Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Consciousness makes no sense

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, pages 320-321:

I was recently asked by a Time magazine reporter, "If we could build a robot or an android that duplicated the processes behind human consciousness, would it actually be conscious?"


Underlying this question is the assumption that consciousness reflects some kind of process that brings all of our zillions of thoughts into a special energy and reality called personal or phenomenal consciousness. That is not how it works. Consciousness is an emergent property and not a process in and of itself. When one tastes salt, for example, the consciousness of taste an emergent property of the sensory system, not the combination of elements that make up table salt. Our cognitive capacities, memories, dreams, and so on reflect distributed processes throughout the brain, and each of those entities produces its own emergent states of consciousness.

In closing, remember this one fact. A split-brain patient, a human who has had the two halves of his brain disconnected from each other, does not find one side of the brain missing the other.

Some people theorize that any sort of feedback loop at all is conscious. I'm really not sure about that, but this twist on how we think about consciousness is still hard to wrap the mind around. Splitting the brain does not split consciousness, and I think that's confusing in and of itself. What if we split the brain even more? Well, that'd probably kill people... but there is not one part of the brain that is the "conscious" part. Consciousness arises from a bunch of other systems. And, if you really get down to it, isn't consciousness just atoms moving around? It really makes no sense.


Apples and oranges

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, pages 250-251:

Harvard researchers Alfonso Caramazza and Jennifer Shelton claim that there are domain-specific knowledge systems for animate and inanimate categories that have distinct neural mechanisms. Indeed, there are patients with brain damage who are very poor at recognizing animals but not man-made artifacts, and vice versa. If you have a lesion in one spot, you can't tell a tiger from an Airedale, and if it is in another spot, the telephone becomes mysterious object. There are even people with brain lesions that make them specifically unable to recognize fruit.

For such people, the expression "apples and oranges" means nothing!

Interesting stuff... and weird...


People don't think

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, pages 141-142:

Even when we are trying to think rationally, we may not be. Research has shown that people will use the first argument that satisfies their opinion and then stop thinking. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist, calls this the "makes sense" rule. However, what people consider makes sense varies widely. It is the difference between anecdotal evidence (an isolated story that presumes a cause and effect) and factual evidence (a proven cause and effect). For instance, a woman may believe birth control pills will make her sterile, because her aunt took birth control pills in the past, and now she can't get pregnant. Anecdotal evidence, one story, was all she needed to support her opinion, and it made sense. ... Predominantly, people use anecdotal evidence.

I think it was in Taleb's book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable that Taleb mentions confirmation bias. When people have an argument, they tend to only consider evidence that supports their belief. Instead, people should always be trying to prove themselves wrong. If you do that, you have admit all the times you're wrong (at least to yourself), but you'll become right more often! Or at least you won't be believing wrong things.

I think Taleb also mentioned that this sort of thought is needed to play chess. When you think about your next move, you have to consider all the moves your component could do that could ruin your plans. If you just moved without thinking about how your opponent could ruin you, you'd be ruined pretty quickly, unless your opponent was just as dumb as you.


Men are naturally better

~From Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga, page 69:

Wrangham [professor of biological anthropology at Harvard] reports that observational studies have found chimps to be patriarchal. Males are dominant, inherent territory, raid and kill their neighbors, and gain the spoils (not only increased foraging, but neighboring females), but they also are killed if they lose their territory. Females, however, gain a different advantage. They can remain in their territory and continue to forage by simply changing allegiance to the conquering band. They remain alive to reproduce again, whereas the male is killed. OK, so chimps are patrilineal, but what about humans?

Wrangham reviews the ethnographic records, studies of modern-day primitive peoples, and archeological finds to show that humans are, and always have been, a patrilineal society, regardless of what some feminist organizations assert. ... It has been argued that this patriarchy is a cultural invention, but a new field of study, branded evolutionary feminism, views patriarchy as a part of human biology.

So there.

Though this makes sense, as I don't recall knowing about any matriarchal societies, besides made-up ones. I often hear that Jesus called God "the Father" because the society he lived in was patriarchal. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the humans species was, and still is.

But perhaps humans are better at psychologically reversing this natural emergent property by simply being conscious of it and making a mental effort to do so. But I imagine that would be pretty hard unless the society was comprised entirely of females. The farthest we could get is to create a completely equal society that was neither patriarchal nor matriarchal. I imagine that would still be pretty difficult though.