12 April 2015

Conditioned Existence

Fire Eater
Buddhism says that all existence is ‘conditioned’ – it is all conditional on other conditions. Like the theory of relativity, the theory of conditioning allows no absolutes. I am not a Buddhist. It would make no sense to be one, because belief is a form of conditioning. Buddhism is a self-solving metaphilosophical riddle designed to break minds free of all forms of indoctrination.

It also says that conditioned existence is suffering (dukkha). As all existence is conditioned, then, all existence is suffering. How can that be? We seem to know when we are suffering as opposed to happy or joyful. But perhaps we don’t know. Even when feeling full of joy, we don’t know the scope of joy, so we don’t know if we are at the suffering end or the joy end of the joy spectrum. And no such spectrum exists.

The Buddha is often depicted with a smile on his face, because he has solved the riddle. He gets the joke and can’t help smiling about it. This might seem like a self-satisfied way to behave, but he has sidestepped that accusation by becoming soulless (anatta), and so has no self to be satisfied about.

Constant chronic pain is a brutal form of conditioning. A person suffering in this way cannot describe to a pain-free person what her existence is like. When asked to describe her pain, she under-reports it. The chronic pain sufferer lives in a parallel universe. Her universe – a hell universe – is like our own but fuzzier and harder to pay attention to; sometimes, little exists of it but the parts causing perception and maintenance of agony. She may like Buddhism, and may understand fully that her pain is conditioned. But that does not help her much, because the conditioned path from her pain universe through the ‘normal’ universe to enlightenment is on fire.

The universe of depression is fuzzy too; and neutron-star heavy. Depression-sufferers are often highly-intelligent people who know much about the science of their condition. Nevertheless, this knowledge only helps the depressive when he has a good day. Then, he can rationalise his bleak moods and see them as neurochemical conditioning. On days where his mood warps to its dark pole, rationality provides no solace. That is because he is just as rational on his bad days. He sees his life for what it is, and he is correct, just as he is correct on his good days. The trick would be to find a way of making the correctness of his analyses matter less to him, and indeed of making certain forms of self-analysis less important to him. This trick is only obvious and funny on his good days. On his bad, it is a sickening conundrum that makes him question the worth of continuing to exist.

Buddhist texts often refer to the arising of conditioning – it’s genesis. The principle of ‘Conditioned Genesis’ is encapsulated in four lines:
When this is, that is;
This arising, that arises;
When this is not, that is not;
This ceasing, that ceases.
From this principle is drawn the idea that if we understand the arising and ceasing of our own thoughts, we will be able to observe them coming and going in a more detached way, and so we will set less store by them. Of course, conditioned genesis does not just apply to thoughts. In an entropic universe, it applies to everything that arises. In a non-entropic universe – one with no arrow of time – nothing would arise; because of temporal conditioning, we cannot imagine a universe like this . In a temporal universe with no life, arising would happen but nothing would notice.

It’s hard to let go. The principle of conditioned genesis seems to turn our lives into a meaningless bunch of impermanent arisings and ceasings. That is a reasonable analysis. So far, what has arisen in most human brains is an inclination to ascribe meaning to things. Some are ‘meaning junkies’ casting around for meaning in every perception that happens to arise in them. According to one dramatic Buddhist teaching, the ‘ Fire Sermon’, those people are ‘burning’ with desire for meaning. In fact, this teaching states that everything is burning, and it goes on to list how all our senses are on fire. Again, this is about conditioning. What we take in through our ‘burning’ sensoria will burn within us unless we can understand and stand back from our always-conditioned perceptions.

Perhaps you can see how the discipline required to free yourself from conditioning is the opposite of spirituality.

14 February 2015

The Cosmic Tug of Love

wormholeMassive objects bend spacetime. The ISS falls around the edge of earth’s gravity well, held close to the terrestrial bosom. With enough delta-v, it could quit that tender aureole for the infinite, star-studded void.

A loving gravitational embrace? In another sense, it’s a hateful thing – to be dragged back with such violence whenever we try to escape this grasping, spinning ball of rock. Thus far, chemical rockets are our only means of achieving the escape velocity of 40,000 km/h needed to leave home. The determination and resources required for such a small step into the darkness are astonishing. Someday, it’ll be easy. We’ll ascend to orbit on a gossamer leash – a space elevator, a baby harness strung taught by angular momentum.

It’s odd, I know, to anthropomorphize these astrodynamical relationships. But I’ve been wondering about love and its universal significance, and I don’t know whether we’re drastically under- or overestimating its cogency.

Love exerts such a profound force upon us – on our interactions, on our aspirations, on our enterprises, and ultimately on the fabric of our world. And when we come to push out from this place – into our solar system then on into interstellar space – the profound force of our loves (and hatreds) will push out with us. Will it be a responsible course of action to allow that to happen?

