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Age of information
Artificial intelligence
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Daniel C. Dennett on an attempt to understand the mind; autonomic neurons, culture and computational architecture


"What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension."

— Daniel C. Dennett, What Darwin’s theory of evolution teaches us about Alan Turing and artificial intelligence, Lapidarium

"I’m trying to undo a mistake I made some years ago, and rethink the idea that the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine. This is called homuncular functionalism, because you take the whole person. You break the whole person down into two or three or four or seven sub persons that are basically agents. They’re homunculi, and this looks like a regress, but it’s only a finite regress, because you take each of those in turn and you break it down into a group of stupider, more specialized homunculi, and you keep going until you arrive at parts that you can replace with a machine, and that’s a great way of thinking about cognitive science. It’s what good old-fashioned AI tried to do and still trying to do.

The idea is basically right, but when I first conceived of it, I made a big mistake. I was at that point enamored of the McCulloch-Pitts logical neuron. McCulloch and Pitts had put together the idea of a very simple artificial neuron, a computational neuron, which had multiple inputs and a single branching output and a threshold for firing, and the inputs were either inhibitory or excitatory. They proved that in principle a neural net made of these logical neurons could compute anything you wanted to compute. So this was very exciting. It meant that basically you could treat the brain as a computer and treat the neuron as a sort of basic switching element in the computer, and that was certainly an inspiring over-simplification. Everybody knew is was an over-simplification, but people didn’t realize how much, and more recently it’s become clear to me that it’s a dramatic over-simplification, because each neuron, far from being a simple logical switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.

The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances? This vision of the brain as a sort of social arena of politically warring forces seems like sort of an amusing fantasy at first, but is now becoming something that I take more and more seriously, and it’s fed by a lot of different currents.

Evolutionary biologist David Haig has some lovely papers on intrapersonal conflicts where he’s talking about how even at the level of the genetics, even at the level of the conflict between the genes you get from your mother and the genes you get from your father, the so-called madumnal and padumnal genes, those are in opponent relations and if they get out of whack, serious imbalances can happen that show up as particular psychological anomalies.

We’re beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy. Sometimes you can achieve stability and mutual aid and a sort of calm united front, and then everything is hunky-dory, but then it’s always possible for things to get out of whack and for one alliance or another to gain control, and then you get obsessions and delusions and so forth.

You begin to think about the normal well-tempered mind, in effect, the well-organized mind, as an achievement, not as the base state, something that is only achieved when all is going well, but still, in the general realm of humanity, most of us are pretty well put together most of the time. This gives a very different vision of what the architecture is like, and I’m just trying to get my head around how to think about that. (…)

The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon. What Turing gave us for the first time (and without Turing you just couldn’t do any of this) is a way of thinking in a disciplined way about phenomena that have, as I like to say, trillions of moving parts. Until late 20th century, nobody knew how to take seriously a machine with a trillion moving parts. It’s just mind-boggling.

You couldn’t do it, but computer science gives us the ideas, the concepts of levels, virtual machines implemented in virtual machines implemented in virtual machines and so forth. We have these nice ideas of recursive reorganization of which your iPhone is just one example and a very structured and very rigid one at that.

We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work. Now, we know why it doesn’t work pretty well. So you’re going to have a parallel architecture because, after all, the brain is obviously massively parallel.

It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.

You really don’t have to worry about one part of your laptop going rogue and trying out something on its own that the rest of the system doesn’t want to do. No, they’re all slaves. If they’re agents, they’re slaves. They are prisoners. They have very clear job descriptions. They get fed every day. They don’t have to worry about where the energy’s coming from, and they’re not ambitious. They just do what they’re asked to do and do it brilliantly with only the slightest tint of comprehension. You get all the power of computers out of these mindless little robotic slave prisoners, but that’s not the way your brain is organized.

Each neuron is imprisoned in your brain. I now think of these as cells within cells, as cells within prison cells. Realize that every neuron in your brain, every human cell in your body (leaving aside all the symbionts), is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived.

