. At its most explicit, personhood implies the ability to articulate complicated contracts and undertake sophisticated responsibilities: this is near enough the legal conception. The law, of course, extends the idea of a person beyond mere human beings, allowing a form of personhood to corporate entities, which are able to make binding agreements, own property, and even suffer criminal liability. Legal persons of this kind are obviously not ‘real’ ones in some sense, and I think the distinction corresponds with the philosophical distinction between original (or intrinsic, if we’re bold) and derived intentionality. The latter distinction comes into play mainly when dealing with meaning. Books and pictures are about things, they have meanings and therefore intentionality, but their meaningfulness is derived: it comes only from the intentions of the people who interpret them, whether their creators or their ‘audience’.  My thoughts, by contrast, really just mean things, all on their own and however anyone interprets them: their intentionality is original or intrinsic.

So, at least, most people would say (though others would energetically contest that description). In a similar way my personhood is real or intrinsic: I just am a person; whereas the First Central Bank of Ruritania has legal personhood only because we have all agreed to treat it that way. Nevertheless, the personhood of the Ruritanian Bank is real (hypothetically, anyway; I know Ruritania does not exist – work with me on this), unlike that of, say, the car Basil Fawlty thrashed with a stick, which is merely imaginary and not legally enforceable.

Some, I said, would contest that picture: they might argue that ;a source of intentions makes no sense because ‘people’ are not really sources of anything; that we are all part of the universal causal matrix and nothing comes of nothing. Really, they would say, our own intentions are just the same as those of Banca Prima Centrale Ruritaniae; it’s just that ours are more complex and reflexive – but the fact that we’re deeming ourselves to be people doesn’t make it any the less a matter of deeming.  I don’t think that’s quite right – just because intentions don’t feature in physics doesn’t mean they aren’t rational and definable entities – but in any case it surely isn’t a hit against my definition of personhood; it just means there aren’t really any people.

Wait a minute, though. Suppose Mr X suffers a terrible brain injury which leaves him incapable of forming any intentions (whether this is actually possible is an interesting question: there are some examples of people with problems that seem like this; but let’s just help ourselves to the hypothesis for the time being). He is otherwise fine: he does what he’s told and if supervised can lead a relatively normal-seeming life. He retains all his memories, he can feel normal sensations, he can report what he’s experienced, he just never plans or wants anything. Would such a man no longer be a person?

I think we are reluctant to say so because we feel that, contrary to what I suggested above, agency isn’t really necessary, only conscious experience. We might have to say that Mr X loses his legal personhood in some senses; we might no longer hold him responsible or accept his signature as binding, rather in the way that we would do for a young child: but he would surely retain the right to be treated decently, and to kill or injure him would be the same crime as if committed against anyone else.  Are we tempted to say that there are really two grades of personhood that happen to coincide in human beings,  a kind of ‘Easy Problem’ agent personhood on the one hand and a ‘Hard Problem’ patient personhood?  I’m tempted, but the consequences look severely unattractive. Two different criteria for personhood would imply that I’m a person in two different ways simultaneously, but if personhood is anything, it ought to be single, shouldn’t it? Intuitively and introspectively it seems that way. I’d feel a lot happier if I could convince myself that the two criteria cannot be separated, that Mr X is not really possible.

What about Robot X? Robot X has no intentions of his own and he also has no feelings. He can take in data, but his sensory system is pretty simple and we can be pretty sure that we haven’t accidentally created a qualia-experiencing machine. He has no desires of his own, not even a wish to serve, or avoid harming human beings, or anything like that. Left to himself he remains stationary indefinitely, but given instructions he does what he’s told: and if spoken to, he passes the Turing Test with flying colours. In fact, if we ask him to sit down and talk to us, he is more than capable of debating his own personhood, showing intelligence, insight, and understanding at approximately human levels. Is he a person? Would we hesitate over switching him off or sending him to the junk yard?

Perhaps I’m cheating. Robot X can talk to us intelligently, which implies that he can deal with meanings. If he can deal with meanings, he must have intentionality, and if he has that perhaps he must, contrary to what I said, be able to form intentions after all – so perhaps the conditions I stipulated aren’t possible after all? And then, how does he generate intentions, as a matter of fact? I don’t know, but on one theory intentionality is rooted in desires or biological drives. The experience of hunger is just primally about food, and from that kind of primitive aboutness all the fancier kinds are built up. Notice that it’s the experience of hunger, so arguably if you had no feelings you couldn’t get started on intentionality either! If all that is right, neither Robot X nor Mr X is really as feasible as they might seem: but it still seems a bit worrying to me.

waveAn article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (via the always-excellent Mind Hacks) argues cogently that as a new torrent of data about the brain looms, we need to ensure that it is balanced by a corresponding development in theory. That must surely be right: but I wonder whether the torrent of new information is going to bring about another change in paradigm, as the advent of computers in the twentieth century surely did?

