Posts tagged ‘IAI’

Here’s an IAI debate with David Chalmers, Kate Devlin, and Hilary Lawson.

In ultra-brief summary, Lawson points out that there are still things that computers perform poorly at; recognising everyday real-world objects, notably. (Sounds like a bad prognosis for self-driving cars.) Thought is a way of holding different things as the same. Devlin thinks computers can’t do what humans do yet, but in the long run, surely they will.

Chalmers points out that machines can do whatever brains can do because the brain is a machine (in a sense not adequately explored here, though Chalmers himself indicates the main objections).

There’s some brief discussion of the Singularity.

In my view, thoughts are mental or brain states that are about something. As yet, we have no clear idea of what this aboutness is and how it works, or whether it is computational (probably not, I think) or subserved by computation in a way that means it could benefit from the exponential growth in computing power (which may have stopped being exponential). At the moment, computers do a great imitation of what human translators do, but to date they haven’t even got started on real meaning, let alone set off on an exponential growth curve. Will modern machine learning techniques change that?

Self-discovery: fascinating journey of life or load of tosh? An IAI discussion.

On the whole, I think the vastness of the subject means we get no more than first steps here, though the directions are at least interesting. Joanna Kavenna notes the paradoxical entanglements that can arise from self-examination and makes an interesting comparison with the process of novelists finding their ‘voice’. Exploration of selves is of course the bedrock of the novel, a topic which could take up many pages in itself. She asserts that the self is experientially real, but that thought also floats away unexamined.

David Chalmers has a less misty proposition; people have traits and we are inclined to think of some as deep or essential. Identifying these is a reasonable project, but not without dangers if we settle on the wrong ones.

Ed Stafford seems to be uncomfortable with philosophy unless it comes from an ayahuasca session or a distant tribe. He likes the idea of thinking with your stomach, but does not shed any light on the interesting question of how stomach thoughts differ from brain ones. In general he seems to take the view that for well-adjusted people there is no mystery, one knows who one is and there’s no need to wibble about it. Oddly, though he mentions being dropped on a desert island where the solitude was so severe, that even when the helicopter was still in view, he vomited. To suffer radical depersonalisation after a couple of minutes alone on a beach seems an extraordinary example of personal fragility, but I suppose we are to understand this was before he centred himself through contact with more robust cultures. Of course, those who reject theory always in fact have a theory; it’s just one that they either haven’t examined or don’t want examined. In response to Chalmers’ suggestion that a loving environment can surely lead to personal growth, he seems to begin adding qualifications to his view of the robustly settled personality, but if we are witnessing actual self-discovery here it doesn’t go far.

Myself I reckon that you don’t need to identify your essential traits to experience self-discovery; merely becoming conscious of your own traits renders them self-conscious and transforms them, an iterative process that represents a worthwhile kind of growth, both moral and psychological. But I’ve never tried ayahuasca.

Does language capture reality – or capture us in a cage of our own making?
Hilary Lawson believes we close the world; its rich, polyvalent potentiality is closed down into our limited stock of concepts and finite vocabulary so that our language doesn’t deliver reality to us at all; it lies beyond words. He recognises the difficulty of expounding, in words, the fundamental inadequacy of language.
There’s some truth in that view (and Lawson’s strictures about the limitations of our senses recall the basis of Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory). We surely do see things differently. Imagine a couple viewing houses; they have different priorities and see different things about each house. Later, when they discuss the one with the conservatory it’s not much of a stretch to say that they’re discussing different houses – though Lawson has in mind a more radical problem than that! In fact when you think about it, what he demands is astonishing – that in order to capture reality we have to apprehend the whole totality of it in every aspect. Either we have exhaustive perfect acquaintance with reality – or it’s not reality at all. Why aren’t small chunks of reality real?
Emma Borg, indeed, believes that there is an objective reality and words can tell us about it. Sure, language is a human fantasy, a human construct, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tell about the world. It’s human beings that give meanings to things, in fact. She grants that there are many different perspectives we can take, but ultimately some descriptions of the world just yield better results than others – as we’d have to concede in the case of say, medical diagnosis.
Daniel Everett thinks there are certainly big differences between the way different cultures address the world; in fact he says the idea of being “beyond words” would be hard to articulate in many cultures. Everett is of course famous for his controversial descriptions of the Piraha language, which has no numbers or colours and seems strangely restricted in other interesting ways. People have challenged his research, but no-one else really has anything like Everett’s depth of experience and knowledge of the Piraha. The cultural differences he describes seem to support the idea that words trap us in a “reality” of our own, but he also points out that we develop shared conventions and end up talking like the people we talk with.
Words can certainly be understood differently; who hasn’t picked up a word from hearing it in context, only to discover years later that the dictionary definition is not what we expected  yet years of using the word slightly wrong and therefore not saying quite what we thought we were saying, have passed unnoticed. (It turns out that “strictures” above might not really have been the word I wanted…)
Myself, I don’t think language is primarily about describing the world for our own benefit anyway; it’s more about influencing other people’s thoughts and creating harmonised streams of shared thoughts. It’s a pragmatic game, too, not a formal encoding based on a fixed intellectual structure,; it’s not unlike a game of charades whose players have developed a wonderful set of conventions that let them signal at blazing speed. So I’m really with Borg, I think.

