"WHAT IS YOUR QUESTION? ... WHY?"

2002


"Will cognitive science change the way we think as much as other sciences have?"

Physical science has changed how we think. Those with a basic education no longer think of sun revolving around the earth, or of matter as made up of earth, air, fire, and water. The germ theory of disease is well known, as is DNA.

Cognitive science is newer and it is not yet well-known, even among prominent scientists, and the corner of cognitive science I work in — cognitive linguistics — is even less well-known. Yet its results are just as startling and it has just as much capacity for changing how we think.

As I read through the questions posed by my distinguished colleagues from other disciplines, I realized that the very questions they posed look very different to me as a cognitive linguist than they would to most very well educated Edge readers. It occurred to me that simply commenting on their questions from the perspective of a cognitive linguist would provide some idea of how the world might look different to someone who is acutely aware of the finding of cognitive science, especially cognitive linguistics.

With the greatest of respect for my colleagues who raised the following questions, here is one cognitive scientist's perspective on those questions, given the findings in my discipline.

Todd Feinberg asks: "What is the relationship between being alive and having a mind?"

The mind is embodied, with particular concepts "computed" by highly specialized neural circuitry that is part of the brain and connected to the body, especially the sensory-motor system and the emotional system. As Antonio Damasio has repeatedly observed, rationality is impossible without emotions, that is, without the appropriate activation of the brains emotional centers.

Here are some examples of the ways that conceptual thought depends on the peculiarities of the body and brain: Spatial relations concepts arise from structures in the visual system like topographic maps and orientation-sensitive cells. The way we structure events appears to arise from neural schemas for motor control and perception in the prefrontal cortex. Abstract reasoning makes use of embodied reasoning via metaphoric projections from the sensory motor system to higher cortex. Our vast system of primary conceptual metaphors appears to develop spontaneously during childhood because just about all children have certain recurrent experiences in the world.

In short, without a body with a brain functioning in the world, there are no concepts and there is no mind. Computers don't think. They don't understand. They just compute.

David Myers: "Why do we fear the wrong things?"

Because we all have conceptual systems that make use of prototypes, conceptual frames, and conceptual metaphors, which operate below the level of consciousness. These are neither literal, nor even consistent with each other. Yet we understand the world in terms of those conceptual structures. It is inevitable that human beings (scientists included) will tend to act in terms of their natural cognitive structures, which they use automatically and unconsciously, rather than in terms of scientific rationality, which requires both training and conscious effort.

Timothy Taylor asks: "Is morality relative or absolute?"

Neither. Human moral systems are not absolute, but not unrestrictedly relative either. There is a relatively small set (about two dozen) of metaphors for morality found around the world, and these, together with traditional models of the family, give rise to a limited range of moral systems. The ethics of care (which I "nurturant morality" in Moral Politics) is, so far as I have been able to determine, the system best suited to human flourishing. In short, I agree with Taylor about the ethics of care

David Deutsch asks : "How are moral assertions connected with the world of facts?"

Certain moral systems are inconsistent with what is known from cognitive science. For example, strict father morality, which requires absolute moral strictures and an absolute moral authority, simply is out of synch with how the mind works. This is a case where an 'ought' can arise from an 'is.'

Douglas Rushkoff: "Are stories the only way we have of interpreting our world — meaning that the forging of a collective set of mutually tolerant narratives is the only route to a global civilization?"

In a word, yes. Interestingly enough, the kinds of stories that defined civilizations seem rather restricted in character, as do the kinds of stories that define what a possible "history" is. It is, of course, an open question as to whether a "global civilization" is possible, or even desirable. Diversity is a crucial value.

Jordan Pollack asks: "Is there Progress?"

What constitutes "progress" depends on your conceptual system, especially your moral system. I happen to agree with Pollack that the Bush administration is morally regressive and that things have gotten much worse in the past year, especially since September 11. But that is because I (and probably Pollack) accept nurturant morality. If you see the world in terms of strict father morality, as George W. Bush does, then from the perspective, there has been "progress."

There is of course a difference between scientific progress and human progress. As Bill Joy has observed, there is some scientific "progress" that represents a huge backward step.

Lance Knobel asks: ""Do we want to live in one world, or two?"

John Markoff asks: "Can wealth be distributed?"

Cognitive science is important here, because of certain myths arising from moral conceptual systems, conceptual framing, and economic metaphors. Here's what those myths are and how they work:

The Market Myth: The market is seen metaphorically as a force of nature that works optimally and that is it "unnatural" and dangerous to "tinker with." It follows that, if the market determines the value of your labor, that is "natural," "fair," and a consequence of an optimal system.

