Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.

Two Levels of Racism
1. Population Group Level
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.

State of AI progress

An MIT Technology Review article introduces the man responsible for the 30-year-old deep learning approach, explains what deep machine learning is, and questions whether deep learning may be the last significant innovation in the AI field. The article also touches on a potential way forward for developing AIs with qualities more analogous to the human brain’s functioning.

Poor understanding correlates with religious/supernatural belief

According to this article in Applied Cognitive Psychology. The summary follows. The entire article can be accessed at Sci-Hub.

“Although supernatural beliefs often paint a peculiar picture about the physical world, the possibility that the beliefs might be based on inadequate understanding of the non-social world has not received research attention. In this study (N = 258), we therefore examined how physical-world skills and knowledge predict religious and paranormal beliefs. The results showed that supernatural beliefs correlated with all variables that were included, namely, with low systemizing, poor intuitive physics skills, poor mechanical ability, poor mental rotation, low school grades in mathematics and physics, poor common knowledge about physical and biological phenomena, intuitive and analytical thinking styles, and in particular, with assigning mentality to non-mental phenomena. Regression analyses indicated that the strongest predictors of the beliefs were overall physical capability (a factor representing most physical skills, interests, and knowledge) and intuitive thinking style.”

The Metaphorical Brain

Lakoff’s last article was published in this open access Ebook edited by Seana Coulson and Vicky T. Lai, published by Frontiers Media SA in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (March, 2016). The blurb:

Metaphor has been an issue of intense research and debate for decades (see, for example [1]). Researchers in various disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, computer science, education, and philosophy have developed a variety of theories, and much progress has been made [2]. For one, metaphor is no longer considered a rhetorical flourish that is found mainly in literary texts. Rather, linguists have shown that metaphor is a pervasive phenomenon in everyday language, a major force in the development of new word meanings, and the source of at least some grammatical function words [3]. Indeed, one of the most influential theories of metaphor involves the suggestion that the frequency of metaphoric language results because cross-domain mappings are a major determinant in the organization of semantic memory, as cognitive and neural resources for dealing with concrete domains are recruited for the conceptualization of more abstract ones [4]. Researchers in cognitive neuroscience have explored whether particular kinds of brain damage are associated with metaphor production and comprehension deficits, and whether similar brain regions are recruited when healthy adults understand the literal and metaphorical meanings of the same words (see [5] for a review). Whereas early research on this topic focused on the issue of the role of hemispheric asymmetry in the comprehension and production of metaphors [6], in recent years cognitive neuroscientists have argued that metaphor is not a monolithic category, and that metaphor processing varies as a function of numerous factors, including the novelty or conventionality of a particular metaphoric expression, its part of speech, and the extent of contextual support for the metaphoric meaning (see, e.g., [7], [8], [9]). Moreover, recent developments in cognitive neuroscience point to a sensorimotor basis for many concrete concepts, and raise the issue of whether these mechanisms are ever recruited to process more abstract concepts [10]. This Frontiers Research Topic brings together contributions from researchers in cognitive neuroscience whose work involves the study of metaphor in language and thought in order to promote the development of the neuroscientific investigation of metaphor. Adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, it synthesizes current findings on the cognitive neuroscience of metaphor, provides a forum for voicing novel perspectives, and promotes avenues for new research on the metaphorical brain.

[1] Arbib, M. A. (1989). The metaphorical brain 2: Neural networks and beyond. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
[2] Gibbs Jr, R. W. (Ed.). (2008). The Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought. Cambridge University Press.
[3] Sweetser, Eve E. “Grammaticalization and semantic bleaching.” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Vol. 14. 2011.
[4] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought.
[5] Coulson, S. (2008). Metaphor comprehension and the brain. The Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought, 177-194.
[6] Winner, E., & Gardner, H. (1977). The comprehension of metaphor in brain-damaged patients. Brain, 100(4), 717-729.
[7] Coulson, S., & Van Petten, C. (2007). A special role for the right hemisphere in metaphor comprehension?: ERP evidence from hemifield presentation. Brain Research, 1146, 128-145.
[8] Lai, V. T., Curran, T., & Menn, L. (2009). Comprehending conventional and novel metaphors: An ERP study. Brain Research, 1284, 145-155.
[9] Schmidt, G. L., Kranjec, A., Cardillo, E. R., & Chatterjee, A. (2010). Beyond laterality: a critical assessment of research on the neural basis of metaphor. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 16(01), 1-5.
[10] Desai, R. H., Binder, J. R., Conant, L. L., Mano, Q. R., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2011). The neural career of sensory-motor metaphors. Journal of Cognitive Neurosc., 23(9), 2376

Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry

By George Lakoff, Frontiers in Human Neureoscience, Hypothesis and Theory Article (link), 2014. Introduction: “An overview of the basics of metaphorical thought and language from the perspective of Neurocognition, the integrated interdisciplinary study of how conceptual thought and language work in the brain. The paper outlines a theory of metaphor circuitry and discusses how everyday reason makes use of embodied metaphor circuitry.” Also see the section on experimental results for the studies.