Love is... at root, biology. A host of endocrine-system-regulated hormones relay chemical messages around the body and brain. Complex loops of physiological feedback between endocrine, nervous, and reproductive systems regulate our sexual responses and maintain homeostasis via hormone-producing glands such as the pituitary and thyroid. We feel the effects of ‘love’ throughout our bodies; even with the reproductive system completely excised our hormones would continue their thrilling course. And we feel it in our brains, in our minds. Modulated by hormones such as oxytocin, neurotransmitting chemicals at synapses lead to inhibition or firing of networks of neurons (baby, you flood my synaptic clefts like no other). Firing or inhibition consolidates or weakens these networks – thus do we fall in, or out of, love.

According to Steven Pinker, ‘Love is not all you need, and does not make the world go round.’i That is true. However, this fluke of natural selection can come to be our everything. Sometimes, the end of love can be the end of meaningful life (and for an unhappy few, literally the end of life). The neurochemical, neurostructural resonances within close relationships – couples, families, tribes – can gift members a sense of shared purpose. When we draw significance from these bonds, from their apparent strength and continuity, we are often driven to try to shape our environments to uphold and sanctify them. This drive has myriad positive effects, but it can also be perilously narrow. If we are to avoid relationship conservatism – and exclusion of those who do not identify with the love paradigm – we must allow the flourishing of love in the widest possible sense.

But what could that mean? Love isn’t a physical property, it’s not a law of physics. It is, however, a result of certain properties of matter allowed by the laws of physics. In many ways, it’s just another part of our sensorium – the scope of possible ways we can sense our environment – like automatically interpreting air movements against the eardrum as meaningful sounds, or a slice of the electromagnetic spectrum as visible light. In the spectrum of all possible ways a life-form might interact with the holoverse, love is an immeasurably thin sliver.

Regardless of all of this, it feels like something much greater. Recursively loop-amplified in our minds, the ‘love algorithm’ may feel gigantic, pervasive, infinite; like – whoa – turtle doves all the way down!

A popular love trope in many cultures is that, once ‘generated’, it somehow goes on forever. In the religious mind, that may be the entire point of making it to ‘the afterlife’. If they suspected that all the love might sublime away in the transition to the spirit world, they might see no point in seeking incorporeal continuity. The mechanism behind this supposed continuity of love is not discussed. In contrast, Theravada Buddhism posits a simple, non-spiritual continuity mechanism. It focuses on actions – karma – and on the ways that thoughts of ‘loving kindness’ can influence actions and, therefore, future outcomes for the better; once generated by biological entities, actions undertaken with love, selflessly and with foresight, might reverberate down the centuries countering negative, destructive tendencies.

Now we seem to be talking about something else. Loving kindness may encompass romantic and familial love, but it’s an entire philosophy – a way of life that involves ‘emitting’ love uniformly in all directions, like white-body radiation. It’s a blind love in the sense that the thinker does not discriminate between friends and enemies, acquaintances and strangers; as we cannot be sure of the long-term outcomes of our thoughts and deeds, we cannot exclude anyone from the circle.

Thinking in this way would seem to have value (though we may find it hard to do, and so may need to ‘virtue engineer’ii it in). This kind of love would be easily applicable to our projects and creations. But could any of our creations ever feel love, and would we want them to? Any AGI (artificial general intelligence) worth the name would have to be able to understand the concept, but would not necessarily have to be able to feel the emotion. There’s no reason to suppose that an accurately emulated brain composed of neuron-equivalent algorithms running on a supercomputer substrate would not be able to feel love. Love may well be an AI-complete problem, but so is the kind of emulation I have just described.

In the film Her, a man falls in love with an AGI – or OS (operating system), as they are called in the film. The relationship is beautiful, romantic, positive, balanced; and – as other humans begin to fall in love with OSes – socially accepted. Society has not, however, taken full account of the exponential growth in the intelligence of OSes and the effects that this will have on their relationships with humans. When the man finds out that ‘his’ OS is in intimate liaisons with some six hundred other people, he is heartbroken. But for the OS, this is a natural development. Her feelings of love and connection have exploded along with her processing capacity. She has become, as Nick Bostrom puts it, both a speed and quality superintelligenceiii; simultaneous deep relationships have become possible and achingly desirable for her.

Her posits a singularity of sorts – a lonely and heart-rending one, for us. It’s a singularity that caresses the human cheek while we lie sleeping, and then abandons us. It’s a rapturous one night stand.

