SocraticGadfly: Dennett has new thoughts,still won't reject computational theory of mind

January 20, 2013

Dennett has new thoughts,still won't reject computational theory of mind

Dan Dennett/Edge magazine photo
Philosopher Dan Dennett has a very interesting interview in Edge.

Key takeaway? He junks a fair amount of what he's said in the past about the details of how the mind/brain is like a computer, 


Still holds fast to the analogy that it's ... like a computer! Even though he admits that the details of this comparison or analogy simply are weak to nonexistent.

Let's look at some comments:
We're beginning to come to grips with the idea that your brain is not this well-organized hierarchical control system where everything is in order, a very dramatic vision of bureaucracy. In fact, it's much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy.  ...

The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain's a computer, but it's so different from any computer that you're used to. It's not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it's not like your iPhone except in some ways. ...

Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.  I mean, with all that, there's no need to hang on to his analogy.  
I guess he simply can't admit it's a crappy analogy that just doesn't work, and walk away from it.

Because it was a crappy analogy a decade ago,. and it's in tatters now. (Ditto for his claim that evolution is algorithmic.) It's nonsensical. Yes, Dan Dennett, it's nonsensical. How can you analogize to something that nobody is used to? Especially since what we understand as a "computer" may never be like that?

That said, per the sentence in parentheses, I suspect it's all about the algorithms. He still wants to believe the human mind, like evolution by natural selection, is algorithmic. And, he's not even wrong, per Wolfgang Pauli.

This is also an example where Dennett should look in the mirror any time he uses the phrase "greedy reductionist."

That said, it's not all hubris in the interview. Dennett admits his new ideas (and it's nice to hear him have some) are speculative enough he'd "be thrilled if they're 20 percent right." And, his comments about brain plasticity, findings that maternal and paternal  inheritance genes in our cells may "war" much more than previously thought, are refreshing. 

At the same time, there IS hubris in other ways. His admissions of plasticity in the brain, combined with the "20 percent correct," should lead him to say that cognitive science, and related things such as artificial intelligence, may have advanced from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in the last decade, but that's where they are and no further.'

Also unfortunately, his new ideas don't appear to extend to free will.

At the same time, though, the last section, about hypocrites in the pulpit, is great.

He's not talking about moral hypcrites, but unbelieving hypocrites in conservative Christian denominations. This is a follow-up to surveys and other work he and others have recently done.

Here's a sample:
How do they thread the needle so that they don't offend the sophisticates in their congregation by insisting on the literal truth of the book of Genesis, let's say, while still not scaring, betraying, pulling the rug out from under the more naïve and literal-minded of their parishioners? There's no good solution to that problem as far as we can see, since they have this unspoken rule that they should not upset, undo, subvert the faith of anybody in the church.
This means that there's a sort of enforced hypocrisy where the pastors speak from the pulpit quite literally, and if you weren't listening very carefully, you’d think: oh my gosh, this person really believes all this stuff. But they're putting in just enough hints for the sophisticates in the congregation so that the sophisticates are supposed to understand: Oh, no. This is all just symbolic. This is all just metaphorical. And that's the way they want it, but of course, they could never admit it. You couldn't put a little neon sign up over the pulpit that says, "Just metaphor, folks, just metaphor." It would destroy the whole thing. 
From personal experience with my own "coming out," I know how true this is. I also know that many agnostics or atheists in the pulpit have become wedded to the money. If you're the pastor, or senior pastor, of a decent-sized church in a mainline Protestant denomination, your total salary and benefits can easily be, say, 35-65 percent greater than that of a school teacher with comparative experience.

I just couldn't do that. And so, I'm schlepping on community newspaper editor salary, in a profession struggling even more than mainline Christianity. But, struggle it is; it's not just Catholic parishes going without priests, etc.

Anyway, that's good stuff to end on. Go read it. 


Somnonaut said...

I believe the brain acts like a transistor. We have expectations, all the way back to early development in the womb. The cells produce by-products (Co2) that must be carried away, while needing other products (O2, glucose) for their functioning. This produces a two sided setup to the cell's, (eventually embryo, fetus and baby) existence.
As the fetus unfolds, the cells differentiate by design and begin to have differing metabolic processes/needs. This creates subsystems which then, if provided for properly by the greater system, begets even more differentiation.

