28 June 2012

Sterling on Turing & gender

Author Bruce Sterling almost never fails to come up with interesting takes on a variety of subjects.  He recently gave a talk on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary of Alan Turing's birth, dealing with the Turing test and more broadly about cognition vs. computation.  Sterling points out that Turing's original description of the imitation test is like this:  "In the original Turing imitation game, you’ve got three entities: a judge, a woman, and a machine pretending to be a woman."  Sterling spins out some ideas around the role of gender in consciousness, in AI, etc.  Definitely worth reading in full, but here are a couple passages of interest to this blog.

You could argue that “masculinity” has nothing to do with "intelligence." I might even agree with you, but if my masculinity isn’t an aspect of my so-called intelligence, what is it?

Mathematics may be sexless, but do we really believe that cognition is some quality we have that is strictly divorced from gender? How can you properly claim that you understand how human brains work, if you can’t create a system that expresses a female sexual identity? Because billions of brains do that every day, and it’s not rare, because women are the majority gender. Where is that aspect of human intelligence supposed to be hiding? Is femininity non-algorithmic? Is femininity a Turing non-computable problem?
Sexuality is eons older than intelligence. We’re not abstract mathematical systems somehow burdened by gender. We are living entities produced by sexual means. Those are the facts of life.

We don’t yet know how cognition works. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that sexual hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone, are fundamental to cognition and even to conscious self-awareness. We should have a spirit of humble inquiry toward cognition. We know far more about it than we did when we invented body-mind duality, but it’s a large, dark area.

22 June 2012

Christian DeQuincey on Consciousness

A few weeks back I was perusing things in a rather New Agey shop in Port Townsend, WA, and came across a book that I decided to pick up.  Christian DeQuincey's Consciousness From Zombies to Angels (2009) is not as frivolous as it may sound - zombies are not only on TV these days, they play an important role in thinking about consciousness (or the lack thereof).  DeQuincey is a philosopher, and he argues that there is just no way that consciousness, or subjectivity, can ever arise from simply physical objects - there's an abiding mystery there of how consciousness could simply emerge of some excessively complex organization of material 'stuff' (such as, for example, our physical bodies with the brain).

So what is he proposing instead?  The basic idea is that some sort of consciousness permeates all physical objects, at all levels - termed panpsychism.  This is admittedly a hard notion to get one's mind around, and  given how hard it is to even get a handle on whether other animals like dolphins have consciousness (or whether some people around us are actually zombies), it's worth pondering.

But let's back up a bit.  What does DeQuincey think consciousness is or is not?  He argues against the idea of consciousness as 'energy' - "let's just realize the simple fact that all forms of energy are spread out in space.  Consciousness, however, doesn't hang out in any kind of space.  You can't see it, touch it, hear it, smell or taste it.  It's just not that kind of thing.  In fact it's not any kind of thing." (p 18) And this distinction causes what he analyzes as the big blind spot of science - that it has made the physical world the focus of all study, and thus has essentially pushed consciousness out of the field of study.

DeQuincey proposes a shift to what he terms 'looking-glass science' where there is a recognition of the role of the scientist's dual role of observer and the observed, a participatory practice - "Consciousness cannot be studied from the outside; it must be viewed from within." (p. 151).  Elsewhere - "Every item of scientific knowledge - the entire edifice of science - exists only because the data was experienced in some scientist's mind." (p. 143).

I liked several things that I found just in flipping through the book in the store.  One factor was that he is much more careful in his use of quantum mechanical ideas than most of the new age writers.  He writes: "It is not the case that the probabilities expressed in the quantum wave function are 'limitless' or represent 'unlimited potential.' The matrix of possibilities expressed in the mathematics of wave mechanics is a limited set of options, and the collapse of the wave function on observation brings one of those options into actuality" (p. 102).

Many may find DeQuincey's work insufferably new age and non-science, but I believe he does pinpoint some key problems in the overall (neuro-)scientific approach to study of consciousness and the mind from the outside via observations of the brain (which still must rely on subjective reports of corresponding experience).

11 June 2012

Psychology and Neuroscience - Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

The Edge 370 features Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who studies adolescent brain development.  The overall news on neuroplasticity is good:
The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong. There's no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can't change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s, and even after that it's plastic forever, the plasticity is a baseline state, no matter how old you are. That has implications for things like intervention programs and educational programs for teenagers.
But I found this passage quite revealing:
One interesting thing to think about, when you're thinking about brain imaging, is why is brain imaging important? What does it teach us that we didn't already know from psychology studies? This is a really important question that a lot of people are asking. Why does it matter that we know that one part of the brain is involved with a process? Why does that matter more than just knowing about this process from a kind of psychological point of view? For example, if you know that one method of teaching works better than another method of teaching, so one method of memory rehearsal worked better than another method, why does knowing that the hippocampus is more involved in one than the other? Why is that useful? Does it tell you any more than you already knew from the psychology results or the education result? I think this is a very open question and often, actually, especially when you're talking about the implications of neuroscience for education, actually, often it's the case that is sort of seduced by these brain images, and we see them and they are very tangible and people suddenly think, "Oh, my God, it has a biological basis," and they somehow seem more convincing and attractive than just pure psychology results. But often they don't really tell us anything more.
This raises the issue that brain imaging itself is not really revealing much without the component of the subjective experience (or at least some sort of behavioral evaluation).  Psychology, and understanding of the subjective experience obviously still matters!

01 June 2012

Brain Wars - by Mario Beauregard (2012)

Brain Wars is a fairly light review of findings battling against the reductionist, materialist view that all the 'mind-stuff' is illusion, nothing more than neurons firing.  Just 214 pages of text, it's an easy read, and I suppose it does a reasonable job of pointing out various scientific findings that indicate that one's thoughts, intentions and beliefs can have an impact on the brain and body.  There are chapters on neurofeedback, neuroplasticity, hypnosis, psi, near-death and mystical experiences among others.  In the conclusion Beauregard suddenly brings up quantum mechanics and nonlocality as a scientific basis for reconsideration of consciousness, which I found to be trivializing and a bit of a tease.

Anyone who has read much in the field will likely find little new information here, but it may be a good introduction for newcomers to this question of the role of mind.