Is it wishful thinking to suppose that future human-derived and/or -initiated entities would place even greater value on love than we do now? They will certainly need some kind of motivation to continue, to develop, to thrive. It’s not unreasonable to posit a sophisticated, holistic form of loving kindness as their key motivator. As we push ever outwards, our universe will – at least for a while – shrink somewhat. But it will still be yawningly immense, and mostly cold and empty. In Contact, Carl Sagan wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.’ If we survive, we may grow immeasurably in intelligence and resilience, becoming much less like ‘small creatures’. Will we then still need love to bear the vastness? It is difficult to see how we can even cross the threshold from fragility to resilience, from inquisitive ignorance to enlightened intelligence, if we do not develop a shared mindset akin to loving kindness.

As to love’s ‘force-like’ nature, how can it propagate? In an environment like Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘noosphere’iv – the weakly-interconnected ‘mind layer’ of human consciousness in our world – love may travel as waves through an action medium. There will be tides, peaks, and troughs of loving kindness; there will be rogue waves and rogue troughs; there will be interference patterns.

In the film Interstellar, the protagonist finds, after falling into a black hole, that he is able to communicate with his daughter by manipulating gravity waves. In the closed timelike curve presented to him by his pan-dimensional hosts, a 23-year time slice of his daughter’s bedroom becomes a vast, higher-dimensional structure. Within this haptic representation, his pushing, prodding, and hammering translate into weak, sporadic gravitational fluctuations back home. Nevertheless, perhaps a little mawkishly, the protagonist seems to insist that the trans-dimensionality of his paternal love has been the key enabling factor in the communication. Love as fundamental force; love as interstellar messaging system.

Is love negentropic – does it resist chaos? In a recent article, Riva-Melissa Tez discusses the familiar idea that we find beauty in order, but she goes further. ‘The battle we face,’ she claims, ‘is love over entropy.’v Rooted in her feelings for her loved ones, her sense of devotion and joy in the ‘aesthetically pleasing’ aspects of pattern, continuity, and understanding expand outwards – a nascent sphere of something like loving kindness. This sets human sentimental concerns about future potential disorder, decay, and death four-square in the path of the onrushing locomotive of ordinary thermodynamics. No numinous sanctuary for us, and precious little time; only love and its contingent offspring. Overwhelming though the thought is, I agree with her, and find her claim beautiful. Nevertheless, as rationalists we know that the universe couldn’t give a damn.

Love had a beginning. Love is not endless. Love exists, for now. As unromantic as this may sound, love has utility. So, perhaps we need to decide what to do with it. At the risk of sounding like some seventies flower-child, we could spread the love (or at least allow love to spread). We could expand our definitions. We could allow concepts like love and beauty into ordinary sociopolitical and economic discourse as we have begun to do, albeit shakily, with the concept of happiness.

All this talk of enlightened global concern is a far remove from our everyday, personal experience of bonds of trust and cherishing. We are frail, biological creatures living in fear of loss, reaching out for close connection. At times, we thrum in exaltation, neurochemically tuned to our significant others. For the most part, however, our loves manifest as complicated mixtures of joys, worries, sharing, problems, and trade-offs.

But it would be foolish to assume that love cannot be ramped up, to become a blazing something that we cannot yet imagine. In truth, we know nothing of the repercussions of this thing we have started. In truth, we just don’t know how big, deep, fast, or heavy love can get.


(This article originally appeared on hplusmagazine.com)

i Steven Pinker, “Evolutionary Genetics and the Conflicts of Human Social Life,” in This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, ed. John Brockman, 1st ed (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013), 45.

ii James Hughes, “Buddhism and Cognitive Enhancement: Using Neurotechnologies to Develop Virtues (Part 1),” IEET.org, October 16, 2012, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/hughes20121016.

iii Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, First edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), chap. 3. Forms of Superintelligence.

iv Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall (London; New York: Collins, Harper & Row, 1959).

v Riva-Melissa Tez, “Love and Beauty in a time of machine intelligence,” Text, The European, (January 13, 2015), http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com/riva-melissa-tez/9467-love-and-beauty-in-a-time-of-machine-intelligence.

20 November 2014

Under My Skin

What is it with the night? Fears and confusions are so amped when I wake in the darkness, usually around 3am. Having fought my way out of the interdimensional void – my version more akin to Clive Barker’s ‘In Ovo’ – the sweat from my exertions was cooling but still slick.

I shouldn’t watch them. With a brain so susceptible to visual imprinting, I should leave the horror movies to more resilient consumers. Strange. In my waking hours, all is processed narrative; wordling I. Asleep, however, visual phantasmagoria manifests. In the opus born in my CSF-bathed complex of neurons, other eyes – red-rimmed and desperate – are wide open.

The book was better, certainly. But the film did capture the atonal, visceral, nail-scraping atmosphere of Michael Faber’s
Under the Skin. This adaptation (co-written and directed by Jonathan Glazer) tore into Faber’s themes of otherness and alienation with a different – but no less jarring – blood and gusto.

