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—Denis Dutton, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters Daily
[ED NOTE: It’s summer and a good time to reflect on twenty years of Edge. Each week through the rest of the season, we will revisit five highlights from the Edge archives worthy of your time and attention. —JB]
I hope that it will be a good thing when we understand how our minds are built, and how they support the modes of thought that we like to call emotions. Then we'll be better able to decide what we like about them, and what we don't—and bit by bit we'll rebuild ourselves. I don't think that most people will bother with this, because they like themselves just as they are. Perhaps they are not selfish enough, or imaginative, or ambitious. Myself, I don't much like how people are now. We're too shallow, slow, and ignorant. I hope that our future will lead us to ideas that we can use to improve ourselves. …
I have always envied Alexander the Great, because he had Aristotle as a personal tutor. In those days, Aristotle knew pretty much everything there was to know. Even better, Aristotle understood the mind of Alexander. He understood which topics interested Alexander, what Alexander knew and did not know, and what kinds of explanations Alexander preferred. Aristotle had been a student of Plato, and he was himself a great teacher. We know from his writings that he was full of examples, explanations, arguments, and stories. Through Aristotle, Alexander had the knowledge of the world at his command. ...
While engaged in the mathematical endeavor, we simply jump, hardly ever asking "why" or "how." It is the only way we know of grappling with the mathematical problem that we are out to understand, to articulate as a question and to answer by a theorem or a whole theory. What drives our curiosity is a question for psychologists. Only after the jump has landed us on a viable branch can the labor of proving the theorem or constructing a coherent theory set in. The record of the end result, usually a presentation at a conference, a paper in a learned journal or a chapter in a book, is laid out in a sequence of rational deductions from clearly stated premises and rarely conveys the process by which it has been arrived at. ...
As I look through the structure of the words and the structure of the sentences, it just becomes clear that they don't have recursion. If recursion is what Chomsky and Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch have called "the essential property of language," the essential building block—in fact they've gone so far as to claim that that might be all there really is to human language that makes it different from other kinds of systems—then, the fact that recursion is absent in a language—Pirahã—means that this language is fundamentally different from their predictions. …
I started out doing artificial intelligence, basically trying to study intelligence and intelligent behavior by synthesizing intelligent machines. I realized that what I've been doing in the last seven years could better be referred to as intelligence augmentation, so it's IA as opposed to AI. I'm not trying to understand intelligence and build this stand-alone intelligent machine that is as intelligent as a human and that hopefully teaches us something about how intelligence in humans may work; instead what I'm doing is building integrated forms of man and machine, and even multiple men and multiple machines, that have as a result that one individual can be super-intelligent. So it's more about making people more intelligent and allowing people to be able to deal with more stuff, more problems, more tasks, more information. Rather than copying ourselves, I'm building machines that can do that. ...
What we're trying to do in behavioral genetics and medical genetics is explain differences. It's important to know that we all share approximately 99 percent of our DNA sequence. If we sequence, as we can now readily do, all of our 3 billion base pairs of DNA, we will be the same at over 99 percent of all those bases. That's what makes us similar to each other. It makes us similar to chimps and most mammals. We're over 90 percent similar to all mammals. There's a lot of genetic similarity that's important from an evolutionary perspective, but it can't explain why we're different. That's what we're up to, trying to explain why some children are reading disabled, or some people become schizophrenic, or why some people suffer from alcoholism, et cetera. We're always talking about differences. The only genetics that makes a difference is that 1 percent of the 3 billion base pairs. But that is over 10 million base pairs of DNA. We're looking at these differences and asking to what extent they cause the differences that we observe.
ROBERT PLOMIN is a professor of behavioral genetics at King's College London and deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. Robert Plomin's Edge Bio Page
DANIEL KAHNEMAN: The benefit that people get from taking a deontological position is that they look more trustworthy. Let's look at the other side of this. If I take a consequentialist position, it means that you can't trust me because, under some circumstances, I might decide to break the rule in my interaction with you. I was puzzled when I was looking at this. What is the essence of what is going on here? Is it deontology or trustworthiness? It doesn't seem to be the same to say we are wired to like people who take a deontological position, or we are wired to like people who are trustworthy. Which of these two is it?
MOLLY CROCKETT: What the work suggests is that we infer how trustworthy someone is going to be by observing the kinds of judgments and decisions that they make. If I'm interacting with you, I can't get inside your head. I don't know what your utility function looks like. But I can infer what that utility function is by the things that you say and do.
