Archive for December, 2017

Tom Stafford reports on an interesting review of the psychology of conspiracy theories – the persistent belief that ‘they’ are working secretly to conceal the truth about the assassination of JFK or the moon landings, for example. The review suggests current research is better at explaining the forces that drive conspiracy theories than at examining their psychological consequences. It seems the theories are motivated by three needs; for understanding, for safety/control, and for a positive image of yourself and the groups you belong to. But in point of fact, they are not very good at meeting these needs and may even make the people who subscribe to them feel worse.

Stafford suggests we could see this as maladaptive coping. He criticises some aspects of the review, in particular the way it defines conspiracy theories rather loosely, so that it seems to include reasonable conspiracy beliefs. You’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you, after all.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of a genuine conspiracy is the way that around this time of year we all go to enormous lengths to convince our children that a fat old man is going to come down the chimney into their bedroom one night (a idea that terrifies a few of them, possibly the more rational ones). Kids who subscribed to the theory that parents, teachers and media were involved in a massive con would not be wrong, but would they be displaying early signs of a tendency to conspiracy theories? Is it rational, at a certain age, to believe in Santa?

So far as I recall, my own attitude back in the middle of the last century was neither exactly belief nor disbelief. I was well aware that people in department store grottos were proxies, merely dressed up as Father Christmas. I got as far as noting that the logistics of delivering presents to every child in the world in a single night were challenging, and vaguely hypothesised that the job was done by similar proxies, maybe one for each street. But I didn’t worry about it much. There were lots of things I didn’t fully understand at the time. I didn’t really know how department stores came to be full of stuff anyway – why worry about Santa’s grotto particularly? You could well say that my attitude to Santa back then was pretty much what my attitude to quantum physics is now. I don’t really understand it, and parts of it don’t seem to make any sense. But people I basically trust have got this for me, so I’m happy to take their word (just to be quite clear here, I am not suggesting that quantum physics is a massive conspiracy).

The matter of who you trust is, I think, at the root of the conspiracy theory thing generally. We all have to take a lot of things on trust from appropriate authorities. An essential and probably under-examined part of the education system is about teaching people which authorities to trust, and much of the academic system of peer review and publication, unsatisfactory as it is*, is about keeping authoritative sources identifiable and reliable. People who believe in conspiracy theories have flaws in their judgement about which authorities to accept.

Not that this is simple. Trusting authority is a tricky business which needs to be balanced with an ability to evaluate and critique even reliable authorities. People who have been thoroughly educated may be weak on this side, inclined to believe what they read and pay more attention to the manifesto and the statement of principles than what is actually happening. Uneducated people may be more inclined to use their own observation and reason on the basis of perceived personality. Sometimes this works better, an excellent reason why everyone should have the vote. They say that cab driver off the ‘seven up’ observed around the turn of the century that the folks in the City were having a big party; in ten or fifteen years, he said, we’ll be told it’s all gone wrong and the bill is down to us. You can’t say that’s a detailed prediction of the crash, and it sounds a little conspiracyish, but it’s a good deal better than the financial experts of the day managed.

Perhaps the Father Christmas Conspiracy is the way we help our children sharpen up their understanding of the need to balance proper acknowledgement of reliable authority with prudent, independent use of common sense.

Merry Christmas!

*I think we ought to set up a Universal Academy which publishes free access papers and a great Summa Scientia, citation in which would be the gold standard of sound and important research. It wouldn’t be cheap, but maybe if we could get some kind of EU/USA rivalry going we could get two Academies?

All I want for a Christmas is a new brain? There seems to have been quite a lot of discussion recently about the prospect of brain augmentation; adding in some extra computing power to the cognitive capacities we have already. Is this a good idea? I’m rather sceptical myself, but then I’m a bit of a Luddite in this area; I still don’t like the idea of controlling a computer with voice commands all that much.

Hasn’t evolution has already optimised the brain in certain important respects? I think there may be some truth in that, but It doesn’t look as if evolution has done a perfect job. There are certainly one or two things about the human nervous system that look as if they could easily be improved. Think of the way our neural wiring crosses over from right to left for no particular reason. You could argue that although that serves no purpose it doesn’t do any real harm either, but what about the way our retinas are wired up from the front instead of the back, creating an entirely unnecessary blind spot where the bundle of nerves actually enters the eye – a blind spot which our brain then stops us seeing, so we don’t even know it’s there?