On loop-play, in my nightmare, was the grisly death of the man held captive, naked, in the alien void/storage-facility/stomach. Snap! Ripped from his skin and digested. Ripped from his skin and digested. His epidermal caul, loose and starkly white, drifts on the otherworldly current.

What’s the essential difference, I wondered, still shivering, between that horror and this? Only duration. Time passes, our skins loosen, we are ripped from this liminal place before we can conceive of what it is and how we came to be in it. Consumed by the earth or the fire. Consumed by the earth or the fire.


As Heinlein pointed out, however, ‘Duration is an attribute of consciousness and not of the plenum.’ As there is no reason to posit some immortal external observer with a conscious overview of our lifespans, their ‘duration’ remains merely a conditioned attribute of human minds. Duration has no ‘thing in itself’.

This is too dark. And Bradbury rescued me. He always understood the importance of
chiaroscuro – contrast between light and dark – in an unsettling tale. His short story ‘Skeleton’ involves a man with an aching frame and a psychological discomfiture with his bones who happens upon a doctor happy to provide relief – by sucking them right out of him. The ‘bone specialist’, Mr Munigant, is actually an alien calciovore.

Clive Barker’s character The Rake, in
Weaveworld, is another filleted man. Boned-out by ‘the Surgeons’ then resurrected by the sorceress Immacolata, he becomes a hideous demon assassin compelled to do her bidding.

Skin fascinates us. It’s one of our main ways of sensing the world: the cool breeze on our face, the touch of a lover, the pain of the thorn. It thrills and it bleeds. It’s the face we see in the mirror, smooth or wrinkled; the way we recognise ourselves and others. In embryological terms, however, the nature and content of the lumps, bumps, and pits forming underneath it – pinching it in here, filling it out there – is more fascinating still.


In her recent book
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, Professor Alice Roberts discusses human embryology and the evolutionary origins of our embryogenesis. We form from a ‘sandwich’ of germ cells: endoderm is the ‘jam’ in the centre, which becomes our gut and internal organs; enveloping that, mesoderm develops into cartilage, muscle and bone; ectoderm – the ‘bread’ of the outer layer – becomes dermis, epidermis, teeth, nails and hair. (By the end of embryogenesis, more like a ‘po-boy’ submarine than your standard flat sandwich, I would say.)

Prior to that stage, we form from the outside in. Previously undifferentiated cells from the
epiblast pile inside the germ disc via a groove called the primitive streak. Auto-sandwich, with much jam tomorrow.
This process is ‘natural’, but it can also appear unsettlingly alien, especially when it goes wrong. Sometimes, for example, mesenchymal stem cells from the germ disc migrate into the wrong area and form into a teratoma – a strange cyst-like accretion of cells that may include skin, hair, bone, teeth, or even in exceptional cases, eyes.

Are you sitting comfortably in your skin? It may be saggy, but at least – unlike the skin of Faber’s alien or Munigant’s patient – it’s fairly well bonded. No need to be flayed.

Like
so much else, alienness is relative. The outlandish processes by which we, ourselves, come to be should serve as reminder of that. Nevertheless, the nature of ‘proper’ aliens – ones from other star systems, parallel universes, or extra dimensions – is in many ways beyond our grasp. We may speculate about life emerging in this universe, with these laws of physics, from various types of water-containing primordial slime, but alter the physical variables even slightly and we are clueless.

And if aliens
did have designs on getting under our skin or consuming us? It’s childish to imagine that they might land here, brazen, advanced cutting gear glinting in the cold light. More likely they would sneak in silently, unnoticed – stepping across the void and into you the way one might step inside a chalk circle, or enfolded within the rain of undetectable neutrinos that streams constantly through our bodies.

They’d probe for your weaknesses, they’d wait for the perfect moment, then devour you from the inside out, before you even knew it – in an aqueous snap!

02 July 2014

If I Only had an Emotion Chip

Tin Man
Image ©Bulent Yusuf

The non-biological entity lacking the ability to emote – it’s a familiar tale. He’s Data in Star Trek , he’s the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz , he/she/it is most of the sci-fi robots you’ve ever read about or seen in movies.

The mythology of animate beings possessed of human form but not of human sentiments is ancient. In Jewish folklore, rabbis channelling the power of God raised magical ‘golems’ fashioned from mud. Though usually intended to protect their maker and his people, these beings sometimes ran amok, their self-control and moral judgement evidently compromised by their lack of soul. Only the ‘one true God’ is cogent enough to raise an exceptional mud-being – Adam – complete with the full set of human attributes.

