Both Torture and Morality require Theory of Mind


Being “Broken on the Wheel”. Europe, 14th century.

In reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and I’ve been shocked at the cruelty in earlier centuries. Particularly striking are the broad range of torture techniques and the widespread use of torture (chapter 4).

What is torture? What is cruelty? I’ll propose definitions:

  • Torture: a technique designed to inflict pain and suffering on a subject
  • Cruelty: Intentional induction of pain and suffering on a subject.

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Consciousness Wars: Tononi-Koch versus Searle

kochGuilio Tononi has proposed a theory of consciousness he calls “Integrated Information Theory” (IIT)*. Very roughly, the theory is based on Shannon’s concept of information, but extends this by adding a property refers to as “Integrated Information”. Consciousness Information will exist in an entity when it has information and is connected. This property is called “Phi” (rhymes with “by”, written φ) and can be computed. The higher the Phi, the more conscious the entity.

Although theories of consciousness are not new, this one is special: it has high-profile converts, perhaps the most noteable being Christof Koch. Koch, Cal Tech professor and chief scientific officer of the Allen Brain Institute, is best known for his book, The Quest for Consciousness: a Neurobiological Approach. A new Koch book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is largely a description of and paean to IIT. It’s fair to view Tononi and Koch as collaborators.

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Are Place-to-Memory Associations a 2-way Street?

two way narrowPeople who study memory are familiar with the concept of a Memory Palace, a memory scheme for storing information in remembered places. The Memory Palace story is beautifully described in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein (although it wasn’t clear to me if Einstein was walking on the moon or walking with Michael Jackson). For millennia, mnenonic super stars have memorized gargantuan lists by associating each list item with a location in a virtual home or palace. During learning, the mnemonicist imagines walking through the palace and placing each item in a particular location. At the time of recall, the memorizer imagines walking through the memory palace and, as if by magic, seeing each item where it had been placed. According to this notion, the ability to associate places to content is natural and fairly easy to master. So easy that Joshua Foer, who had no obvious memory potential, became a national memory champion by mastering the technique. I find the accounts impressive and extremely convincing, although I’ve failed miserably when trying to do this. Overall, the Memory Palace phenomenon suggests a strong natural link between location and memory. Some have taken this linkage to suggest that place serves as in indexing system for memory — a kind of lookup table. A point I’ll return to.

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Fire and Consciousness: A Metaphor

fireBorghish was a genius, the most respected man in his village. For he was a genius about fire. Borghish lived on the island of Manula with 100 clansmen, an estimated 50,000 years ago. The group lived off of fishing, hunting and gathering. Fire was especially important, for preparing meals, for preserving meats, for preparing clothing, for warmth at night, to help protect against dangerous animals. Fire was part of the essence of life. And Borghish understood fire. He could make a small fire large in minutes, he could preserve a fire’s embers, making a second fire easy to start, he could control a fire’s warmth and its direction of spread. He could prepare the perfect fireplace, and understood which woods and material made best fires. When it came to fire, he was the man. He had absolute control. Compared to anyone in his clan, compared to anyone in present-day America, Borghish was a master of fire. Although the people of Manula knew that Borghish was a genius, Borghish, himself, wasn’t so sure. Sometimes, he thought “yes, I have gifts unimaginable to others, I am all powerful, I understand fire.” Sometimes he realized that there was variation in his craft, variation he hid from others, variation he could not control. And sometimes, at the moment when the turning rod caused the smoke to turn to fame he thought, “I don’t understand what’s going on; I don’t understand fire”. He could control the instance of magic, but the fire itself was magic.

Borghish had absolute control of the conditions necessary for fire, but he did not understand fire.

Neuroscience appears to be advancing in the battle to understand consciousness. We are rapidly moving towards understanding what Cristof Koch calls the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC), that is, the brain events that correlate with conscious states. As this work advances, correlations will become more precise. Rather than simply recording from a brain and recognizing sleep from wakefulness, or stages of sleep, we are and will be able to identify the type of task the conscious brain is engaged in. Slowly specifics about the task will emerge. The ability to determine which of two movies a subject is thinking about can be identified. Eventually, conceivably, via precise correlates, neuroscientists may be able to accurately read conscious minds. In a parallel train, in a manner similar to Borghish, physicians and scientists may be able to advance consciousness control, and steer someone’s brain into particular patterns. Perhaps very precise states. Perhaps, very precise thoughts and memories.

If this advance in technology is reached, will we be able to say that we understand consciousness? No. We will have gotten no farther then Borghish. We will have precise understanding of the physical conditions necessary for consciousness to emerge, but the conscious state that we all know (and love) will remain deeply mysterious. We will know the recipe, not the chemistry (or physics). Whence the unity of conscious experience? The sense of self? The perception of agency and control? Answers are not clear.

That is how consciousness is like fire.

Some will say that it ends there. Consciousness, like fire, is an emergent property. It exists at a different level than the physical state of the brain. Ryle termed mixing consciousness with brain states a categorical mistake. He felt it improper to cross categories of knowledge, such as physical world events and mental events. I find Ryle’s view a cop out. The term “emergent property” is hand waving for “stuff we don’t understand“. That is, an emergent property is a function of the brain, not the world. I consider settling for an “emergent property” conception of consciousness “soft dualism”. Reductionism is the opposite. It is the quest to remove an “emergent property”, by explaining a higher level property via lower level properties, such as physics explaining chemistry. Or chemistry explaining fire. Just as Borghish had no theory of fire, in 2013 we have no strong proposals for crossing the boundary between brain state and consciousness. The project lies ahead.

Athletic Streaks and Neuroscience

deron williams jumpYesterday evening Deron Williams drained 8-straight 3-point shots at the start of the Brooklyn Nets’ win against the Washinton Wizzards (Nets, my team!). He was ‘hot’. He was on a streak. He was in rhythm. As Deron said, at the end of the streak, “yeah, I was on a heat check”.

Was it a real streak? Was he hot? In synch? If there are streaks, what does that say about human athletic performance and neuroscience?

 Stephen Gould addressed the question* of whether there are streaks in athletic performance 25 years ago in a lovely article in the NY Review of books (1988). Interestingly, Gould focused on two types of streaks: streak shooting in basketball, and Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. He summarized then current work by Arvin Tversky and Ed Purcell, using fairly simple probability techniques. Conclusion: from NBA shot statistics were there no evidence of “hot streaks” or “hot hands” in basketball; but the DiMaggio’s streak was truly unusual. I don’t have ready access to the background work (correction: Golovich et al, 1985**), nor more recent analysis, but I did a back-of-the envelope calculation this morning. 

My calculations: Continue reading