Cognitive Science · Human Thinking · The Human Mind and Brain

“Thinking: The new science of decision making,” Edited by John Brockman

This book discussed below is a series of articles on the subject of thinking by a number of well known writers and scientists.  It was published in 2013.
Article One:  Daniel Dennett: “The normal well-tempered mind.”

In this essay, Dennett is writing about where the science and philosophy of thinking is at the present moment, 2013. The essay covers some interesting things that have occurred to him about thinking. The essay wanders from subject to subject, such as 1) How thinking really works, 2) Memes and Cultural thinking, 3,) Naive scientists thinking about free will, 4), Thinking and religion, propaganda and non-thinking.

Daniel Dennett says he made a mistake about brains and AI some years back.  He believed in homuncular functionalism back there. Basically this means you can understand the brain by taking it apart and breaking it into increasingly similar minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine. This is what old fashioned AI tried to do and still tries to do. Dennett says he believed in the idea of a simple artificial neuron that had multiple inputs and one output and a threshold for firing, just like real neurons. And he also believed this meant you could treat the brain like a computer.

Now, he realises this was a huge oversimplification.  Actually neurons are little agents with an agenda much more autonomous and interesting than switches. They are not just switches or mechanical slaves. Actually they are agents that have to be kept in line and properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals. The brain is like a social arena of politically worrisome and different forces. “What happens when you think of brains like this”, he asks?

At first this seems like an amusing fantasy. But it seems to have a lot of support from scientists.

David Haig has published several papers on intra-personal conflict on the level of the genes.  He says that it is a regular thing for genes from the mother to fight with genes from the father. [This is pretty much a commonplace nowadays.]

The brain as a system is much more like anarchy than like a bureaucratic system with a few elements of democracy thrown in, the way we usually think about brains.

Sometimes one brain alliance gets out of control and then you get what we call obsessions and delusions, etc. The organized mind is a great achievement of genius, not the regular base state.

This way of thinking about the brain is becoming normal among bright young people. The brain is like a computer but not like any computer you have ever seen before.  These young scientists are well educated in the new evolutionary ways of thinking about brains and are primed to make fast progress in the next few years.

Alan Turing gave us the idea about thinking about things that have trillions of moving parts. We couldn’t think about this kind of thing until we got very powerful computers. Now we can understand the idea of levels, ie levels of virtual machines working inside other virtual machines inside other ….etcetera.

An artificial brain has to have a parallel architecture. It has to be a connectionist network.  Control in machines like this is very different than control in real minds.   

Control in machines is top down. However, in the mind one part can rebel and go off on its own. “You get all the power of computers out of these mindless little robotic slave prisoners, but that’s not the way your brain is organized” says Dennett.

Every cell in your human brain is a direct descendant of eukaryotic cells that evolved and survived  for for billions of years. When these cells joined forces and become multicellular creatures, they gave up a lot of their independence. You can say they become “domesticated”.  But sometimes these neurons rebel and go wild.  In tissue cells we call this Cancer.  

Neurons and maybe only human neurons are still a little bit feral and sometimes they rebel and escape and regain their wild talents. Daniel Dennett says “This concept is my wild idea.” Individual neurons in brains are fighting among themselves to stay alive. And this is the source of our more creative ideas, creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box. But the price we pay for this is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illness, delusions and all kinds of smaller problems. [Smaller problems like perhaps Kahneman’s biases.]

We have risky brains that are much more risky than other mammals. Genetics is not the level to explain this on. You need culture to explain it.  Culture creates a new kind of biosphere where all of this can happen.

Dennett says this idea of risk taking neurons is very speculative. He says he would be thrilled if this was 20% right. It’s just a promising idea that may or may not pan out. Dennett says he may be totally wrong.  And if it turns out that way, he says, “I can just say okay I was wrong.”  Dennett says he doesn’t work on the science of this, other people can do that.

So Dennett mentions several scientists who are working on this idea.  Sebastian Seung is already working on the idea of selfish neurons at MIT. Seung says you can explain this idea in the plasticity of the brain. Blindfold yourself for 2 months and your visual cortex starts getting adapted for Braille. Maybe this happens because neurons are micro-agents asking,  “What is in it for me”.  And then they realize that they have to take on some other kind of work or else die.  With neurons, if they aren’t working, are not useful, they die.  That’s the way evolution goes.

John Howard has done work on the emergence of order. He points out that the market is responsible for the fact that you can buy all sorts of weird stuff in New York City. The self-organizational  powers of the brain are much like those of the city.  Dennett says this is an over-enthusiastic metaphor that has been around since the time of Plato. But maybe it’s worth something anyway.  

Next Dennett says that he next wants to look at cultural Evolution and see if memes or something like memes exist in cultures. He says we need a proper scientific way of explaining cultural change. Old ways of explaining cultural change really don’t work well. Up until now we have used the idea of handing down cultural treasures to our children. But this isn’t really how things go. There are cultural fleas that are handed down also. We have handed down all sorts of bad habits and ugly patterns and stupid things as well as treasures to our children. This is not a blessing but a curse.   There are a lot of cultural fleas in our culture that have been handed down by our predecessors.  

