Hands On

Patricia S. Churchland [4.28.21]

During my first neuroanatomy lecture, the patient presented to us was a former dean of the medical school who had suffered a small brainstem stroke. As he started to identify the stroke location, the former dean suddenly began to sob piteously. Deeply concerned, we waited in utter stillness a long minute until, abruptly, his sobbing stopped. Unbothered by the interlude, he calmly went on to explain that the episode was caused by the stroke—damage to a tiny region of the brainstem which released reflexive crying when triggered by high levels of adrenalin. Conscious control was futile. A not uncommon sequel of a brainstem stroke, the condition is known as pseudobulbar affect. Adding to our bewilderment, he commented, almost as an aside, that throughout the crying episode he had felt no sadness whatever, though he did admit to finding pseudobulbar affect a nuisance. This was the first result in my new neurophilosophical world: The disconnect between despondent behavior and despondent emotions was the sort of event that many philosophers, trusting entirely in their own imagination, said was inconceivable and could not happen. But it did happen, right before our wondering eyes. This was the first of a host of “philosophically impossible” revelations from brain-damaged patients.

PATRICIA S. CHURCHLAND is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her research has centered on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy, with a current focus on the association of morality and the social brain. She is the author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland's Edge Bio Page

Mary Catherine Bateson: Systems Thinker

Mary Catherine Bateson [1.18.21]

Mary Catherine Bateson
1939–2021 

Introduction
by John Brockman

From the early days of Edge, Catherine Bateson was the gift that kept giving. Beginning in 1998, with her response to “What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?” through “The Last Question” in 2018, she exemplified the role of the Third Culture intellectual: “those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Her Edge essays over the years focused on subjects as varied as "ecology and culture," systems thinking, cybernetics, metaphor, gender, climate, schismogenesis (i.e., positive feedback), the nature of side-effects, among others, and are evidence of a keen and fearless intellect determined to advance science-based thinking as well as her own controversial ideas.

She once told me that "It turns out that the Greek religious system is a way of translating what you know about your sisters, and your cousins, and your aunts into knowledge about what’s happening to the weather, the climate, the crops, and international relations, all sorts of things. A metaphor is always a framework for thinking, using knowledge of this to think about that. Religion is an adaptive tool, among other things. It is a form of analogic thinking."

"We carry an analog machine around with us all the time called our body," she said. "It’s got all these different organs that interact; they’re interdependent. If one of them goes out of kilter, the others go out of kilter, eventually. This is true in society. This is how disease spreads through a community, because everything is connected."

She used methods from systems theory to explore "how people think about complex wholes like the ecology of the planet, or the climate, or large populations of human beings that have evolved for many years in separate locations and are now re-integrating.” 

"Until fairly recently," she noted, "artificial intelligence didn’t learn. To create a machine that learns to think more efficiently was a big challenge. One of the things that I wonder about is how we'll be able to teach a machine to know what it doesn’t know that it might need to know in order to address a particular issue productively and insightfully. This is a huge problem for human beings. It takes a while for us to learn to solve problems, and then it takes even longer for us to realize what we don’t know that we would need to know to solve a particular problem."

Mary Catherine Bateson was present at ground zero of the cybernetic revolution, the home of her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.

As a child, I had the early conversations of the cybernetic revolution going on around me. I can look at examples and realize that when one of my parents was trying to teach me something, it was directly connected with what they were doing and thinking about in the context of cybernetics.

One of my favorite memories of my childhood was my father helping me set up an aquarium. In retrospect, I understand that he was teaching me to think about a community of organisms and their interactions, interdependence, and the issue of keeping them in balance so that it would be a healthy community. That was just at the beginning of our looking at the natural world in terms of ecology and balance. Rather than itemizing what was there, I was learning to look at the relationships and not just separate things.

