Tag Archives: cogsci

2017-09-17: I, Replicant

This is a notion for a novel based on the concept of replicants in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner. The story would be a first-person semi-memoir of a replicant, beginning with the first glimmering of realization that he isn’t human, and dealing with the differences between replicants and humans. Various sorts of drama might make it interesting, if I can think of any.

This might be an interesting project to develop with the research version of Cyc.



2017-01-27: Other Minds

Other Minds

The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016)

by Peter Godfrey-Smith (1965-)

Godfrey-Smith has a lot of experience observing and interacting with cephalopods, and says:

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.

He describes the background behind the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and the behavior and mental capabilities of octopuses. He makes a decent case for intelligence in octopuses. Along the way he describes many of the general characteristics that support consciousness in our brains; presumably a creature with some of these characteristics would have some form of subjective experience. It would be like something to be one of these creatures.

The evolutionary investment in a large nervous system and relatively large brain has to have had a favorable cost/benefit ratio. Near the end he surprises us with the news that this investment resides in animal with a typical lifespan of only two years.

In chapter 6, in the section “Conscious Experience”, he describes the “inner workspace” theory, which assumes that the content of consciousness is the sensory and derived information that is the subject of attention at any moment. This is related to the inner-speech phenomenon. He also describes higher-order thought (“thought about your own thoughts”), such as “Why am I in such a bad mood?” or “I hardly noticed that car.” I would add that thought about others’ thoughts is also a key aspect of our conscious experience. One of the limitations of the octopus is that they are not social; they probably have no mental representation of the thoughts of other octopuses.

In the section “Full Circle”, he splits the term afference (meaning the inputs to the brain, contrasted with efference for the outputs) into two parts: exafference meaning the inputs that are caused by the outside world; and reafference meaning the inputs that are due to our own actions, as when a movement of our head affects the visual appearance of the world. The feedback loops involved are parts of the mental mechanism that underlies subjective experience. As an example he discusses writing a note for yourself; at some future time that note will become an input that will affect your behavior.

There is a lot of interesting information about octopuses and cuttlefish (not much about squid), which is quite interesting. There is also a good deal about the evolutionary path to subjective experience, which I found even more interesting.


2016-09-28: Subjective experience

The following abstract seems interesting, if perhaps a bit glib. The article is available (for a price) from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1002/wcs.1412/full.

Neurotypical subjective experience is caused by a hippocampal simulation

by Matt Faw and Bill Faw

We propose that the phenomenon known to neurologically intact people as ‘Subjective Experience’ is best understood as the activation of various sites in both extrinsic and intrinsic networks by a brand new episodic memory engram (i.e., a complex theta wave coding pattern originating from field CA1 of the hippocampus). Like a media news outlet, the hippocampal complex receives reportage from widely distributed structures around the brain and organizes and binds those reports together into a brand new episodic memory (i.e., a virtual-reality, movie-like, unified, contextualized, but vastly simplified summation of what just happened). This memory pattern is then ‘broadcast’ back to structures across the brain (via bidirectional pathways to and from the entorhinal cortex and perirhinal area) for error correction, to expedite predictive processing, and to inform sites in both extrinsic and intrinsic networks of one unified history. It is the cortical activation by the new episodic memory engram that gives rise to the event of experiencing. Because episodic memory is the only unified and contextualized representation of self-in-the-world in the brain, and because it informs most of the major cortices about ‘what just happened,’ it is subjectively misinterpreted as the actual interaction of the body/mind with its environment. This misinterpretation offers insight into many of the distinct and mysterious features of neurotypical subjective experience and the pathologies of consciousness.

2016-08-24: Cyc

I first became aware of the Cyc artificial intelligence (AI) engine around 1984, while working for Unisys, and have followed its progress ever since. From time to time I have downloaded and fiddled with the OpenCyc version; this basically contains a relatively large ontology knowledge base. More recently I’ve learned that the more-complete ResearchCyc can be used for non-commercial purposes. According to Wikipedia, “In addition to the taxonomic information contained in OpenCyc, ResearchCyc includes significantly more semantic knowledge (i.e., additional facts) about the concepts in its knowledge base, and includes a large lexicon, English parsing and generation tools, and Java based interfaces for knowledge editing and querying. In addition it contains a system for Ontology-based data integration.”

I am interested in exploring these additional capabilities. One way to explore them might be to try to implement Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. However, I would start with more limited knowledge entry and query exercises.


2016-06-27: Me, Myself, and Us

Me, Myself, and Us

The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being (2014)

by Brian R. Little (-)

This book explains a recent approach to understand human personality. It starts by dismissing the Meyers-Briggs approach as unfounded scientifically. Then three levels of influence on personality are described:

  • biogenic – heritable characteristics that form a biological substrate for personality traits
  • sociogenic – socially developed influences that affect the expression of biogenic traits, based on family or community values
  • idiogenic – an individual’s decisions about how to act, based on personal projects

The traits that define a personality consist of the Big Five (Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (emotional stability), Openness (to new experiences), Extraversion; the collection abbreviated as CANOE). In addition, a number of other traits are introduced in more or less detail. In parts, the work seems to be compressed, perhaps too much for clarity.

The notion of personal projects is part of Little’s own research interests (i.e., one of his personal projects). He gives examples of people who have biogenic traits, and yet override them to express their opposite when sufficiently motivated.

Little says if asked to make a “Project Dump”, a list of their personal projects, people typically come up with about fifteen, ranging from putting the cat out to life-long projects. He provides a number of dimensions along which people can evaluate their projects, such as their meaning or significance to the person, how they relate to a person’s self-identity, how they are initiated (self or by external influence), efficacy (how well they are carried out), the degree of control the person has over them, how they are shared with or supported by others, and their affect on a person’s emotional life.

The book ends with a chapter on well-being, the expression of the book’s subtitle. It addresses the ways we can look at our projects, their suitability to our personalities, and how we can improve the chances of successfully completing them.


2008-10-04: The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game of Tennis (1974, 1997)

by W. Timothy Gallwey (1938-)

This book was recommended, and I read it, as an exemplary explanation of a little-expressed facet of the human mind. I don’t much care about tennis.

Gallwey’s core message is that most of what we do, whether playing tennis, driving a car, or our ordinary work, is handled mostly automatically by a large part of our mind that he calls Self 2. This corresponds to the unconscious, procedural knowledge we’ve all developed over many repetitions of a variety of related activities. However, under many conditions, the conscious part of our mind, which he calls Self 1, attempts to take over control, and reduces the level of performance. Self 1 communicates to and about Self 2 in words, but Self 2 doesn’t understand words. The general approach is apparently compatible with a lot of cognitive science that has been done in the years since his first edition.

A few high points:

Pg 71, on the Inner Game Way of Learning, Step 4:

Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning

Though the player knows his goal, he is not emotionally involved in achieving it and is therefore able to watch the results calmly and experience the process. By so doing, concentration is best achieved, as is learning at its highest rate of speed; making new changes is only necessary when results do not conform to the image given. Otherwise only continuing observation of the behavior undergoing change is necessary. Watch it change; don’t do the changing.

The process is an incredibly simple one. The important thing is to experience it. Don’t intellectualize it. See what it feels like to ask yourself to do something and let it happen without any conscious trying. For most people it is a surprising experience, and the results speak for themselves.

This method of learning can be practiced in most endeavors on or off the court. The more you let yourself perform free of control on the tennis court, the more confidence you tend to gain in the beautiful mechanism that is the human body. The more you trust it, the more capable it seems to become.

Pg 93, Games People Play on the Court

That something else besides tennis is being played on the courts is obvious to the most casual observer. … He will see the stomping of feet, shaking of fists, war dances, rituals, pleas, oaths and prayers; rackets are thrown against fences in anger, into the air for joy, or pounded against the concrete in disgust. Balls that are in will be called out, and vice versa. Linesmen are threatened, ball boys are scolded and the integrity of friends questioned. On the faces of players you may observe, in quick succession, shame, pride, ecstasy and despair. Smug complacency gives way to high anxiety, cockiness to hang-dog disappointment. Anger and aggression of varying intensity are expressed both openly and in disguised forms. …

[With credit to Eric Berne’s Games People Play,] a brief guide to the games people play on the tennis court. … to be read as a key to discovering how to have more fun while playing …

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame A: Perfect-o.  How good can I get? … measured against a standard of performance

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame B: Compete-o.  I’m better than you. … measured against the performance of other players … Its not how well I play, but whether I win or lose that counts.

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame C: Image-o.  Look at me! … measured by appearance. Neither winning nor true competence is as important as style.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame A: Status-o.  We play at the country club. It’s not so important how good you are as where you play and who plays with you.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame B: Togetherness-o.  All my good friends play tennis. You play to be with your friends. To play too well would be a mistake.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame C: Spouse-o.  My spouse is always playing, so …

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame A: Health-o.  Played on doctor’s advice, or as part of a self-initiated physical improvement or beautification program.

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame B: Fun-o.  Played neither for winning nor to become “good,” but for fun alone. (A game rarely played in its pure form.)

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame C: Learn-o.  Played out of Self 2’s desire to learn and grow.

Gallwey’s formulation of sub-games is useful in understanding the various motives in activities, as well as obstacles in performance.

Pg 108, The Meaning of Winning

[After describing a conversation with his very competitive father, and exploring the attitude of a surfer toward the waves] The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents. He values the obstacles the wave puts between him and his goal of riding the wave … because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort.  … The potential may have always been within him, but until it is manifested in action, it remains a secret hidden from himself. The obstacles are a very necessary ingredient to this process of self-discovery.

From this example the basic meaning of winning became more clear to me. Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. 

Pg 117, Building Inner Stability

[After discussing the futility of trying to “manage stress” through Self 1, which is instrumental in creating the stress in the first place] The cause of most stress can be summed up in the word attachment.  Self 1 gets so dependent upon things, situations, people and concepts within its experience that when change occurs or seems about to occur, it feels threatened. Freedom from stress does not necessarily mean giving up anything, but rather being able to let go of anything, when necessary, and know that one will still be all right. It comes from being more independent – not necessarily more solitary, but more reliant on one’s own inner resources for stability.

