Archive for December, 2011

The last forum of the semester was divided into two parts: In the first part of the meeting we discussed the reading, while the second part of the meeting consisted of an end-of-semester recap of some of the various ideas surrounding the evolution of human intelligence. This week’s reading was an excerpt from the book “Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives,” by J. H. Brooke, which described the historical circumstances surrounding the rise of the “mechanic philosophy” in 17th century Europe. Around the time of Newton and Descartes, there was a fundamental shift in the dominant metaphors used to describe and understand the physical universe. Prior to this shift, the dominant conception of the universe among European intellectuals was the medieval philosophy in which inanimate objects were understood in terms of animate metaphors. In this view, different objects are conceptualized as entities possessing souls, which have inherent inclinations toward various behaviors.  This model also allows for action at a distance via “influences,” e.g. the influence of various celestial bodies on human behavior.

In contrast, the mechanic philosophy marked a shift toward using non-living metaphors to describe living things. In this model, the medieval notion of the universe consisting of entities moving about as a result of either inherent inclinations (or external influences) was replaced by a “billiard ball universe” in which everything (both living and non-living) is made up of particles that move as a result of external forces governed by natural laws. Action at a distance cannot exist in this model; even gravity was thought to require local interactions involving gravity particles (the idea of a “field” is a modern one and was not part of the mechanic philosophy). An important aspect of the mechanical model of the universe is that it requires some an explanation for why anything moves in the first place, i.e. it requires that there be a “first cause” (an unmoved mover) at the beginning of the universe. The unmoved mover in this model was typically thought at the time to be a divine agent, although it was argued in class that a first cause does not logically require the existence of an agent. Philosophers at the time were also preoccupied with reconciling the mechanical model of the world with the subjective experience of free will, and proposed another patch, the “ghost in the machine,” a dualistic notion which explains human thought and agency in terms of nonphysical mind which is connected to, but not in the same universe as, the brain. 

We also discussed a number ways in which the modern conception of the universe differs from both the medieval and mechanical philosophies. For example, the modern model of physics replaces particles with more complicated and less intuitive objects, allows for fundamental (quantum) randomness, dispenses with the concept of the “ether” in favor of treating space as a true vacuum, and allows for the possibility of a specific type of action at a distance via quantum entanglement.  It was pointed out that a number of these changes in our understanding of fundamental physics arose entirely due to the influence of mathematics. In other words, the shift to the modern understanding of the physical universe involved an increased emphasis on the primacy of mathematics as a tool for understanding the world. This was driven in part by a series of remarkably successful predictions that arose out of mathematical analysis of the equations describing various physical laws (for example, the existence of antimatter, which was predicted by mathematical analysis and subsequently observed experimentally). Notably, in the modern model the issue of a “first cause’’ is still not entirely resolved, although a number of explanations have been proposed which do not require any form of divine intervention (e.g. curved time, colliding branes in a higher dimensional multiverse, etc. ). Furthermore, in a pragmatic sense, (but not a logically necessary one), there is a still an emphasis on reconciling human behavior and the sense of agency with the conception of the human body (in particular, the brain) as a machine. However instead of positing a “ghost in the machine” it has become more common to discuss these issues under the guise of “intelligence” and/or “consciousness”.

The second portion of the meeting was a review of the overarching theme of this semester (i.e. the evolution of human intelligence). In the first meeting of the semester, the participants made a list of various definitions of “intelligence” and assessed whether these different notions of intelligence were both interesting and scientifically tractable. For our semester recap, we went through each item on this list and tried to decide which aspects of intelligence we still considered to be tractable given what we’ve read and discussed over the course of the semester. Below I’ve reproduced the list, and next to each item I’ve summarized our decision regarding whether progress has been made (or whether the potential for progress is present) in understanding that particular aspect of intelligence:

Aspects of “intelligence” that we deemed both “interesting” and “tractable”:

Intelligence as a faculty of:

– Neocortex: Neuroscience has made, can continues to make, some amount of progress in understanding the neocortex.

– Mind: If we replace “mind” with “psyche”, then yes.

– Group: Progress has been made, but this is a somewhat different notion of intelligence than what we were discussing throughout most of the semester.

– Executive function: Yes, with the caveat that progress in understanding executive function has been driven largely by investigations of neocortical structure and function. In particular, research involving “slow” vs. “fast” cognition has been particularly instructive.

Intelligence as a faculty for:

– Attention: This was not on the original list, but was added in part because it seems like a fruitful line of inquiry.

– Reasoning: The original list characterized reasoning in terms of largely philosophical constructs such as induction, deduction, intuition and dialectic. When defined in this way, it is somewhat unclear whether substantial progress has been made in developing a scientific understanding of reasoning. However, one can also define reasoning in terms of more empirically accessible processes such as problem solving, heuristic reasoning and decision making, and in this context one can claim that we are starting to develop a scientific understanding of reasoning.

– Empathy: Various psychological studies, work on mirror neurons, etc., has improved our understanding of empathy. 

– Language: Some progress has been made (the Carruthers article was mentioned as an example), but there was a general consensus that a great deal of linguistics research has yet to produce convincing results. The more general field of signaling has seen quite a few advances, however. Joanna pointed out that sociolinguistics informed by sexual selection could be a productive approach.

– Theory of mind: We decided that this was empirically tractable and has been studied in both humans and non-human animals.

– Sentience: We are starting to understand aspects of sentience in terms of basic sensory perception, however conscious sensory perception is tied into the idea of consciousness which remains quite fuzzy and not well understood. 

– Executive function: There was some ambiguity here since this also falls under the “faculty of” category. However the same conclusions hold as far as the extent to which this notion of intelligence is tractable.

– Social management: Yes, some of our early readings dealt with this aspect of intelligence.

Aspects of intelligence deemed empirically intractable:

– Consciousness: Very little progress has been made in understanding consciousness, despite many attempts.

– Self/Ego/Identity (subjectivity?): It was decided that there may have been some peripheral progress, but these issues are basically intractable. 

Subject to debate among forum participants:

– Will (i.e. agency): Note that this could refer to either a single agent or multiple agents. There was some disagreement here about whether this is empirically tractable. Anna argued that agency is in fact a tractable problem (and does not actually exist). Lucas disagreed and argued that as a basic philosophical concept, agency cannot be understood empirically.


Post Contributed by DL.

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