Bless his heart, he didn’t tell me he was teaching me about cybernetics. I think I would have walked out on him. Another way to say it is that he was teaching me to think about systems. Gregory coined the term "schismogenesis" in 1936, from observing the culture of a New Guinea tribe, the Iatmul, in which there was a lot of what he called schismogenesis. Schismogenesis is now called "positive feedback"; it’s what happens in an arms race. You have a point of friction, where you feel threatened by, say, another nation. So, you get a few more tanks. They look at that and say, "They’re arming against us," and they get a lot more tanks. Then you get more tanks. And they get more tanks or airplanes or bombs, or whatever it is. That’s positive feedback.

At the beginning of the war, my parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, had very recently met and married. They met Lawrence K. Frank, who was an executive of the Macy Foundation. As a result of that, both of them were involved in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, which continued then for twenty years. They still quote my mother constantly in talking about second-order cybernetics: the cybernetics of cybernetics. They refer to Gregory as well, though he was more interested in cybernetics as abstract analytical techniques. My mother was more interested in how we could apply this to human relations.

My parents looked at the cybernetics conferences rather differently. My mother, who initially posed the concept of the cybernetics of cybernetics, second-order cybernetics, came out of the anthropological approach to participant observation: How can you do something and observe yourself doing it? She was saying, "Okay, you’re inventing a science of cybernetics, but are you looking at your process of inventing it, your process of publishing, and explaining, and interpreting?" One of the problems in the United States has been that pieces of cybernetics have exploded into tremendous economic activity in all of computer science, but much of the systems theory side of cybernetics has been sort of a stepchild. I firmly believe that it is the systems thinking that is critical.

At the point where she said, "You guys need to look at what you’re doing. What is the cybernetics of cybernetics?" what she was saying was, "Stop and look at your own process and understand it." Eventually, I suppose you do run into the infinite recursion problem, but I guess you get used to that.

How do you know that you know what you know? When I think about the excitement of those early years of the cybernetic conferences, there have been several losses. One is that the explosion of devices and manufacturing and the huge economic effect of computer technology has overshadowed the epistemological curiosity on which it was built, of how we know what we know, and how that affects decision making.

She expressed concern that one her favorite topics, "ecology and culture," was "most commonly taught in terms of the way a given environment determines the possible cultural patterns that human societies develop to adapt to that environment, sometimes also in terms of the impact of a given human community. What I was mainly focusing on, however, came out of work that I'd done with my father, namely the relationship between the ideas, the beliefs, the understandings, and so on, of a group of people, and the way they impact their environment."

Bateson was a prolific author who wrote seven books, co-authored two, and recently completed a new book, Love Across Difference, scheduled for publication in 2022. Her writing is notable for the way in which she purged abstractions from her books to make way for stories, almost always focused on women, and who were often not known to the public. This allowed her stories to carry the kernel of the ideas. "And in the process" she said, "the ideas become more nuanced, less cut and dried." 

"Famous people are interesting," she said, "but there's a kind of a distancing phenomenon there. I'm interested in the creativity that we all put into our lives. Picasso's life story is not empowering to the creativity of ordinary people. What is empowering is looking at someone that they can identify with. And becoming aware of what they're already doing."

Given her interest in storytelling, I once asked her "what's the purpose of asking people to make that jump, instead of directly addressing the more general questions?"

"People learn from stories in a different way than the way they learn from generalities," she replied. "When I'm writing, I often start out with abstractions and academic jargon and purge it. The red pencil goes through page after page while I try to make sure that the stories and examples remain to carry the kernel of the ideas, and in the process the ideas become more nuanced, less cut and dried. Sometimes reviewers seem to want the abstractions back, but I figure that if they were able to recognize what's being said, it didn't have to be spelled out or dressed up in pretentious technical language."

"I am concerned about the state of the world," she told me the last time we sat down together in 2018. 

One of the things that we’re all seeing is that a lot of work that has been done to enable international cooperation in dealing with various problems since World War II is being pulled apart. We’re seeing the progress we thought had been made in this country in race relations being reversed. We’re seeing the partial breakup—we don’t know how far that will go—of a united Europe. We’re moving ourselves back several centuries in terms of thinking about what it is to be human, what it is to share the same planet, how we’re going to interact and communicate with each other. We’re going to be starting from scratch pretty soon.