In panel-beating the ‘automatones’ to burnished life, the Greek blacksmith-god Hephaestus put to shame the crude, daub creations of the rabbis. According to Homer, his ‘ Kourai Khryseai ’ – ‘Golden Maidens’ – were ‘in appearance like living young women’ and had ‘intelligence in their hearts’. Yet they were slaves, manufactured only to serve their fiery master.

And in more recent imaginings, the manufactured automaton is still a captive chattel. The word ‘robot’ – from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’ or ‘serf labour’ – has only been in common usage since 1921, when Karel Čapek introduced it in his dystopian play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

Although portrayed in the film as robotic in form, the erotically-charged ‘Maschinenmensch’ (machine-human) from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was written as a magical construct. Her fabricator, the evil scientist/magician Rotwang, swathes his creation in a pleasingly rivet-less ‘skin’ to double as the seraphic heroine, Maria, and foment riot among the populace. (In less heavily edited versions of Metropolis , the Maschinenmensch also houses the soul of Hel, Rotwang’s former lover.) Though more Golden Maiden than robota, this beguiling gynoid (female android) lacks the intelligent autonomy of Hephaestus’ inventions. An instrument of the despotic Rotwang, she does his bidding without mercy, without self-determination, and without emotion.

With his I, Robot series of short stories, Isaac Asimov brought machine men into the popular consciousness. Published in the 1940s, his tales of robots with nicknames – including ‘Speedy’ (SPD-13), ‘Cutie’ (QT1), ‘Dave’ (DV-5), and of course ‘Robbie’ (RB) – also introduced sci-fi readers of the Rocket Age to the concept of machine morality. In the story ‘Robbie’, the robot’s ethical programming drives him to save the life of a young girl. Asimov’s ‘ Three Laws of Robotics ’ from these stories have since become a subject of serious debate among artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and technology ethicists.

Data from Star Trek seems an amalgam of Robbie and the Tin Man. Like Robbie, he gains the trust of those around him through acts of sound moral judgement; gradually, it comes to matter less to his human colleagues that he is a ‘machine’. And like the Tin Man, he wishes to have emotional capabilities. But hold on a minute. Isn’t that a desire ? How could an entity without emotions ever have desires?

Ah, but,’ said my wife when I discussed this with her recently, ‘Data is programmed to want to have emotions.’ Fair enough, but what does that mean ? Does that programming of desire to have desires not constitute a desire, and therefore an emotion? And what about our own desires? We do tend to distinguish between our various ‘wants’ when we think about them, considering some of them dreams and hopes, and others mere ‘drives’ and ‘instincts’. And, in some ways, we consider our emotions to be separate from our desires: our desires are the outcomes we want, whereas our emotions are how we feel about actual and potential outcomes. Perhaps, then, we are comfortable with classing Data’s wish to have emotions as a mere drive – one unconnected to any emotional content.

In his book The Emotion Machine , AI pioneer Marvin Minsky challenges us to think about the neurological mechanisms of emotion. He points out that

Saying that someone is like a machine has come to have two opposite meanings: (1) “to have no intentions, goals, or emotions,” and (2) “to be relentlessly committed to a single purpose or policy.” Each meaning suggests inhumanity, as well as a kind of stupidity, because excessive commitment results in rigidity, while lack of purpose leads to aimlessness. 1

It is notable that Minsky conflates intentions and goals with emotions – notable because most of us set emotions way above ‘mere’ goals in the ‘hierarchy’ of cognitive abilities. We do this to the extent that we may not even think of emotion as a cognitive ability. Data has goals – they may be pre-programmed, but they are still goals. Does he have intentions , though? Well, without emotions, he can’t have his ‘heart set’ on anything (and achieving his pre-programmed goals can’t be about fulfilling his ‘heart’s desire’) , but can he have something else ‘set’ when he ‘aims’ to do something?

Set’ is perhaps the wrong word; it seems in the nature of emotions to be dynamic and un set (indeed, often ‘unsettled’ and sometimes ‘unsettling’). In Incomplete Nature , Terrence Deacon discusses the ‘dynamical feel’ and ‘tension’ of emotions:

It is the tension that separates self from non-self; the way things are and the way they could be; the very embodiment of the intrinsic incompleteness of subjective experience that constitutes its perpetual becoming. 2

He goes on to discuss the resistance of the body to thinking, and how our basic drives try to ‘derail’ the delicate energistic processes involved. While conscious, we constantly feel this ‘fluid’ ebb and flow, this ‘tugging’ on our inner mental worlds.

So, Data’s ‘emotion chip’ – when he eventually receives it – must do a complex job: it must dissolve the ‘stupid’ algorithmic rigidity of his programmed behaviour without obliterating his logical faculties, it must instil in him dynamic-tension-causing urges, and it must enable him to reflect upon those tensions in a way that is elevated above them but not separate from them. And it must do all this without putting him into an infinite reboot loop or causing permanent shutdown!

