Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for January 2012

Last February, the IBM supercomputer Watson won an exhibition game of the American TV show “Jeopardy” against two of its best contestants. This was a significant advance on Deep Blue, another IBM supercomputer, which had defeated the six-time world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. It was hailed in the popular media as heralding the “triumph of machine intelligence over the human”. Of course it was nothing of the sort. It was the triumph of a top team of human researchers at IBM, aided by hundreds of others from many of the leading technological universities in the US, who had programmed Watson over five years and at the cost of $3 million.

In my last post I referred to EP guru Steven Pinker’s claim that the human mind is a “system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our natural ancestors.” In this “computational theory of the mind”, the latter is treated as a set of computer programs or “modules” that are being executed in the electrical wiring (“hardware”) of your brain even as you read this page. Linked to this is the key assumption that what the mind-brain essentially does is “process information”, and this is usually understood as the manipulation of symbols by rules or algorithms. By using a common terminology (e.g. “information”, “intelligence”, “neural networks”) when discussing minds, brains and computers, the human-machine barrier is easily straddled. The mind is both naturalized and computerized. And the brain can now be described as an incredibly powerful microprocessor, the mother of all motherboards.

It requires a certain philosophical sophistication to see through the sleights of hand that ends up reducing human minds and persons to bundles of neural activity in the brains. As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, when looking back on the naive philosophy of science (“logical positivism”) that had once seduced him in the 1920s: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” (Philosophical Investigations, 1953)

There is nothing new in the way scientists take the most advanced machines of their day as models or analogies for human functioning.  Steam engines and telegraph systems have served this purpose before. But there is a short (though calamitous) step from modelling to identification. We then imagine that machines which help us perform certain functions have those functions themselves. We humanize the machines even as we mechanize humans. When we speak of “clocks telling the time”, what we mean is just that they enable us (conscious human persons) to tell the time. Walking sticks don’t actually walk, and running shoes don’t run. The same applies to “radar searching for aircraft”, “telescopes discovering black holes” or “smart phones remembering our appointments”: they do not literally search, discover or remember. If there were no conscious human persons using these prosthetic tools, these activities would not happen.

In one of the most cited philosophical papers of recent decades (“Minds, Brains, and Programs”, 1980) , John Searle invited us to imagine somebody totally ignorant of Chinese seated in a closed room and receiving inputs of Chinese symbols. He is also given a rule-book for processing these symbols, so he can manipulate them and produce an output. Suppose that the input of Chinese is in the form of questions. It would appear, then, from the output symbols that the person in the room was answering the questions. However, he has not understood anything that was passing through his hands. Searle used this analogy to argue that electrical flows in computers do not count as the processing of symbols, since symbols are symbols only to those who understand them as symbols. It is wrong to imagine the mind as analogous to a super-computer, because in the absence of minds computers do not do what minds do.

In our IT-obsessed age, not only is information confused with knowledge, but the special engineering use of the term is confused with meaning. A meaningful message may actually have less information (from a technical point of view) than a sentence made up of pure gibberish. It is all matter of the range of alternatives from which the message is selected and their prior probabilities. As Claude Shannon, a pioneer of the mathematical theory of communication, reminds us, the “semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering aspects.”

In a loose sense of “inform”, the books (and this Blog) I write may be said to be  “filled with information” and stored in print (or on the internet) indefinitely. However, it is strictly only potential information that can be inscribed and stored outside a conscious mind. Once the concepts of information, informing and being informed start to be liberated from a conscious someone being informed or intending to inform, language goes on holiday (another Wittgensteinian expression) and reason disappears.

Distinguishing person-talk from neuro-talk, and neuro-talk from computer-talk, are indispensable if we are to explore the distinctively human and rescue the humanities and human sciences.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was notorious among his contemporaries for his cynical view of human nature. Hobbes held that we always act out of self-interest. Once a friend observed him giving money to a beggar and asked Hobbes if what he had just done did not disprove his own theory of human motivation. Hobbes replied that he had given money to the beggar not out of kindness, but because it gave him pleasure to see the pleasure the beggar obtained through his gift!

