Category Archives: fact-based reasoning

Book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly. 

As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below. 

‘Neurosexism’ debated

Neuroscientist Larry Cahill takes issue with a Feb 2019 Nature favorable book review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain.

Cahill’s response prompted an interview by Medium Neuroscience writer Meghan Daum.

Scientific findings have a way of upsetting apple carts, especially when we consider our oft-demonstrated human capacity to bend science to advantage some power-coveting groups over others.

Valid research amply shows there are real differences in male and female neuroanatomy and functions. Honest science must follow the evidence where it leads. Clearly, any discovered differences cannot be allowed to justify unequal social or economic opportunities or treatment. Cahill compares the situation to genetics. That people differ genetically in a vast number of ways cannot be taken as cause to misstate scientific findings or preclude further learning about genetics.

There are times and circumstances in which certain research approaches must be blocked for humane or other reasons but that is a different argument than denying the findings of a body of research because they are uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Thoughts?

Homo deus

Power Valued Over Truth

Dear Ed and All,

“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”

The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.

Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.

Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.

Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.

Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).

An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.

My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.

A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.

A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther.  But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.

Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul

PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).

The evolutionary and present significance of reading

In her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, author Maryanne Wolf explores how reading affects the brain and mind. What different effects result from consuming digital media rather than print media and long forms rather than tweets, posts, and other microcontent? In her excellent recent article, she says,

Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?

Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).

Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).

AI-enabled software creates 3D face from single photo

I wrote on my blog about this development and more generally about the increasing ease with which AI tools can forge convincing media. Go see my creepy 3D face.

Seeing my blindfold

I’ve found some thought-provoking answers on the Q&A social media site, Quora. Follow the link to a perceptive and helpful answer to, “Can a person be able to objectively identify exactly when and how their thinking processes are being affected by cognitive biases?

The author provides some practical (if exhausting) recommendations that, if even partly followed by a third-to-half of people (my guestimate), would possibly collapse the adversarial culture in our country.

The religious brain and atheism

As much of the world settles into the spectacle and cozy embrace of culturally reinforced magical thinking, New Scientist has several interesting recent articles about the evolved intuitive nature of religious thinking as a cognitive by-product (of the value of assuming agency in environmental phenomena, for example) and delving into how atheism is and is not like religious thinking. I find the point interesting that religion and atheism (or any ism), as social constructs, cannot be studied and compared in the same ways that objectively real objects and phenomena can, but we can learn much from systematic approaches to investigating the underlying neurological functions and their probable evolutionary value.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631561-000-effortless-thinking-the-godshaped-hole-in-your-brain/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328562-000-the-god-issue-we-are-all-born-believers/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23431212-800-faith-of-the-faithless-is-atheism-just-another-religion/

If you don’t subscribe, Albuquerque Public Libraries carry New Scientist.

Liberals and conservatives are not equivalently biased

Here is a meta-analysis called “Ideological asymmetries and the essence of political psychology” by John T. Jost, Political Psychology, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2017. This is in part a response to a previous meta-analysis posted on this blog that found both liberal and conservatives equally biased. It’s interesting how liberals, when basing their so-called biases on science and facts, are declared equivalently biased to those whose biases are based on factors other than the foregoing, including authoritarianism and fear responses.  I found that previous article to be biased on finding symmetries to the point of absurdity in the name of so-called ‘fairness.’ This article addresses that in the 2nd quoted paragraph below.

Some excerpts:

“Aggregating across 181 studies involving over 130,000 research participants from 14 different countries, we confirmed that political conservatism was positively associated with intolerance of ambiguity, need for cognitive closure, personal needs for order and structure, cognitive/perceptual rigidity, and dogmatism. In addition, liberalism was positively associated with integrative complexity, uncertainty tolerance, cognitive reflection, and need for cognition” (179).