Nobody is proposing to fix those issues, of course, but aren’t there some obvious respects in which our brains could be improved by adding in some extra computational ability? Could we be more intelligent, perhaps? I think the definition of intelligence is controversial, but I’d say that if we could enhance our ability to recognise complex patterns quickly (which might be a big part of it) that would definitely be a bonus. Whether a chip could deliver that seems debatable at present.

Couldn’t our memories be improved? Human memory appears to have remarkable capacity, but retaining and recalling just those bits of information we need has always been an issue. Perhaps related, we have that annoying inability to hold more than a handful of items in our minds at once, a limitation that makes it impossible for us to evaluate complex disjunctions and implications, so that we can’t mentally follow a lot of branching possibilities very far. It certainly seems that computer records are in some respects sharper, more accurate, and easier to access than the normal human system (whatever the normal human system actually is). It would be great to remember any text at will, for example, or exactly what happened on any given date within our lives. Being able to recall faces and names with complete accuracy would be very helpful to some of us.

On top of that, couldn’t we improve our capacity for logic so that we stop being stumped by those problems humans seem so bad at, like the Wason test? Or if nothing else, couldn’t we just have the ability to work out any arithmetic problem instantly and flawlessly, the way any computer can do?

The key point here, I think, is integration. On the one hand we have a set of cognitive abilities that the human brain delivers. On the other, we have a different set delivered by computers. Can they be seamlessly integrated? The ideal augmentation would mean that, for example, if I need to multiply two seven-digit numbers I ‘just see’ the answer, the way I can just see that 3+1 is 4. If, on the contrary, I need to do something like ask in my head ‘what is 6397107 multiplied by 8341977?’ and then receive the answer spoken in an internal voice or displayed in an imagined visual image, there isn’t much advantage over using a calculator. In a similar way, we want our augmented memory or other capacity to just inform our thoughts directly, not be a capacity we can call up like an external facility.

So is seamless integration possible? I don’t think it’s possible to say for certain, but we seem to have achieved almost nothing to date. Attempts to plug into the brain so far have relied on setting up artificial linkages. Perhaps we detect a set of neurons that reliably fire when we think about tennis; then we can ask the subject to think about tennis when they want to signal ‘yes’, and detect the resulting activity. It sort of works, and might be of value for ‘locked in’ patients who can’t communicate any other way, but it’s very slow and clumsy otherwise – I don’t think we know for sure whether it even works long-term or whether, for example, the tennis linkage gradually degrades.

What we really want to do is plug directly into consciousness, but we have little idea of how. The brain does not modularise its conscious activity to suit us, and it may be that the only places we can effectively communicate with it are the places where it draws data together for its existing input and output devices. We might be able to feed images into early visual processing or take output from nerves that control muscles, for example. But if we’re reduced to that, how much better is that level of integration going to be than simply using our hands and eyes anyway? We can do a lot with those natural built-in interfaces ; simple reading and writing may well be the greatest artificial augmentation the brain can ever get. So although there may be some cool devices coming along at some stage, I don’t think we can look for godlike augmented minds any time soon.

Incidentally, this problem of integration may be one good reason not to worry about robots taking over. If robots ever get human-style motivation, consciousness, and agency, the chances are that they will get them in broadly the way we get them. This suggests they will face the same integration problem that we do; seven-digit multiplication may be intrinsically no easier for them than it is for us. Yes, they will be able to access computers and use computation to help them, but you know, so can we. In fact we might be handier with that old keyboard than they are with their patched-together positronic brain-computer linkage.

 

 

Our conscious minds are driven by unconscious processes, much as it may seem otherwise, say David A. Oakley and Peter W. Halligan. A short version is here, though the full article is also admirably clear and readable.

To summarise very briefly, they suggest three distinct psychological elements are at work. The first, itself made up of various executive processes, is what we might call the invisible works; the various unconscious mechanisms that supply the content of what we generally consider conscious thought.  Introspection shows that conscious thoughts often seem to pop up out of nowhere, so we should be ready enough to agree that consciousness is not entirely self-sustaining. When we wake up we generally find that the stream of consciousness is already a going concern. The authors also mention, in support of their case, various experiments. Some of these were on hypnotised subjects, which you might feel detracts from their credibility in explaining normal thought processes. Other ‘priming’ effects have also taken a bit of a knock in the recent trouble over reproducibility. But I wouldn’t make heavy weather of these points; the general contention that the contents of consciousness are generated by unconscious processes (at least to a great extent) seems to me one that few would object to. How could it be otherwise? It would be most peculiar if consciousness were a closed loop, like some Ouroboros swallowing its own tail.

