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Monday, September 21, 2009

Currently reading Mindware: An introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science Andy Clark.

Executive Summary: Its a gud bewk. I liek it.

I’m on page, oh maybe 54, and here are two big ideas he’s already dropped in my head:

1. A great deal of what happens in our daily lives is based on “hopes” and “beliefs”. Follow the path of hopes through your day: I hope to get home for dinner on time. I take the train. The train driver hopes to keep his job. She gets me home on time. I pay for a ticket instead of free-riding because getting nicked by the transit cops would go against my hopes to get home on time (and of course my high moral standards). But in many ways, those high moral standards are based on hopes – hopes that other people will treat you as you treat them, hopes that high moral standards will make the world a better place, etc. When you follow the path of hope or belief in your daily life, you can see an interdependent web of intention that underpins the common physical movements we make and witness every day. “Culture” or “society” are recognized as the flavour of this web, but the structure is independent of either of these. The structure is common to humanity, and as Dennett argues (see #2) actually common to any “intentional system”.

2. Two technical points from Daniel Dennett on the derivation of “mind”, followed by the introduction of a generic class of “intentional system”. The two technical points I’ll summarise as “I don’t much care if there are different ways of “mind”. If it’s agreed between two minds that for example “it’s raining outside now, but it’ll probably be fine later”, then it’s somewhat irrelevant how that conclusion is come to. Much as with high-level programming languages, the importance of the individual low-level machine or assembly code of the processor become unimportant in most implementations (at the end user or at the result). 1+1=2 may be derived in several different ways computationally, but that 1+1=2 is a point of convergence in those methods gives us a meta-level of computation. In a similar way, we can come to a meta-level of mind.” Oooo, that was a long summary. But it’s haiku compared to the presentation in Mindware, which is also presented as a brief summary, so I’m sure I left something out.

The third, and most expanding point to me, which relates to 1. above, is Dennett’s posit of the relationship of “intentional systems” to “mind”. Dennett defines an intentional system as entities

`whose behaviour can be predicted by the method of attributing belief, desires and rational acumen'
. Without getting terribly wordy, you’ll have to believe me that “the car wants/needs some petrol”, “this plant wants more water”, “the computer doesn’t think you are who you say you are” are examples of intentional systems.

The extension of intentional systems comes when Dennett introduces different levels or grades. But the irreducible meta-component of mind becomes the first order intentional system in our physical brain. The higher levels of intentional systems get stacked on top of that. In this model, the basics of folk psychology (belief, hope, desire, etc.) are inherited from the physical level. The mystery of life and mind arrive as some sort of emergent phenomena based on these building blocks. So, it’s a way of getting to our complex folk psychology without making leaps of faith (other than that phrase “some sort of emergent phenomena”. But it’s important to note that the emergence is in the middle, not at the genisis or base level. The model gives hope of building up empirical evidence from below mind to find that point of emergence and hopefully explain it to a point from which we can make reliable predictions, i.e. go from Dennett’s Gedanken experiment to hard science )

Also see:

Update: Most of the way through the book now. In the end, amazing and expanding mostly all the way through. Big recommend to anybody looking into Cog Sci or origins of consciousness/mind.

One big omission, God. Now don't get me wrong here, I'm not a big God person myself. But I do know that the other 90+% of people -EVER- on the planet are/were big God believers. Ideas don't get that sort of penetration easily. They've gotta be "good" ideas, durable, reproductive, virulent even. So, why God?

I've noticed a big push in the last decade or two in Christian circles towards highlighting one's own personal relationship with God (usually Christ). It's presented as a sort of "footprints in the sand" relationship with your creator. Someone to talk to, someone to get guidance from, someone to trust. Dialogue is assumed. I believe it's this "spiritual" dialogue which is responsible for language, human consciousness, technology, etc..

Clark points to some sort of cyclic resonance with "wideware", a "dovetailing" with the physical world. Wideware is the combination of our "wetware" and the outside world (true hardware). The idea of wideware is cleverly presented in the book via the ideas of sketching before painting, experiments around dual-images (face/vase, rabbit/duck), and some interesting bartending tricks. All of these examples present graphic examples of people using durable tokens of ideas to cue further processing (the highball glass third in the queue reminds the bartender to make the gin&tonic third). Clark presents this as a dovetail of mind and context which humans are specifically good at.

However, in those examples, we're already "outside", or "fallen" in a biblical sense. Monkies, apes, birds, bears, all use tools. They too effectively dovetail and use wideware. But they do so un-self-conciously (for the most part). Humans are actually very good at using an inner voice as tokens. So, where did that step take place? What form did it take?

I know I'm not the first to say this. I think I've read it on edge.org, of all places. God. The voice of God. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have started out as a voice. It would have started out very much like the "footsteps in the sand" presence; a sort of figure looking over the shoulder (put in google "define: superego" http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/superego).