This is one of the most important things that we do as humans. I've become increasingly interested in how we build mental models of other people's preferences and beliefs and how we make inferences about what those are, based on observables. We infer how trustworthy someone is going to be based on their condemnation of wrongdoing and their advocating a hard-and-fast morality over one that's more flexible.
MOLLY CROCKETT is an associate professor of experimental psychology, fellow of Jesus College, and distinguished research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, University of Oxford. Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page
DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page
We know that in the physical ecosystem biodiversity is healthy and important. People can buy into that. We know that biodiversity fosters resistance to pathogens and invasive species. When you explain to someone that the human mind may not be so different, that it's important to have a diverse array of emotions—joy, sadness, love, admiration, guilt—and that these are all important pieces of our internal human emotional ecosystem, people can understand that. People appreciate that diversity is important, that maybe it's some sort of spice of mental life.
When you frame it that way, people are more readily able to not put such a premium on positive emotions and, in some situations, try to foster other kinds of experiences if they think it's part of a more diverse psychological life and repertoire. Framing it less as pushing positive emotions down, but as letting all emotions grow and thrive. They're all important sources of information for us and we have them for a reason. We have evolutionary goals; people can understand that. That's one way we've been thinking about trying to frame this. You don't just want to grow one kind of plant in your garden, you want to have a diverse array.
THE REALITY CLUB: Robert Provine
I went for dinner with a friend who spent the whole of the evening complaining about her job, her boss, her colleagues, and her commute. Everything about her day-to-day experiences was miserable. Then, at the end of dinner, she said, "I love where I work." That's quite common. She was working for an organization where she'd always wanted to work, her parents were proud, her friends were jealous. How could she not be happy when she thought about the story of how happy she was where she was working? Her experiences—day-to-day and moment-to-moment—were telling her something quite different.
I'm interested in where these narratives come from, particularly those narratives that sometimes get in the way of us being happier. There's been a lot of psychological research on how stories are helpful for us; for example, in the case of experiencing adversity or trauma. If we look for explanation and reason through narrative, it helps us cope with the adverse consequences. There's been a lot of work on that. I'm interested more in the social constructions of the stories, in the things that evolution, society, our parents, or historical accident tell us about the lives that we ought to be leading, and in particular, how they might sometimes get in the way of us experiencing better lives.
PAUL DOLAN is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Happiness by Design. Paul Dolan's Edge Bio Page
THE REALITY CLUB: Elaine Pagels
What we need to do in artificial intelligence is turn back to psychology. Brute force is great; we're using it in a lot of ways, like speech recognition, license plate recognition, and for categorization, but there are still some things that people do a lot better. We should be studying human beings to understand how they do it better.
People are still much better at understanding sentences, paragraphs, books, and discourse where there's connected prose. It's one thing to do a keyword search. You can find any sentence you want that's out there on the web by just having the right keywords, but if you want a system that could summarize an article for you in a way that you trust, we're nowhere near that. The closest thing we have to that might be Google Translate, which can translate your news story into another language, but not at a level that you trust. Again, trust is a big part of it. You would never put a legal document into Google Translate and think that the answer is correct.
GARY MARCUS is CEO and founder, Geometric Intelligence; professor of psychology, New York University; author, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Gary Marcus's Edge Bio Page
DANIEL KAHNEMAN: We're at the nub of the question. You come from philosophy, so there are certain things that are of interest to you. You want to convey two things at once: that the question is exciting, and that you have something new to say about it. It is true that I, as a psychologist, would come to the same question and conclude that it's an impossible question. Those are two impossible questions, and I certainly would not expect people to answer them in any way that is coherent.
My first assumption, coming to it as a psychologist, is that there is no coherence. You agree with me that there is no coherence. What makes it exciting from the point of view of philosophy is that there is no coherence. Whereas, as a psychologist, I take it for granted that there is no coherence, so it's less exciting. That could be one of the differences.
JOSHUA KNOBE: That's really helpful. The thing we showed is not just that it is incoherent but along which dimension it is incoherent. It seems like there was evidence already that there's something pulling us towards one side and something pulling us to the other side, and we want to know which thing is pulling us towards one side or the other. We suggested that it's this difference between abstract thinking and concrete thinking....
JOSHUA KNOBE is an experimental philosopher and professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. Joshua Knobe's Edge Bio Page
DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page