‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Mind is Flat

Nick Chater again. Many people won't like the ideas he promotes here because they cast aside traditional notions of how our minds work. I find the framework convincing enough to have spent far more time on it than just this video. Chater's framework explains too much to be fundamentally wrong.

However, it is worth pointing out that the flat mind idea is probably not convincing if one simply views Chater's experiments and rationale from a traditional outlook. The video definitely requires a willingness to change perspective, but once that is done the elegant simplicity of it becomes clear.

We are improvisers - we do not have mental depth to draw on in the traditional sense. We improvise our current behaviour, thoughts and opinions within the context of current situations and a need to be consistent with our perceived personality. One might almost say our current personality.

At first sight it all sounds too fluid and unstable to be satisfactory. Surely our personalities are more stable than Chater suggests? To sweeten the pill this approach does allow us to tie in the creative aspects of human life. To improvise is to create. We must improvise so we must create. We cannot stop. Not necessarily a good thing because we may improvise honestly or dishonestly, but worth remembering if you choose to watch the whole thing.

Here's the video introduction.

This talk presents the case that there are no hidden depths, whether evolutionary, psychological, or economic, from which the real motivations for human behaviour emerge. Motives are, indeed, astonishingly shallow, with the illusion of depth sustained by our mental projection of meaning into the actions of ourselves and other. But the illusion of depth is of crucial importance: it helps us reign in our behaviour, which would otherwise be even more capricious and inconsistent. This thesis has implications for theories in psychology, economics, and ethics which are explicitly, or implicitly, committed to "deep" motivations underpinning human life. It also provides a new framework for thinking about how to make choices, whether as individuals, in business, or in public policy.


Nick Drew said...

it helps us reign in our behaviour ...

I like that!

will do this justice when I get a chance this week. From first glance it looks like one of the (many) recent theories that are developments of what Nietzsche was saying >100 years ago (or at least, addressing the issues he raised)

at the very least it's vigorously anti-marxist! and anti-freudian! (there are no hidden depths, whether evolutionary, psychological, or economic ...)

gotta be worth a listen

Paddington said...

Check out the materials of Gad Saad, who deals in this stuff in one of the Canadian universities.

A K Haart said...

Nick - let us know how you get on with it.

Paddington - I'll take a look.

Paddington said...

He reinforces the image I have as to how odd I am.

A K Haart said...

Paddington - ha ha - I wonder if he'll do the same for me?

Nick Drew said...

well I've had the chance to hear him out now

Many people won't like the ideas he promotes here because they cast aside traditional notions of how our minds work... Chater's framework explains too much to be fundamentally wrong ... the flat mind idea is probably not convincing if one simply views Chater's experiments and rationale from a traditional outlook

Casting aside traditional notions - at least for the sake of the argument - is a fine thing to do; no problem there. The experiments he reports are important enough to merit accommodation in any self-respecting framework.

But to jump from "humans sometimes (post-)rationalise explanations on-the-spot, whilst reporting them as emanating from something more substantial / genuinely logical & consistent" to "therefore there's no depth, nothing 'beneath the facade' of all this verbalising" is akin to another jump sometimes made in proto-philosophy: "humans sometimes suffer from visual illusions - therefore we can't be sure of anything, there's no 'physical world' out there" etc etc

i.e. it looks a bit thin - and certainly wouldn't trouble someone with a serious theory as to what's going on beneath the surface, e.g. a Marxist (complex economic stuff [I paraphrase...]) or a Freudian (complex sexual stuff) or a Dawkins-ite (complex evolutionary stuff)

what's common to all these types of "there's something going on down there" explantions is that each of them invites us to be fundamentally suspicious / circumspect before accepting someone's own account / explanation about themselves. Instead, they offer an interpretation according to an over-arching causal theory, reckoning that individuals are very often not the best or definitive authorities on their own motivations etc.

I find both Marx's and Freud's theories (of what's going on, down deep) to be very one-dimensional - even if they provide genuine insights. I find Chater positively zero-dimensional! (or maybe he could offer an explanatory dimension, but is more concerned just to deploy his 'discovery' that there are some face-value delusions in play, for its destructive power as-he-sees-it).

Rather than accept Chater's behaviourist dead-end I prefer to explore two other avenues. The simplest, suburban avenue is the one where Scott (Dilbert) Adams plies his trade: "we think we are rational 90% of the time; actually, it's more like 10% of the time; we're not programmed to get to The Truth, we're programmed to get by well enough for reproduction". (Dawkins could probably elaborate that for him a bit ...) But "irrational 90% of the time" doesn't imply "flat mind".

If we want an avenue leading off into the depths of the hinterland, Nietzsche is our guide. Now there is a serious opponent for Marx, and a deeper psychologist tha Freud. Sackers, you hosted a thread on a relevant Nietzsche extract back in '12 as I recall: maybe you can find us the link?

Sackerson said...

Nick also suggests readers will be interested to see what Nietzsche said on the subject - his summary and other reader comments here:


Extracts of Nick's main points there (in 3 parts):

Part 1. OK, well here are some introductory remarks

Nietzsche’s own account is pretty clear if you are in the swing of his writings, which are admittedly an acquired taste though IMHO not intrinsically any more difficult than most full-on philosophy.