The wisdom of building inner stability … seems to me to be an obvious requirement for successful living. The first step toward inner stability may be the acknowledgement that there is an inner self that has inherent needs of its own. The self that has all your gifts and capabilities, with which you hope to accomplish anything, has its own requirements. They are natural demands that we didn’t have to be taught. Each Self 2 is endowed by birth, regardless of where that birth took place, with an instinct to fulfill its nature. It wants to enjoy, to learn, to understand, appreciate, go for it, rest, be healthy, survive, be free to be what I is, express itself and make its unique contribution.

Self 2’s needs come with a gentle but constant urging. A certain feeling of contentment attends a person whenever he or she is acting in sync with this self. The fundamental issue is what kind of priority are we giving to the demands of Self 2 in relation to all the external pressures?

The book is well worth reading, even by those who aren’t interested in tennis. Gallwey has also written or co-written books applying the ideas to other fields. There are several videos online related to the subject, but one I particularly like is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieb1lmm9xHk.


2008-09-21: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1990 ed.)

by Julian Jaynes (1920-1997)

This is a wildly ambitious work. As such, it probably attempts more than it can handle. Nonetheless, it is very interesting and provocative. I would have to reread it carefully to fully assess the degree to which I can accept its many ideas. Given the density of ideas in its 470 pages, this would not be an undertaking lightly undertaken.

The book was originally written in 1976, and revised in 1990. Apparently many of its ideas must have needed revision (and perhaps still do) in light of the work that has been done in cognitive science since 1976.

It’s arranged in three Books (of an originally planned five): The Mind of Man, The Witness of History, and Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World.

In Book I, Jaynes describes what he means by consciousness. He first eliminates the many aspects of mentality that are often intended by the word. For example, it is not a copy of experience, not necessary for concepts, not necessary for learning, not necessary for thinking, not necessary for reason. Addressing its location, he refers to its spatial character. We usually think it’s in our head, or in the head (behind the eyes) of the person we talk to. Yet, “there is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another”.

Before addressing directly what consciousness is, Jaynes looks at language, particularly at metaphor as a way of constructing new meanings from old. He uses an interesting approach, identifying two parts of a metaphor. The metaphrand is the thing being described. The metaphier is the thing or relation used to elucidate the metaphrand. (The words are analogous to multiplier and multiplicand for the parts of a multiplication.) The metaphier has associations or attributes that are relevant to the metaphor, which Jaynes calls paraphiers. Each paraphier projects some element of meaning to an aspect of the metaphrand, called its paraphrand. Example: Snow blankets the ground. Metaphrand: the completeness and evenness with which the ground is covered by snow. Metaphier: a blanket on a bed. Paraphiers: warmth, protection, slumber until some awakening. Paraphrands: the earth is sleeping; it is protected by the snow cover; it awakens in the spring when the snow is gone.

Jaynes suggests that consciousness is a result of the metaphor-building process. The paraphiers of experience are projected into paraphrands that have functional effects in the working of the mind. Further, the process is recursive, so that each new paraphrand can become a metaphrand of a new metaphor, and so on. This brief sketch doesn’t do the idea justice, which is elaborated in Book II, but could still be clarified.

Having established (if not justified) the framework he will work with, Jaynes identifies the features of consciousness.

Spatialization: the spatial relations in the world around us are metaphrands for many functions of consciousness. We’ve invented a mind-space, in our own heads and those of others. It is so fundamental, we don’t think of it as having been invented, we simply assume it without question. As an example of referring something to space, consider time. We commonly have mental impressions that place past, present and future in some spatial arrangement (or different arrangements for different purposes). For instance, thinking about the sweep of history, we might imagine the years spread out from left to right. Considering our future plans and past experience, we might imagine the past behind us, and the future in front (some people reverse this arrangement, since they can ‘see’ the past but not the future).

Excerption: We are never conscious of anything in its entirety. This kind of consciousness is analogous to ‘seeing’ and subject to similar constraints. We can’t see all of an object at once, only its near side. Similarly from moment to moment we can only attend to one part of a thing at a time. “We excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which comprises our knowledge of it. And this is all that it is possible to do since consciousness is a metaphor of our actual behavior.”

The Analog ‘I’: Perhaps the most important feature of the metaphor world is the metaphor we have or ourselves. The analog ‘I’ can ‘move about’ in our metaphor world, ‘doing’ things that we are not actually doing, and might never have done or never will do. Yet we ‘make’ decisions on the basis of imagined ‘outcomes’ of  these ‘actions’.

The Metaphor ‘Me’: As the analog ‘I’ does something in mind-space, ‘seeing’ imagined features of real space, among those features might be the analog ‘me’ interacting with other people or other features of the imagined world. The analog ‘I’ can observe the results of these actions of the analog ‘me’ and make judgments of the consequences of such actions.

Narratization: “In consciousness, we are always seeing our vicarial selves as the main figures in the stories of our lives.” This story includes not only our analog ‘I’, but everything else in consciousness. Indeed it is its inclusion in a narrative that makes it conscious.

Conciliation: We constantly assimilate new perceptions into the learned schema we have of some feature of the world. This happens unconsciously, and is simply part of the process of making sense of the otherwise ambiguous perceptions, creating a stable internal model of the world in which for instance, things maintain their color even though changing lighting conditions result in different sense impressions. Jaynes calls the conscious analog to assimilation conciliation. We make excerpts or narratizations compatible with one another through conciliation. “If I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and a tower at the same time, you automatically conciliate them by having the tower rising from the meadow. But if I ask you to think of the mountain meadow and the ocean at the same time, conciliation tends not to occur and you are likely to think of one and then the other. You can only bring them together by a narratization.”

The question Jaynes addresses in chapter 3 is: Should we date the origin of consciousness before or after the invention of writing? Prior to reading this I would have said the question is ridiculous. Of course it is prior, probably roughly at the same time as the development of human language itself, perhaps 50,000 years ago. Now I’m not so sure.

Jaynes uses the Iliad as an early written source, discounting a few passages that scholars usually assign to later editors. His conclusion is surprising, disturbing and interesting: “There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad.” He finds “no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete.” He gives several examples of such words, then says, “Now this is all very peculiar. If there is no subjective consciousness, no mind, no soul, or will, in Iliadic men, what then initiates behavior?”

Jaynes points out the mistaken tradition that before the fourth century BC there was no true Greek religion, and that the gods were an invention of poets. The reason behind this mistake is the view that religion must be a system of ethics. Indeed people did not look to religion for ethics in that age. “The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think about what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon. It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath …, a god who whispers low to Helen to sweep her heart with homesick longing, a god who hides Priam in a mist in front of the attacking Memelaus, a god who tells Glaucus to take bronze for gold, a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, who urges the soldiers on or defeats them by casting them in spells or drawing mists over their visual fields. It is the gods who start quarrels among men that really start the war, and then plan its strategy. It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across a bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.” This nutshell summary is not in itself convincing, but compresses a lot of analysis into a short stretch of words.

Jaynes goes on to say that people in this age relied on immediate instruction to know what to do, and on a rigid hierarchy to govern the affairs of rising states. Each person did what he or she was told by an appropriate authority. When the authority was not available, the memory of the voice of authority was manifested as a mental voice, originating in memory but interpreted as the actual disembodied voice of the authority. When the voice was that of a recently deceased person, either a relative or chief or priest (sometimes all three in one person), the voice was taken as a manifestation of the essence of the formerly living person, in a new state, still capable of influencing action in the world. As the dead were venerated in this way, they were elaborated into gods, and the voices were taken as unmistakable authorities. Jaynes makes some attempt (perhaps plausible but not particularly convincing) to relate this phenomenon with the different roles of Broca’s area in the left brain and the corresponding area in the right brain, but it isn’t crucial to his overall argument.

His notion of the bicameral mind is that people of this age had a normal mind that dealt with day-to-day routine activities, not needing decisions; they had another mind that reacted to a need for decision-making by invoking the voices of gods. The two ‘houses’ of the mind worked together to guide a person through every foreseeable circumstance. The notion is interesting, and the argument is too complex to repeat here.

The breakdown comes about in the failure of the word ‘foreseeable’ above. When new circumstances arise that aren’t covered by the remembered wisdom of the gods, even kings don’t always make the right decisions. In the face of invasion by foreigners, or abrupt climatic changes, crises can lead to failure of the old ways, and a breakdown of society. An example is the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The various rises and falls of Mesopotamian city-states and empires provide others.

Jaynes dates the origin of consciousness to the circumstances where people find they can no longer rely on the  advice provided by one half of their bicameral mind to the other. This leads to the rise of more explicit (as well as slower, more resource-intensive, and perhaps less reliable) techniques of understanding the world and predicting the future, the features of consciousness he has previously listed.

Once he has made clear the outline of his argument, Jaynes spends much effort in providing supporting evidence. Of course, much of the evidence he cites can’t be unambiguously interpreted, and so the argument can be doubted. Still I think the possibility that there is some truth in it makes it worth considering further.

While reading, I wondered how others who have written on consciousness might react. I’ve since found that Daniel Dennett doesn’t dismiss it outright (though he doesn’t endorse it, either). He even warns that those who do dismiss it probably don’t understand it.

A very interesting book, challenging to understand, as well as challenging the ideas most people hold. Religious people won’t care for it.


2007-11-24: The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

In his preface, Pinker says: “There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has  a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech – our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies – can therefore give us insight into who we are.”

This is the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience, beginning with The Language Instinct, and Words and Rules. I’ve read the first, but skipped the second with the impression he was addressing a narrow linguistic topic; I’ve started it now.

Generally I think Pinker’s work and writings are very interesting, and well worth reading and thinking about. Just from the preface, I can imagine an interesting pair of works: one would explore the differences between the human model of reality and some other creatures, such as dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins; the second would similarly compare and contrast humans and post-humans, such as robots and aliens.