Each iteration of subsystem produces capabilities of interacting with the environment around it. The brain is only a different subsystem of cells, though it enjoys being in the position to control the action/behaviors that are at first reflexive and have no need for any higher order brain functioning (since there is none yet.) But as the fetus uses the subsystems of the body (senses, motor) the brain makes connections between these parts as the DNA instructs. These connections have only the connection between a very small set of behaviors that connect the very small sensing capability to make sure the minimal needs of the larger systems are met. Meaning, a baby can only sense very patchy black and white images upon birth, and it has a very small set of behaviors to perform the needed acts that are the stuff of daily existence, eat and poop and sleep (grow.) They have this small set of instructions (their BIOS, because nature has found that these minimal level of system functioning will allow the organism to thrive if coupled with an environment that will protect and foster said subsystems.) It will use its senses and motor behavior to achieve this inherent expectation of survival, similar to a transistor. The arms of the transistor are the senses and the motor system. The expectation of the given milieu of memories controls how the transistor will either use the brain to pay attention to the sensory side, or use the brain to control its behavior to ...change the outside world which in actuality is a change in the sensory side of the transisitor. It augments the incoming signal (senses.) It will continue its life long process of connecting the sensory impressions and compare them to its memories/emotions towards behaviors that affect the senses.
This triad of connectivity fulfills the needs of the system, which then affords it a construct to grow and make more connections, with their own sets of expectations. So, in effect, the brain is a big comparator, sensing the world and then either accepting the sensory state, or, using its behavior to change the world (sensory state) to meet its expectations, which have been built by past experience, some of which is sensory in nature (being told a story) and some if which is behavior memory (learning not to touch the stove.)
So, it is not so much the brain is a "computer", I feel it is more like a transistor.

blaggie said...

Hello gadfly. I've come to your blog via your comments on Emmy van Deurzen's.

Of Dennett you say: "He still wants to believe the human mind, like evolution by natural selection, is algorithmic," cf computers.

Reminds me of an excellent piece by Rudy Rucker for a 2010 Edge collection: HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

He said:
Twenty or thirty years ago, people dreamed of a global mind that knew everything and could answer any question. In those early times, we imagined that we’d need a huge breakthrough in artificial intelligence to make the global mind work—we thought of it as resembling an extremely smart person. The conventional Hollywood image for the global mind’s interface was a talking head on a wall-sized screen.
And now, in 2010, we have the global mind. Search-engines, user-curated encyclopedias, images of everything under the sun, clever apps to carry out simple computations—it’s all happening. But old-school artificial intelligence is barely involved at all.
As it happens, data, and not algorithms, is where it’s at. Put enough information into the planetary information cloud, crank up a search engine, and you’ve got an all-knowing global mind. The answers emerge.
Initially people resisted understanding this simple fact. Perhaps this was because the task of posting a planet’s worth of data seemed so intractable. There were hopes that some magically simple AI program might be able to extrapolate a full set of information from a few well-chosen basic facts—just a person can figure out another person on the basis of a brief conversation.
At this point, it looks like there aren’t going to be any incredibly concise aha-type AI programs for emulating how we think. The good news is that this doesn’t matter. Given enough data, a computer network can fake intelligence. And—radical notion—maybe that’s what our wetware brains are doing, too. Faking it with search and emergence. Searching a huge data base for patterns.
The seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing the world has been accomplished by ordinary people. This results from the happy miracle that the internet is that it’s unmoderated and cheap to use. Practically anyone can post information onto the web, whether as comments, photos, or full-blown web pages. We’re like worker ants in a global colony, dragging little chunks of data this way and that. We do it for free; it’s something we like to do.
Note that the internet wouldn’t work as a global mind if it were a completely flat and undistinguished sea of data. We need a way to locate the regions that are most desirable in terms of accuracy and elegance. An early, now-discarded, notion was that we would need some kind of information czar or committee to rank the data. But, here again, the anthill does the work for free.
By now it seems obvious that the only feasible way to rank the internet’s offerings is to track the online behaviors of individual users. By now it’s hard to remember how radical and rickety such a dependence upon emergence used to seem. No control! What a crazy idea. But it works. No centralized system could ever keep pace.

In the same book, Dennett wrote a disappointly predictable piece entitled 'Not at all'. Cheers, Janet