Language is something like this.   Language hands down all kinds of good and bad stuff to humans.  Only humans learn languages automatically without having to be taught. Chimps can hear human language in zoos, but they never learn them.   Children have small, simple genetic switches that can enable them to learn language automatically.  They don’t have to be taught, just be around language.  Humans can also share their learning through language. Every new kid doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Human knowledge is transmitted through language.  [It doesn’t take writing to do this, language does it automatically.  If kids hear people talking about laws and justice and democracy, this knowledge is automatically transmitted to them. At least sometimes to some kids anyway. ]

Dennett goes on to another new subject.  He says there is a lot of very naive thinking by scientists about free will. Dennett says this is a subject where philosophers like him can still do good work. Philosophers have done some good work that scientists should know about.  He doesn’t elaborate on this.

Another new subject:  Many Americans resist evolution. This is very depressing. It’s not that these people are stupid. They just have their go-to people which they use to understand stuff. We all do this. Very few of us really figure out things for ourselves. We just use the go-to people that we trust. We go to our personal experts.

[Some experts are better than others, but hardly anyone goes out and does science or statistics themselves to figure out what is right and what is wrong. ]

Many people’s experts are their pastors. And at the top of the Christian hierarchy chain there are experts who really do know better than what they say about evolution. They are lying. Why does this happen? The people who say they don’t believe in evolution would never let an incompetent doctor operate on their children.

Dennett and Linda Lascala did a study where they asked unbelieving pastors why they lied. They got the pastors to tell the truth by gaining their sympath.  The Pastors said they are caught in a trap.

Most religious leaders are intelligent and know the truth.  They just lie.  Why? The Seminary teaches the pastors that they should first never do harm.  They say it’s OK if there is a difference in what they believe and what they  say. Pastors lie because they think the truth would do harm to their parishioners by shaking their faith in Christianity. Also pastors don’t  want to offend the sophisticates in their churches or pull the rug out from under the literalists in their churches. So pastors compromise between the sophisticates and the literalists.  They have lost track of what it means to tell the truth.

Post-modernism was also this kind of lazy Relativism says Dennett.  He gives no details.

Not telling the truth means you have to hoodwink people into believing falsehoods.  Political leaders and generals do this all the time. This sort of thing happens in armies. You don’t want soldiers to start thinking that war is not right, that there might be a better way to do this. Or you don’t want them thinking, “Do I want to die for this nonsense.”  So you hoodwink them to get done what you think is right.  Pastors do the same.

Dennis says he doesn’t know how to deal with this problem. But he says we should at least confront the problem.

[This essay by Dennett is a little bit disorganized and it looks as if he wrote it in a hurry and just wandered from one idea to the next without carefully organizing anything.  I think many prominent people don’t think Brock is a serious guy and so their articles for his books are quickly written and not up to their usually high standards.  Dennett is usually a better writer than this.  However there are still some really good ideas in this article, mostly in the first section when he is talking about neurons rebelling to the independence they once had as unicellular organisms.]


Article 2: Philip Tetlock, How to Win at Forecasting

[In my opinion this is an excellent essay.  Tetlock has been one of the leading thinkers in the art of forecasting and decision for many years, pretty much from Popper’s insistence on the importance of falsification up to the present.  It can be said that Tetlock is in the same line of work as Daniel Kahneman who pioneered, with Amos Tversky, the modern science of decision making and accuracy in human thinking beginning around 1974.  In 2011, Kahneman published all his thinking about biases and heuristics in his cutting edge book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  

In 2005 Tetlock wrote a book called “Expert Political Judgement: How good is it?  How can we know?”  In an introduction to the essay I am currently summarizing, Daniel Kahneman says Tetlock’s 2005 book demonstrated that long term political forecasting is pretty much impossible but goes on to say that in “How to Win at Forecasting,” Tetlock’s message was far-more optimistic.  And indeed, in this current essay, which was written in 2013, Tetlock shows the real progress that has been made in the field of political forecasting.  He mentions Nate Silver success with the 2012 election, and his own research in measuring the accuracy of forecasting which the US security establishment has shown great interest in and is now underwriting.  

Since Tetlock wrote this essay in 2013, he has published a newer book on the subject called  Superforecasting.  This book was published in 2015 and it points out that forecasting has indeed come a very long and surprising way in the last few years.  Tetlock is always the careful skeptic, but real progress has definitely been made.   In my opinion, this most recent 2015 book, is a must-read for anyone interested in AI, modern decision making, thinking, human cognition and  in the accuracy of any kind of forecasting: political, economic, or sociological.  I plan to summarize Tetlock’s book, Superforcasting, in the very near future.

Below is a summary of what Tetlock says in the 2013  essay How to Win at Forecasting which is included in Brockman’s book Thinking.   ]  



This article is still in progress.  It will be finished soon.

Surf, sand and rocks, Maine Seacoast.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s