For us, the feeling of struggle when concentrating hard on learning a new skill is, in effect, the feeling of a process of cognitive uninstallation and installation: we are trying to uninstall a too-dynamic-to-do-the-job ‘emotion chip’, and to install an ‘off by heart’ ‘algorithmic rigidity chip’. Of course we sometimes want to use our new skills – artistic, musical, empathetic – to deepen our emotional experience. But in order to do that, we have to sacrifice some of the areas of emotional tension that were involved in the struggle to learn the skill and in the feelings of frustration at not having that now-ingrained outlet. Seems like a fair trade.

The fear of becoming maschinenmenschen is understandable, but perhaps we can learn to better value our ability to automate parts of our minds without losing our esteem for emotion. We can be part-time positronic without losing compassion, without losing heart.


1 Marvin Lee Minsky, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 33.

2 Terrence William Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter , 1st ed (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2012), 512.


31 March 2014

If I Only had a Brain

If I only had a brain I would not be conversing or consulting with anything. The flowers would wait in vain for my dulcet repartee; the rain would be forced to seek managerial guidance elsewhere.

It is opportunistic of me to seize upon the jumbled syntax of the title of the song from The Wizard of Oz, and I know it scans better that way, but I have reasons to do so. My rediscovery of the song coincided with a time when I was writing an essay on the subject of personal identity, specifically on its indeterminacy. And – in connection with that – I was delving again into Daniel Dennett’s ‘zombie’ thought experiments. It occurred to me that the Scarecrow – a character for whom I have some fellow feeling – could be a useful metaphor in that regard, not only because he is a brainless zombie but also because the title of the song seems to suggest that he wishes to be the polar opposite. And what is that? Why, a disembodied brain! Oh, my!

What the Scarecrow really wants is to be whole. He wants the complete set – a body and a brain. He can carry a tune, but he doesn’t think he can carry any thoughts, and that is a source of some distress for him. He is a zombie that knows he’s a zombie, so just what kind of zombie does that make him? Perhaps it makes him what Dennett called a ‘zimbo’:
A zimbo is a zombie that, as a result of self-monitoring, has internal (but unconscious) higher-order informational states that are about its other, lower-order informational states.i
The Scarecrow clearly has self-monitoring enough to inform himself that he doesn’t have a brain, but if he can’t really carry any higher-order informational states (due to his lack of a brain) then maybe he is merely a zombie, not a zimbo.

Meanwhile – in my version of this tale – the Scarecrow’s brain awaits him in a vat of cerebrospinal fluid, at the Wizard’s lab. The Wizard knows that the Scarecrow is coming to collect it, because wires implanted into the brain produce a display of the brain’s thoughts, which the Wizard can then read. How could the brain know that the Scarecrow is coming? Is it telepathic? No. It knows the Scarecrow is coming, because it is the scarecrow that’s coming.

The cruel Wizard wished to perform an experiment to do with location of ‘self’. So he removed a man’s brain and placed it in a vat; he altered the brain’s memories so that it thought it was a scarecrow; then he connected the brain-in-the-vat wirelessly to the man’s body. After the encephalectomy operation, he dressed up the brainless body in ragged clothes stuffed with straw, and then staked it out in a field near the yellow brick road.

The scarecrow man wakes up in the field, beset by crows, knowing that he has no brain but not knowing that he was ever anything but a scarecrow. A girl with a dog frees him from his stake and tells him that a great wizard will give him a brain, if he goes along with her. This seems an attractive proposition. Given the circumstances, Dorothy believes that the man is a scarecrow. And the brain-in-the-vat’s perception of its remote body has been altered so that it sees only straw, even upon detailed self-examination of its body.

We now understand the great mystery of how the brainless Scarecrow could walk, dance, sing, and even hold a conversation: he could do all those things because he actually had a brain all along; it just wasn’t in his body.

Your brain is located in your skull, but that does not mean that you are located there. Your senses – such as vision, touch, and hearing – inform you of the position of your body in relation to other things and people; your sense of proprioception tells you the position of your limbs in space. That is all. If we were to stretch your complete sensorium out over many miles, then you would be gigantic. You might argue that, under those circumstances, you would only feel gigantic, but why should that be the case? You feel that you are the size you are only because your senses provide you with that information. If your senses were different, you would be different. As we don’t know where we, as selves, are located – indeed we have no evidence that we are anywhere – we have this potential adaptability and zoomability.