This metaphor is disastrously at odd with how markets actually work. Markets are constructed; for example, it took more than 900 pages of regulations to build and constrain the global market of the WTO. The stock market is constructed and maintained by the SEC and other institutions.

Moral Self-Interest: Strict father morality has a moral version of Adam Smith's invisible hand metaphor: If everyone pursues his own well-being, then the well being of all will be maximized. This has the corollary: Being a "go-gooder" (not pursuing your own self-interest) screws up the system.

The Bootstrap Myth: In American, everyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps — succeed if he works hard enough.

These myths work in concert in a disastrous way. In the U.S., about one-quarter of the population (roughly, those without health care) performs difficult and absolutely essential work that, because of the structure of the economy, they cannot be paid fairly for — caring for children and the elderly, house cleaning, picking fruits and vegetables, working in fast-food joints, doing day labor, and on and on. Without them, our economy could not function. These workers make possible the lifestyles of the upper three-quarters of the population. Yet, for the most part, the economy is such that their employers cannot afford to pay them a wage commensurate with their contribution to the economy.

The result is what I call the "two-tier economy."

Though any one person might be able to pull himself up by his bootstraps, one-quarter of the economy cannot. For this society to run, some quarter of the population has to do work that cannot be paid commensurate with its value to the economy.

This is actually a failure of the way our economy is set up. Since lower-tier workers effectively work to keep the economy going, they should be paid by the economy as a whole — via the way markets are commonly constructed and tweaked, via the tax code. Provide for a negative income tax. The money is there in the economy.

Why doesn't this happen? Partly because of the greed and power of the wealthy. But also because of the three myths given above. They hide the nature of the problem and its solution.

Globally, of course, the situation is much worse. Our current regulations constructing the global marketplace are unethical. An ethical globalization — one based on an ethics of care —is needed.

Karl Sabbagh asks: "Would an extra-terrestrial civilization develop the same mathematics as ours? If not, how could theirs possibly be different?"

When one looks at the details of what is needed biologically to form a human conceptual system, it turns out to be an awful lot of very special biological structure that evolved via a very, very long sequence of biological accidents. So many that, despite the vastness of the universe, the probability that another enormously long sequence of biological accidents would produce anything like the intelligence we know is virtually null. There are no extra-terrestrial civilizations.

Mathematics especially shows a dependence on the details of human bodies and brains, as Núñez and I show in Where Mathematics Comes From. Number arises from very special neural circuitry. Advanced mathematical ideas arise from a long series of interlocking conceptual metaphors. The most important of these is what we refer to as the Basic Metaphor of Infinity, which allows one to use finite experience to metaphorically characterize the idea of actual infinity — which stands outside the experience of finite beings. A vast portion of modern mathematics depends on this metaphor.

Margaret Wertheim: "How can we understand the fact that such complex and precise mathematical relations inhere in nature?"

They don't inhere in nature.

Mathematics makes use of the same conceptual apparatus used by the human mind generally, which allows for mathematical ideas — ideas grounded in our bodies and that mostly make use of metaphor. Mathematical ideas, like other ideas, don't go floating around in the air. Those ideas arise from human brains that evolved to run human bodies and don't exist outside those brains.

The neural capacity to link ideas to symbols is central to mathematics. Computation is made possible by neural mappings that link mathematical ideas to their symbolizations, in such a way that conceptual inferences can be mirrored by symbolic computations.

Scientists are astute observers of nature. They use their conceptual systems to understand nature and to classify natural phenomena and to reason about them. Science uses ideas like change, size, proportion, inversion, and so on. Mathematics uses the same ideas, mapped precisely onto symbolizations. Thus, there are physical phenomena that change in inverse proportion to their size and there is a mathematics that expresses the same ideas with accompanying computations. The correlation between the mathematics and the world occurs in the mind of the scientist, because scientists understand the world in terms of ideas, and those very ideas either occur in the conceptual system of existing mathematics or scientists make up a new mathematics to mathematicize those ideas.

Paul Bloom: "How will people think about the soul?"

David Gelertner: "Why is religion so important to most Americans and so trivial to most intellectuals?"

John Horgan: "Do we want the God machine?"

Religion has many aspects — at least the following, which cognitive science has something to say about:

• The Metaphorical Aspect: There are three basic classes of metaphors for God that arise naturally.

First, the personification metaphors, centering on God as Parent, typically a father. Eve Sweetser has observed that if you take the properties of the father (progenitor, authority figure, powerful person, protector, he loves you, etc.), you get the other commonplace metaphors for God (creator, lawgiver, king or lord, shepherd, lover, and so on).