They had to develop an awful lot of know-how, a lot of talent, a lot of self-protective talent to do that. When they joined forces into multi-cellular creatures, they gave up a lot of that. They became, in effect, domesticated. They became part of larger, more monolithic organizations. My hunch is that that’s true in general. We don’t have to worry about our muscle cells rebelling against us, or anything like that. When they do, we call it cancer, but in the brain I think that (and this is my wild idea) maybe only in one species, us, and maybe only in the obviously more volatile parts of the brain, the cortical areas, some little switch has been thrown in the genetics that, in effect, makes our neurons a little bit feral, a little bit like what happens when you let sheep or pigs go feral, and they recover their wild talents very fast.

Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.

We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.

'Culture creates a whole new biosphere'

This, I speculate, is a response to our invention of culture; culture creates a whole new biosphere, in effect, a whole new cultural sphere of activity where there’s opportunities that don’t exist for any other brain tissues in any other creatures, and that this exploration of this space of cultural possibility is what we need to do to explain how the mind works.

Everything I just said is very speculative. I’d be thrilled if 20 percent of it was right. It’s an idea, a way of thinking about brains and minds and culture that is, to me, full of promise, but it may not pan out. I don’t worry about that, actually. I’m content to explore this, and if it turns out that I’m just wrong, I’ll say, “Oh, okay. I was wrong. It was fun thinking about it,” but I think I might be right.

I’m not myself equipped to work on a lot of the science; other people could work on it, and they already are in a way. The idea of selfish neurons has already been articulated by Sebastian Seung of MIT in a brilliant keynote lecture he gave at Society for Neuroscience in San Diego a few years ago. I thought, oh, yeah, selfish neurons, selfish synapses. Cool. Let’s push that and see where it leads. But there are many ways of exploring this. One of the still unexplained, so far as I can tell, and amazing features of the brain is its tremendous plasticity.

Mike Merzenich sutured a monkey’s fingers together so that it didn’t need as much cortex to represent two separate individual digits, and pretty soon the cortical regions that were representing those two digits shrank, making that part of the cortex available to use for other things. When the sutures were removed, the cortical regions soon resumed pretty much their earlier dimensions. If you blindfold yourself for eight weeks, as Alvaro Pascual-Leone does in his experiments, you find that your visual cortex starts getting adapted for Braille, for haptic perception, for touch.

The way the brain spontaneously reorganizes itself in response to trauma of this sort, or just novel experience, is itself one of the most amazing features of the brain, and if you don’t have an architecture that can explain how that could happen and why that is, your model has a major defect. I think you really have to think in terms of individual neurons as micro-agents, and ask what’s in it for them?

Why should these neurons be so eager to pitch in and do this other work just because they don’t have a job? Well, they’re out of work. They’re unemployed, and if you’re unemployed, you’re not getting your neuromodulators. If you’re not getting your neuromodulators, your neuromodulator receptors are going to start disappearing, and pretty soon you’re going to be really out of work, and then you’re going to die.

In this regard, I think of John Hollands work on the emergence of order. His example is New York City. You can always find a place where you can get gefilte fish, or sushi, or saddles or just about anything under the sun you want, and you don’t have to worry about a state bureaucracy that is making sure that supplies get through. No. The market takes care of it. The individual web of entrepreneurship and selfish agency provides a host of goods and services, and is an extremely sensitive instrument that responds to needs very quickly.

Until the lights go out. Well, we’re all at the mercy of the power man. I am quite concerned that we’re becoming hyper-fragile as a civilization, and we’re becoming so dependent on technologies that are not as reliable as they should be, that have so many conditions that have to be met for them to work, that we may specialize ourselves into some very serious jams. But in the meantime, thinking about the self-organizational powers of the brain as very much like the self-organizational powers of a city is not a bad idea. It just reeks of over-enthusiastic metaphor, though, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that this idea has been around since Plato.