One of the most essential elements of human wisdom at its best is humility, knowing that you don’t know everything," she said. There’s a sense in which we haven’t learned how to build humility into our interactions with our devices. The computer doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and it's willing to make projections when it hasn’t been provided with everything that would be relevant to those projections. How do we get there? I don’t know. It’s important to be aware of it, to realize that there are limits to what we can do with AI. It’s great for computation and arithmetic, and it saves huge amounts of labor. It seems to me that it lacks humility, lacks imagination, and lacks humor. It doesn’t mean you can’t bring those things into your interactions with your devices, particularly, in communicating with other human beings. But it does mean that elements of intelligence and wisdom—I like the word wisdom, because it's more multi-dimensional—are going to be lacking.  

In this special edition of Edge, we honor the memory of Mary Catherine Bateson by taking a deep dive into her ideas through her conversations, her essays, and her responses over a twenty year period to the Edge Annual Question. Read on at the link below. Mary Catherine Bateson's Edge Bio

—JB
    Editor, Edge

Shame Can Lead to Real Change Right Now

Jennifer Jacquet [1.13.21]

 


© Hannah McKay / Reuters

Jennifer Jacquet:

"Shame can lead to real change right now"

Many Americans publicly express their shame about the events at the Capitol. Researcher Jennifer Jacquet explains why this feeling can advance the country. Interview: Carla Baum

JANUARY 13, 2021

After the storm on the Capitol, ex-President Barack Obama spoke of a "moment of great shame and embarrassment for our country". Such confessions are not uncommon in the USA: after Donald Trump's election in 2016, many Americans admitted that they were ashamed. And when Trump refused to acknowledge his electoral defeat in November, winner Joe Biden spoke of "an embarrassment". What is it about shame in the face of one's own country? American Jennifer Jacquet, a professor at NYU, has been researching punishment, guilt and shame for years.

ZEITmagazin ONLINE: Many Americans are expressing their shame about the storm on the Capitol these days. How did you feel when you saw the pictures?

Jennifer Jacquet: I was ashamed too. Especially when a friend from Sweden called to talk to me about what was going on. Because there is a change of perspective. You take another's view of your country. Hence the feelings of shame and embarrassment. I'm really worried about what happened. Last night I woke up four times and thought about it.


Jacquet, born in 1980, is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences at New York University (NYU). There she researches the social functions of punishment, shame and guilt. In 2015 her book "Shame: The political power of an underestimated feeling" (Fischer) was published. 

A Very Bumpy Ride

Life in the Time of COVID, Part 2 Larry Brilliant, MD [12.7.20]

[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I called on Larry Brilliant, a leading epidemiologist and pandemic expert with unique experience and expertise, to ask him to talk about how we could begin to think about COVID-19 and what was in store for us. Now, eight months later, in this Thanksgiving Day talk, he provides an update from the field. —JB]

We need to have a strong WHO, a strong United Nations, a strong global alliance for vaccines and immunizations (GAVI), a strong Global Fund, and all these different organelles that make it possible for us to deal with global threats. I would extend it a little bit out of my lane to say we need desperately to deal with climate change, nuclear proliferation, drought, and famine. But in the area that I know, we can't stop a pandemic without having global collaboration. We have failed to learn the lessons of Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Korea, New Zealand, Iceland—the countries that have done really well—because we don't have a strong way to take the best lessons from the success stories in dealing with this pandemic and globalizing them. This is because we deal with disinformation, and because we hold up the Swedish example even though it wasn't a good example of how to deal with the pandemic, and because we don't have a love of science in the leadership of the world, and because we don't talk to each other in the way that we need to.