Early on he discusses a legal issue that arose from the events of 9/11: Were the attacks on and fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center one occurrence or two? The question arose from a clause in the insurance policy covering the WTC, which capped the payment for a single “event” at $3.5 billion.

p. 83: “The constituents of common sense we have encountered, like causation, force, time, and substance, are not just home editions of the concepts used in logic, science, or our best collective understanding of how to manage our affairs. They worked well enough in the world in which our minds evolved, but they can leave our common sense ill-equipped to deal with some of the conceptual challenges of the modern world.” He goes on to describe several ways our notions can lead us astray: having and benefiting; having and knowing; having and moving; time; things and locations; causality. Each is interesting, though too detailed to recap here.

p. 159: Pinker discusses the Kantian view of the conceptual scaffolding of thought, and then says: “… languages appear to be organized by Kantian abstract categories. We see them in the basic parts of speech: substance in nouns, space in prepositions, causality in verbs, time in verbs and in markers for tense. … in the way verbs enter constructions, which are selective about how something moves, whether it is a substance or an object, whether the event is instantaneous or protracted, and who or what caused it … and … in the everyday metaphors that pervade our language and reasoning, as when we say the price of gas can rise and fall like a balloon, and when we speak of Sonia forcing Adam to be nice or even forcing herself to be nice as if she were closing a jammed drawer.”

p. 189: He addresses the notion of the present. Various lines of evidence and reasoning lead to the notion of “the specious present”, an interval of about three seconds, “the duration of an intentional movement like a handshake; of the immediate planning of a precise movement, like hitting a golf ball; of the flips and flops of an ambiguous [visual] figure; of the span within which we can accurately reproduce an interval; of the delay of unrehearsed short-term memory; of the time to make a quick decision, such as when we’re channel-surfing; and of the duration of an utterance, a line of poetry, or a musical motif, like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

p. 195: Although many metaphors treat time similarly to space, Pinker mentions two differences. First, and most obvious, time is one-dimensional. There are fewer tenses than spatial terms, even when treating with relations between three “points in time”, such as the present moment of an utterance, a reference point-event, and an event being located. Second, the two directions of time from the present are very different. The past is frozen and can’t be changed, and the future is a range of possible events constrained by the present and the laws of causality. We can know the past, but must wait for future events to unfold.

p. 233t: <I need to look at the book to figure out what this refers to>

p. 235: Opening the chapter The Metaphor Metaphor, Pinker quotes the first (rather long) sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and then says:

The United States Declaration of Independence is perhaps the best-known passage of English prose expressing an abstract political idea. … At the heart of this abstract argument, though, is a string of concrete metaphors. The issue at hand was the bands that connected the colonies to England, which it was necessary to dissolve in order to effect a separation. … The four metaphors really allude to a single, unstated metaphor: alliances are bonds. We see the metaphor in other expressions like bonding, attachment, and family ties.

Also palpable is the metaphor in impel – force to move – whose literal sense is plain in the noun impeller, the rotating part that pushes the water or air in a pump, and its cousin propeller. The implicit metaphor is that causes of behavior are forces. It underlies the cognates repel and compel, and analogous words like impetus, drive, force, push, and pressure. A related metaphor may be found in powers of the earth (which calls to mind horsepower and electric power): a sovereign state is a source of physical force.

A bit less obvious is the metaphor for human history, course, which refers to a path of running or flowing, as in the course of a river, a racecourse, and a headlong course. The metaphor is that a sequence of events is motion along a pathway.

The very name of the document echoes two older metaphors, which we can glimpse in related words. To declare, like clarify, comes from the Latin for “make clear,” an instance of the understanding is seeing metaphor, as in I see what you mean, a murky writer, and shedding more heat than light. And independence means “not hanging from,” echoed in suspend, pendant, and pendulum. It alludes to a pair of metaphors, reliance is being supported (propped up, financial support, support group), and subordinate is down (control over him, under his control, decline and fall).

If we dig even deeper to the roots of words, we unearth physical metaphors for still more abstract concepts. Event, from Latin evenire, originally meant “to come out,” (compare venture). Necessary comes from “unyielding” (compare cede). Assume meant “to take up.” Station is a standing-place, an instance of a widespread metaphor that equates status with location. Nature comes from the Latin for “birth” or “inborn qualities,” as in prenatal, nativity, and innate. Law in the sense of “moral necessity” is based on law in the sense of man-made regulations, from Old Norse lag, “something set down.” The metaphor a moral obligation is a rule also underlies entitle, from the Latin word for “inscription.” Decent originally meant “to be fitting.” Respect meant “to look back at” (remember aspect), kind comes from the same Germanic root as kin, require from “seek in return”.

Even the little grammatical words have a physical provenance. Sometimes it is evident in modern English, as in the pronoun it (a situation is a thing) and the prepositions in (time is space), to (intention is motion toward a goal), and among (affiliation is proximity). Sometimes it is evident only in the word’s ancestor, such as of, from a Germanic word related to “off,” and for, from the Indo-European term for “forward.”

Not much is left. Political comes from the Greek polites, meaning “citizen,” from polis, “city,” which is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but still has an association to something tangible. The and that come from an ancient Indo-European demonstrative term (also the source of then, there, they and this), standardly used in connection with pointing. That leaves God, man, and people, which mean what they mean and have for a long time, and the quasi-logical terms and, equal, and cause.

So if language is our guide, the lofty declaration of abstract principles is really a story with a strange and clunky plot. Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut cords and stand beside the upper people, which is what the rules require. They see some onlookers, and clear away the onlookers’ view of what forced them to do the cutting.

But should language be our guide? It seems unlikely that anyone reading the Declaration would entertain the bizarre images in the literal meanings of these words or their roots. At the same time it’s jarring to discover that even the airiest of our ideas are expressed (“pressed out”) in thumpingly concrete metaphors. The explorations of language and thought in the preceding chapters have turned up these metaphors under every stone: events as objects, states as locations, knowing as having, communicating as sending, helping as giving, time as space, causation as force. What should we make of the discovery that people can’t put two words together without using allusions and allegories? This chapter will try to steer a path between two extreme answers.

p. 245: Pinker credits George Lakoff with the idea that:

Metaphor is not an ornamental flourish of language, he says, but an essential part of thought: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Mental life begins with a few experiences that are not metaphorical, namely, the sensations, actions, and emotions that are built into our constitution and engage the physical world. From there, conceptual metaphors are acquired by a kind of associative conditioning. We learn that control is up because we experience fights in which the victor ends up on top, that goals are destinations because we walk toward something we want, and that time is a moving object because things that approach us get closer and closer as time elapses.

But this isn’t the half of it. Since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is rooted in bodily experience. And the concept of objective or absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them.

Western philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge, ethics, and reality, but a succession of conceptual metaphors. Descarte’s philosophy is based on knowing is seeing, Locke’s on the mind is a container, Kant’s on morality is a strict father, and so on. Nor is mathematics about a Platonic reality of eternal truths. It is a creation of the human body and senses, growing out of activities of moving along a path and of collecting, constructing, and measuring objects. Political ideologies, too, cannot be defined in terms of assumptions or values, but only as rival versions of the metaphor that society is a family. The political right likens society to a family commanded by a strict father, the political left to a family cared for by a nurturant parent. …

Though I believe that conceptual metaphor really does have profound implications for the understanding of language and thought, I think Lakoff takes the idea a wee bit too far.

He then goes on to defend truth, objectivity, and reason. Amusingly, he uses Lakoff’s own words to show that Lakoff also believes in them.

p. 252: Pinker explains the effectiveness of metaphors based on physical experience. They aren’t just arbitrary symbols, for which any substitution would be as effective. Rather, they are linked to modes of inference that allow many related, but unstated, relations among objects and situations to be implicitly understood. This is similar to the notions he expressed in Words and Rules, that we have memory for facts (symbols, words) and memory for procedures (rules, inference).

p. 377: Pinker credits Paul Grice with developing the cooperative principle of communication, in four conversational maxims:


  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.


  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.


  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.


  • Be relevant.

In the chapter The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, Pinker explains a lot about swearing, including the reasons we do it, and the words we use.

In the chapter Games People Play, he discusses the ways we use language to be ambiguous and obscure our motives. He has extended examples regarding seduction and bribery. He has several examples of metaphors relevant to social situations, particularly relating biological notions of family to society.

A sense of communality via folk biology can also be reinforced by myths and ideologies. People are told that they are descended from a patriarch or a primeval couple, or that they are connected to a natal land, or came into being in the same act of creation, or are related to the same totemic animal. Here is a rule of thumb in anthropology: whenever a society (including ours) has a cultural practice that seems bizarre, its members may be manipulating their intuitive biology to enhance feelings of community.

Conspicuous by its absence is the one social mechanism that social ad political theorists treat as the foundation of society: a social contract. Friends, families, couples, and clans don’t sit down and verbally articulate the rights and responsibilities that bind them together. If they use language at all, it’s to avow their solidarity in unison or close succession, as in I love you, I pledge allegiance, and I believe with a perfect faith. What they don’t like to do is negotiate the terms of their communality. The very act of delineating perquisites and obligations in words undermines the nature of the emotional (and in their minds physical) fusion that allows them to share instinctively, without concern for who takes what and who gets what.

When I read this, I thought that the marketing folks at CircleLending.com (now VirginMoneyUS.com) ought to make use of these ideas.

p. 428: In the chapter Escaping the Cave, Pinker contrasts the analog nature of the physical world with the discrete nature of our mental representations.

Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events. They assemble these objects and events into propositions, which they take to be characterizations of real and possible worlds. The characterizations are highly schematic: they pick out some aspects of a situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple ways. People thereby can disagree about what a given situation really is even when they can agree on how matter has moved through space.

Human characterizations of reality are built out of recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another.

Each of these ideas has a distinctive anatomy. Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories. They distinguish stable categories that capture an individual’s essence from transitory and superficial properties they may happen to possess. They have a mental zoom lens that can home in on the substance an entity is made of (plastic) or pan back to see its boundaries (a cup). A substance can be seen as a continuous medium (like applesauce) or as an aggregate of parts (like pebbles).

Humans have a primitive concept of number, which distinguishes only one, two, and many, though they can also estimate larger quantities approximately. They use this coarse way of quantifying not just when tallying objects (as in singular, dual, and plural) but also when locating things in space (as in at, near, and far) and when locating things in time (as in the present, recent past, and remote past).

When humans think about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes or moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts. The entire object is thought to be located in a spot, or to move as a whole, or to have a trait that suffuses it, or to change from one state to another in its entirety (as in a wagon loaded with hay, or a garden swarming with bees). But humans are also capable of articulating an object into its parts and registering how they are related to one another (as in the bottom of the wagon or the edge of the garden). When the object is a human body, another entity comes into play: the person, who is thought both to be his body parts, and to have his body parts. Among people’s possessions are not just their body parts and their chattels but also their ideas (which they can send to one another) and their good fortune.

p. 431t: I noticed only one typo in the book: “when it seen as just occurring” should be “when it is seen as just occurring”.

p. 439: After summarizing most of the ideas in the book, he says:

None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principle in higher education today). The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in sensitive analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.


