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The Great Debate: Human Nature

Breathing fire into the equations of time and mind

by Hugh Deasy

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Steven Pinker's book 'The Blank Slate' offers a fairly humane picture of human nature. The later chapters are unobjectionable in their liberal slant regarding feminism, politics, child development etc. It is in the first few chapters where Pinker bares his teeth, as he lays out the scientific argument for his stance. His arguments here are mainly directed against the three obstacles to what he sees as a scientific view of human nature, namely The Noble Savage (NS), the Blank Slate (BS) and the Ghost in the Machine (GIM). It is in these 'scientific' chapters that he curiously expresses himself in a more forceful manner, reserving especial disdain or even contempt for the third (GIM) of these offending ideas. At times the vehemence of his criticisms of the GIM is possessed of an unexpected force bordering on bitterness. This is reminiscent of a similar vehemence encountered in Dennet's 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' regarding what he sees as 'sky hooks' or any hint of deviation from a purely materialist/mechanist view of human nature. According to Dennet, natural selection is an acid that eats through all resistance, ruthlessly destroying any vestige of the 'sky hook' mentality.

Pinker's argument that 'Our incomprehension of sentience does not impede our understanding of how our mind works' is indicative of his desire to ignore the GIM or anything falling outside the reductionist understanding of the brain. Admittedly reductionism has produced all the wonders of technology and modern science in a relatively short time, namely the 3 or 4 centuries since Galileo, Copernicus and Newton initiated the modern scientific revolution. Paul Davies in 'The Mind of God' talks of the 'god of the gaps' as losing more and more ground as the scientific revolution explained more and more of the mysteries or gaps in our understanding of nature. Thus Newton himself removed the 'magic' from the dynamical behaviour of objects, and thinkers such as Descartes used the resulting equations of motion to imply that all living creatures were machines. For Descartes the gap had shrunk to the human mind or soul which interacted with the body via the pineal gland. Later scientists and philosophers would close off more gaps ? Darwin that of biblical creationism and modern neuroscientists many of the functional details of the brain-mind system. However, while many of the gaps spanned by modern science were considerable, they pale in comparison with the 'explanatory gap' of modern philosophers of consciousness. This is Chalmers' 'hard problem' of how subjective experience arises from the objective neural processes we may detect via CAT scans, NMR, EEGs etc. But even Chalmers' 'easy' problems are still beyond the ability of modern science to solve, and include many of the processes associated with cognitive functions like intelligence, memory, thinking etc. Pinker also admits that many aspects of abstract thought are far beyond any of the achievements of Artificial Intelligence. For example, neural networks, while good at recognizing certain patterns, need complex steering algorithms to make sense of the real world. Pinker indicates that some of these steering algorithms come from information in the genome. Though Malik criticises the tendency to see a brain module for everything as a modern form of phrenology, Pinker does cite considerable evidence for at least some modules, such as those for seeing, hearing, social restraint etc. Malik points out that for example in the case of the 'theory of mind' needed for us to make sense of the actions of others, the modular approach is faulty as the module has to change with time as understanding of others' actions grows. Malik also points out that this theory of mind first arises around the age of three, at exactly the same time as linguistic ability reaches sufficient proficiency to allow the expression of grammatically complex sentences. Thus the theory of mind is more likely a corollary of increasing linguistic ability. So the inherent linguistic 'module' first mooted by Chomsky may support the development of many cognitive abilities without the need for further inherent modules.

Pinker points out that:

"Some theorists believe that there are indeed certain questions that humans are incapable of answering because of our evolved nature. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in our short-term memory. We cannot see ultra-violet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience."

Malik sees things very differently - he points out that we have solved all kinds of problems:

"from the structure of DNA, to the physical composition of the sun despite our evolutionary legacy, not because of it. It is true that the development of science requires mental skills, many of which are evolved adaptations, but science has enabled us to go well beyond those adaptations. We can do science only because we can transcend our evolutionary heritage and act as subjects, rather than as objects"

i.e. the standard issue kit typically consists of rudimentary modules. But Einstein's brain had a big math centre and musicians develop bloated music centres, but neither neccessarily have big ones to start with - it's interest, will power and use that develop the skill - use it or lose it.