Second, the same basic metaphor of infinity that underlies actual infinity in mathematics characterizes God as infinite: all-knowing, all-powerful, first cause, the highest good.

Third, the immanence metaphor: God is the world. (Do not say God is not in the stone; God is in the stone!) Most traditions have immanent versions (e.g., Kabalistic Judaism), and immanence seems central to Buddhism.

• The Explanatory Aspect: Religions claim to answer fundamental questions: Where did we come from? What is the future? Is there life after death? Are we mortal or immortal? Do we have a soul? Religions commonly have prophets, who offer such explanations. Explanations come in the form of rich metaphorical narratives. The highest calling is to know God, or seek to do so, according to whatever metaphor for God one is using.

• The Moral Aspect: Religions are fundamentally moral. They tell you how to live, what is good or bad. They often use the metaphor of Moral Accounting in one way or another, with good and bad deeds added up and balanced. This is often tied up with issues of either Karma (moral accounting with the universe) or reward and punishment in an afterlife. In addition, there are saints (figures who set examples for us to follow), devils (evil-doers who examples for us not to follow), and martyrs (who have suffered for the religion and thus gain extra credit). Following a religion is not easy, and involves considerable responsibility and discipline.

• The Experiential Aspect: Forms of spiritual experience, which we now know are physical in character — brain states. Religious experience is also communal, and communities are vital to religion.

From cognitive science, we know that thought, perception, and even personality are embodied in the brain: you can't think, see, or be who you are without appropriate neural activity in the right parts of the brain. Thus, if you had a disembodied soul that could live on after death, it couldn't see (without a visual cortex), couldn't hear (without an auditory cortex), couldn't feel (with none of the brain's emotional centers), couldn't have empathy (with no mirror neurons), wouldn't have a memory, and wouldn't have your personality (without the right prefrontal cortex). In short, it wouldn't be much of anything, certainly not much of you.

It is easy to debunk aspects of religion, like religious explanations and notions of the soul, and in cases like creationism, it is important to do so. But there are very good cognitive reasons that people find meaning in religion — and believe religions. Religions fit common metaphors. Religions provide moral guidance for life that makes sense because religions use common metaphors for morality — morality as accounting (summing up good and bad), purity, uprightness (heaven is up, hell is down), and so on. Religions provide spiritual practice, which is a seen as a way to gain knowledge (of God), to connect with the infinite (God), and if followed, can lead to spiritual experience (a real physical experience), involving a sense of the elimination of boundaries and of connectedness with others and with the universe. Religions also provide a spiritual community, in which one can connect with others dedicated to the same ideals.

"Do we want the God machine?" No. The point of religion is the practice, the path, the moral life, and the connection with others and the world in one's everyday life. The end point makes no sense and has no point without traveling the path. The God machine will be ignored by those for whom religion in all its aspects is important.

It is often been observed that science has many of the properties of religion. Science seems to take the form of a religion based on the immanence metaphor, with God as the universe and the highest calling being to understand the universe (to know God). Many central questions of science come from religion: Where did we come from? (The Big Bang) What is the future — will the universe keep expanding? Is the universe finite or infinite? From this perspective, the drive for a single unified Theory of Everything is metaphorically the drive to know a single God.

Issues of immortality are central to science, with Reputation metaphorically playing the role of the Soul in some respects. Seeking knowledge is moral behavior, and making important discoveries is doing Good. The reward can be immortality — your reputation can live forever. If you win a Nobel Prize, it is there forever, whether you are or not; it makes you one of the immortals. There are saints — Einstein, Darwin, Newton, etc. — and saints' lives. There are even relics (Einstein's brain) and reliquaries (Who got Einstein's office?).

The explanations science offers are metaphorical. Conceptual metaphors preserve inferences, which makes them useful for science. But scientific differ from the metaphors of religion because they presuppose empirical observation and science uses very special metaphors that that not only preserve inference but that are mathematicized, that is, that have a symbolic calculus attached, which allows for calculations and predictions. Einstein's great metaphor in general relativity was that time is a spatial dimension and that gravity is curvature in space-time. The metaphor yields a beautiful, predictive mathematics, but is no consolation when you fall and hurt your knee and are told by a literal Einsteinian that no force acted on it; rather, it moved along a geodesic in space-time.

A common metaphor in physics is What Exists Is What Can Be Observed, which lies behind Lee Smolin's contribution. Then there are the proposed new metaphors that come out in the questions:

• "Are the laws of nature a form of computer code that needs and uses error correction."

• "Is information the basic building-block of the universe?"

These are, of course, serious proposals to use new metaphors and the mathematics that goes with them to yield laws of nature that make better predictions.

