02-05-08 The Robot’s Rebellion
Contemporary thinking about how human beings work has certainly spawned a lot of machine books. In addition to Stanovich’s Robots, we have Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine,” which Stanovich cites, and Marvin Minsky’s “The Emotion Machine,” which he does not, which is really too bad—I think his book might have been improved by the influence.
The signal difference between Stanovich and Minsky is that Stanovich proposes “rational self-determination,” as “what is really singular about humans.”(p. 275) In contrast, Minsky suggests that what makes us singular is that, “whenever our usual ways to think fail we can start to think about our thoughts themselves—and if this “reflective thinking” shows where we went wrong, that can help us to invent new and more powerful ways to think.”(p. 1) There is a world of difference in these two approaches to how our brains work, and Minsky’s has many advantages.
Despite his denial of the existence of any “Promethean Controller” in the brain, in Stanovich’s discussions of different orders of desires—first, second, etc.—there is the unstated assumption that these various desires are all encompassed in the same person. From Minsky’s view, the activation of these different desires would indicate that a different sub-personality was operating: “...the sub-personality that is now in control may activate a set of views and goals for you, which, for the moment, you may believe to be the views and goals of the “genuine” You.”(p. 307)
Minsky’s approach is more in keeping with my own experience of the limitations of consciousness—and I suspect this is widely true. It explains how Stanovich’s example of Ruth, the vegetarian/environmentalist, can have “...convenience foods in her refrigerator that are environmentally unsound and that violate her vegetarianism.”(p. 241) Ruth’s values as a vegetarian are only conscious in certain environments, and the grocery store is not one of them. Vegetarianism is part of a sub-personality, and the buyer and eater of convenience foods is part of another—both are not active in, or at least not in control of, her brain at the same time. If the “vegetarian Ruth” wants to control the “convenience Ruth” in the grocery store, she might try making a grocery list while she is in control, and reinforcing her domination of shopping behavior by writing “vegetarian” on the back of her reaching hand.
Stanovich mentions the similar strategy of “pre-commitment” in the interview, in which the dieter empties the refrigerator while the glutton is in abeyance, hoping to promote dieting behavior as the dominant mode when the glutton emerges (although he doesn’t put it in those terms).
Minsky’s approach avoids the Promethium Controller undertones in Stanovich’s vehicle-against-replicator scenario, and reflects what all of us could vouch for if we paid attention: that each environment we find ourselves in activates values and desires that the brain has found relevant to that environment; and as facets of the environment change, or as “Critic” neural subsystems are activated by failures of the current “Way to Think,” the brain switches to a different Way to Think, using different resources to improve performance.
The difference in emphasis on emotions between the two authors is dramatic, since Stanovich only gives the subject one sentence and a footnote, compared to Minsky’s making it a central concept. Stanovich does talk about “gut instincts,”(p. 142) which might be stretched to accommodate emotions, but cautions that relying on them may be turning your behavior over to TASS, which may or may not be consistent with vehicular goals—its a gamble. In many cases, however, attempts at rational decision-making are often concluded with what might be classified as “gut instincts.” As Damasio pointed out in “Descartes’ Error,” the inherent difficulties in rational decision-making suggest that our brains use “somatic markers,”(p. 173) gut feelings, in weighting the possible outcomes of “rational decision-making,” without which we would be forever mired in endless calculations.
Stanovich has a hypothetical “Jim” struggling with a rationally insoluble choice, and in the end, suggests that it is the struggle that counts, not whether we can resolve all our inconsistencies.(p. 237) And yet, I suggest that Jim would have made some kind of choice, as all of us do, and lacking a coherent rationale, would have gone with his “gut feeling.”
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t think about what behaviors might be “good for us,” and to consider the origins of our motivations. I frequently find my brain switching to self-reflective mode to ask, “Where did that impulse come from? Genes? Memes? Who planted that one?” Stanovich’s book gives us many useful tools to aid in answering such questions, and is well worth reading. I only wish he had read Minsky’s before he wrote his.
Susan Blackmore offers an alternative mode of rebellion against memes in “The Meme Machine,” which she calls “meme-weeding.”(p. 242) I have benefitted tremendously in pursuing it, and consider it an indispensable option. I have gone on too long already, but given that anyone who mentions “meme” cites her, you should definitely read her book if you haven’t.