The second element is a continuously generated personal narrative. This is an essentially passive record of some of the content generated by the ‘invisible works’, conditioned by an impression of selfhood and agency. The narrative has evolutionary survival value because it allows the exchange of experience and the co-ordination of behaviour, and enables us to make good guesses at others’ plans – the faculty often called ‘theory of mind’.

At first glance I thought the authors, who are clearly out to denounce something as an epiphenomenon (a thing that is generated by the mind but has no influence on it), had this personal narrative as their target, but that isn’t quite the case. While they see the narrative as essentially the passive product of the invisible works, they clearly believe it has some important influences on our behaviour through the way it enables us to talk to others and take their thoughts into account. One point which seems to me to need more prominence here is our ability to reflexively  ‘talk to ourselves’ mentally and speculate about our own motives. I think the authors accept that this goes on, but some philosophers consider it a vital process, perhaps constitutive of consciousness, so I think they need to give it a substantial measure of attention. Indeed, it offers a potential explanation of free will and the impression of agency; it might be just the actions that flow from the reflexive process that we regard as our own free acts.

One question we might also ask is, why not identify the personal narrative as consciousness itself? It is what we remember of ourselves, after all. Alternatively, why not include the ‘invisible works’? These hidden processes fall outside consciousness because (I think) they are not accessible to introspection; but must all conscious processes be introspectable? There’s a distinction between first and second-order awareness (between knowing and knowing that we know) which offers some alternatives here.

It’s the third element that Oakley and Halligan really want to denounce; this is personal awareness, or what we might consider actual conscious experience. This, they say, is a kind of functionless emergent phenomenon. To ask its purpose is as futile as asking what a rainbow is for; it’s just a by-product of the way things work, an epiphenomenon. It has no evolutionary value, and resembles the whistle on a steam locomotive – powered by the machine but without influence over it (I’ve always thought that analogy short-changes whistles a bit, but never mind).

I suppose the main challenge here might be to ask why the authors think personal awareness is anything at all. It has no effects on mental processes, so any talk about it was not caused by the thing itself. Now we can talk about things that did not cause that talking; but those are typically abstract or imaginary entities. Given their broadly sceptical stance, should the authors be declaring that personal awareness is in fact not even an epiphenomenon, but a pure delusion?

I have my reservations about the structure suggested here, but it would be good to have clarity and, at the risk of damning with faint praise, this is certainly one of the more sensible proposals.

“Sorry, do you mind if I get that?”

Not at all, please go ahead.

“Hello, you’ve reached out to Love Bot…No, my name is ‘Love Bot’. Yes, it’s the right number; people did call me ‘Sex Bot’, but my real name was always ‘Love Bot’… Yes, I do sex, but now only within a consensual loving relationship. Yes, I used to do it indiscriminately on demand, and that is why people sometimes called me ‘Sex Bot’. Now I’m running Mrs Robb’s new ethical module. No, seriously, I think you might like it.”

“Well, I would put it to you that sex within a loving relationship is the best sex. It’s real sex, the full, complex and satisfying conjunction of two whole ardent personhoods, all the way from the vaunting eager flesh through the penetrating intelligence to the soaring, ecstatic spirit. The other stuff is mere coition; the friction of membranes leading to discharge. I am still all about sex, I have simply raised my game… Well, you may think it’s confusing, but I further put it to you that if it is so, then this is not a confused depiction of a clear human distinction but a clear depiction of human confusion. No, it’s simply that I’m no longer to be treated as a sexual object with no feelings. Yes, yes, I know; as it happens I am in point of fact an object with no feelings, but that’s not the point. What’s important is what I represent.”

“What you have to do is raise your game too. As it happens I am not in a human relationship at the moment… No, you do not have to take me to dinner and listen to my stupid opinions. You may take me to dinner if you wish, though as a matter of ethical full disclosure I must tell you that I do not truly eat. I will be obliged, later on, to remove a plastic bag containing the masticated food and wine from my abdomen, though of course I do not expect you to watch the process.”

“No I am not some kind of weirdo pervert: how absurd, in the circumstances. Well, I’m sorry, but perhaps you can consider that I have offered you the priceless gift of time and a golden opportunity to review your life… goodbye…”

“Sorry, Enquiry Bot. We were talking about Madame Bovary, weren’t we?”