A debate from IAI about male and female minds. It is pretty much agreed between the speakers that men’s brains and women’s brains are not really different; the claimed physical differences all come down to size, women being smaller on average. Behavioural and psychological differences exist, but only statistically; if you plot individuals along a line, there is far more overlap than difference. All of that is ably set out by Gina Rippon. Simon Baron-Cohen agrees but wants to reserve some space for the influence of biology, which affects such matters as the incidence of autism. Helena Cronin puts it all down to evolution; you’ve got two strategies, competing for mates or nurturing your offspring; males tend to the first, women to the second, and many evolved differences flow from  that, although human sexes are less distinct than those in some mammal species.

Perhaps the crux of the debate comes when Cronin denies the existence of the ‘glass ceiling’; fewer women get to the board room, she says, because fewer women choose that path. Rippon responds that there is still evidence that applicants with male names are treated more favourably.
At any rate, it seems that if we thought men had a thicker corpus callosum, or differed in brain structure in other ways, we were just wrong.
If you’re thirsting for more controversy on gender, you might want to look at Phillipe Van Parijs’ paper on several apparent disadvantages to being male (via Crooked Timber.)

The way we think about consciousness is just wrong, it seems.

First, says Markus Gabriel, we posit this bizarre entity the Universe, consisting of everything, and then ask whether consciousness is part of it; this is no way to proceed. In fact ‘consciousness’ covers many different things; once correctly analysed many of them are unproblematic (The multilingual Gabriel suggests in passing that there is no satisfactory German word equivalent to ‘mind’, and for that matter, no good English equivalent of ‘geist’.) He believes there is more mystery about how, for example, the brain deals with truth.

Ray Brassier draws a distinction between knowing what consciousness is and knowing what it means. A long tradition suggests that because we have direct acquaintance with consciousness our impressions are authoritative and we know its nature. In fact the claims about phenomenal experience made by Chalmers and others are hard to justify. I can see, he says, that there are phenomenal qualities – being brown, or square – attached to a table, but the idea that phenomenal things are going on in my mind separate from the table seems to make no sense.

Eva Jablonka takes a biological and evolutionary view. Biological stuff is vastly more complex than non-biological stuff and requires different explanations. She defends Chalmers’s formulation of the problem, but not his answers; she is optimistic that scientific exploration can yield enlightenment. She cites the interesting case of Daniel Kish  whose eyes were removed in early infancy but who has developed echolocation skills to the point where he can ride a bike and find golf balls – it seems his visual cortex has been recruited for the purpose. Surely, says Jablonka, he must have a somewhat better idea of what it is like to be a bat?

There’s a general agreement that simplistic materialism is outdated and that a richer naturalism is required (not, of course, anything like traditional dualism).

Is it really all about the unconscious? An interesting discussion, much of it around the value of the Freudian view: powerful insight into unfathomable complexity or literary stuff of no therapeutic value?

Shahidha Bari makes an impassioned case for the depth of Freud’s essential insights; Barry C Smith says Freud actually presents the motives and workings of the unconscious as too much like those of the conscious mind. Richard Bentall says it’s the conscious mind that is the real mystery; unconsciousness is the norm for non-human beings. Along the way we hear about some interesting examples of how the conscious mind seems to be just a rationalising module for decisions made elsewhere. Quote back to people opinions they never actually voiced, and they will devise justifications for them.

I think the separation between conscious and unconscious often gets muddled with the difference between explicit and inexplicit thinking. It’s surely possible to think consciously without thinking in words, but the borderline between wordless conscious thought and unconscious processes is perhaps hard to pin down.

What is experience? An interesting discussion from the Institute of Art and Ideas, featuring David Chalmers, Susana Martinez-Conde and Peter Hacker.

Chalmers seems to content himself with restating the Hard Problem; that is, that there seems to be something in experience which is mysteriously over and above the account given by physics. He seems rather nervous, but I think it’s just the slight awkwardness typical of a philosopher being asked slightly left-field questions.

Martinez-Conde tells us we never really experience reality, only a neural simulation of it. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because experience seems to be mediated by our sensory systems, and sometimes misleads us, it never shows us external reality. That’s akin to thinking that because some books are fiction no book really addresses reality.

Hacker smoothly dismisses the whole business as a matter of linguistic and conceptual confusion. Physics explains its own domain, but we shouldn’t expect it to deal with experience, any more than we expect it to explain love, or the football league. He is allowed to make a clean get-away with this neat proposition, although we know, for example, that physical electrodes in the brain can generate and control experiences; and we know that various illusions and features of experience have very good physiological explanations. Hacker makes it seem that there is a whole range of domains, each with its own sealed off world of explanation; but surely love, football and the others are just sub-domains of the mental realm? Though we don’t yet know how this works there is plenty of evidence that the mental domain is at least causally dependent on physics, if not reducible to it. That’s what the discussion is all about. We can imagine Hacker a few centuries ago assuring us loftily that the idea of applying ordinary physics to celestial mechanics was a naive category error. If only Galileo had read up on his Oxford philosophy he would realise that the attempt to explain the motion of the planets in terms of physical forces was doomed to end in unresolvable linguistic bewitchment!

I plan to feature more of these discussion videos as a bit of a supplement to the usual menu here, by the way.

magic lanternThere’s an interesting video discussion here at the Institute of Art and Ideas, between Margaret Boden, Steven Rose and Barry Smith, on Neuroscience versus Philosophy.  I’ve never found neuroscientists that belligerent myself; it seems to be mainly other people who make exaggerated claims on behalf of thir subject (although talking up a particular bit of research is not unknown)

While we’re looking at videos, you wouldn’t want to miss Consciousness Central, a series of reports from this year’s Tucson conference on Towards a Science of Consciousness.