2007-11-23: Words and Rules

Words and Rules

The Ingredients of Language (1999)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

This book is about two fundamental types of mental machinery – perhaps the two fundamental types of mental machinery. Pinker uses the breadth of linguistic study into the irregular forms of nouns and verbs to illustrate the notion that we have two types of memory and associated processing: factual and procedural.

On page 23, he has a diagram like this:  <need to find and reproduce diagram>

In constructing utterances from a desire to express a thought, it is necessary to retrieve some words from the lexicon, and apply rules to put them into intelligible order. Pinker spends a great deal of the book elaborating on aspects of this idea, and shows how the patterns of regular words, the less-obvious patterns of irregular words, and the mistakes made by children and others shed light on the ways that this picture must be at least approximately right.

His case is persuasive, and consistent with many other ideas he has presented in his other books on cognitive science. I skipped this book when it first came out, as it seemed too much about linguistic minutiae, and not enough about the workings of the mind. But of course the most distinct aspect of human minds, compared with others, is the capacity for language.

I found parts of the book slow going, particularly when he dwells on the experiments that verify or disprove one or another theory. At this stage, I am ready to accept a lot on faith, when it is consistent with my ideas of how the mind works; and Pinker has contributed significantly to those ideas.

I read the book after finishing The Stuff of Thought, and that might be a good order for an impatient reader.


2006-11-12: What Is Thought?

What Is Thought? (2004)

by Eric B. Baum (1941-)

I probably learned of this book from a book review in Science or American Scientist. It is not easy to read, and could have used a little more editing. Nonetheless, it is interesting and thought-provoking. The title is a deliberate play on Shrödinger’s 1944 What Is Life?, which is credited with attracting ‘hard’ scientists such as Francis Crick to biological problems. Baum hopes to attract computational thinkers to the problems of mind.

He begins by stating a bold thesis: “Semantics is equivalent to capturing and exploiting the compact structure of the world, and thought is all about semantics.” A significant part of the book is devoted to describing in some detail this notion of the distinction between syntax (the superficial aspects of the world revealed by the senses, an enormous and enormously complex collection of information) and semantics (the infinitesimally smaller collection of information that allows explanations, predictions and actions in the world).

Baum discusses Church and Turing, and reminds me of the other equivalent formulation: Emil Post’s production system. These take a starting string (e.g., A B A B C B C) and a set of rewrite rules (e.g., x B A B y -> x C B y). Matching and rewriting yields new strings (e.g., A C B C B C). The declarative nature of the syntax, and the matching and variable binding operations, seem to me to offer a promising approach for a higher level of neural-circuit simulation than neural nets, an approach closer to symbol processing.

Baum has worked on neural nets, and addresses a reason they are not more widely used. (This follows an introduction to ideas of complexity and its quantification.)

The inability to understand how nets get to their conclusions is one reason they are not applied more often in exactly this kind of context. For example, a trained medical diagnosis net exists that is more accurate than the average emergency room physician at deciding whether to admit to the hospital people complaining of chest pain, and yet no one is quite willing to replace the judgment of doctors with this net.

This lack of explainability is a practical problem for applications involving people, but it is not an argument demonstrating that the net cannot understand. Indeed, lack of explainability is to be expected if the net does understand. The point is, understanding corresponds to a compact description. Compact description is not the whole story in understanding, but it is integral to it. The trained net already compresses a huge amount of data, which is the reason it understands the process well enough to classify examples it has never seen before. A further understanding of the workings of the net would then require a further compression. That should not exist, or the data are not as compressed as they could be.

In discussing the difference between reaction and reflection in thought, he invokes the impact of evolution on the innate capabilities of the brain, a recurring theme.

It should not be surprising that thought is mostly reactive. First, evolution created us to survive and reproduce, and survival and reproduction are mostly real-time processes. To reflect at the wrong time is to be eaten by a tiger while you are deciding what to do, or to miss saying something witty to a potential mate at an opportune moment. Second, it is seemingly much easier to evolve reactive systems than reflective ones. Simple neural net learning algorithms or simple hill-climbing algorithms can be seen in simulation to give reactive solutions to various toy problems. Evolving complex intermediate representations turns out to be a lot harder, and historically seems to have happened later.

Nevertheless, there is a place for reflection. The contrast between reflective humanlike thinking and reactive behavior is perhaps most deeply respected by ethologists.

Baum goes on to describe how ethologists were influenced by the “Clever Hans” episode to draw a firm line between human mental abilities and animal behaviors. He refers to The Animal Mind (Gould and Gould) for a more modern approach.

Among human abilities is cheating detection. All humans are more adept at detecting when someone is breaking a rule than in performing general logical inference. Baum infers the existence of a special module in human brains for this capability.

Another human capability is the way that metaphor pervades language, to an extent that indicates it is fundamental to our thought processes. He refers to Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson). For Baum, metaphor comes from code reuse. “When we understand a concept, it is because we have a module in our minds that corresponds to that concept. The module knows how to do certain computations and to take certain actions, including passing the results of computations on to other modules. Metaphor is when such a module calls another module from another domain or simply reuses code from another module. Then we understand whatever the first module computes in terms of what the second module computes.” After further discussion and examples of metaphoric influence on thought he has this amusing aside.

One cogent point that Lakoff makes repeatedly in his books and essays is that we are prisoners of our metaphors. We understand the world in terms of our metaphors, but our metaphors are not exact, and as a result, we can be mistaken about the world when we apply an inappropriate metaphor. Actually, the most compelling and (to my mind, amusing) example of this phenomenon is Lakoff himself. Lakoff, who is very politically concerned and describes himself as politically liberal, wrote another book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t (1996). The point of this book is that we are trapped in our metaphors, and that liberals regard the government as a nurturing mother whereas conservatives regard the government as a stern father. He tries to write about how these metaphors color the respective views, how the views can be seen as coherent from the point of these metaphors. But even as he is attempting to stand aside and analyze the thought processes, he is utterly unable to escape his own metaphors. As he debates the merit of the two positions, nowhere is he able to realize even for an instant that the government is not a parent at all, nor even a person, and that all kinds of things he believes implicitly are thus based on a hopelessly inappropriate metaphor. Since he can’t escape the metaphor, he doesn’t even appear to understand that he is confused.

He goes on:

Our political reasoning is a particularly good example of our illogicality. It can’t possibly be fully logical: half the people are on one side of any issue and half on the other, which implies that that they are not all logically correct, and in fact there is no particular reason to believe that any of them are logically correct. People are simply not evolved to reason logically about politics.

An interesting (if technical) aspect of his research has been to add the concept of property rights to collections of agents attempting to evolve solutions to problems. With that notion, long chains of agents don’t evolve, presumably because the early ones are too far from the reward associated with success. By enforcing a distribution of reward throughout a chain (by an auction-like mechanism), long chains can evolve. However, if money is created or leaks out of the system (by theft), the tendency of agents to maximize their own rewards prevents globally optimal solutions from evolving.

Contrasting toy research problems with the difficulties faced by real people and other  creatures, Baum ends chapter 11 with:

The problem of reasoning about the world is thus hard. But people have made enormous progress at it. As I discuss in chapter 13, this is largely because of language. Individuals engage in computationally intensive searches, trying different ways of extending their knowledge. When someone finds a new discovery, a new sequence of thought that goes on beyond what is fully constrained by old modules and yet that usefully exploits structure in the world, he builds a new module in his mind. And, crucially, because human beings have language, he is able to guide others to construct the new module. Thus people over tens of thousands of years built vast numbers of modules that exploit the structure of the world in new ways. These provide massive numbers of new constraints that continue to allow us to extend. We have thus greatly extended the program of thought. It is our access to this huge additional program that, in my view, separates human beings from other animals.

He is talking about memes and memic processes, and this is a fit example for memetics.

In section 12.4 Baum asks, “What inductive bias did evolution start with?”, referring to the predilection of a system to learn certain kinds of things, or in certain ways. As evolution is based on the manipulation of molecules in three-dimensional space, he suspects Euclidean topology is a strong bias. He contrasts this bias with the bias of programmers attempting to construct intelligent programs to play Go or chess. Rather than incorporating the human appreciation of the two-dimensional topology of the boards, they focus on strings of bits or other symbols; there is no sense that bits representing neighboring stones or threatening pieces are connected to others. Baum doesn’t have specific proposals based on this observation, but it occurred to me that perhaps a generalization of Post’s production systems to 2-, 3- or 4-dimensional objects, rather than 1-dimensional strings of symbols might be worth investigating. Similarly, a tree-like object might provide a connection to grammar-like computation. These ideas might fit with another inductive bias he identifies: real-time performance. The more levels of abstraction that must be spanned in a computation, the longer it will take to perform. Other biases he identifies are causality, and hill-climbing (in an abstract sense) to approach locally optimal solutions. Together, these biases lead to rapid, shallow computations, but with potentially great parallelism; though low-level computations might be shallow, a hierarchical arrangement of modules might organize a broad computational into a relatively small, serial computation at the level of awareness.

In the introduction to chapter 13, he says

Section 13.2 reviews the model of mind proposed in this book and discusses language in this context. Two features are particularly relevant. First, if thought is the execution of a complex program, built as the interaction of many semantically meaningful modules, then words can naturally be seen as labels for modules, and sentences can naturally be seen as desribing how modules are put together into a given computation. I discuss in this context the question of how language interacts with computation. I suggest that the semantics is contained in the actual code and that attaching to the code thus does relatively little directly to facilitate thought. Thus, I suggest that language is descriptive rather than integral to thought. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the advent of sophisticated grammar facilitated or was made possible by a new way of combining modules, such as a new standardization of interface.

Second, I reiterate that the construction of the mental program is a cumulative process, with new computational modules built during life on top of old ones, and that the search for such useful code is computationally hard, taking place on an extremely rough fitness landscape with many local maxima. Progress is thus made in increments, with some new module or change made to the code allowing advance to the next sticking point. These facts taken together suggest that the advance in thinking of humans over monkeys could in principle be explained purely by invoking language for communication rather than ascribing to it a role in the computation itself.