We have mentioned before the two giant projects which aim to map and even simulate the neural structure of the brain, one in America, one in Europe. Other projects elsewhere and steady advances in technology seem to indicate that the progress of empirical neuroscience, already impressive, is likely to accelerate massively in coming years.

The paper points out that at present, in spite of enormous advances, we still know relatively little about the varied types of neurons and what they do; and much of what we think we do know is vague, tentative, and possibly misleading. Soon, however, ‘there will be exabytes (billions of gigabytes) of data, detailing what vast numbers of neurons do, in real time’.

The authors rightly suggest that data alone is no good without theoretical insights: they fear that at present there may be structural issues which lead to pure experimental work being funded while theory, in spite of being cheaper, is neglected or has to tag along as best it can. The study of the mind is an exceptionally interdisciplinary business, and they justifiably say research needs to welcome ‘mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, cognitive psychologists, and anthropologists into the fold’. No philosophers in the list, I notice, although the authors quote Ned Block approvingly. (Certainly no novelists, although if we’re studying consciousness the greatest corpus of exploratory material is arguably in literature rather than science. Perhaps that’s asking a bit too much at this stage: grants are not going to be given to allow neurologists to read Henry as well as William James, amusing though that might be.)

I wonder if we’re about to see a big sea change; a Third Wave? There’s no doubt in my mind that the arrival of practical computers in the twentieth century had a vast intellectual impact. Until then philosophy of mind had not paid all that much attention to consciousness. Free Will, of course, had been debated for centuries, and personal identity was also a regular topic; but consciousness per se and qualia in particular did not seem to be that important until – I think – the seventies or eighties when a wide range of people began to have actual experience of computers. Locke was perhaps the first person to set out a version of the inverted spectrum argument, in which the blue in your mind is the same as the yellow in mine, and vice versa; but far from its being a key issue he mentions it only to dismiss it: we all call the same real world colours by the same names, so it’s a matter of no importance. Qualia? Of no philosophical interest.

I think the thing is that until computers actually appeared it was easy to assume, like Leibniz, that they could only be like mills: turning wheels, moving parts, nothing there that resembles a mind. When people could actually see a computer producing its results, they realised that there was actually the same kind of incomprehensible spookiness about it as there was in the case of human thought; maybe not exactly the same mystery, but a pseudo-magic quality far above the readily-comprehensible functioning of a mill. As a result, human thought no longer looked so unique and we needed something to stand in as the criterion which separated machines from people. Our concept of consciousness got reshaped and promoted to play that role, and a Second Wave of thought about the mind rolled in, making qualia and anything else that seemed uniquely human of special concern.

That wave included another change, though, more subtle but very important. In the past, the answer to questions about the mind had clearly been a matter of philosophy, or psychology; at any rate an academic issue. We were looking for a heavy tome containing a theory. Once computers came along, it turned out that we might be looking for a robot instead. The issues became a matter of technology, not pure theory. The unexpected result was that new issues revealed themselves and came to the fore. The descriptive theories of the past were all very well, but now we realised that if we wanted to make a conscious machine, they didn’t offer much help. A good example appears in Dan Dennett’s paper on cognitive wheels, which sets out a version of the Frame Problem. Dennett describes the problem, and then points out that although it is a problem for robots, it’s just as mysterious for human cognition; actually a deep problem about the human mind which had never been discussed; it’s just that until we tried to build robots we never noticed it. Most philosophical theories still have this quality, I’m afraid, even Dennett’s: OK, so I’m here with my soldering iron or my keyboard: how do I make a machine that adopts the intentional stance? No clue.

For the last sixty years or so I should say that the project of artificial intelligence has set the agenda and provided new illumination in this kind of way. Now it may be that neurology is at last about to inherit the throne.  If so, what new transformations can we expect? First I would think that the old-fashioned computational robots are likely to fall back further and that simulations, probably using neural network approaches, are likely to come to the fore. Grand Union theories, which provide coherent accounts from genetics through neurology to behaviour, are going to become more common, and build a bridgehead for evolutionary theories to make more of an impact on ideas about consciousness.  However, a lot of things we thought we knew about neurons are going to turn out to be wrong, and there will be new things we never spotted that will change the way we think about the brain. I would place a small bet that the idea of the connectome will look dusty and irrelevant within a few years, and that it will turn out that neurons don’t work quite the way we thought.