Plato analogizes the mind of a human being to the state. You’ve got the rulers and the guardians and the workers. This idea that a person is made of lots of little people is comically simpleminded in some ways, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, in a sense, true. We shouldn’t shrink from it just because it reminds us of simpleminded versions that have been long discredited. Maybe some not so simpleminded version is the truth.

There are a lot of cultural fleas

My next major project will be trying to take another hard look at cultural evolution and look at the different views of it and see if I can achieve a sort of bird’s eye view and establish what role, if any, is there for memes or something like memes and what are the other forces that are operating. We are going to have to have a proper scientific perspective on cultural change. The old-fashioned, historical narratives are wonderful, and they’re full of gripping detail, and they’re even sometimes right, but they only cover a small proportion of the phenomena. They only cover the tip of the iceberg.

Basically, the model that we have and have used for several thousand years is the model that culture consists of treasures, cultural treasures. Just like money, or like tools and houses, you bequeath them to your children, and you amass them, and you protect them, and because they’re valuable, you maintain them and prepare them, and then you hand them on to the next generation and some societies are rich, and some societies are poor, but it’s all goods. I think that vision is true of only the tip of the iceberg.

Most of the regularities in culture are not treasures. It’s not all opera and science and fortifications and buildings and ships. It includes all kinds of bad habits and ugly patterns and stupid things that don’t really matter but that somehow have got a grip on a society and that are part of the ecology of the human species in the same way that mud, dirt and grime and fleas are part of the world that we live in. They’re not our treasures. We may give our fleas to our children, but we’re not trying to. It’s not a blessing. It’s a curse, and I think there are a lot of cultural fleas. There are lots of things that we pass on without even noticing that we’re doing it and, of course, language is a prime case of this, very little deliberate intentional language instruction goes on or has to go on.

Kids that are raised with parents pointing out individual objects and saying, “See, it’s a ball. It’s red. Look, Johnny, it’s a red ball, and this is a cow, and look at the horsy” learn to speak, but so do kids who don’t have that patient instruction. You don’t have to do that. Your kids are going to learn ball and red and horsy and cow just fine without that, even if they’re quite severely neglected. That’s not a nice observation to make, but it’s true. It’s almost impossible not to learn language if you don’t have some sort of serious pathology in your brain.

Compare that with chimpanzees. There are hundreds of chimpanzees who have spent their whole lives in human captivity. They’ve been institutionalized. They’ve been like prisoners, and in the course of the day they hear probably about as many words as a child does. They never show any interest. They never apparently get curious about what those sounds are for. They can hear all the speech, but it’s like the rustling of the leaves. It just doesn’t register on them as worth attention.

But kids are tuned for that, and it might be a very subtle tuning. I can imagine a few small genetic switches, which, if they were just in a slightly different position, would make chimpanzees just as pantingly eager to listen to language as human babies are, but they’re not, and what a difference it makes in their world! They never get to share discoveries the way we do and to share our learning. That, I think, is the single feature about human beings that distinguishes us most clearly from all others: we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Our kids get the benefit of not just what grandpa and grandma and great grandpa and great grandma knew. They get the benefit of basically what everybody in the world knew in the years when they go to school. They don’t have to invent calculus or long division or maps or the wheel or fire. They get all that for free. It just comes as part of the environment. They get incredible treasures, cognitive treasures, just by growing up. (…)

A lot of naïve thinking by scientists about free will

Moving Naturalism Forward" was a nice workshop that Sean Carroll put together out in Stockbridge a couple of weeks ago, and it was really interesting. I learned a lot. I learned more about how hard it is to do some of these things and that’s always useful knowledge, especially for a philosopher.

If we take seriously, as I think we should, the role that Socrates proposed for us as midwives of thinking, then we want to know what the blockades are, what the imagination blockades are, what people have a hard time thinking about, and among the things that struck me about the Stockbridge conference were the signs of people really having a struggle to take seriously some ideas which I think they should take seriously. (…)

I realized I really have my work cut out for me in a way that I had hoped not to discover. There’s still a lot of naïve thinking by scientists about free will. I’ve been talking about it quite a lot, and I do my best to undo some bad thinking by various scientists. I’ve had some modest success, but there’s a lot more that has to be done on that front. I think it’s very attractive to scientists to think that here’s this several-millennia-old philosophical idea, free will, and they can just hit it out of the ballpark, which I’m sure would be nice if it was true.