In discussing internal rewards (the mechanisms driving our drives), he says (after talking about orgasm and other rewards)

It seems clear that the universal desire of children for the praise of their parents is built in. This is built in with some distinctions as well, for example, the fictional literature, the psychological literature, and general experience all concur that human sons very much want the admiration of their fathers and are often bitter when they don’t get it. This built-in goal allows the passage of complex behaviors from parents to child. It allows culture to evolve and be passed on, with massive effects on evolutionary fitness, and on our lives.

This instinct for parental approval is not exclusively a human characteristic, for example, bears can’t forage for a particular food unless they are shown how by their parents. The built-in goal of emulating parents and seeking approval of parents, combined possibly with the built-in goal of instructing children, allows complex behaviors like salmon fishing to be passed from generation to generation of bears. Alaskan brown bears and grizzly bears are genetically indistinguishable and live only miles apart but look substantially different. The brown bears are bigger and heavier with huge shoulder muscles because they have been instructed by their parents how to harvest the rich food sources in their coastal environment and thus eat better and behave differently.

Baum tells this bear story in nearly identical words in two places.

In discussing awareness, he mentions “perhaps the most interesting suggestion about awareness is that it has been carefully engineered to be ignorant of facts known to deeper recesses of our minds, for the purpose of making us capable of lying more effectively.” He explains this, then goes on:

So what, then, is awareness? Why do we sense this computation the way we do, with a sensation of consciousness, of being aware and engaged in things? Why should we not sense the rest of what is undoubtedly going on in our minds?

The most straightforward theory is simply this. There is code at the top of this hierarchy, code that controls speech and action, that makes decisions and perhaps feeds back credit assignment. This code does not directly sense all the underlying computation; all it sees is summary bits fed to it by underlying processes. But this upper-level code is what outputs through speech and action. So, when we ask questions of ourselves, when we introspect, when we describe our thought processes to others, when we talk about what we are feeling – all of this is controlled by the upper-level code, the upper-level modules. These upper-level decisions and computations are what we report because the upper-level modules are doing the talking. Indeed, “upper-level” may be a slight misnomer. Speech and action are controlled by modules specifically evolved for controlling speech and action, which may be deliberately fed disinformation by other modules, specifically to control what we say and do in a manner advantageous to our genes. What we are verbally aware of, then, is the disinformation, not the true information only known to subconscious processes that direct the flow of information. So, it is not clear in what sense we can say that our verbal awareness is at the very top of some hierarchy. (Of course, the same could be said of the President of the United States, who although nominally at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of government may be fed disinformation by his subordinates.) … Awareness is simply our ability to talk about our summary of the world and direct our computational abilities against portions of it.

In the epilogue to his chapter on consciousness, Baum says

As I write these words on my laptop, I am sitting on the Kärntnerstrasse, a walking street in the heart of the old city of Vienna. I am sitting in one of a number of small pavilions in the center of the street that serve in the summer as cafés or bars. The sides of this pavilion are open, but there is a sail suspended horizontally overhead to keep off the sun. This particular bar has served me three Caiparinhas, on which they have a special at 40 shillings. They make an excellent Caiparinha, placing the right amount of appropriately coarse sugar in the bottom of the glass before carefully mashing in the limes, adding ground ice then strong dark rum and then more ground ice; as with much food preparation in Vienna, they pay proud attention to detail. The excellent thing about my location in the middle of the Kärntnerstrasse, aside of course from the fine weather and the antique beauty of the street itself, is that a flow of perhaps ten people per minute, many of them beautiful women, passes by the pavilion, and I am enjoying the floor show. Thankfully, the fact that I can intellectually understand that my mind is nothing but an evolved computation does not in any way detract from my enjoyment of life or from my desire to live a fruitful and moral life. That enjoyment and that desire are built in, and I feel them as keenly as I was designed to.


2005-12-31: On Human Nature

On Human Nature (1978)

by Edward O. Wilson (1929-)

This book is in the lineage of Pinker’s The Blank Slate and others, and is interesting to me on that basis. However, it is not the best introduction to the topic, due to Wilson’s other agenda of promoting his sociobiology agenda. I don’t have anything against sociobiology; however, it is peripheral to my interests. Nonetheless, there are some interesting items in this book.

Wilson points out that phobias (“deeply irrational, emotionally colored, and difficult to eradicate”) are usually evoked by features of the environment that would have been particularly dangerous in the environments in which humans evolved, such as “snakes, spiders, rats, heights, close spaces” but rarely by modern dangers such as “knives, guns, and electrical outlets”.

He identifies a “powerful urge to dichotomize, to classify other humans into two artificially sharpened categories. We seem able to be fully comfortable only when the remainder of humanity can be labeled as members versus nonmembers, kin versus nonkin, friend versus foe. Erik Erikson has written on the proneness of people everywhere to perform pseudospeciation, the reduction of alien societies to the status of inferior species, not fully human, who can be degraded without conscience. Even the gentle San of the Kalahari call themselves the !Kung – the humans beings. These and other of the all-too-human predispositions make complete sense only when valuated in the coinage of genetic advantage. Like the appealing springtime songs of male birds that serve to defend territories and to advertise aggression, they possess an esthetic whose true, deadly meaning is at first concealed from our conscious minds.”

Regarding consciousness, after discussing the multiple levels of transformation and encoding of sensory data as they pass through the brain:

Consciousness consists of immense numbers of simultaneous and coordinated, symbolic representations by the participating neurons of the brain’s neocortex. Yet to classify consciousness as the action of organic machinery is in no way to underestimate its power. In Sir Charles Sherrington’s splendid metaphor, the brain is an “enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern.” Since the mind recreates reality from the abstractions of sense impressions, it can equally well simulate reality by recall and fantasy. The brain invents stories and runs imagined and remembered events back and forth through time: destroying enemies, embracing lovers, carving tools from blocks of steel, traveling easily into realms of myth and perfection.

The self is the leading actor in this neural drama. The emotional centers of the lower brain are programmed to pull the puppeteer’s strings more carefully whenever the self steps onto the stage. But granted that our deepest feeling are about ourselves, can this preoccupation account for the innermost self – the soul – in mechanistic terms? The cardinal mystery of neurobiology is not self-love or dreams of immortality but intentionality. What is the prime mover, the weaver who guides the flashing shuttles? Too simple a neurological approach can lead to an image of the brain as a Russian doll: in the same way that we open one figure after another to reveal a smaller figure until nothing remains, our research resolves one system of neuronal circuits after another into smaller subcircuits until only isolated cells remain. At the opposite extreme too complex a neurological model can lead back to vitalistic metaphysics, in which properties are postulated that cannot be translated into neurons, circuits, or any other physical units.

The compromise solution might lie in recognizing what cognitive psychologists call schemata or plans. A schema is a configuration within the brain, either inborn or learned, against which the input of the nerve cells is compared. The matching of the real and expected patterns can have one or the other of several effects. The schema can contribute to a person’s mental “set,”” the screening out of certain details in favor of others, so that the conscious mind perceives a certain part of the environment more vividly than others and is likely to favor one kind of decision over another. It can fill in details that are missing from the actual sensory input and create a pattern in the mind that is not entirely present in reality. In this way a gestalt of objects – the impression they give of being a square, a face, a tree, or whatever – is aided by the taxonomic powers of the schemata. The frames of reference serve to coordinate movement of the entire body by creating an awareness and automatic control of its moveable parts.

This description begs several questions, and is typical of some of errors that have been described and explained by Dennett and others. Still, it’s a semi-intuitive appreciation of some aspects of what must be the truth about how the mind works.

Of course, Wilson is deeply committed to evolutionary explanations. For my part, I prefer to find ways to make the conclusions palatable to people who have no sympathy for that approach. Typical of Wilson’s approach is this passage:

Darwinism has been established as the prevailing mode of biological evolution in all kinds of organisms, including man. Because it is far slower than Lamarckian evolution, biological evolution is always quickly outrun by cultural change. Yet the divergence cannot become too great, because ultimately the social environment created by cultural evolution will be tracked by biological natural selection. Individuals whose behavior has become suicidal or destructive to their families will eave fewer genes that those genetically less prone to such behavior. Societies that decline because of a genetic propensity of its members to generate competitively weaker cultures will be replaced by those more appropriately endowed. I do not for a moment ascribe the relative performances of modern societies to genetic differences, but the point must be made: there is a limit, perhaps closer to the practices of contemporary societies than we have had the wit to grasp, beyond which biological evolution will begin to pull cultural evolution back to itself.

This seems to make an error of scale, assuming an ultimate limit, and then imagining that it might (almost must!) be near at hand. His summary of the neural basis of the mind seems to make a similar error. It is as if Wilson has a grasp of certain principles, but has not fully explored their consequences; instead he treats them as metaphors with which to construct rhetorical argumanets, rather than arguments from first principles. He goes on:

And more: individual human beings can be expected to resist too great a divergence between the two evolutionary tracks. Somewhere in the mind, as Lionel Trilling said in Beyond Culture, “there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it.”

He sees the failure of the institution of slavery as an illustration of this idea, and it seems worth looking in to. The American and French Revolutions might be other examples.

Wilson summarizes the theory of the origin of human social behavior:

It consists of a series of interlocking reconstructions that have been fashioned from bits of fossil evidence, extrapolations back through time from hunter-gatherer societies, and comparisons with other living primate species. The core of the theory is what I referred to in my earlier book Sociobiology as the autocatalysis model. Autocatalysis is a term that originated in chemistry; it means any process that increases in speed according to the amount of the products it has created. The longer the process runs, the greater its speed. By this conception the earlier men or man-apes started to walk erect when they came to spend most or all of their time on the ground. Their hands were freed, the manufacture and handling of artifacts were made easier, and intelligence grew as the tool-using habit improved. With mental capacity and the tendency to use artifacts increasing through mutual reinforcement, the entire materials-based culture expanded. Now the species moved onto the dual track of evolution: genetic evolution by natural selection enlarged the capacity for culture, and culture enhanced the genetic fitness of those who made maximum use of it. Cooperation during hunting was perfected and provided a new impetus for the evolution of intelligence, which in turn permitted still more sophistication in tool using, and so on through repeated cycles of causation. The sharing of game and other food contributed to the honing of social skills. In modern hunter-gatherer bands, it is an occasion for constant palavering and maneuvering. As Lee said of the !Kung San,

The buzz of conversation is a constant background to the camp’s activities: there is an endless flow of talk about gathering, hunting, the weather, food distribution, gift giving, and scandal. No !Kung is ever at a loss for words, and often two or three people will hold forth at once in a single conversation, giving the listeners a choice of channels to tune in on. A good proportion of this talk in even the happiest of camps verges on argument. People argue about improper food division, about breaches of etiquette, and about failure to reciprocate hospitality and gift giving . . . Almost all the arguments are ad hominem. The most frequent accusations heard are of pride, arrogance, laziness, and selfishness.