Reasoning like Hobbes’s (an example of “reductionism”) is rampant in many academic disciplines, and especially in the new glamour sciences of “cognitive neurology”, “genetic technology” and “evolutionary psychology”. A molecular biologist friend of mine in Cambridge once told me that the saddest aspect of the work of people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins was the way they identified evolution with atheist materialism. The result, among those Christians, Muslims and others who had little understanding of science, was inevitable: reject Darwinian evolution altogether. A clash of fundamentalisms, one religious, the other atheist, follows. But one does not have to be a theist to see the fallacies in biological reductionism (or “Biologism”).

This is how the reductionist argument goes. The human brain is undoubtedly a physical organ that has evolved over millions of years. So, start with this fact and make the  leap to the materialist creed that conscious awareness, self-consciousness and our sense of personal identity are nothing but neural activities located in our brains. The next step follows: the mind, too, is an evolved organ. Natural selection and environmental adaptation explains all there is to us human beings. As Steven Pinker, a prominent evolutionary psychologist of mind puts it: “The mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our natural ancestors.”  Human persons are not embodied subjects, merely living organisms seeking to optimize their reproductive capacity.

If the ultimate motivation for our behaviour is making the world safe for our genes, this has some rather disturbing consequences which don’t seem to have been noticed by those who advocate such views. To begin with, any claim to objective knowledge disappears. The evolved mind serves, not truth, but reproductive success. So, presumably Pinker’s arguments and beliefs are also designed to promote his “selfish” genes. If not, how does he exempt himself from his own assertions?

Moreover, all talk about love and justice, as well as truth, are ultimately self-serving. You may think you are sacrificing your life for others,  but what you are really doing is enabling the group that shares your genetic material to survive. All the ethical norms that govern your behaviour are boiled down to promoting the “inclusive fitness” of  your kinship group (sacrificing your life for other groups, let alone your enemies, is skated over in the literature). More generally, the reasons we give for the things we do (from occupying Wall Street to speculating on Wall Street, from composing music to pirating music videos) are mere rationalizations. Only the evolutionary psychologists can  reveal to us the real reasons, which are not actually reasons at all but biologically determined forces which motivate and determine our behaviour.

Evolutionary psychologists see us as the unwitting playthings of an immensely complex biological organ (the brain) that deceives us into thinking that we are still living in the time of our hominid ancestors or the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer human groups. Whether we are choosing our life-partners or deliberating about energy policy, we are simply reflecting behaviour learned in Stone Age savannahs. Those forms of behaviour that favour the replication of the genome will preferentially survive, whether we know it or not. And, unless we are evolutionary psychologists, we don’t know it.

Hardly a week passes when we are not offered, in the serious scientific journals no less than in pulp tabloids, biological “explanations” of marital infidelity, economic risk-taking, rape or painting in terms of the influence of our genes or neurons acting on us directly – or indirectly through their cultural proxies (so-called “memes”, analogous to genes).

However, I am still waiting to read a scientific paper that gives a biological explanation of the emergence of biological science among humans. Also, a scientific account of what motivates people to become evolutionary psychologists, and why others are impressed by their “explanations”.

I am mystified that clever academics, some philosophers and literary critics among them, blithely quote those cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists who announce that our sense of being “persons” and of having free-will are nothing but illusions foisted on us by neural activity determined by our evolutionary past. Why on earth should we believe such statements when they, too, must be biologically determined? Moreover, isn’t it remarkable to find, say, in the same university medical department, doctors promoting “autonomy”/ “choice” as the supreme value in bioethics while their colleagues undermine all notions of selfhood and free-will?

Is it not hypocritical of people to accept academic awards and book royalties for work that was all pre-programmed in their neural circuitry and over which they had no choice?  But since all moral arguments, too, including outrage at hypocrisy and double-standards, are presumed to be neural reflexes or hangovers from our Stone Age past, I suppose they can be safely ignored. Until, of course, pseudo-sciences like evolutionary psychology are thrown out of our universities. The cries of moral outrage, then, will be deafening.


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