Embodied philosophy in a nutshell

In this 4-minute clip Lakoff summarizes how philosophy is changed by cognitive science. Particular philosophies get attached to a root metaphor (or blend) that entails certain premises and conclude that it is reality in toto without going further to understand that other metaphors entail different premises with equally logical conclusions. The embodied thesis helps us understand how our body-minds work to correct many of philosophy’s metaphysical assumptions while providing a postmetaphysical frame for an empirical, embodied and multifarious philosophy.

Downward mental causation and free will

I know, to free will or not to free will, that is the hackneyed question debated in philosophical circles since we learned how to talk. But here’s a cognitive neuroscientist’s research on “how neuronal code underlies top-down mental causation.” It’s a long video, over 2 hours, and I have yet to complete it. Here is Peter Tse’s CV.  Here is his book on the topic is. Here is a good summary of Tse’s work on the topic.

Request for topic categories hierarchies

BMAI members,

I’m integrating a file-sharing capability into this site. For it and posts, I would like to implement a hierarchy of topical categories. A structured set of terms (taxonomy) will make it easier for us to categorize new content and find existing content. If you are aware of existing taxonomies we might borrow from, please provide links in comments to this post. I propose we start with a relatively high-level taxonomy of categories (limited to two or three levels) and use less-formal tags for highly-specific and infrequently used labels. If we need to amend or grow the taxonomy of categories later, we can easily do so.

If you were not aware, web content platforms like the one (WordPress) this site is built on use two methods for labeling and organizing content items.

The more formal method is a hierarchy of pre-determined categories. When creating posts or uploading files or media, authors select relevant categories from a list. A category hierarchy might include the following, for example:

  • biology
    • genetics
      • epigenetics
      • genetic engineering
      • inheritance
    • evolution
      • group selection
      • natural selection

The content author could choose any or all of the relevant categories but usually would select at least the lowest (most embedded) category from the hierarchy. Once content is associated with a category, it’s possible for search tools and grouped, sorted, and filtered views to improve the findability of topical content.

The informal method is tagging (also called folksonomy). Authors associate terms with their content in a more ad hoc way. Tags usually display under a web article’s title and in interactive tag clouds like the one on the right side of our site’s pages.

Some taxonomies we could consider:

Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

Who am I: the conscious and unconscious self

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017; 11: 126. Some excerpts:

“In this article we suggest the idea that the processing of self-referential stimuli in cortical midline structures (CMS) may represent an important part of the conscious self, which may be supplemented by an unconscious part of the self that has been called an ’embodied mind’ (Varela et al., 1991), which relies on other brain structures.”

“When we describe the self as structure and organization we understand it as a system. But the concept of the embodied self states that the self or cognition is not an activity of the mind alone, but is distributed across the entire situation including mind, body, environment (e.g., Beer, 1995), thereby pointing to an embodied and situated self.”

“Furthermore, we argue that through embodiment the self is also embedded in the environment. This means that our self is not isolated but intrinsically social. […] Hence, the self should not be understood as an entity located somewhere in the brain, isolated from both the body and the environment. In contrast, the self can be seen as a brain-based neurosocial structure and organization, always linked to the environment (or the social sphere) via embodiment and embeddedness.”

Memes are like cognitive frames

It occurred to me that memes are a lot like frames as Lakoff describes them. Lakoff has done extensive cognitive scientific work on schemas, metaphors and frames. Check out this lengthy article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014; 8: 958, “Mapping the brain’s metaphor circuitry.” Even though they don’t relate this to the concept of memes, there are some striking similarities. E.g.: 

“Reddy had found that the abstract concepts of communication and ideas are understood via a conceptual metaphor: Ideas Are Objects; Language Is a Container for Idea-Objects; Communication Is Sending Idea-Objects in Language-Containers.”