Pinker's discussion of the brain-mind system steers clear of such quandaries as the subject. He also avoids mentioning the binding problem, or how the image on the retina, once dissected into its myriad features such as colour, motion, lines of different slant etc. all processed in different parts of the brain, comes together in our subjective awareness as an integrated image. The problem of qualia or subjective feel of red, c-minor, Chanel nr. 5, etc. is also not addressed. But coming back to the scientific arguments against NS, BS and GIS, in many instances bald statements are made without sufficient backing. For instance, qualitative arguments are presented of the ability of the information in the genome to specify largely the functions of the brain, not to mention the 11 physiological sub-systems of the body. But these arguments are vague or imprecise. For example he repeatedly refers to 34,000 genes, but currently 30,000 seems to be an upper limit. At other times he refers to the 780 Megabytes in the genome specifying the body and brain, ignoring the fact of 95% junk DNA, much of the latter being repeats, viral or other non-coding DNA. Then he quotes James Watson as saying "Imagine watching a play with 30,000 actors. You'd get pretty confused" in support of the ability of the 15 Megabytes of actual gene DNA (and non-protein-coding RNA) to generate so much complexity. However this comparison is somewhat disingenuous, as each of the actors in such a play would be a complex subjective being, while the genes are just strips of chemicals with on average 1000 'letters' of the amino acid alphabet. And to say that multiple copies of the genome is comparable to re-arranging the alphabet to produce the works of Shakespeare is similarly specious, as the comparison is more with chopping up multiple copies of 30,000 paragraphs, tossing them into a hat and hoping that Hamlet will somehow emerge. Protein folding origami tucks away many of the codons to leave only a few active sites on the protein surface. Its information content might be thought of now as appreciably lessened: just the ability to dock at a receptor site or block the action of some other protein of the proteome - Later splicing will produce a few variation on the protein theme, but no fundamentally independent new shapes. Take for example a corkscrew shaped protein and a wavy one. By splicing we get a cross between a corkscrew and a wave, but the chance of this being useful is not very high. Granted, evolution will have streamlined things so that such combinations may find a use, but by its nature that use is unlikely to vary from those of the parent proteins. Pinker fails to explain how to get around the hard mathematical limit of 15 megabytes - massage that data in whichever way you want, you will always be limited by the sheer paucity of hard bits. And those who postulate miraculous feats of genetic coding fail to consider that there is also massive data loss in protein folding: the latter process, though an amazing bit of origami that even the most powerful supercomputers have yet to crack in a reasonable time, neatly folds away masses of nucleotides - all you're left with are a few active sites and jigsaw bits: you're only using the nucleotides on the surface of a volume. This is hardly efficient coding. Note also that experiments in cutting out sections of the mouse genome sometimes failed to affect the normal development of the mouse; these sections being gene-bearing ones several kilobytes long.

Looking at some of the higher cognitive functions of the brain/mind, Malik pointed out that the logic of computers can get at the outside of words, but not their inside, which metaphor some linguists use to discuss the difficulty of coding for language. A scene in 'Matrix Revolutions' is reminiscent of this. The man of the nice Indian couple, who were the manifestations of programs of some sort, when queried by Neo as to the appropriateness of using the term 'love' for his software 'daughter', pointed out that Love was just a word with many connections - now maybe all that neural connectivity is enough to make various words redolent with associations, but whether that is the same as meaning is another matter. It might be that since Kant made the 'subject' fashionable the scales fell from people's eyes and they saw the subjectivity of qualia everywhere - not only in the red of red, but in the meaning of meaning. It's similar to what Roger Penrose wished to convey with the example of a chess problem on which Deep Blue came to grief. One might say that he got the blues for not being deep enough! The idea there was that human players saw the problem in a flash, as we understood its meaning, but the poor old computer failed to apprehend the meaning or rather the inside of the problem. Again it's analogous to qualia ? e.g. in the example of neuroscientist Mary (Chalmers, 2002) brought up in a black and white environment, who was an expert on roses and the theory of colour perception, but despite being able to write tomes on the sensory impressions elicited by a rose, was amazed by the actual redness of the rose once she'd been let out of her colourless environment. You could say she just didn't understand the meaning of red - or rather, the 'true' meaning, in the sense of the subjective impression of colour.

Returning to Pinker's vitriolic denunciation of the ghost in the machine, one is led to ask: What had the poor old ghost done to occasion such wrath? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Pinker is a member of CSICOP, the 'PSI-COPs' or thought police of the 21st century. The agenda of the latter organisation is to 'debunk' anything 'paranormal' or which they see as contradicting the orthodox materialist/reductionist/mechanist stance of modern science. This fact might explain Pinker's eagerness to dismiss Alfred Wallace simply because he committed the sin of seeking the ghost in the machine by joining the spiritualist movement of the 19th century. Yet he was arguably as important as Darwin in starting off modern evolutionary theory. On the other hand, Pinker turns a blind eye to William James' preoccupation with the same subject matter, whilst availing of the latter's psychological insights. James and Wallace were aware of the machine like nature of the human body and even then there was a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the function of different brain regions. Yet they still saw it worthwhile to pursue the ghost within that machine. They didn't rage against the machine or against the ghost. But Pinker definitely does the latter.

Finally, let me conclude with responses to questions I was asked by a friend who is a fanatic supporter of Pinker:
"I take issue too with Chalmers, quoting Nagel, when he says the 'there is something it is like to be a conscious organism.' On the contrary: there is nothing it is like. If there were something it was like, we'd be part way to knowing what consciousness was. Our experience of consciousness is essentially one of a kind, and therefore unsusceptible to analogy."