“I have found that some critics express their objections in moralistic terms—as if there is something uncouth or perhaps even unethical about studying ways in which people on the left and right differ with respect to, say, open-mindedness or sensitivity to threat or prejudice—and that there is something noble about downplaying such differences. Some have even gone so far as to imply that researchers who document ideological asymmetries are ‘biased,’ whereas those who highlight symmetries are not. This is a fallacious form of reasoning, to put it politely. One can just as easily be biased against seeing differences that are truly there as one can be biased in favor of seeing differences that are not there. At the end of the day, any talk of ‘bias’ in the absence of standards for assessing accuracy is utterly incoherent, but, unfortunately, this is how the discourse often proceeds. Matters are made more complicated by the fact that it is part of our job as political psychologists to establish the standards for assessing judgmental accuracy in the first place. […] My own view is that if political psychologists have anything at all to contribute to the development of a good society, and I firmly believe that they do, it is not ‘Swiss-style neutrality'” (194-95).

Real and false reason

Some liberals (and scientists) still think that reason is somehow above and beyond emotion. When I suggest framing in emotional terms they say sure, but that works only for emotional issues as if reason is something beyond emotion. So here’s a reminder from  this Lakoff classic:

“It is a basic principle of false reason that every human being has the same reason governed by logic — and that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion. […] But many liberals, assuming a false view of reason, think that such a [moral, emotional] messaging system for ideas they believe in would be illegitimate — doing the things that the conservatives do that they consider underhanded. Appealing honestly to the way people really think is seen as emotional and hence irrational and immoral. Liberals, clinging to false reason, simply resist paying attention to real reason.”

“Real reason is embodied in two ways. It is physical, in our brain circuitry. And it is based on our bodies as the function in the everyday world, using thought that arises from embodied metaphors. And it is mostly unconscious.  False reason sees reason as fully conscious, as literal, disembodied, yet somehow fitting the world directly, and working not via frame-based, metaphorical, narrative and emotional logic, but via the logic of logicians alone.”

“Real reason is inexplicably tied up with emotion; you cannot be rational without being emotional. False reason thinks that emotion is the enemy of reason,  that it is unscrupulous to call on emotion. Yet people with brain damage who cannot feel emotion cannot make rational decisions because they do not know what to want, since like and not like mean nothing. ‘Rational’ decisions are based on a long history of emotional responses by oneself and others. Real reason requires emotion.”

It takes more than facts

Excellent article by George Monbiot. He’s right to assert that one’s worldview narrative trumps all other considerations, like facts. Such stories organize how we see everything through their lenses. Monbiot notes that the two major narratives of our time are social democracy and neoliberalism. While having different means and goals they both have the same narrative structure:

“Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero – who might be one person or a group of people – revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.”

This notion of a hero has to go; we the people collectively and collaboratively become the initiators and maintainers of the story, not some special class of enlightened ones. We work together to enlighten each other, and it is in that connective interaction where the enlightenment resides, not some special individual achievement.

He explains why we can’t simply go back to the earlier story of social democracy to overcome the current story of neoliberalism. Among other reasons, the earlier story assumes continual economic growth with the same consumer lifestyle, devastating to the environment and more fuel for climate chaos.

So we must create a new story ASAP. This story must be based on our evolutionary capacity for mutual collaboration and aid. It’s one that rejects the narrative told by neoliberalism of  “extreme individualism and competition.” Instead we share ownership and stewardship in community, respecting and honoring each other and the environment.

“We will develop a new economics that treats both people and planet with respect. We will build it around a great, neglected economic sphere: the commons. Local resources will be owned and managed by communities, ensuring that wealth is widely shared. Using common riches to fund universal benefits will supplement state provision, granting everyone security and resilience.”

Monbiot shows how this story has already been taking shape and having positive effects. Sanders’s campaign was one huge water mark. It organized numerous small networks via the internet and got most of its spending money from a large number of small donors. Such tactics were used successfully by Corbin in the UK. The Indivisible Guide grew out of this learning process.

In keeping with Lakoff it’s the Big Picture Story around which everything else revolves. Rifkin would wholehearted agree. The collaborative commons narrative is here to stay, gaining ground by the day. The more we feed it the more it becomes a reality. Keep up the good work citizens.