A reasonable answer to David Gelertner's question is that scientists do have a religion, science itself. As an immanence religion, in which God is the Universe, the Universe becomes sacred, understanding the universe becomes a form of knowing God, scientific practice is religious practice, scientific discipline is devotion, the "work trance" of the scientist is a form of meditation, scientific discovery is moral action, a good reputation is a reward for moral action, and the immortality of Reputation is the Immortality of Soul.

Science also has its cult aspects. They peek through occasionally in Edge discussions. Sometimes, when I read Edge, I feel like I'm standing at the supermarket checkout counter reading the National Enquirer's stories about sightings of extraterrestrials.

"Is God nothing more than a sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence?"

It could be a National Enquirer headline.

It is remarkable how many scientists — respected scientists, great scientists, even Nobel winners — really believe in extra-terrestrials. Not only that, but they believe that there are extra-terrestrial scientists and even extra-terrestrial mathematicians with the same mathematics we have. To a cognitive scientist, it's quite charming, if occasionally as frustrating as encountering creationists.

One would like to think that the belief in extra-terrestrial scientists and mathematicians is just a lack of education in cognitive science. That's not a field that most physical scientists or mathematicians are trained in or even read. They don't learn all the amazing details that go into the embodiment of concepts — concept by concept. They don't learn about the staggering number of biological accidents that had to happen for cells to develop, and then neurons, and then neural "computation," and neural networks, and then all the myriad of further accidents required to get specialized neural structures to run bodies, and after that to develop concepts and reasoning biologically. Most scientists don't learn the details and so don't know that the probability of anything like this happening twice is virtually zero, despite the billions of stars out there. But I'm not so sure that mere education would help.

There are reasons why ordinary folks believe in the soul, and there are similar reasons why so many scientists believe in extra-terrestrials with mathematics just like human mathematics. Believing in the soul does not just allow for comforting beliefs— that you will someday be reunited with loved ones who have died and that you will get your reward for being good in heaven. It also has a basis in experience, oddly enough.

Consider the phenomenon of hearing yourself think. When you hear another person, there is an external sensory input coming from the other person. But, though your thought is not something you can perceive, there are neural connections linking ideas with the brain centers for sound production and perception. The acoustic cortex can be activated not just by external stimuli, but also by brain-internal neural connections. When you "hear yourself think" the neural activation is coming from inside the brain, but the experience, in part, is similar to hearing a stimulus originating outside the body. It is as though "you" are hearing another person express thoughts — another "person" inside you, separate from your body. It is that experience that makes it sensible to think in terms of a "soul" inside you, capable of thought, but separate from your body.

The popular belief in extraterrestrials also has natural cognitive origins. It seems to have arisen from the idea of the exotic foreigner. Ming the Magnificent in Flash Gordon movies was made up to look Asian. The reasoning seems to be: If there are people from other countries, who looked vaguely like Westerners, but with somewhat different features, language, and culture, there could be such folks from other planets. The variations on extraterrestrials in science fiction films go from Spock to Klingons to featureless creatures that commandeer our bodies. There is an overlap as well with other otherworldly creatures — angels and devils. A common folk theory is that it is human emotions that make us human; so Spock, for example, has no emotions — nor do machine- and insect-like extra-terrestrials.

But the most common theme is that that extraterrestrials are foreigners— explorers, exiles, or conquerors— basically like us, with language, reason, mathematical and scientific abilities, good and evil motives, as well as bilateral symmetry, heads, eyes, ears, mouths, arms, legs, and so on.

What interests me, as a cognitive scientist, is the physical scientists' version, and the arguments usually given.

• The Hubris Argument: The progress of science is a move away from human beings being at the center of the universe, starting with Copernicus. This is one more step. This is a scientific, and hence anti-religious progression away from human beings being special, being made uniquely in the image of God and being the unique inheritors of the material world. The idea of extraterrestrials make us more modest — modesty is a moral trait — and to even suggest that human beings might be the only intelligent species in the universe is to show enormous and inappropriate hubris.

• The Probability + Evolution Argument: First, the probability argument: There are billions and billions of stars in the universe and some small percentage of them have planets, and some small percentage of the planets have the right chemical composition, atmosphere and clime for life. Even if that percentage is small, the number of stars is so large that the probability is high that the chemical and climactic conditions for life exist else whether in the universe.