It’s just not true. I think they’re well intentioned. They’re trying to clarify, but they’re really missing a lot of important points. I want a naturalistic theory of human beings and free will and moral responsibility as much as anybody there, but I think you’ve got to think through the issues a lot better than they’ve done, and this, happily, shows that there’s some real work for philosophers.

Philosophers have done some real work that the scientists jolly well should know. Here’s an area where it was one of the few times in my career when I wanted to say to a bunch of scientists, “Look. You have some reading to do in philosophy before you hold forth on this. There really is some good reading to do on these topics, and you need to educate yourselves.”

A combination of arrogance and cravenness

The figures about American resistance to evolution are still depressing, and you finally have to realize that there’s something structural. It’s not that people are stupid, and I think it’s clear that people, everybody, me, you, we all have our authorities, our go-to people whose word we trust. If you want to question about the economic situation in Greece, for instance, you need to check it out with somebody whose opinion on that we think is worth taking seriously. We don’t try to work it out for ourselves. We find some expert that we trust, and right around the horn, whatever the issues are, we have our experts, and so a lot of people have as their experts on matters of science, they have their pastors. This is their local expert.

I don’t blame them. I wish they were more careful about vetting their experts and making sure that they found good experts. They wouldn’t choose an investment advisor, I think, as thoughtlessly as they go along with their pastor. I blame the pastors, but where do they get their ideas? Well, they get them from the hierarchies of their churches. Where do they get their ideas? Up at the top, I figure there’s some people that really should be ashamed of themselves. They know better.

They’re lying, and when I get a chance, I try to ask them that. I say, “Doesn’t it bother you that your grandchildren are going to want to know why you thought you had to lie to everybody about evolution?” I mean, really. They’re lies. They’ve got to know that these are lies. They’re not that stupid, and I just would love them to worry about what their grandchildren and great grandchildren would say about how their ancestors were so craven and so arrogant. It’s a combination of arrogance and cravenness.

We now have to start working on that structure of experts and thinking, why does that persist? How can it be that so many influential, powerful, wealthy, in-the-public people can be so confidently wrong about evolutionary biology? How did that happen? Why does it happen? Why does it persist? It really is a bit of a puzzle if you think about how they’d be embarrassed not to know that the world is round. I think that would be deeply embarrassing to be that benighted, and they’d realize it. They’d be embarrassed not to know that HIV is the vector of AIDS. They’d be embarrassed to not understand the way the tides are produced by the gravitational forces of the moon and the sun. They may not know the details, but they know that the details are out there. They could learn them in 20 minutes if they wanted to. How did they get themselves in the position where they could so blithely trust people who they’d never buy stocks and bonds from? They’d never trust a child’s operation to a doctor that was as ignorant and as ideological as these people. It is really strange. I haven’t got to the bottom of that. (…)

This pernicious sort of lazy relativism

[T]here’s a sort of enforced hypocrisy where the pastors speak from the pulpit quite literally, and if you weren’t listening very carefully, you’d think: oh my gosh, this person really believes all this stuff. But they’re putting in just enough hints for the sophisticates in the congregation so that the sophisticates are supposed to understand: Oh, no. This is all just symbolic. This is all just metaphorical. And that’s the way they want it, but of course, they could never admit it. You couldn’t put a little neon sign up over the pulpit that says, “Just metaphor, folks, just metaphor.” It would destroy the whole thing.

You can’t admit that it’s just metaphor even when you insist when anybody asks that it’s just metaphor, and so this professional doubletalk persists, and if you study it for a while the way Linda [pdf] and I have been doing, you come to realize that’s what it is, and that means they’ve lost track of what it means to tell the truth. Oh, there are so many different kinds of truth. Here’s where postmodernism comes back to haunt us. What a pernicious bit of intellectual vandalism that movement was! It gives license to this pernicious sort of lazy relativism.