The natural selection generated by such exchanges might have been enhanced by the more sophisticated social behavior required by the female’s nearly continuous sexual accessibility. Because a high level of cooperation exists within the band, sexual selection would be linked with hunting prowess, leadership, skill at tool making, and other visible attributes that contribute to the strength of the family and the male band. At the same time aggressiveness would have to be restrained and the phylogenetically ancient forms of overt primate dominance replaced by complex social skills. Young males would find it profitable to fit into the group by controlling their sexuality and aggression and awaiting their turn at leadership. The dominant male in these early hominid societies was consequently most likely to possess a mosaic of qualities that reflect the necessities of compromise. Robin Fox has suggested the following portrait: “Controlled, cunning, cooperative, attractive to the ladies, good with the children, relaxed, tough, eloquent, skillful, knowledgeable and proficient in self-defense and hunting.” Because there would have been a continuously reciprocating relationship between the more sophisticated social traits and breeding success, social evolution could continue indefinitely without additional selective pressures from the environment.

At some point, possibly during the transition from the more primitive Australopithecus man-apes to the earliest true men, the autocatalysis carried the evolving populations to a new threshold of competence, at which time the hominids were able to exploit the sivatheres, elephants, and other large herbivorous animals teeming around them on the African plains. Quite possibly the process began when the hominids learned to drive big cats, hyenas, and other carnivores away from their kills. In time the hominids became the primary hunters and were forced to protect their prey from other predators and scavengers.

Child care would have been improved by close social bonding between individual males, who left the domicile to hunt larger game, and individual females, who kept the children and conducted most of the foraging for vegetable food. In a sense, love was added to sex. Many of the peculiar details of human sexual behavior and domestic life flow easily from this basic division of labor. But such details are not essential to the autocatalysis model. They are appended to the evolutionary story only because they are displayed by virtually all hunter-gatherer societies.

Autocatalytic reactions never expand to infinity, and biological process themselves normally change through time to slow growth and eventually bring it to a halt. But almost miraculously, this has not yet happened in human evolution. The increase in brain size and refinement of stone artifacts point to an unbroken advance in mental ability over the last two to three million years. During this crucial period the brain evolved in either one great surge or a series of alternating surges and plateaus. No organ in the history of life has grown faster. When true men diverged from the ancestral man-apes, the brain added one cubic inch – about a tablespoonful – every hundred thousand years. The rate was maintained until about one quarter of a million years ago, when, at about the time of the appearance of the modern species Homo sapiens, it tapered off. Physical growth was then supplanted by an increasingly prominent cultural evolution. With the appearance of the Mousterian tool culture of the Neanderthal man some seventy-five thousand years ago, cultural change gathered momentum, giving rise in Europe to the Upper Paleolithic culture of Cro-Magnon man about forty thousand years before the present. Starting about ten thousand years ago agriculture was invented and spread, populations increased enormously in density, and the primitive hunter-gatherer bands gave way locally to the relentless growth of tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Finally, after A.D. 1400 European civilization shifted gears again, and the growth of knowledge and technology accelerated to world-altering levels.

There is no reason to believe that during this final sprint to the space age there has been a cessation in the evolution of either mental capacity or the predilection toward special social behaviors. The theory of population genetics and experiments on other organisms show that substantial changes can occur in the span of less than 100 generations, which for man reaches back only to the time of the Roman Empire. Two thousand generations, roughly the time since typical Homo sapiens invaded Europe, is enough time to create new species and to mold their anatomy and behavior in major ways. Although we do not know how much mental evolution has actually occurred, it would be premature to assume that modern civilizations have been built entirely on genetic capital accumulated during the long haul of the Ice Age.

That capital is nevertheless very large. It seems safe to assume that the greater part of the changes that transpired in the interval from the hunter-gatherer life of forty thousand years ago to the first glimmerings of civilization in the Sumerian city states, and virtually all of the changes from Sumer to Europe, were created by cultural rather than genetic evolution. The question of interest, then, is the extent to which the hereditary qualities of hunter-gatherer existence have influenced the course of subsequent cultural evolution.

I believe that the influence has been substantial. In evidence is the fact that the emergence of civilization has everywhere followed a definable sequence. As societies grew in size from the tiny hunter-gatherer bands, the complexity of their organization increased by the addition of features that appeared in a fairly consistent order. As band changed to tribe, true male leaders appeared and gained dominance, alliances between neighboring groups were strengthened and formalized, and rituals marking changes of season became general. With still denser populations came the attributes of generic chiefdom: the formal distinction of rank according to membership in families, the hereditary consolidation of leadership, a sharper division of labor, and the redistribution of wealth under the control of the ruling elite. As chiefdoms gave rise in turn to cities and states, these basic qualities were intensified. The hereditary status of the elite was sanctified by religious beliefs. Craft specialization formed the basis for stratifying the remainder of society into classes. Religion and law were codified, armies assembled, and bureaucracies expanded. Irrigation systems and agriculture were perfected, and as a consequence populations grew still denser. At the apogee of the state’s evolution, architecture was monumental, and the ruling classes were exalted as a pseudospecies. The sacred rites of statehood became the central focus of religion.

Wilson says the key to the emergence of civilization is “hypertrophy, the extreme growth of pre-existing structures.”

Even the beneficiaries of hypertrophy have found it difficult to cope with extreme cultural change, because they are sociobiologically equipped only for an earlier, simpler existence. Where the hunter-gatherer fills at most one or two informal roles out of only severable available, his literate counterpart in an industrial society must choose ten or more out of thousands, and replace one set with another at different periods of his life or even at different times of the day. Furthermore, each occupation – the physician, the judge, the teacher, the waitress – I splayed just so, regardless of the true workings of the mind behind the persona. Significant deviations in performance are interpreted by others as a sign of mental incapacity and unreliability. Daily life is a compromised blend of posturing for the sake of role-playing and of varying degrees of self-revelation. Under these stressful conditions even the “true” self cannot be precisely defined, as  Erving Goffman observes.

There is a relation between persons and role. But the relationship answers to the interactive system – to the frame – in which the role is performed and the self of the performer is glimpsed. Self, then, is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but  changeable formula for managing oneself during them. Just as the current situation prescribes the official guise behind which we will conceal ourselves, so it provides where and how we will show through, the culture itself prescribing what sort of entity we must believe ourselves to be in order to have something to show through in this manner.

After describing the rise of civilization in Mexico, a region deficient in large game animals, he turns to India:

India began from a stronger nutrient base than Mexico and followed a different but equally profound cultural transformation as meat grew scarce. The earlier Aryan invaders of the Gangetic Plain presided over feasts of attle, horses, goats, buffalo, and sheep. By later Vedic and early Hindu times, during the first millennium B.C., the feasts came to be managed by the priestly caste of Brahmans, who erected rituals of sacrifice around the killing of animals and distributed the meat in the name of the Aryan chiefs and war lords. After 600 B.C., when populations grew denser and domestic animals became proportionately scarcer, the eating of meat was progressively restricted until it became a monopoly of the Brahmans and their sponsors. Ordinary people struggled to conserve enough livestock to meet their own desperate requirements for milk, dung used as fuel, and transport. During this period of crisis, reformist religions arose, most prominently Buddhism and Jainism, that attempted to abolish castes and hereditary priesthoods and to outlaw the killing of animals. The masses embraced the new sects, and in the end their powerful support reclassified the cow into a sacred animal.

In summarizing the chapter on emergence of cultural evolution and civilization, Wilson reveals the principle of a long-term approach:

Pure knowledge is the ultimate emancipator. It equalizes people and sovereign states, erodes the archaic barriers of superstition and promises to lift the trajectory of cultural evolution. But I do not believe it can change the ground rules of human behavior or alter the main course of history’s predictable trajectory. Self-knowledge will reveal the elements of biological human nature from which modern social life proliferated in all its strange forms. It wil help to distinguish safe from dangerous future courses of action with greater precision. We can hope to decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care. We will not, however, eliminate the hard biological substructure until such time, many years from now, when our descendents may learn to change the genes themselves. With that basic proposition having been stated, I now invite you to reconsider four of the elemental categories of behavior, aggression, sex, altruism, and religion, on the basis of sociobiological theory.

Wilson dismisses Freud’s and Lorenz’s views on aggression and says: “Like so many other forms of behavior and ‘instinct,’ aggression in any given species is actually an ill-defined array of different responses with separate controls in the nervous system. No fewer than seven categories can be distinguished: the defense and conquest of territory, the assertion of dominance within well-organized groups, sexual aggression, acts of hostility by which weaning is terminated, aggression against prey, defensive counterattacks against predators, and moralistic and disciplinary aggression used to enforce the rules of society.”

In discussing altruism, using attitudes toward religions as an example, Wilson makes the following observation: “It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken. People invest great energies in arranging their alliances while keeping other, equally cathectic options available.” (cathectic: emotionally invested with energy, e.g. in a person, object or idea)

Further discussing altruism he considers morality:

Lawrence Kohlberg, an educational psychologist, has traced what he believes to be six sequential stages of ethical reasoning through which each person progresses as part of his normal mental development. The child moves from an unquestioning dependence on externalized standards as follows: (1) simple obedience to rules and authority to avoid punishment, (2) conformity to group behavior to obtain rewards and exchange favors, (3) good-boy orientation, conformity to avoid dislike and rejection by others, (4) duty orientation, conformity to avoid censure by authority, disruption of order, and resulting guilt, (5) legalistic orientation, recognition of the value of contracts, some arbitrariness in rule formation to maintain the common good, (6) conscience or principle orientation, primary allegiance to principles of choice, which can overrule law in cases the law is judged to do more harm than good. . . . Depending on intelligence and training, individuals can stop at any rung on the ladder. Most attain stages four or five. By stage four they are at approximately the level of morality reached by baboon and chimpanzee troops. At stage five, when ethical reference becomes partly contractual and legalistic, they incorporate the morality on which I believe most of human social evolution has been based.