I'm going out on a limb here, but I can see reaching a critical threshold of mirror neurons being the genisis of the fall. I believe humans have more, or better employ, mirror neurons in social life. Mirror neurons allow us to internally respond to other individuals' experience as if they were our own. It's not too far from that sort of "imagination" to having an internal response to someone who isn't physically there (say in a dream, or a vivid memory). And from there, total fiction is just a short step.

But why then is God so shared? If we're free to make up any sort of total fiction, why does God take so few forms? Two triangulating and self-regulating reasons:

1. There's only one "religious feeling", as there's only one "anger", "fear", "pain", etc. - sure our individual response to all of these internal states are different, but the essential component seems to be shared. That's why we can all agree to use the same words to describe them.

2. The social component of organized religion goes to great efforts to allign the form of God within the group. Religion essentially puts a skin on the wireframe of God. Religion creates an API and a GUI to God. This allows end-users an intuitive look-and-feel. It allows the Admins and Programmers the ability to upgrade, manage security, do user administration, etc. Now, I won't take this Matrix'esq analogy too far, but it is apt.

As someone who doesn't subscribe to a pre-packaged religion, but instead chooses to define God on his own, I can tell you it's a lonely place to be. I could probably write a book the size of the bible myself to cover my theology. Borrrring (as you're already aware if you've read this far). And can you imagine 6 billion individual bibles? Mass-religion is a vastly more efficient yoke on the God-feeling. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoke

So two more things:

1. What I'm supposing doesn't make the God-feeling any less important, just less "sacred", less mystical. I've found the mystical and sacred can take care of themselves. They retreat and expand with fractal beauty.

2. What I'm supposing doesn't divorce the belief in God from the God-feeling. The God-feeling is the God-feeling, it's important for what it is. God, however, trumps everything and anything. A God-feeling is within whatever image of God anyone can conjure, but so is everything else.

It's important to notice the structure of what I've written so far. Seven paragraphs digging in to the core idea. Six paragraphs digging out of essentially political holes. If the anthropological origin of consciousness is indeed entwined with any facet of God in current religion, it'll take a great deal of time to nut out and gain any traction.

Disclaimers asside, back to the core idea then. Where-from then this God-feeling? I'm much more comfortable calling it superego. Superego can be understood as your very own "Jiminy Cricket". It's that feeling in the back of your mind, when you're doing something "wrong", that your ancestors would not approve. To me, the idea of ancestors is very important. They're a disembodied component of Self. They are physically represented by your parents, but transcend your parents in authority and presence.

Superego requires a social component. Do apes have a superego. Chances are, yes. Do they have a feeling of the divine? Chances are, no. So although I'm more comfortable calling it superego, it doesn't seem to cover the same ground as the God-feeling. What's that extra bit that gets us over the line?

Although I believe any social animal is acted upon by a type of superego, I doubt it's externalized. Modern people, with the luxury of language, have thouroghly externalized their superegos. We've almost externalized ourselves completely (save for the Id).

How could pre-language humans attain any externalization without language? I touched on the function of mirror neurons earlier. They allow us to feel and react to things which happen to someone else. The organization language brings to mirror nuerons is the reason film, writing, even radio are such powerful media. (My heart rate increases when I watch a running race because I have powerful memories of running races...)

As with most of these evolutionary riddles, the "reason" is complex, the "cause" is multi-dimensional and the "period" is deep-time. But if we entertain a calculus of several happy accidents, maybe we can come to a cartoon of the events.

Let's bring in an opposable thumb. This adds dexterity to tool use, which drives further tool use and development (surely there were a lot of happy accidents in tool development).

Bring in generational knowledge of tools. The question: how to pass knowledge without words? Physical presense, shared experience. This emphasis on "shared experience" in passing down generational knowledge without language would have proffered immense importance on the mirror neuron function.

"Observational learning" would have been well developed prior to tools or language.

Let's bring in "the aquatic theory". This could take some time, or you could download/watch http://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_says_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes.html . I'll assume you watched the video.

So, "breath control" is a factor. Elaine gives it a quick mention. I've got a bit more to say. Breath control is imporant to speech. But along with speech we need language, which I submit requires an inner voice already. But doesn't breath control connote breath holding and hyper-ventelating first? I've done a lot of both, and I can tell you that breah holding and hyperventelating bring with them an altered state of consciousness. And when it comes to looking for a bridge from monkey-mind to human-mind, breath control is the most unique and promising lead I can see.

Neither apes nor monkeys hyperventilate or hold their breath. There is no other primate which dives. We dive into that other world. This is a "difference that makes a difference", it's a pathway to information. I suggest that the physcoactive effects of diving took humans over the edge to see in Melvile's words "God's foot on the treadle of the loom". I think in the quiet of diving, alone, we heard ourselves think and came to the logical conclusion that someone else was there.

And from the water emerges a species with a great deal many tools more than when they went in. A conscious bipedal hairless primate with an albeit-pre-fall internal notion of God and language came out of the water. And with these new tools, was able to out-compete, in turns, every other organism on the planet.

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