Above all though, the tide will surely turn for consciousness. Since about 1950 the game has been about showing what, if anything, was different about human beings; why they were not just machines (or why they were), and what was unique about human consciousness. In the coming decade I think it will all be about how consciousness is really the same as many other mental processes. Consciousness may begin to seem less important, or at any rate it may increasingly be seen as on a continuuum with the brain activity of other animals; really just a special case of the perfectly normal faculty of…  Well, I don’t actually know what, but I look forward to finding out.

gameScott has a nice discussion of our post-intentional future (or really our non-intentional present, if you like) here on Scientia Salon. He quotes Fodor saying that the loss of ‘common-sense intentional psychology’ would be the greatest intellectual catastrophe ever: hard to disagree, yet that seems to be just what faces us if we fully embrace materialism about the brain and its consequences. Scott, of course, has been exploring this territory for some time, both with his Blind Brain Theory  and his unforgettable novel Neuropath; a tough read, not because the writing is bad but  because it’s all too vividly good.

Why do we suppose that human beings uniquely stand outside the basic account of physics, with real agency, free will, intentions and all the rest of it? Surely we just know that we do have intentions? We can be wrong about what’s in the world; that table may be an illusion; but our intentions are directly present to our minds in a way that means we can’t be wrong about them – aren’t they?

That kind of privileged access is what Scott questions. Cast your mind back, he says, to the days before philosophy of mind clouded your horizons, when we all lived the unexamined life. Back to Square One, as it were: did your ignorance of your own mental processes trouble you then? No: there was no obvious gaping hole in our mental lives;  we’re not bothered by things we’re not aware of. Alas,  we may think we’ve got a more sophisticated grasp of our cognitive life these days, but in fact the same problem remains. There’s still no good reason to think we enjoy an epistemic privilege in respect of our own version of our minds.

Of course, our understanding of intentions works in practice. All that really gets us, though, is that it seems to be a viable heuristic. We don’t actually have the underlying causal account we need to justify it; all we do is apply our intentional cognition to intentional cognition…

it can never tell us what cognition is simply because solving that problem requires the very information intentional cognition has evolved to do without.

Maybe then, we should turn aside from philosophy and hope that cognitive science will restore to us what physical science seems to take away? Alas, it turns out that according to cognitive science our idea of ourselves is badly out of kilter, the product of a mixed-up bunch of confabulation, misremembering, and chronically limited awareness. We don’t make decisions, we observe them, our reasons are not the ones we recognise, and our awareness of our own mental processes is narrow and error-filled.

That last part about the testimony of science is hard to disagree with; my experience has been that the more one reads about recent research the worse our self-knowledge seems to get.

If it’s really that bad, what would a post-intentional world look like? Well, probably like nothing really, because without our intentional thought we’d presumably have an outlook like that of dogs, and dogs don’t have any view of the mind. Thinking like dogs, of course, has a long and respectable philosophical pedigree going back to the original Cynics, whose name implies a d0g-level outlook. Diogenes himself did his best to lead a doggish, pre-intentional life,  living rough, splendidly telling Alexander the Great to fuck off and less splendidly, masturbating in public (‘Hey,  I wish I could cure hunger too just by rubbing my stomach’). Let’s hope that’s not where we’re heading.

However, that does sort of indicate the first point we might offer. Even Diogenes couldn’t really live like a dog: he couldn’t resist the chance to make Plato look a fool, or hold back when a good zinger came to mind. We don’t really cling to our intentional thoughts because we believe ourselves to have privileged access (though we may well believe that); we cling to them because believing we own those thoughts in some sense is just the precondition of addressing the issue at all, or perhaps even of having any articulate thoughts about anything. How could we stop? Some kind of spontaneous self-induced dissociative syndrome? Intensive meditation? There isn’t really any option but to go on thinking of our selves and our thoughts in more or less the way we do, even if we conclude that we have no real warrant for doing so.

Secondly, we might suggest that although our thoughts about our own cognition are not veridical, that doesn’t mean our thoughts or our cognition don’t exist. What they say about the contents of our mind is wrong perhaps, but what they imply about there being contents (inscrutable as they may be) can still be right. We don’t have to be able to think correctly about what we’re thinking in order to think. False ideas about our thoughts are still embodied in thoughts of some kind.