In discussing religion, and the difficulty of relating human religious behavior to genetic causes, he quotes Ernest Jones: “Whenever an individual considers a given (mental) process as being too obvious to permit of any investigation into its origin, and shows resistance to such an investigation, we are right in suspecting that the actual origin is concealed from him – almost certainly on account of its unacceptable nature.”

There are many interesting insights in this book, but it also conveys a program of improvement of the human condition that is too facile, and yet extremely remote, to take seriously.


2005-04-13: On Intelligence

On Intelligence (2004)

by Jeff Hawkins (1957-)

I read a review of this book when it was published, but it didn’t make much impression on me. Recently, Hawkins (who was the inventor of the Palm Pilot) launched an effort to build machines based on his theory of the brain. This instance of a man putting his money where his mouth is made an impression, so I decided to look at the book.

Hawkins spends the first two chapters talking about himself, his motivations, and his opinion that GOFAI and neural networks are hopeless. When he finally does talk about the brain, the book gets better. Unfortunately, it isn’t at all clear what might be done with Hawkins’s theory, and I don’t know what his new venture hopes to accomplish.

As is well known, the brain is complicated. As with any complicated subject, an approach based on levels of abstraction is necessary to make progress toward understanding. In the case of the brain, the following levels seem to me to be appropriate.

  1. Molecules – Neurons interact using molecules. Though some are known, there is still a lot to learn, including the molecular basis for various forms of “psychoactive” substances. In particular, understanding the short- and long-term effects of synaptic molecules on the plasticity of the cortex requires more research to understand the formation and modification of synapses.
  2. Cells – The neurons and supporting cells of the brain, sensory organs, and effectors (driving muscles and glands) are the next lowest level. According to Hawkins, even this level is poorly understood. For instance, the details of creating new synapses between neurons and modifying the strength of existing synapses (presumed crucial in learning) are not known.
  3. Tissue anatomy – Hawkins makes much about the 6-layer structure of the neocortex, and points out that the cortex is about as thick as a stack of 6 business cards; further, if it were spread out it would be the size of a dinner napkin. He goes into more detail about the layers, but says very little about the ‘old brain’ that the cortex enwraps.
  4. Cortical architecture – Chapter 6 goes into detail about the nature of the cells in the cortex, and the architecture of their connections. He describes the notion of columns of cells within the cortex, as if they are a fundamental building block; but he also says 90% of the connections on cells in a ‘column’ are to/from cells outside it. A brief primer (with a diagram or two) on brain anatomy might have made some of his discussion easier to follow. An observation and conjecture by Mountcastle is the basis for Hawkins’s theory: the anatomy of the cortex is the same everywhere, and there is a single ‘algorithm’ performed throughout. (The word ‘algorithm’ is used here in a generic sense; essentially nothing is known of its required or actual character, and it certainly isn’t the type of operation that Turing machines perform.)
  5. Representation – At some point in the processing of sensory inputs, the cortex represents patterns in the input. The nature of the representation is unknown, and Hawkins doesn’t attempt to describe or explain it.
  6. Represented – One of Hawkins’s innovations is to conjecture that what is represented in the cortex are hierarchies of sequences of patterns. The cortex has no direct access to sensory input, only the afferent neuronal signals generated by the various kinds of sensory apparatus. In fact, in cases of blindness or deafness, the cortex is capable of routing signals from one sensory mode to parts of the cortex that ordinarily process another mode. This fact alone is strong evidence that the cortex applies a single algorithm broadly. In his 1986 paper (unpublished), Hawkins has more detail on the nature of the ‘cortical units’ that perform representation; he only loosely links his cortical units with Mountcastle’s cortical columns.
  7. Sequences – The patterns represented are not static or in fixed relations to one another. For instance, speech is a temporal sequence of sound-patterns (such as phonemes). Vision is built up from a sequence of smallish visual fields sequenced by the saccades (about three per second). However, the sequence is not strictly temporal: saccades might result in the sequence ‘eye, nose, eye, mouth’ for a second or so, and later ‘mouth, eye, mouth, eye’.
  8. Hierarchy – The representations in the cortex are hierarchical in the sense that they consist of multiple levels, with higher levels representing more general patterns and depending on lower levels for details. In the visual cortex, the V1, V2, V4, and IT regions form a progression of more general representations from the edge-level to the face-level. Hawkins states that the V1 region is quite large, and should be subdivided along functional lines.
  9. Prediction – An essential part of the algorithm Hawkins proposes is the prediction from recent patterns of the next few patterns to be expected. The formation of expectations is also represented within the cortical units, and when a predicted pattern fails to occur, or an unpredicted pattern occurs, something like surprise arouses the cortex to seek explanations. Presumably competing patterns that were suppressed by some recent correct predictions receive less inhibition and are able to contribute new predictions.
  10. Unity of sensory and motor activity in the cortex – Hawkins conjectures that the cortex acts to confirm its own predictions. So if it sees an eye and a nose slightly below and to the right of it, it predicts another eye above and to the right of the nose. The prediction drives a saccade to verify the prediction. Similarly, the presence of an unknown object on the skin results in motor activity such as finger movement to explore the cause and expand the pattern to fit some expectations. In a very literal sense, the ironic “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” is quite true.

There is probably a lot of merit in Hawkins’s approach. However, it is difficult to see how it can be applied in an engineering sense. He supports research along these lines, and presumably hopes to be able to apply it to artifacts. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds.

Some aspects of the book are poorly written. Apparently Hawkins himself is not a good enough writer to carry off the entire book, and was teamed with Susan Blakeslee (an experienced science writer) as co-author. I was confused for a while about the depiction of the six layers of the cortex, and the four regions of the visual cortex. Perhaps if the visual regions had been portrayed as proceeding from right to left, while the six layers are shown vertically stacked, I wouldn’t have been confused.


2004-12-06: Mind


A Brief Introduction (2004)

by John R. Searle (1932-)

I didn’t read all of this. It was favorably reviewed in American Scientist, by someone who hadn’t read much philosophy of mind.

Searle has been mentioned by Daniel Dennett, and criticized. He has a hostile attitude toward the notion of machine intelligence. The book seems to take pains to avoid mentioning Dennett. There is only one reference, and it is minor.

It doesn’t deal with emotion at all, and does very little to explain what consciousness is. It is primarily a criticism of various approaches to understanding the mind, and promoting his own views, but for a non-specialist audience. He seems to think that he can convince these readers with earnest hand-waving.

I gave up about half-way through.


2004-11-19: Understanding Emotion

Understanding Emotion (1996)

by Keith Oatley (1939-) and Jennifer M. Jenkins (?)

I don’t recall how this book was recommended to me, but it was in connection with my interest in cognitive science. The book is a college psychology textbook, obtained through interlibrary loan.

Chapter 1 is a survey of historical approaches to understanding emotion, from Aristotle, Darwin, and others. I found it only slightly interesting, and nearly gave up on the book.

Chapter 2 describes some cultural differences in emotional expression, including historical Western and contemporary non-Western notions. The authors mention Kant’s 1784 expression “Dare to reason, have the courage to use your own minds.” as part of a movement to distrust emotion, favoring rationality. At about the same time, in reaction to enlightenment ideas, romanticism arose as “an affirmation of emotions and their implications in personal life, in politics, in literature, in philosophy”. The tension between rationality and emotion is obviously still with us, even though it is a false dichotomy. The authors note the Japanese emotion amae, which is comfort in another person’s acceptance; clearly there is no single English word for this, although we can understand the phrase. Even where an emotion is clearly the same, its experience or expression can be modified culturally. For instance, Japanese control certain emotions more than Americans do (e.g., fear), and Americans control others more than Japanese (e.g., anger and disgust). Emotions are also connected to other aspects of a culture. Jealousy is connected with sexual infidelity in Western culture, but not among the Todas of India, where sexual intercourse is not private to marriage; instead the attachment to a first-born son arouses jealousy.

Chapter 3 discusses evolution and emotion, and emotion in non-humans. They deal with three kinds of inherited patterns involving emotions: expressions (small discrete actions; more extensive species-characteristic programs for action (e.g., nest-building) that we might call instincts; and biases towards one set of emotions or another. Although much of the 20C was lost to Behaviorist dogma, the idea survived that social behavior is inexplicable without interpretation of emotional states. Some emotions have an aspect rooted in biological survival, such as fear (of predators, or of separation). Others (more “complex”) are concerned with the self in relation to other people in social interactions, such as self-esteem, envy, or Schadenfreude (pleasure in another’s misfortune). Particularly human emotions are based on gratitude and social anxiety (e.g., shame, guilt, embarrassment). The authors say that “the best way of thinking about complex emotions is in terms of presenting the self to others and of being able to imagine what those others might think and feel towards us.” Then shame is a most human emotion, opposing social confidence; in comparing ourselves to others, and others’ opinions of ourselves, we have the possibility of respect or shame.

Chapter 4 asks: “What is an emotion?” And the authors hazard a plausible (not definitive) definition:

1. An emotion is usually caused by a person consciously or unconsciously evaluating some event as relevant to a concern (a goal) that is important; the emotion is felt as positive when a concern is advanced and negative when a concern is impeded.

2. The core of an emotion is readiness to act and the prompting of plans; an emotion gives priority for one or a few kinds of action to which it gives a sense of urgency – so it can interrupt, or compete with, alternative mental processes or actions. Different types of readiness create different outline relationships with others.

3. An emotion is usually experienced as a distinctive type of mental state, sometimes accompanied or followed by bodily changes, expressions, actions.

They note the difficulty of a general definition, compared with the ease of making examples. (One estimate has about 600 words for emotions in English.) By comparison, there is no simple universally accepted definition of a sentence; nonetheless, linguists study them.

Three separate systems are postulated: cognitive-verbal, bodily-physiological and behavioral-expressive. The first is related to conscious emotional states that can be thought about, recalled and related to others; emotions involving this system are related to conscious goals and plans; these states last minutes to hours or (when rehearsed) longer. Bodily changes and facial expressions last only seconds, and are often unnoticed; they can be conditioned by expectations, as when a pilot anticipates emergencies that might occur during a difficult landing, and reacts bodily. Facial expressions are involved in social interactions, allowing others to interpret one’s emotional state; one does not usually smile unless there is someone to smile at.