Of course there is something it is like, in the sense of there being an inner experience of what it's like to be oneself - and we know it better than anything else - it's our own inner subjective, outward pointing awareness of the world with all its subjective impressions of sensory and internal processes. Thus we are part-way to knowing what consciousness is like - as Wittgenstein says, it's as if we know what's in our box, but can't see into other boxes, or, the problem of current neuroscience, explain how the objective correlates we see going on in those other boxes could produce something like it is to be in THIS box of internal, subjective consciousness. Another point is that the nature of these subjective feelings or qualia is that they are qualitative feels and therefore not necessarily ultra-precise. Thus qualitative feelings may change and transmute without fundamentally changing the subject having those experiences. This answers those who maintain that since we can change consciousness by taking alcohol or other drugs then there is no true subjective consciousness. Chalmers' main point is that the hard problem is how the water of objective processes gets turned into the wine of subjective experience, even if that wine can change its flavour somewhat depend on the state of the water..

"Can't subjective time be sufficiently explained using memory content? I have the feeling that yesterday is before tomorrow because I have memories of yesterday and none of tomorrow. This generates the whole (to the physicist spurious, and rightly so, say I) illusion of an advancing edge of present at which future becomes past. A creature with no memory can have no sense of time passing and, setting aside the slight impediment of comprehensive amnesia, would probably make a better physicist than you or me."

Memory content a la computer data storage ('working memory') is just an objective correlate of the subjective impression of the recent past fading away gradually, while we have a stronger subjective awareness of the present. Simlarly we anticipate the near future in planning, but it is not yet present in subjective time awareness to the same extent as the 'now'. This is really a koan - how time's arrow is subjectively felt. No words can express it, just as words fail when describing red or C minor. They are ineffable. Philosophers before Descartes were caught up in the adulation of rationalism as true thought, and often failed to see the paradox of subjective experience. The 'koan' of the sound of one hand clapping is nothing compared to the koan of the subjective impression of red of the scorched palm. An exception might be Saint Augustine, who in the 4th century already stated the basic paradox of the subjective nature of the arrow of time:

"What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know."

The subjective nature of the arrow of time is not addressed by thermodynamic arguments such as those of Hawking or the recently deceased Ilya Prigogine. Such objective processes don't get the point of the arrow - which is again subjective and a direct corollary of the qualia of the time sense. Husserl describes the simultaneous holding of different points in a time interval in consciousness in his analysis of the sense of music - we would have no feeling of music if we were only ever aware of one note at a time. Somehow the relation between past and present notes excites us - in this sense music is like a subjective enjoyment of maths, since the relation of notes and intervals to each other is essentially mathematical. And music is only subjective - an objective analysis is dry as dust.

Maybe music is a good example of 'breathing fire into the equations' - that's a good phrase of Hawking: originally applied, I think to the universe as a whole - Physics gives us, "no idea of what breathes fire into the equations and makes there a world for us to describe".

Dr. Hugh Deasy trained as a physicist and astronomer and is currently working as flight dynamics consultant at the European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany.

References/ Bibliography

Barbour, J., 1999: 'The End of Time', Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Chambers, David, "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience", Scientific American special issue ", 2002.
Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859
Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871
Dawkins, R. (1976) 'The Selfish Gene' p 197 - 198 Oxford University Press, UK
Dennett, D.C. (1995) 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' p 515 - 517, Penguin, UK
Hawking, S., 1996: 'A Brief History of Time', Bantam
Heidegger, M., 1997: 'Being and Time', State Univ of New York Pr; (October 1997)
Horgan, J. 1996: 'Schroedinger's Cation', Scientific American, June 17, 1996.
James , W., 1890, 'The Principles of Psychology', New York, Henry Holt and Company
Malik, Kenan, Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, 2000
Nagel, T. 1974. What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review 4:435 - 50.
Penrose, R., 1995. 'Shadows of the Mind', Vintage (Sep 1995)
Pinker, Steven, How the Mind Works, 1997
Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002
Searle, J., 1980: "Minds, Brains, and Programs." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 417 - 424.
Sutherland , K., 1997, jcs-online thread: http://www.imprint.co.uk/online/homuphob.html

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Book by Hugh Deasy

Humpty Dumpty Disaster: The Ghost or the Machine by Hugh Deasy
Humpty Dumpty Disaster: The Ghost or the Machine

Though there is no official stance on the brain-mind debate, in this era of secularised society a 'default philosophy' has crept up almost unnoticed and is now a sort of new bible for the media and western society as a whole. This 'default philosophy' holds that there is nothing but matter, that the equation mind=brain is true, that Newtonian/Calvinist pre-destination or determinism dominates the world and that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon produce a robot superior to humans in almost all areas.

The book challenges this unspoken consensus and shows how weak the cases are for AI, determinism and the mind=brain idea. Also, that other form of determinism, i.e. that we are genetically pre-determined, is examined in the light of the paucity of meaningful information in the human genome. It is shown that the genome information content is much less than similarly complex artificial systems. So some sort of epi-genetic or epi-physical agency must be at work. The truth or falsity of the cases examined have major bearings on our view of human nature, the dignity of the human being and our regard for the environment and nature. In a soulless world many of the old values and morals disappear. The future of our planet may depend on humanity (re)gaining its self-awareness.

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