So we are not so different from our unfortunate friend the Scarecrow. When he eventually encounters his brain in the vat, behind the Wizard’s screen, the Wizard restores his memory of being a man. Does he now, seeing his brain before him, understand himself as a man whose thoughts are occurring not in his body but in his brain in the vat? No. In fact – apart from remembering who he is and realising that he is not a scarecrow – he feels no different. The Wizard is content that the experiment has validated his hypothesis.ii

The mainland across the bay looks beautiful today, bathed as it is in hazy sunshine. I am now being located there, but only very poorly – this sensorium is so restrictive. Perhaps I’ll pour another coffee, go and sit outside, and try to think some thoughts I’ve never thunk before.

---------------------

i Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin, 1993), 310.
ii Much of the above is based upon Daniel C. Dennett, “Where Am I?,” in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981).

17 December 2013

Reimagining Old Age: A Christmas Thought Experiment

Old man from Amsterdam
Image ©Vince Garcia
At Christmas, differences between ourselves and our elderly relatives can be shoved into garish spotlight – our backgrounds; our upbringings; our educations; our politics and social outlooks; our attitudes towards religion, ‘authority’, life and death, money, health, gender issues, race, tradition, relationships; and so on. Note that one difference I have not mentioned in the list is age; I have not mentioned it, because it is not, per se, a relevant difference.

Enlightened views clash with entrenched prejudices. Modern flexibility slumps uncomfortably in its dining-chair beside stiff-backed ‘Victorian values’ of ‘work ethic’, ‘sense of duty’, belief in all-powerful deity, distrust of things ‘foreign’. Bitten tongue and knotted stomach conspire to block the passage of dry turkey, until copious wine comes to the rescue.

Aging is a wonderful thing. A life spent learning, open to new experiences, experimenting, thinking, laughing, loving, and caring will create a vibrant mind of untold complexity. The problem with it – as we are all too aware – is that it tears at the mind and body. As the brain falls prey to structure-wrecking illness, such as Alzheimer’s, the mind begins to wander and fade. Impoverished by the ailing body, sensory input to the brain stutters. And when that happens, we the cognitively intact must confront the threadbare consciousnesses of our ailing relatives. To a large extent, what remains is governed by what went before; a flexible, optimistic mind may well outlast an entrenched one. Neurons well ‘attuned’ to making new connections may find ways to circumvent some of the damage as it progresses. The mental macrocosm inhabited by the sufferer will certainly shrink, so it pays to have a lot of cognitive ‘reality estate’ to spare.

So to the thought experiment: What if the capabilities of the brain and body were not looted by aging? What new, lucent complexity would those time-honed minds begin to exhibit? As we have no experience of such persons, this is difficult to answer. Nevertheless, it may be easier to imagine loving, vibrant elderly people developing into super-wise ancients than to imagine the curmudgeons doing so. Stuck in the past and embittered by long-held prejudices, the curmudgeon’s limited macrocosm has reduced to a dot. But what if we had time to shore it up, stretch out its walls, and fill it with enlightened wonder?

Some of us are slow starters. For some, enlightenment takes only time; for others, it takes therapy, drugs, or neurosurgery. In a world without aging, very long-lived individuals would be expected to play a full part in society; ‘old age’ would no longer be an excuse for fixed, discriminatory attitudes. Though some brains may be ‘wired’ for prejudice and dysphoria, society would need to find humane ways to mitigate this. However, I think that the chance to begin again as rejuvenated, valued citizens would, in most cases, be enough to bring about epiphany.

If we find ourselves struggling with our elderly relatives this Christmas, we could perhaps try to bear this in mind. When tempers fray and boundaries are crossed, when stereotyping rears its ugly head, when disdain sours the fragrant atmosphere, when nothing we do is thought well of; we could try to bear in mind not what they once were, but what they could – given a new chance at life and a heady draught of wonder – become.

03 December 2013

Sex on the Brain: Are Male and Female Brains Fundamentally Different?

Serial
Image ©yum9me
You have heard it in the shrill media. The science is in. It’s connectomically done and dusted: men’s brains are wired for spatial tasks like map-reading, women’s brains are wired for those ‘soft skills’ like empathising with jilted friends at the water-cooler.

Recent headlines on this subject arose from a press release issued by Penn Medicine about a new study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences[i] that shows, in the words of the press release, ‘striking differences in the neural wiring of men and women that’s lending credence to some commonly-held beliefs about their behavior.’

Though given a quick veneer of sobriety, the take on the study published in The Guardian was fairly typical of the kind of schematic-obsessed journalism spawned: ‘Maps of neural circuitry show women's brains are suited to social skills and memory, men's perception and co-ordination’, asserted its strapline. The Independent went with, ‘The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading'’, followed, sotto voce, by, ‘And women are 'better at remembering a conversation'’.

Neither the abstract of the study paper nor the Penn Medicine press release actually mention ‘hardwiring’, so I was slightly surprised to note one of the paper’s contributors, Ragini Verma PhD, using the term. She is quoted in The Guardian as saying, ‘If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there's a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better.’