Is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ the best we can do?



meetingPetros Gelepithis has A Novel View of Consciousness in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness (alas, I can’t find a freely accessible version). Computers, as such, can’t be conscious, he thinks, but robots can; however, proper robot consciousness will necessarily be very unlike human consciousness in a way that implies some barriers to understanding.

Gelepithis draws on the theory of mind he developed in earlier papers, his theory of noèmona species. (I believe he uses the word noèmona mainly to avoid the varied and potentially confusing implications that attach to mind-related vocabulary in English.) It’s not really possible to do justice to the theory here, but it is briefly described in the following set of definitions, an edited version of the ones Gelepithis gives in the paper.

Definition 1. For a human H, a neural formation N is a structure of interacting sub-cellular components (synapses, glial structures, etc) across nerve cells able to influence the survival or reproduction of H.

Definition 2. For a human, H, a neural formation is meaningful (symbol Nm), if and only if it is an N that influences the attention of that H.

Definition 3. The meaning of a novel stimulus in context (Sc), for the human H at time t, is whatever Nm is created by the interaction of Sc and H.

Definition 4. The meaning of a previously encountered Sc, for H is the prevailed Np of Np

Definition 5. H is conscious of an external Sc if and only if, there are Nm structures that correspond to Sc and these structures are activated by H’s attention at that time.

Definition 6. H is conscious of an internal Sc if and only if the Nm structures identified with the internal Sc are activated by H’s attention at that time.

Definition 7. H is reflectively conscious of an internal Sc if and only if the Nm structures identified with the internal Sc are activated by H’s attention and they have already been modified by H’s thinking processes activated by primary consciousness at least once.

For Gelepithis consciousness is not an abstraction, of the kind that can be handled satisfactorily by formal and computational systems. Instead it is rooted in biology in a way that very broadly recalls Ruth Millikan’s views. It’s about attention and how it is directed, but meaning comes out of the experience and recollection of events related to evolutionary survival.

For him this implies a strong distinction between four different kinds of consciousness; animal consciousness, human consciousness, machine consciousness and robot consciousness. For machines, running a formal system, the primitives and the meanings are simply inserted by the human designer; with robots it may be different. Through, as I take it, living a simple robot life they may, if suitably endowed, gradually develop their own primitives and meanings and so attain their own form of consciousness. But there’s a snag…

Robots may be able to develop their own robot primitives and subsequently develop robot understanding. But no robot can ever understand human meanings; they can only interact successfully with humans on the basis of processing whatever human-based primitives and other notions were given…

Different robot experience gives rise to a different form of consciousness. They may also develop free will. Human beings act freely when their Acquired Belief and Knowledge (ABK) over-rides environmental and inherited influences in determining their behaviour; robots can do the same if they acquire an Own Robot Cognitive Architecture, the relevant counterpart. However, again…

A future possible conscious robotic species will not be able to communicate, except on exclusively formal bases, with the then Homo species.

‘then Homo’ because Gelepithis thinks it’s possible that human predecessors to Homo Sapiens would also have had distinct forms of consciousness (and presumably would have suffered similar communication issues).

Now we all have slightly different experiences and heritage, so Gelepithis’ views might imply that each of our consciousnesses is different. I suppose he believes that intra-species commonality is sufficient to make those differences relatively unimportant, but there should still be some small variation, which is an intriguing thought.

As an empirical matter, we actually manage to communicate rather well with some other species. Dogs don’t have our special language abilities and they don’t share our lineage or experiences to any great degree; yet very good practical understandings are often in place. Perhaps it would be worse with robots, who would not be products of evolution, would not eat or reproduce, and so on. Yet it seems strange to think that as a result their actual consciousness would be radically different?

Gelepithis’ system is based on attention, and robots would surely have a version of that; robot bodies would no doubt be very different from human ones, but surely the basics of proprioception, locomotion, manipulation and motivation would have to have some commonality?

I’m inclined to think we need to draw a further distinction here between the form and content of consciousness. It’s likely that robot consciousness would function differently from ours in certain ways: it might run faster, it might have access to superior memory, it might, who knows, be multi-threaded. Those would all be significant differences which might well impede communication. The robot’s basic drives might be very different from ours: uninterested in food, sex, and possibly even in survival, it might speak lyrically of the joys of electricity which must remain ever hidden from human beings. However, the basic contents of its mind would surely be of the same kind as the contents of our consciousness (hallo, yes, no, gimme, come here, go away) and expressible in the same languages?