Ego, enforcement costs, and the unitary executive

Preparing the ground

This is the first of a few posts on this topic. Here I ask the motivating question, and review evidence on human (and animal) consciousness that will help to answer it.

Jerry Fodor, with his usual brilliant phrasing of bad ideas, sums up the issue:

If… there is a community of computers living in my head, there had also better be somebody who is in charge; and, by God, it had better be me.
In Critical Condition

More generally, human beings seem to feel that any time there is a population working together, somebody has to be in charge — and it had better be “one of us”.

But this is at best a debatable proposition, and it sometimes has very bad consequences. Furthermore, as I will discuss in subsequent posts, it acts as a barrier to population thinking. Why do we hold to it so strongly, and often (like Fodor) treat it as an axiom in philosophical, social, or political reasoning? And more practically, how can we adopt a more sensible stance?

I believe we can start to answer the first question by looking at the function of consciousness.

Bernard Baars, in his Cognitive Theory of Consciousness proposes a functional account of consciousness: an animal needs to be able to make coherent responses to potential threats or opportunities, and more generally to act as a coherent whole. Uncoordinated behavior is likely to be ineffective or even damaging. Consciousness provides a common frame that multiple sensory-motor systems can use to integrate their responses; most importantly, it helpt the animal to generate appropriate coordinated behavior in novel situations.

Libet’s experiments throw interesting additional light on the role of consciousness. Summarizing somewhat brutally, Libet found that our conscious awareness lags our perceptual stimulation, response, and even voluntary decisions by 200-500 milliseconds (1/5 to 1/2 second). Sometimes responses triggered by conscious awareness can intervene in an ongoing process and stop it, but in other cases the conscious awareness comes too late. We have probably all had the experience of seeing a glass tip over or fall off a table and being unable to get our body to move quickly enough to avert the mess, even though it seemed like there was enough time. The problem, of course, is that “we” (i.e. our conscious awareness) didn’t “get the news” until it was too late to do anything — and our sensory-motor subsystems weren’t ready to respond pre-consciously to that class of event because we weren’t in the right (conscious) “frame of mind” to prepare them.

All of this is consistent with Baar’s hypothesis. If consciousness mainly provides a “frame of mind” that helps (fairly autonomous) subsystems coordinate their activities, then it can still work fine even if it tracks events with some delay. Routine activities can proceed with minimal conscious awareness. Drastic interruptions or significant violations of expectations will generate an orienting response that pushes conscious awareness to the forefront.

This is a good story and may well be true — the empirical jury is still deliberating, though research continues to generate supporting evidence, making a favorable verdict increasingly likely.

But this story doesn’t account for the rhetorical verve and intensity of Fodor’s comment, or more generally our passionate attachment to feelings of comprehensive self-awareness and self-control. Why do we typically, like Fodor, feel uncomfortable with the possibility of being a community of subsystems, often loosely coordinated, with our conscious self acting as an intermittent framing mechanism for their activities? Surely this is a better description of our ordinary experience than vivid, comprehensive internal perception of a luminous self?

I’ll take up these questions in the next post of this series.

Against dogmatism

Sometimes the topics I’m writing about, taken together, seem both too diverse and too abstract. Why care so much whether meaning is defined in typological or population terms, whether social practices really exist, and how to reconcile economics with open source?

On reflection, I’ve realized I care about these topics because they can help to counter a rising tide of dogmatism. But I come to that answer through my personal history.

I grew up in a left-wing household, and my parents, while not Stalinists, were sometimes influenced by Stalinist arguments. On the other hand for us the McCarthy hearings (and related frenzies) were a very real threat. I went to a Friends (Quaker) school, and while Friends are more open than many religions, in my school the ones in charge were just as dogmatic about their core beliefs as members of any other religion. I found all these positions unacceptable as a child (perhaps simply because I was exposed to all of them at once) and I became anti-dogmatic, without realizing that’s what I was.

By high school I was trying to understand how social groups can institutionalize non-dogmatic belief formation. Science appealed to me as intrinsically anti-dogmatic (at least in aspiration). I was fascinated by Popper; his emphasis on refutation and his rejection of confirmation seemed almost perfectly anti-dogmatic.

Over time I discovered that scientific disciplines often had their own dogmas, though not so rigidly protected from discussion as most religious and political ones. I also encountered Kuhn’s work, and realized that Popper’s story, though useful, was an inadequate account of scientific belief formation. Kuhn and Feyeraband seem to show that existing rational stories about belief change could not work, but Kuhn, at least, rejected irrationalism. Continued reading in the philosophy of science gradually clarified the issues, but provided no satisfying resolution.

In the 1970s I pursued AI (Artificial Intelligence) as a testbed for social belief formation and transmission. Unfortunately at that point AI was committed to understanding language by encoding “common sense knowledge” into axioms, and then using these axioms to reason about utterances and situations. These commitments had deep roots in the same traditions that led to Popper. Given what I knew about belief change in the history of science, and the diversity of worldviews in ethnographic studies, I could see this approach was doomed to failure. However given my sense of the depth of these commitments, I saw no point in arguing. Those who saw similar problems, such as Hubert Dreyfus, seemed to counsel abandonment of any work toward explicit models of thought, something I was not willing to accept.

I continued to read in philosophy, history, anthropology, linguistics, AI and related areas, gradually piling up some insights but finding no way to tackle the core problems. Finally, by the late 1980s, the original AI program had obviously failed, degenerating into technology for “expert systems”, and new approaches were able to establish themselves. With the rise of statistical modeling for learning, language understanding, and robotics I began to see ideas that offered some hope of breaking the impasse. Evolutionary epistemology also seemed promising but at the time I did not see it as related to the new ideas in AI.

During this period dogmatic political and social positions, which had never been absent, were gaining strength. The last six years has seemed to me a veritable carnival of rampant dogmatism, attacking science, social diversity, and the values that underpin civil society.

In domains such as health care, environmental policy, biology education, economic policy, etc. various interest groups promoted positions using dogmatic tactics that undercut and often simply eliminated civil discussion and decision making. Sometimes these positions were actually advocated for dogmatic reasons, but often their dogmatic framing was simply a convenient way to gain a social and rhetorical advantage. Furthermore dogmatic attacks tend to beget dogmatic counter-attacks. By flying airplanes into buildings, some people with dogmatic beliefs promoted the dramatic hardening and expansion of other dogmatic positions.

These attacks come at a time when our cultural and intellectual resources for combating dogmatism are relatively weak. The self-confidence of the rational enlightenment project has been shattered by wars and genocide during the twentieth century, and by justifiable criticisms of its ethnocentrism during our transition to a much more multi-cultural world discourse. At the same time (and for reasons that are closely related) we have gradually realized that the enlightenment project depended on deeply flawed rationalist assumptions, for example that our discourse takes place in a common language with universal meanings.

I suspect the problems that stumped me for more than twenty years were problems for me because of this very weakness. After all, my interest in them arose from encounters with political and religious dogmatism, and in my search for alternatives I ran squarely into the failure of rational stories about belief change.

This very long road has convinced me that tools such as population thinking and statistical modeling can play a significant role in solving these problems, and making civil discourse powerful enough to contain and manage dogmatism. Though this connection may seem surprising and even dubious, I believe it is very real, and my posts here are aimed at building a bridge over which ideas from these technical domains can pass into wider use.