As so often with N, the fundamental point is (a) grounded in heavy-duty philosophical reasoning (one might say metaphysical but N himself had idiosyncratic reasons for rejecting that term); (b) centred around tremendous psychological insight, and (c) culminates in fabulous one-liner conclusions worthy of a Shakespeare or a Goethe. The paper confines itself to a dusty corner of the reasoning, with not even the merest hint of the splendour of N’s full development of the ideas involved. Fair enough for an academic, but pretty disappointing in its narrowness nonetheless.

There is also plenty of hair-splitting and academic point-scoring, though I am unclear as to what end (other than end-in-itself, obviously).

Overall, actually I am glad of this because when I was at the University N wasn’t studied at all by serious academic philosophers of the mighty ‘English speaking’ / analytic philosophy school, for reason (I think) that his psychology and artistry, in other words his humanism, led them to suspect he was a mere existentialist, an emotional ‘continental’. If now we have a dusty, hair-splitting industry built up around N’s work in the English-speaking school, it means he is being taken seriously at last.

Other surprising omissions, to me, are any explicit invocations of the highly pertinent Locke, Darwin or Wittgenstein (though as regards the latter there is a fleeting reference to ‘private language’ which might be said to be enough).

Sackerson said...

Part 2: the precis (note, I am not interested in Riccardi’s hair-splitting argument against other interpretations he cites)

Nietzsche contends that “consciousness is a surface”. R states that for N it breaks down into two components: (1) that consciousness is “basically superfluous” because we can explain (most) behaviour without reference to it; and (2) that consciousness involves “a vast and thorough corruption, falsification, superficialization, and generalization”.

Following Leibniz, N holds that a great part of our mental life, and our life as an effective agent in the world, take place without them entering our consciousness; and further that animals (and pre-speech children) exhibit sophisticated unconscious cognitive capacities, including conceptualisation. Conceptualisation alone introduces the possibility of error (we may, for example, rush erroneously to judgment when classifying something we perceive); but this is trivial compared to the errors inevitable when we move to the ‘higher’ plane where we formulate propositions about our mental states consciously.

This is because, for N, consciousness is born of our need to communicate with others and to do this we trade not just in necessary generalisations and superficialisations but (again for N) falsifications also. In particular, communication necessarily includes social reference to states of mind, first those of others, and then our own, based around a communal “theory of mind” into which we must force-fit the “content of our mental attitudes” (R) – the essence of consciousness. The original and fundamental purpose of consciousness is for communication.

We are thus dealing with (a) a base-level of mental states that are independent of consciousness but have full causal powers, and are in this sense primary: and (b) a second (‘higher’) order of conscious states, superfluous for independent action but necessary for communication. It is the socially-mediated force-fitting of (some of) our ‘actual’ (primary) mental states into the communal templates for conscious propositions about mental states which entails the type of distortion and ‘falsification’ that leads N to describe consciousness as a ‘surface’. It is the templated surface we present to others in order to achieve communication.

Finally there is a further ‘falsification’ when we become accustomed to ‘communicating our mental states’. We start asserting the ‘I’ in various conventional ways which, drawing as they do on only some of our primary mental states (the ones we have made ‘conscious’ and hence communicable, and this only after a distorting process), give us a false notion of our agency: we reckon the conscious elements to be primary and efficacious whereas they are not.

Sackerson said...

Part 3 - Some other comments (of my own) on the relevant Nietzschean ideas:

1 – the whole business of calling into question the legitimacy of the ‘I’ is of course very Buddhist: I don’t know why this isn’t remarked upon in academic N-studies (although there is a load of sub-academic stuff along this line as google will readily deliver)

2 – where N takes the ideas I’ve summarized above is, characteristically, straight into the moral & aesthetic spheres (which for him are closely overlapping), and his deployment of taste and distaste is actually very instructive when it comes to understanding what he means by “vast and thorough corruption, falsification”.

We need this understanding, because whereas I think ‘generalisation’ follows easily from his account of consciousness-for-communication, and likewise ‘superficialisation’, and in the précis I offered ‘distortion’ as another term that might not seem to go further than the argument supports, we might struggle even with ‘falsification’, let alone ‘corruption’. Why should the translation from our primary mental states to communicable, templated, ‘formatted’ propositions-about-states necessarily falsify or corrupt them ? Perhaps (if, for example, we are all pretty much the same, and the socially-mediated template is quite felicitously structured) our mental states need only suffer a bit of simplification and ‘averaging-out’ in translation.

This (as so often with N) is where we need to invoke his full, stormy world-view. For the N of the Superman, the self-governing free spirit, any degree of averaging-out (and merely in order to communicate !) is an abomination. We can see this quite clearly from:

“We no longer have a sufficiently high estimate of ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not garrulous … Speech … was devised only for the average medium, communicable. The speaker has already vulgarised himself by speaking.” (Twilight of the Idols)

And this becomes even curter and more aphoristic:
“One no longer loves one's knowledge sufficiently after one has communicated it.” (Beyond Good And Evil)

With this perspective we can argue that N didn’t necessarily see gross, mangling distortion as inevitable: dilution alone is quite enough to call down his wrath.