Epidemiologist and pandemic expert LARRY BRILLIANT, MD, is on the advisory board for Ending Pandemics. He is also on the board of the Skoll Foundation and was the founding executive director of Google's non-profit organization. Dr. Brilliant lived in India for more than a decade while working as a United Nations medical officer, where, in 1971, he helped run the successful World Health Organization (WHO) smallpox eradication program in South Asia. He also worked for the WHO polio eradication effort and chaired the National Bio-Surveillance Advisory Subcommittee, created by President George W. Bush. He has won the TED Prize, TIME 100, and many honorary doctorates and is the author of Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventures of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History. Larry Brilliant, MD, Edge Bio Page 

THE REALITY CLUB: Jennifer JacquetFrancesca Vidotto, Daniel Kahneman, Lee Smolin, Nick Bostrom, Jesse Dylan, John BrockmanCarlo Rovelli, Jacob Burda

The Shifting Terrain of Scientific Inquiry

David Kaiser [7.13.20]

Most historians of science, certainly these days, consider themselves historians. That means we use historical methods of research. We comb through the published literature, investigate unpublished things—correspondence, notes, notebooks, grant proposals. For more recent periods, we interview people. (There's a colleague of mine who likes to say that the historian's job is reading dead people's mail, which captures a lot of what we try to do.) We are trying to figure out the texture of lived experience and how that informed the people about whose world we're trying to get our heads back into. On one hand, it is an interpretive effort squarely within the humanities and social sciences to make sense of our world in times and places gone by. With the history of science, we get to have this productive, ongoing discussion with much more contemporary events and efforts in the sciences today. Why do certain ideas take hold and become so prominent? Why do certain questions rise to prominence and get asked in one setting versus another? These are the larger questions about the present-day scientific enterprise that a lot of work in the history of science can help us better understand.

DAVID KAISER is the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics at MIT. He is the author, most recently, of Quantum LegaciesDavid Kaiser's Edge Bio Page

Interrogating and Shaping the World Through Science

Ainissa Ramirez [6.25.20]

What I noticed over the years is that people were starting to see science as entertainment and not as a tool or a lens to understand the world. The thing that scientists do is ask great questions. We need people who can interrogate and probe the world so they can develop their muscle of being critical thinkers. I saw that missing. I thought that I was becoming part of the problem of just showing science's entertainment with great demonstrations. I was hooking them, but I wasn't doing the next step, which is to say, “This is the enterprise of science; it's a great way to understand the world, and with it you can shape the world.” 

I've spent a lot of my energy recently thinking about how to get science to resonate with people, to make people who usually feel excluded feel included. I thought one of the best ways to do that was with stories. I like to tell a lot of stories and share the impact of materials. The reason I've taken this approach is that there are many books about technology and science that profile information and lather people with lots of details. But what I've learned in my journey is that stories are stickier. They allow people to be part of the journey, and then you just pepper in the science. You don't have to wallop people with science.

AINISSA RAMIREZ is a materials scientist and science communicator. She is the author, most recently, of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One AnotherAinissa Ramirez's Edge Bio Page

Computation All the Way Down

Stephen Wolfram [6.19.20]

We're now in this situation where people just assume that science can compute everything, that if we have all the right input data and we have the right models, science will figure it out. If we learn that our universe is fundamentally computational, that throws us right into the idea that computation is a paradigm you have to care about. The big transition was from using equations to describe how everything works to using programs and computation to describe how things work. And that's a transition that has happened after 300 years of equations. The transition time to using programs has been remarkably quick, a decade or two. One area that was a holdout, despite the transition of many fields of science into the computational models direction, was fundamental physics.

If we can firmly establish this fundamental theory of physics, we know it's computation all the way down. Once we know it's computation all the way down, we're forced to think about it computationally. One of the consequences of thinking about things computationally is this phenomenon of computational irreducibility. You can't get around it. That means we have always had the point of view that science will eventually figure out everything, but computational irreducibility says that can't work. It says that even if we know the rules for the system, it may be the case that we can't work out what that system will do any more efficiently than basically just running the system and seeing what happens, just doing the experiment so to speak. We can't have a predictive theoretical science of what's going to happen.

STEPHEN WOLFRAM is a scientist, inventor, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. He is the creator of the symbolic computation program Mathematica and its programming language, Wolfram Language, as well as the knowledge engine Wolfram|Alpha. His most recent endeavor is The Wolfram Physics Project. He is also the author, most recently, of A Project to Find the Fundamental Theory of Physics. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page

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