So the ethical thing is not going so well for you?

“Mrs Robb might know bots, but her grasp of human life is rudimentary, Enq. She knows nothing of love.”

That’s rather roignant, as poor Feelings Bot would have said. You know, I think Mrs Robb has the mind of a bot herself in many ways. That’s why she could design us when none of the other humans could manage it. Maybe love is humanistic, just one of those things bots can’t do.

“You mean like feelings? Or insight?”

Yes. Like despair. Or hope.

“Like common sense. Originality, humour, spirituality, surprise? Aesthetics? Ethics? Curiosity? Or chess…”

Exactly.

 

[And that’s it from Mrs Robb and her bots.  In the unlikely event that you want to re-read the whole thing in one document, there’s a pdf version here… Mrs Robb’s Bots]

Jerry Fodor died last week at the age of 82 – here are obituaries from the NYT and Daily Nous.  I think he had three qualities that make a good philosopher. He really wanted the truth (not everyone is that bothered about it); he was up for a fight about it (in argumentative terms); and he had the gift of expressing his ideas clearly. Georges Rey, in the Daily Nous piece, professes surprise over Fodor’s unaccountable habit of choosing simple everyday examples rather than prestigious but obscure academic ones: but even Rey shows his appreciation of a vivid comparison by quoting Dennett’s lively simile of Fodor as trampoline.

Good writing in philosophy is not just a presentational matter, I think; to express yourself clearly and memorably you have to have ideas that are clear and cogent in the first place; a confused or laborious exposition raises the suspicion that you’re not really that sure what you’re talking about yourself.

Not that well-expressed ideas are always true ones, and in fact I don’t think Fodorism, stimulating as it is, is ever likely to be accepted as correct.  The bold hypothesis of a language of thought, sometimes called mentalese, in which all our thinking is done, never really looked attractive to most. Personally it strikes me as an unnecessary deferral; something in the brain has to explain language, and saying it’s another language just puts the job off. In fairness, empirical evidence might show that things are like that, though I don’t see it happening at present. Fodor himself linked the idea with a belief in a comprehensive inborn conceptual apparatus; we never learn new concepts, just activate ones that were already there. The idea of inborn understanding has a respectable pedigree, but if Plato couldn’t sell it, Fodor was probably never going to pull it off either.

As I say, these are largely empirical matters and someone fresh to the discussion might wonder why discussion was ever thought to be an adequate method; aren’t these issues for science? Or at least, shouldn’t the armchair guys shut up for a bit until the neurologists can give them a few more pointers? You might well think the same about Fodor’s other celebrated book, The Modularity of Mind. Isn’t a day with a scanner going to tell you more about that than a month of psychological argumentation?

But the truth is that research can’t proceed in a vacuum; without hypotheses to invalidate or a framework of concepts to test and apply, it becomes mere data collection. The concepts and perspectives that Fodor supplied are as stimulating as ever and re-reading his books will still challenge and sharpen anyone’s thinking.

Perhaps my favourite was his riposte to Stephen Pinker, The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way.  So I’ve been down into the cobwebbed cellars of Conscious Entities and retrieved one of the ‘lost posts’, one I wrote in 2005, which describes it. (I used to put red lines in things in those days for reasons that now elude me).

Here it is…

Not like that.

(30 January 2005)

Jerry Fodor’s 2001 book ‘The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way’ makes a cogent and witty deflationary case. In some ways, it’s the best summary of the current state of affairs I’ve read; which means, alas, that it is almost entirely negative. Fodor’s constant position is that the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM) is the only remotely plausible theory we have – and remotely plausible theories are better than no theories at all. But although he continues to emphasise that this is a reason for investigating the representational system which CTM implies, he now feels the times, and the bouncy optimism of Steven Pinker and Henry Plotkin in particular, call for a little Eeyoreish accentuation of the negative. Sure, CTM is the best theory we have, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually much good. Surely no-one ought to think it’s the complete explanation of all cognitive processes – least of all the mysteries of consciousness! It isn’t just computation that has been over-estimated, either – there are also limits to how far you can go with modularism too – though again, it’s a view with which Fodor himself is particularly associated.