One of the most chilling passages in that great book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is where he talks about soldiers in the military: "Far better is it for an army to be too savage, too cruel, too barbarous, thant to possess too much sentimentality and human reasonableness.” This is a very sobering, to me, a very sobering reflection. Let’s talk about when we went into Iraq. There was Rumsfeld saying, “Oh, we don’t need a big force. We don’t need a big force. We can do this on the cheap,” and there were other people, retrospectively we can say they were wiser, who said, “Look, if you’re going to do this at all, you want to go in there with such overpowering, such overwhelming numbers and force that you can really intimidate the population, and you can really maintain the peace and just get the population to sort of roll over, and that way actually less people get killed, less people get hurt. You want to come in with an overwhelming show of force.”

The principle is actually one that’s pretty well understood. If you don’t want to have a riot, have four times more police there than you think you need. That’s the way not to have a riot and nobody gets hurt because people are not foolish enough to face those kinds of odds. But they don’t think about that with regard to religion, and it’s very sobering. I put it this way.

Suppose that we face some horrific, terrible enemy, another Hitler or something really, really bad, and here’s two different armies that we could use to defend ourselves. I’ll call them the Gold Army and the Silver Army; same numbers, same training, same weaponry. They’re all armored and armed as well as we can do. The difference is that the Gold Army has been convinced that God is on their side and this is the cause of righteousness, and it’s as simple as that. The Silver Army is entirely composed of economists. They’re all making side insurance bets and calculating the odds of everything.

Which army do you want on the front lines? It’s very hard to say you want the economists, but think of what that means. What you’re saying is we’ll just have to hoodwink all these young people into some false beliefs for their own protection and for ours. It’s extremely hypocritical. It is a message that I recoil from, the idea that we should indoctrinate our soldiers. In the same way that we inoculate them against diseases, we should inoculate them against the economists’—or philosophers’—sort of thinking, since it might lead to them to think: am I so sure this cause is just? Am I really prepared to risk my life to protect? Do I have enough faith in my commanders that they’re doing the right thing? What if I’m clever enough and thoughtful enough to figure out a better battle plan, and I realize that this is futile? Am I still going to throw myself into the trenches? It’s a dilemma that I don’t know what to do about, although I think we should confront it at least.”

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, The normal well-tempered mind, Edge, Jan 8, 2013.

'The Intentional Stance'

"Dennett favours the theory (first suggested by Richard Dawkins) that our social learning has given us a second information highway (in addition to the genetic highway) where the transmission of variant cultural information (memes) takes place via differential replication. Software viruses, for example, can be understood as memes, and as memes evolve in complexity, so does human cognition: “The mind is the effect, not the cause.” (…)

Daniel Dennett: "Natural selection is not gene centrist and nor is biology all about genes, our comprehending minds are a result of our fast evolving culture. Words are memes that can be spoken and words are the best example of memes. Words have a genealogy and it’s easier to trace the evolution of a single word than the evolution of a language." (…)

I don’t like theory of mind. I coined the phrase The Intentional Stance. [Dennett’s Intentional Stance encompasses attributing feelings, memories and beliefs to others as well as mindreading and predicting what someone will do next.] Do you need a theory to ride a bike? (…)

Riding a bike is a craft – you don’t need a theory. Autistic people might need a theory with which to understand other minds, but the rest of us don’t. If a human is raised without social interaction and without language they would be hugely disabled and probably lacking in empathy.”

Daniel C. Dennett, Daniel Dennett: ‘I don’t like theory of mind’ – interview, The Guardian, 22 March 2013.

See also:

Steven Pinker on the mind as a system of ‘organs of computation’, Lapidarium notes
Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks - ‘To be human is to be quantum’, Lapidarium notes
Human Connectome Project: understanding how different parts of the brain communicate to each other
How Free Is Your Will?, Lapidarium notes
Susan Blackmore on memes and “temes”
Mind & Brain tag on Lapidarium notes