Category Archives: gender

2020-06-06 Check-in topics

Here are some of the topic references Scott, Paul, Edward, and Mark discussed during today’s check-in. If these provoke any thoughts, please feel free to reply by comment below this article or by reply to all from the associated email message from Cogniphile.

Socio-economic and political:

  • Alternate social and economic system – https://centerforpartnership.org/the-partnership-system/
  • Dark Horse podcast (Weinstein) ep. 19 on co-presidency idea
  • How could a shift to voting on issues rather than representatives work? What are the potential challenges? How could it be better? (There’s not a lot of easily discoverable analysis on this.)
  • Perspective: Despite our challenges and structural societal issues, most people in the U.S. enjoy more security—i.e., most Americans don’t need to worry about being violently attacked or starving to death. I think we agreed on this general point. It in no way lessens the obvious needs for systemic improvements.

    I add an after note, however, that a succession of unfortunate events, especially if medical issues and their crippling expenses are involved, can quickly deplete the average American’s finances and put them on the streets. A homeless person’s capacity to be resourceful literally includes their ability to carry and protect resources which become much more difficult to retain due to space in a car (or backpack) and increased exposure to crime. Social stigma becomes self-reinforcing to the homeless person and we who encounter them. Nearly all doors close. ‘Structural invisibility’ results—’society’ just stops seeing them (or can only see them as choosing or deserving their situations) and predators take society’s disregard as open season on the homeless.

    So, while it is true the threshold of personal disaster is farther from the average American than from the average, say, Zimbabwean or Eritrean, once an American crosses that threshold it can certainly be a devastating and nearly intractable circumstance. There are many trap doors leading down and few ladders leading back up. Thoughts?

Entertainment we’ve enjoyed recently:

  • Edward: Killing Eve – Bored British intelligence agent, Eve, is overly interested in female assassins, their psychologies and their methods of killing. She is recruited by a secret division within MI6 chasing an international assassin who calls herself Villanelle. Eve crosses paths with Villanelle and discovers that members within both of their secret circles may be more interconnected than she is comfortable with. Both women begin to focus less on their initial missions in order to desperately learn more about the other.
  • Mark: Devs (FX network sci-fi thriller series) – Atmospherically dark and brooding exploration of the implications of a quantum computing system capable of peering into past and future. Also a meditation on two competing physics theories, deterministic and indeterministic (Copenhagen interpretation – aka, ‘many worlds,’ ‘multiple universes’). From a genre perspective, it is a thriller.
  • Scott: After Life (Ricky Gervais) – follows Tony, whose life is turned upside down after his wife dies from breast cancer. He contemplates suicide, but instead decides to live long enough to punish the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever he wants.
  • Paul: Exhalation (book of short sci-fi stories) Ted Chiang

    Mark would like to base a few future discussions on the following stories:
    • The Lifecycle of Software Objects “follows Ana Alvarado over a twenty-year period, during which she “raises” an artificial intelligence from being essentially a digital pet to a human-equivalent mind.”
    • The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling – A study in memory and meaning told from interwoven future and past stories. “a journalist observes how the world, his daughter, and he himself are affected by ‘Remem’, a form of lifelogging whose advanced search algorithms effectively grant its users eidetic memory of everything that ever happened to them, and the ability to perfectly and objectively share those memories. In a parallel narrative strand, a Tiv [African tribal] man is one of the first of his people to learn to read and write, and discovers that this may not be compatible with oral tradition.” (Wikipedia)
    • The Great Silence – Mutimedia collaboration version here. An earthbound alien wonders about humanity’s fascination with missing space aliens and lack of interest of intelligences among us.
    • Omphalos – On an Earth on which science has long-since proven the planet is precisely as old as the bible states, an anthropologist following the trail of a fake artifact stumbles onto a shattering discovery.
    • Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom (title is a Kirkegaard quote) – “the ability to glimpse into alternate universes necessitates a radically new examination of the concepts of choice and free will.” (SFWA)

  • Scott: Who are some of your favorite fiction authors?

     

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Analysis of inept interviewer raises several interesting questions

Misleading and sensationalist news personalities have ceased to be noteworthy. They are the norm in American mainstream media. Interviewers strive to oversimplify and shape guests’ messages–tactics interviewees who are good communicators can cast in sharp relief. Experts tend to present information in systemic, relational, and process terms no longer welcome in or compatible with the aims of popular media outlets.

A fascinating article in The Atlantic not only surfaces these tactics (which may have become habits more than deliberate interviewing methods) but highlights the challenge any expert or systems thinker faces when attempting to convey concepts of any complexity or nuance.

I also found the interviewee’s (a sociologist) points very interesting in themselves. For example,

Peterson (expert): There’s this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy. And that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. I use the lobster as an example: We diverged from lobsters evolutionarily history about 350 million years ago. And lobsters exist in hierarchies. They have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy. And that nervous system runs on serotonin just like ours. The nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.

Newman (journalist): Let me get this straight. You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?

It would be funny as an SNL skit, but as a supposed demonstration of professional journalism, it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs.

More in line with this group’s focus is Peterson’s point on the evolutionary reality of the hierarchical organization of species, including humans. Of course, this was not a moral or political statement, but a reference to neurochemical bases for perceptions and behaviors.

I appreciate that in our discussions we can press into more nuanced conceptual territories than Ms. Newman was willing to allow Dr. Peterson.

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming and subliminal stimuli (effects on later behavior)
  • incremental theory – “The Dark Side of Malleability”
  • creative flow as a unique cognitive process
  • Eastern philosophies and psychology – a psychology of self-cultivation
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity (discussed October 2017)
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain
  • neurocognitive bases of racism

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to cogniphile@albuquirky.net and Mark will post your changes.