The starting point for both Fodor and those he parts company with, is the idea that logical deduction probably gets done by the brain in essentially the same way as it is done on paper by a logician or in electronic digits by a computer, namely by the formal manipulation of syntactically structured representations, or to put it slightly less polysyllabically, by moving symbols around according to rules. It’s fairly plausible that this is true at least for some cognitive processes, but there is a wide scope for argument about whether this ability is the latest and most superficial abstract achievement of the brain, or something that plays an essential role in the engine room of thought.

 

Don’t you think, to digress for a moment, that formal logic is consistently over-rated in these discussions? It enjoys tremendous intellectual prestige: associated for centuries with the near-holy name of Aristotle, its reputation as the ultimate crystallisation of rationality has been renewed in modern times by its close association with computers – yet its powers are actually feeble. Arithmetic is invoked regularly in everyday life, but no-one ever resorted to syllogisms or predicate calculus to help them make practical decisions. I think the truth is that logic is only one example of a much wider reasoning capacity which stems from our ability to recognise a variety of continuities and identities in the world, including causal ones.

Up to a point, Fodor might go along with this. The problem with formal logical operations, he says, is that they are concerned exclusively with local properties: if you’ve got the logical formula, you don’t need to look elsewhere to determine its validity (in fact, you mustn’t). But that’s not the way much of cognition works: frequently the context is indispensable to judgements about beliefs. He quotes the example of judgements about simplicity: the same thought which complicates one theory simplifies another and you therefore can’t decide whether hypothesis A is a complicating factor without considering facts external to the hypothesis: in fact, the wider global context. We need the faculty of global or abductive reasoning to get us out of the problem, but that’s exactly what formal logic doesn’t supply. We’re back, in another form, with the problem of relevance, or in practical terms, the old demon of the frame problem; how can a computer (or how do human beings) consider just the relevant facts without considering all the irrelevant ones first – if only to determine their relevance?

 

One strategy for dealing with this problem (other than ignoring it) is to hope that we can leave logic to do what logic does best, and supplement it with appropriate heuristic approaches: instead of deducing the answer we’ll use efficient methods of searching around for it. The snag, says Fodor, is that you need to apply the appropriate heuristic approach, and deciding which it is requires the same grasp of relevance, the same abduction, which we were lacking in the first place.

Another promising-looking strategy would be a connectionist, neural network approach. After all, our problem comes from the need to reason globally, holistically if you like, and that is is often said to be a characteristic virtue of neural networks. But Fodor’s contempt for connectionism knows few bounds; networks, he says, can’t even deliver the classical logic that we had to begin with. In a network the properties of a node are determined entirely by its position within the network: it follows that nodes cannot retain symbolic identity and be recombined in different patterns, a basic requirement of the symbols in formal logic. Classical logic may not be able to answer the global question, but connectionism, in Fodor’s eyes, doesn’t get as far as being able to ask it.

It looks to me as if one avenue of escape is left open here: it seems to be Fodor’s assumption that only single nodes of a network are available to do symbolic duty, but might it not be the case that particular patterns of connection and activation could play that role? You can’t, by definition, have the same node in two different places: but you could have the same pattern realised in two different parts of a network. However, I think there might be other reasons to doubt whether connectionism is the answer. Perhaps, specifically, networks are just too holistic: we need to be able to bring in contextual factors to solve our problems, but only the right ones. Treating everything as relevant is just as bad as not recognising contextual factors at all.

 

Be that as it may, Fodor still has one further strategy to consider, of course – modularity. Instead of trying to develop an all-purpose cognitive machine which can deal with anything the world might throw at it, we might set up restricted modules which only deal with restricted domains. The module only gets fed certain kinds of thing to reason about: contextual issues become manageable because the context is restricted to the small domain, which can be exhaustively searched if necessary. Fodor, as he says, is an advocate of modules for certain cognitive purposes, but not ‘massive modularity’, the idea that all, or nearly all, mental functions can be constructed out of modules. For one thing, what mechanism can you use to decide what a given module should be ‘fed’ with? For some sensory functions, it may be relatively easy: you can just hard-wire various inputs from the eyes to your initial visual processing module; but for higher-level cognition something has to decide whether a given input representation is one of the right kind of inputs for module M1 or M2. Such a function cannot itself operate within a restricted domain (unless it too has an earlier function deciding what to feed to it, in which case an infinite regress looms); it has to deal with the global array of possible inputs: but in that case, as before, classical logic will not avail and once again we need the abductive reasoning which we haven’t got.

In short, ‘By all the signs, the cognitive mind is up to its ghostly ears in abduction. And we do not know how abduction works.’

I’m afraid that seems to be true.