Then the Evolution argument: Once the chemicals and the climate and atmosphere are right, then evolution takes over. Evolution is a natural universal process in which more complex molecules are formed from less complex molecules and a certain percentage are stable. The process produces more and more complex molecules, until DNA-like molecules capable of reproduction (and hence life) are produced and start reproducing. Evolution then takes over. More complex life forms are randomly produced and a certain percentage survive and reproduce further. It is assumed that organisms with higher complexity will be able to survive better than those with lower complexity, so that evolution will naturally progress toward more complex organisms. Eventually organisms with some intelligence will be randomly produced, and since they will have an evolutionary advantage, they will survive. The process will repeat, with more and more complex intelligent organisms being produced, until they become intelligent like us, and develop mathematics and science, which allow them to adapt optimally.

• The Math in the World Argument: It is assumed that the physical universe works according to fixed laws stateable in mathematical terms, and that the mathematics inheres in the material world (logarithmic spirals in snails and nebulae, Fibonnacci series in flowers, quadratic equations in home runs). It is further assumed that these laws are the same everywhere in the universe. Thus intelligent beings who survived via evolution to function in the world, must have acquired the same mathematics.

These are standard arguments. The Hubris argument is not a scientific argument at all and we will discount it. The Math in the World argument is just false. It assumes that mathematics has no ideas, no concepts, no symbolization linking ideas with symbols. Mathematics has both. But ideas and symbolizations of them only exist in beings with minds, and we have a pretty good idea, at least from the study of human beings, what the peculiar nature of ideas is, and what kinds of embodied neural structures are required to characterize those ideas. Ideas like actual infinity, infinite sets, transfinite numbers, and so on are not magically part of the physical world. It takes beings with brains and bodies to have such ideas.

The Probability + Evolution Argument leaves out the probabilities for the evolution of biological structures of the precise form capable of "computing" just the right kinds of ideas to reason with in general, as well as just the right ideas for the relevant mathematics and for characterizing the symbolization of those ideas. Those biological mechanisms and neural structures are so peculiar and complex that the probability is effectively zero that the precise biological structures for the right mathematical ideas will evolve ever again anywhere. Those astronomically low probabilities are always left out of the argument.

Well, the counterargument goes, it happened once. How to you know it couldn't happen again. Obviously we don't. But that's not the point. A scientific argument must be positive. It must be an argument from knowledge, not from lack of knowledge. No serious scientific argument has ever been given that takes the relevant cognitive science into account.

In short, the physical scientists who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence are arguing in a way they would never get away with arguing in their serious scientific fields. Why?

The answer is that their belief in extra-terrestrial mathematicians who have our mathematics fits an important myth, an identity-defining myth that Núñez and I, in Where Mathematics Comes From, called The Romance of Mathematics. The Romance goes like this:

Mathematical entities and relations really exist. They structure this universe and any possible universe. The physical universe works according to mathematical laws that inhere in the universe itself, independent of any beings. Correct reason is a form of mathematical logic, which is a form of mathematics. Since the universe is structured rationally, mathematical logic inheres in it too. Human mathematics is part of the abstract, transcendent mathematics. A mathematic proof is a discovery of a universal truth. It thus takes one beyond the merely human and puts one in touch with transcendent truth. To learn mathematics is thus to learn the language of nature, a mode of thought that would have to be shared by any highly intelligent beings anywhere in the universe. Because mathematics is disembodied and rational thought is a form of mathematical logic, intelligent thought can exist outside of living beings. Thus, machines can in principle think.

Every part of this Romance is false. It contradicts what we know from cognitive science and neuroscience. But it serves an important role in the "religion" of many mathematicians and physical scientists. Indeed, it is one of the defining narratives of that religion.

If God is taken in the immanent sense as being the universe, the Romance says that those, and only those, who know mathematics can understand the universe and thus, metaphorically, "know God." They are "seers" who can see what ordinary folks cannot. Mathematics, according to the Romance, takes you beyond yourself, to the realm of the transcendent. Science and mathematics are therefore sacred activities, and scientists and mathematicians become high priests of their religion. They deserve not just with respect, but awe. Great mathematicians and physical scientists are therefore special beings, like saints. As such, they can communicate with the angels—the extraterrestrial scientists and mathematicians of superior intelligence.

It is unlikely that most people will give up the soul on the basis of what is known about cognitive science and neuroscience. It is too much part of who they are. It is part of a concept of self-identity that is physically in their brains and not likely to change.

It is just as unlikely that most mathematicians and physical scientists will give up on the Romance and their own religious identity just because cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have found that the Romance is scientifically untenable. The Romance is also part of their understanding of who they are, and as such, is physically instantiated in the brains of many mathematicians and scientists. That is why they believe in extra-terrestrials and why that belief is not likely to change.

Will cognitive science change the way we think?

It changed the way I think, but not without a struggle to overcome the views I had grown up with.

George Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Where Mathematics Comes From (with Rafael Núñez).

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
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