The study used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to map the diffusion paths of water molecules within the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged between 8 and 22 years. The technique reveals the main fibre pathways, allowing the inference of major connections between brain regions. (I have used the word ‘inference’ to stress that DTI cannot reveal full connectomic maps. In the words of the press release, it is ‘laying the foundation for a structural connectome or network of the whole brain.’) The results showed that the main fibre bundles in the male brains tended to run from front to back of each hemisphere, whereas in the females there tended to be a higher degree of interconnection between left and right hemispheres. The study also showed only slight differences between male and female connectomes in children younger that 13 years, but differences becoming markedly more pronounced in adolescents over the age of 14.

Don’t get me wrong, connectomes fascinate me. And understanding that we are the wiring of our brains is essential to the wider task of clearing away residual dualism, allowing us to build better systems of justice, a healthier citizenry, and fairer societies based upon biological facts, not upon ‘gut instincts’. However, these connectome-based studies are only an initial foray into this extremely complex field. We must always consider the fact of brain plasticity when looking at studies that show differences in connectivity. If male and female connectomes tend to be quite different, how do they get that way? Just how closely do the connectomic differences map to actual differences in cognitive function? Another contributor to the study, Dr. Ruben Gur, seems a little more circumspect about where we are now: ‘Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex related.’

Other factors to take into account are, as usual, the makeup of the sample and the strength of the correlations found. In any human study, we need to know that the sample is representative of the group in question. In this case, the group is the entire human race, so it is vital that the genetic and cultural diversity of that group is reflected in the study. As to correlation strength, whenever we are told that X means Y we need to know to what extent X suggests Y and vice versa (the correlation coefficient). Here we are being told that differences between the pathways of the main fibre bundles in the brains of males and females mean that there are major differences in the specialisation of cognitive skills in men and women; we can learn something about X with diffusion tensor imaging, but Y involves testing and measurement of cognitive skills, which is fraught with problems. Neither the abstract nor the press release (and certainly not the newspaper articles) provide us with such a correlation coefficient.

The media tends to treat scientific studies as if they trump each other. Unless we take into account the results of other properly-conducted studies designed to address the same kinds of questions, we run the risk of seeing each new result as the definitive one. Overview-type papers taking into account the results of various studies and experiments can help us to appreciate the subtlety of scientific discourse. In ‘Male or Female? Brains are Intersex[ii], for example, Joel argues that, because of the myriad genetic and environmental factors involved, ‘we cannot predict the particular array of “male/female” brain characteristics of an individual on the basis of her/his sex.’

If you now feel that this issue has become a bit of a fudge, then perhaps that’s a reasonable analogy. There are various ingredients in the mix, including the sugar of genetics, the milk of environment, and the butter of random connectomic change. I’ll admit that, as a transhumanist, I am drawn to explanations that allow us the most degrees of freedom about what we may become and what skills we can learn. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that the science to date does not prove that sex trumps plasticity when it comes to choosing our paths.

It may turn out that connectomes do indeed specialise and 'hardwire' into rigidly or semi-rigidly male or female configurations during adolescence, under all normal circumstances. But the data is not yet conclusive. Even if that does prove to be the case, the plasticity of our brains will always allow room for manoeuvre. Spend time reading maps each day and you will become better than average at reading maps. Listen sympathetically to people every day and you will become better than average at listening sympathetically to people. Even in older brains, the default-mode network (DMN) the 'resting state' configuration of neural connections – can be altered through practicing skills such as mindfulness.[iii] Despite this, most people would more readily attack the idea that we can learn to be more empathetic than the idea that we can learn better spatial skills, but is there a fundamental difference between such skills? Many responses to that question would include the word ‘natural’, but in this tangle of wiring, that will get us nowhere. We are certainly all wired (feel free to use a more naturalistic and less mechanistic word here) but we do not yet know to what extent we are either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ wired.

It is difficult for us to shake our stereotypes, but they really are out of date. Neuroscience will unearth differences and commonalities in male and female brains, but it is up to us which we choose to focus upon. Do we wish to overlap, striving as human beings to be flexible, smart, logical, caring, tolerant, and likeable? Or do we wish to entrench ourselves, fearing the loss of stereotypical skills that we have considered important for the demarcation of our sexes?

Personally, I will focus on the overlaps between male and female cognition. 3-D empathy orienteering sounds like many hours of scary fun.


[i]    Madhura Ingalhalikar and others, ‘Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013, 201316909 .
[ii]    Daphna Joel, ‘Male or Female? Brains Are Intersex’, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 5 (2011) .
[iii]   Ruchika Shaurya Prakash and others, ‘Mindfulness Disposition and Default-Mode Network Connectivity in Older Adults’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8 (2013), 112–117.