Emotions are intimately related to planning, and plans are implemented according to the emotions driving them. They allow us to decide future courses of action without extensive cost-benefit calculation, on time scales short enough to be effective: to satisfice.

The authors place emotions within a scale of affect, based on their duration. Thus expressions and autonomic changes occur on a scale of seconds; self-reported emotions on a scale of minutes to hours; moods from hours to months; emotional disorders from weeks to years; and personality traits from years to a lifetime. There are also other distinctions, such as having intentionality (being about something).

They contrast two theories (or classes of theories) in a table, with aspects of emotions (references removed). The authors favor the right-hand column.

Componential theories

Theories of basic emotions

Underlying idea Emotions based on reflex-like components Emotions derive from genetically derived species-characteristic programs
Appraisal Based on features Based on goal-relevance
Significance evaluation Emotion concepts, including self-talk, are culturally variable Unfolding emotion episodes follow basic patterns
Action readiness Culturally variable Derived from evolutionarily based programs of readiness
Expression Expressions vary with social context and may not indicate emotions Facial expressions are fixed human universals and correspond to basic emotions
Physiological changes Low correlation with other aspects of emotion Coherence between expression, physiological, and experiential aspects

Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 are about brain mechanisms, development, and pathology; I care less about these than ordinary functional issues.

Chapter 9 is about cognition. One of the differences between 19C and 20C ideas about emotion concern function. For 19C thinkers emotions were not purposeful. The authors cite Herbert Simon’s 1967 article Motivational and emotional controls of cognition as influential in the early days of cognitive science. They also quote him: “The proper study of mankind is design.” One of the design principles is that emotions set priorities among the many motivations or goals that might be active within a mind at any given time. Emotion affects what we attend to. Emotions can create interruptions of attention, or prevent interruptions from disrupting attention.

The authors spend 250 pages on preparatory material before presenting anything like a list of emotions. The list is in the following table (p. 256), apparently from a 1995 paper by Oatley with Johnson-Laird.

Emotion (mode)

Eliciting event or object of emotion

Actions to which transition occurs

Emotions that can occasionally be free-floating

Happiness Subgoals being achieved Continue with plan, modifying it if necessary; cooperate; show affection
Sadness Failure of major plan or loss of active goal Do nothing; search for new plan; seek help
Anger Active plan frustrated Try harder; aggress
Fear Self-preservation goal threatened or goal conflict Stop current plan; attend vigilantly to environment; freeze and/or escape

Emotions that always have an object

Attachment love Caregiver Keep contact; talk
Caregiving love Offspring Nurture; help; support
Sexual love Sexual partner Engage in courtship; sexual activity
Disgust Contamination Reject substance; withdraw
Contempt Outgroup person Treat without consideration

I have a lot of objections to this presentation, but it is a start. They then give more detailed description of these 9 emotions, with experimental illustrations. The first four can (rarely, they say) occur without reference to a specific object, even in normal people. I would classify the free-floating variants as moods rather than emotions. I agree that these four (as emotions with referents) are basic. The next five feel arbitrary to me, incomplete, and therefore odd. I suspect I would develop a different list, based on different kinds of eliciting events and transitions; however, I think that attachment/caregiver love are important aspects of a single emotion that would be prominent in my own list. In any case, this list is an advance over a one-dimensional formulation, such as positive-negative or pleasant-unpleasant.

They describe the effects of moods and emotions on cognitive functioning, identifying three kinds of effects: on attention, on memory, and on thinking. They also make this somewhat inconsistent claim:

We can think of moods and emotions as having two kinds of effect on the individual. One that we have just discussed is immediate: the core of an emotion is a change in readiness, making available a repertoire of actions that have previously been useful in that circumstance. But emotions usually last for a while, and they sometimes extend into moods. As well as effects in changing readiness, emotions prompt the search for possible plans; by changing cognitive organization they help guide this search.

It seems to me they have failed to make a clear distinction between the nature and effects of moods and emotions, and here they are treating them interchangeably.

Regarding attention, they quote William James: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” They add: “It is also what we attend to even when we do not consciously agree to it.” There might be some truth in this, though it isn’t clear with whom James is agreeing to attend. They all seem to accept the ‘Cartesian theater’ concept that Dennett derides. They assert that fear and anxiety narrow the attention to the thing feared. This seems rather obvious, but they belabor some experiments that support the notion. Mostly the rest of this chapter doesn’t provide much insight.

Chapter 10 is about emotions in social relationships. First they discuss attachment love and sexuality. A curious passage: “Jung has written a moving article about the psychological repercussions of withdrawing the fantasies on which being in love is based, and of the changing roles that occur as the life span is traversed.” Aside from the odd way of expressing it, this sentence piqued my curiosity. I have obtained the article and will report on it. They also discuss aggression-related material on anger, fear, and contempt. They also discuss the effects of angry episodes on adjustment of relationships, in marriages and in larger groups. The insight they offer is that “in Western society anger, like falling love, is a temporary social role: the role of aggressor enacted by the one who has been wronged.” This seems a bit glib, and leaves a lot unsaid. Regarding social structure, they discuss the idea that all societies are based on one of three ethical codes:

In much of the West the code is of autonomy and individual rights. Its emotion is anger at moral trespass, resulting in social readjustment as individuals seek to establish their rights against any who infringe them. Its social enactment is the law suit. Not far beneath this, barely concealed, is the morality of the dominance hierarchy, where individuals acquire and defend position and resources, while others tolerate the inequities that result.  A quite different kind of society is based on an ethics of divinity, on the idea of the self as a spiritual entity that has to be protected against contamination, from food and other pollutants. In such societies … the emotion at the center is disgust. Yet other kinds of societies are based on an ethics of duty, and for these … contempt is the emotion – or rather one of the twin emotions contempt and honor – that are at the center, as actions of the self as well as of other people are appraised and commented upon in terms of what is proper and what is improper.

There is food for thought in this, though I hardly think honor is an emotion. Certainly people for whom one of these is the basis of a world-view will have trouble communicating with others with a different basic view. They summarize the chapter:

Love and anger, related to affection and power, are twin emotional poles of human social life. Love can perhaps best be thought of as having several aspects; one is the ordinary happiness of human relating based on warmth and affection; others are attachment, caregiving, and erotic love. In evolutionary terms, all of these are essential to the cooperation between people in pairs, and among people in groups, on which the human adaptation depends. The emotions of conflict within a group are anger and fear. … Anger … is typically an emotion that occurs between people within a community… By contrast with anger, the emotions of contempt are those of rejection of someone or some group from society, and they amount to treating others as nonpeople.

Chapter 12 discusses psychotherapy (not interesting), consciousness and narrative. Regarding consciousness and emotion: “We human beings are born not just into the world, but into society. Each society includes traditions of skills and technology. It also includes individual people, to whom we become attached in friendship and other relations. And in every society, in every community, in every family, a history forms, with its characters, its traditions of custom and understanding about what we people are up to with each other. In such traditions, emotions and our understandings of them are the pivotal points.

They say of emotions and art that a consensus has emerged (in the West) that art is the expression of emotion by the artist, in various media. They quote Wordsworth from the beginning of the romantic era (1802): “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility disappears, and the emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” This seems a remarkable insight. I don’t know if it’s true, but it has certainly been influential.

There is a lot of interesting material in this book, but I was also interested in what is not here. There is apparently no broad consensus on a set of basic moods and emotions, emotions with conscious cognitive content, or the interactions among various affective states and so-called rational thought. The manner in which emotions promote the development of plans or set priorities is vague. These issues are also addressed by Minksy in his new book The Emotion Machine, which I have seen in early draft. It is clear that he is also not ready to make definitive detailed statements on these issues.

There is a lot to think about.


2004-10-10: The Emotion Machine (draft)

The Emotion Machine (drafts 2003-2004)

by Marvin Minsky (1927-)

This book has not yet been published, or even written. However, Minsky posted early drafts and solicited comments.

The book is something of a sequel to his Society of Mind (SOM), but with a somewhat different aim. SOM was an attempt to describe the mind as a collection of facilities, each of which was in principle implementable in an AI framework; EM is more of a thoughtful look at the nature of the mind, more philosophical, but with an eye to implementation. Unfortunately, implementation is viewed from quite a distance.

The work is (at this time) organized in nine chapters. The last has been released with less than half of its content, judging by its table of contents. Nearly five months elapsed between the release of chapter 8 (and updates to most of the earlier chapters) and the first part of chapter 9.

I sent comments on the first batch of chapters, which seemed to be graciously received. Minsky seemed to appreciate my offer to proofread a later draft. However, it was not until reading chapter 9 that I felt like recording some notes for myself.

The title of chapter 9 is The Self, and he repeats his earlier position that the single-self view, while perhaps useful for ordinary life, is unsuitable for understanding how minds work. Not surprisingly, he believes a network of limited mind-like objects (perhaps I should suggest he call them mindlets), which he calls personae, capable of drawing on memory and formulating questions and answers to other personae, is a model on which to build a workable and working view.

Among the features of his view is the ability to learn Ways To Think, and to control the way we think. Reading this I was struck with the way in which my own thinking has grown disordered over the years, and inspired to attempt to correct this deficiency.

The point of the title is that our minds are largely ruled by emotion. Each major change in the emotional state of our mind as a whole is accompanied by the expression (even if only to one’s ‘self’) of a different sub-personality. For instance, I might be trying to work on my memetic work, and something reminds me of an emotionally painful episode from my past. The switch to attending to the memory is accompanied by changes in attitudes, even body attitude, related to the different state of mind in the two different kinds of thinking.

Minsky wonders about traits: why is there such a thing as personality traits? To start, consider a list he uses: disciplined, honest, attentive, and friendly. Society reinforces the recognition of these traits. If we value them in others, we also might try to develop them in ourselves. If I wish to be disciplined, to acquire the Ways To Think associated with being disciplined, I will examine that trait and find activities associated with it, such as keeping prioritized lists of things to do; the activities might include meta-activities, such as reviewing and updating the lists of things to do.

In fact this is just what I have decided to try. In the past I have dismissed the utility of such schemes as the Franklin Planner, with its orderly lists. However, the principles behind it are clearly conducive to developing disciplined Ways To Think. It seems worth a try.

I will create a new report with more material related to the content of the book after it comes nearer completion. At that time, I might also comment on the results of my endeavor to become more disciplined in my thinking.

Note that I also started reading the finished book in 2007: