370. Do We Make it or Not?

November 29, 2014

Setting goals is how we guide ourselves in getting ahead, how we navigate this life of ours day-by-day. But gauging how close we come to attaining those goals is another matter entirely. To head off in a particular direction makes for a good start; but to arrive where we want to go is not a sure thing.

Do we make it or not? Do we even come close? That is the question. Either we do or we don’t. If we aren’t there yet, do we still have a chance? Do we have enough time, money, energy, and stamina to keep going? If not, what then? Set a lesser goal? Retreat? Call for help? Give up?

As it turns out, setting goals is only a hypothetical beginning. The real show is what happens in pursuit of that goal. It’s easy to make New Year’s resolutions, something else again to stick to them. Of the thousand entrants in a marathon, only one will be first across the finish line. Politicians are hesitant to enter races they may not win after all, risking the raising and spending of millions of dollars for the privilege of defeat.

In seeking goals, follow-through is crucial. Sticking with the challenge, even as it intensifies and we grow weary unto exhaustion. And then adapting to situations we didn’t anticipate. Life is spent modifying and renewing our commitments, hoping we get a second and third wind, pushing on as best we can.

Proximity to our respective goals can make a big difference by renewing our dedication to the task we have set for ourselves. Do we have what it takes to go all the way when the going gets tougher and tougher? We’ve trained to be at our best at the start of the race, but what about near the end when we discover how young and powerful the competition is, and how painful every stride that we take?

 

We live by setting goals and striving to achieve them.

Roughly speaking, our first life goal is to grow into competent human beings. Our second is to discover who we are and what we hope to accomplish. Our third to make a livelihood for ourselves by developing and practicing our skills. Our fourth to find a partner and establish a family. Our fifth to support the community that in turn supports us. Our sixth to reinvent ourselves in our maturity to fill the gaps we may have missed. Our seventh to go beyond what we have achieved to see just how far we can go before we die.

To live such a life, we set a series of goals, then strive to achieve them through a course of successive approximations. We probably won’t end each stage where we thought we would, but we’ll reach some equivalent we had not imagined for ourselves. We pull ourselves up and ahead by working as hard as we can, stage after stage, always within the situations we meet along the way. The steepness of our climb may vary, but we advance in proportion to the attention we focus on our personal journeys, and the effort we put into our daily engagements.

To achieve our grand life goals, we work toward lesser goals day-by-week-by-month-by-year-by-decade. Our days are largely consumed in setting and trying to meet the expectations we impose upon ourselves from morning to night: getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, fixing breakfast, getting kids off to school, going to work, making appointments, attending meetings, shopping, and so on.

Our daily routines are based on deciding on and then attaining the goals we set for ourselves on any given day as a matter of course. In this, we are primarily responsible to ourselves in conducting our life activities according to the master route map we have drawn up for living our lives, which in practical terms we live one step at a time.

Our life is our life, the one we have imagined for ourselves and then work to achieve. Lived not on some grand, idealistic scale, but worked out detail-by-detail in one project after another, all adding up to the life we actually live through a series of engagements to which we devote our attention and effort as best we can, hope after worry after wish after bias after desire after want after need after duty after whim after commitment after question after doubt after whatever motivates us at a  particular time and place.

So do we invent ourselves one step at a time, each slip, stride, leap, or shuffle adding to the journey of a lifetime.

 

The diagram below is a schematic depiction of human intelligence as an ongoing loop of engagement between (internally) perception, meaningful judgment, and action, together with (externally) the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family. The focus of the loop is situated as conscious awareness in a particular and unique mind, brain, and body.

Early on, William James stressed the streaming nature of consciousness, which flows more like a river than a train of discrete cars. I credit that sense of flow to the ongoing loop of engagement that fills our waking hours.

This diagram is based on a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Some of the dimensions of successive stages of engagement are listed in the lower left.

Mindfarer_Figure_200ppi

The more I experience the effects that artificial intelligence (AI) imposes on my life, the more I see it as a parody of our native situated intelligence. Once upon a time, corporations employed humans to communicate with the public by answering phones and letters in person. Now I get to speak to or hear from a digital algorithm on a computer. An algorithm meant to serve as the interface between humans and the coded persona of a corporation now risen to the status of a person. Ha! That claim may fool the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t fool me. I can tell if I am facing off with a person or a machine.

Think of all the real persons put out of work as sacrificial victims to the technology of the day. The people who benefit from AI now get the checks that formerly went out to people who performed skilled work for a living. Men and women who sewed clothing, made cars, wrote letters, spoke with human-powered voices on the telephone. People who with just pride took responsibility for their engagement with the public.

No longer. Last January, I learned that my younger brother had died from an unsigned form letter sent out by New York Life Insurance Company trying to establish contact with the beneficiary of a policy he had taken out. For eight months my brother’s Social Security number was listed on the SS Death Index (SSDI) by  unaccountable mistake, from May 8, 2013, to January 23, 2014. After eight months of inaction, on January 23, New York Life issued the anonymous inquiry printed by a machine. On or about January 12, my brother actually did die alone in his home, so when I requested a wellness check by the local police on January 27, they found him dead on the floor from a heart attack he’d suffered after unwittingly being listed as dead for those many months. Thank you, AI, for your kind attention. While bloodless corporations are now legally counted as persons, flesh-and-blood persons have been demoted to the status of mere data.

In self-defense, I hereby issue the following reminder of the many dimensions of human intelligence activated during the course of our daily engagements, as based on my 30 years of keeping track of my own mind in its engagements with family, community, culture, and nature.

In my several families over the years, intimate contact is maintained with grandparents, parents, brothers, relatives, friends, and a variety of pets, forming the durable core of my mental life. I won’t detail any of those engagements here, but ask you to substitute your own such engagements at the core of your own mental life. Clearly, none of us would be who we are without our family engagements. I learned about marriage, birth, death, divorce, and all the other significant milestones of leading a life in my family. I experienced the essential nature of shelter in a wide variety of houses, apartments, barracks, dormitories and campgrounds lived in over the years. I learned about indoor plumbing in relation to tubs, toilets, sinks, and leaking hoses and faucets. My engagements with beds taught me almost all I know about the making and moving of them, washing sheets, moving furniture, sleep, sickness, and sex. Family closets held all sorts of delicious secrets, which I gradually discovered over the years. My families have taught me about hobbies, possessions, collections, jokes, games, birthdays, holidays, vacations, cooking, cleaning, and watching TV. The obvious truth is that none of us would be here today if it weren’t for our families. And I will point out that artificial intelligence is never tempered by having anything in its background resembling a family.

On the community level of mental engagement, where perception, emotion, and action are simultaneously active at the same focus, that’s where we learn about jobs and working for a living, about shopping, getting things repaired, going to school, the medical center, catching the train or the bus. Think how different obtaining food at a supermarket today is from hunting and gathering it in the wild, or even using crude tools to dig up the soil to plant seeds. All the communities I have lived in have police and fire stations, town offices, neighborhoods, and shingles declaring the presence of doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychiatrists, and other stalwarts of the professional class. Recycling is a community effort, as is garbage disposal. My first community introduced me to a variety of religions identified by the various architectures of their meeting places, and to the burial grounds where their former members were thought to reside.

My engagements with my culture have given me speech, reading, writing, books, poetry, numbers, roadmaps, and animated films. Banks are cultural edifices where money (enabler of many of our engagements) is housed in great vaults (think of your impression of  just the steel door, latches, and locks in your first bank). Without culture, I would be deprived of music, art, literature, and professional sports. Real estate is a product of my culture, as is the idea of ownership, travel, time and space. My experience with tools is a gift from my culture, which sponsors hardware stores, camera stores, computer stores, fabric stores, and in Hulls Cove, Maine, The Tool Barn where I recycle old tools for my own use. I am at home in my culture, and an outlander in most others.

Which leaves engagements with nature on the most fundamental level of them all. My experience of terrain, salt and fresh water, streams, lakes, watersheds, habitats, soil, wildlife, birds, primates, mammals, stars and planets, day and night, the seasons, rocks, plants, lichen, mosses, conservation, and survival itself—all these are products of my engagements with nature. We are born to the planet that brought us forth from its own flesh as Earthlings. We are indeed children of the third planet out from the sun. Its ways are our ways. Its thoughts are our thoughts. Its fate is our fate.

That is a brief summary of the engagements with the outside world that stoke our native intelligence and make us who we are as conscious beings. We are not intelligent in and by ourselves. We depend absolutely on such interactions to stimulate, shape, and hone our human intelligence, each in keeping with the influence of nature, culture, community, and family.

By comparison, artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. It is simply another tool—actually a weapon—corporations have devised in preparation for coming wars, hoping to gain an edge over other warring nations by taking the initiative of starting the last battle. With the result that the autonomy we have won over the past ten-thousand years is being taken from us by stealth in the name of technological progress. AI, I think, makes no improvement in our life situations. Rather, it is rapidly diminishing our remaining days on this Earth. Human consciousness itself is being demeaned as second rate, as human values are being demeaned, along with human skills, human emotions, human strivings, human priorities.

This post is a reminder that this is happening in our brief span on our home planet. I offer it now that we realize what we are about to lose. We’ve come all this way, for this. This travesty of human ignorance in triumphal guise as artificial intelligence while it is just the opposite, the dehumanization of the planet that has borne us this far. When it comes to intelligence, ours is made possible by such goings-on as I have tried to suggest in these last two posts. AI isn’t even in the running. An aberration, it is the end of the road.

 

Darwin’s interest 140 years ago was in comparing human minds to animal minds from the point of view of evolution. I devoted my last post to a brief treatment of his findings. My interest today is in comparing the dimensions of my personal experience of my own mind with the notion of artificial intelligence.

The basic assumption is that artificial intelligence is in some way based on the genuine article, human intelligence, of which any given mind is but one unique example. What is the connection between the two?

Introspection has a bad name because scientists keep imposing their so-called objective standards on its fundamentally subjective nature, so any qualities of individual intelligence keep getting thrown out with the bath water. Accepting the intimate, subjective nature of personal experience, I offer my findings concerning the facets of intelligence I discover in myself, not because I am egotistical, but because my findings are based on a thirty-years study of the one mind I have immediate access to, which happens to be my own.

What I find is a mind divided into three parts: perception, judgment, and action. The first part answers the question, “What’s happening?” The second, “What does that mean?” or “So what?” The third, “What should I do?” The three parts taken in serial fashion lead to my engagement with the external world, which I divide onto four levels of nature, culture, community, and family.

My proposal is that my intelligence is spread between all four parts of the continuous and ever-changing loop of engagement between my inner and outer worlds. Perception contributes its share, judgment its, my behavior its, and the world I live in contributes its share on the levels of nature, culture, community, and the family I live in.

My mind absolutely depends on there being an outside world to connect with and seek guidance from. The natural and humanized world I am born to contains a good share of my personal understanding and intelligence. It is up to the inner parts of my mind to figure out how to engage the external parts so that I fit in as an integral part of our common planet’s share of universal intelligence.

In this post I can’t fit in much more than a partial listing of some of the dimensions I discover from studying my own experience in perceiving, judging, acting on, and engaging with the inner and outer worlds I have been given for exactly one lifetime.

I start with the dimensions of my personal perception, which include: arousal, excitement, expectancy, curiosity, my personal perspective at the time, my outlook, the sensory qualities I discover, the level of detail I observe, and the concentration and attention with which I reach out as the price I pay to observe anything at all.

The result of that effort leads to a sensory impression made up of contributions from my various senses, the clarity with which I regard that impression, the aesthetic framework within which I receive it as an integral image composed of many complex relationships, together with the awe and wonder that well up within me. Leading to a recognition of what it is I am witnessing, an interpretation of its nature, and a linking of that interpretation to conceptions I have derived from previous rounds of perception.

Then my faculty of judgment takes over from perception and tries to figure out the significance and meaning of that phase of my engagement. Immediately I am confronted by the situation I am in as modified by my current perception. That situation takes shape as its various dimensions become established by my streaming experience and engagement. I understand what’s going on to some degree, derive meaning from that understanding, partly by intuition, partly by direct perception of the latest bulletin from the exterior.

I compare that meaningful understanding to what it was a few moments ago, developing a sense of how things are developing in comparison to what they were when I was last moved to act, that comparison giving rise to a delta signal that spurs my current state of conscious awareness. I am immediately aware of the polarity of what’s happening from my point of view—whether it makes a good or bad fit to my expectations.

That disparity stirs up a new round of thought, which I measure against my biological (survival) values, taking into account the emotions I find welling up as a result of my expanding experience. My intuition and imagination come into play, stirring my judgment to review my priorities in this particular situation and come to a decision of how best to direct my life force into an appropriate course of action.

If I recognize the drift of the situation as being one I am familiar with, I resort to a reflex or habitual action, mimicry of actions I have seen others perform, familiar routines dictated by prejudice (prejudgment) or ideology. I set a goal and begin to plan my physical response through a particular project, sequence of steps involving relationships I can count on with others, or call on familiar skills, gestures, postures, and other behaviors that might help me reach the goals I have set for myself on this particular occasion.

With the result that perception and judgment have led me to act in the world on a level appropriate to the situation I believe myself to be in.

In my next post I will deal with the possible dimensions of what happens on the level of nature, culture, community, and family as a result of the action I have taken in the context of my grasp of the situation I am trying to develop or modify through exercise of my situated intelligence.

Again, what I am trying to do is explore the complexity of the everyday workings of our minds that we collectively gloss by the word “intelligence,” with an eye to our hopes and fantasies for the achievements of machine or “artificial” intelligence which is rapidly trying to substitute for the native version I am here roughing-out in these posts.

 

These heady days of artificial intelligence imply that we have a full understanding of intelligence in its native form. Apparently it has something to do with the ability to solve problems. Or at least to get good grades in school. Or to appear bright, quick, and agile in dealing with mental issues.

We rate individuals on a scale of intelligence where a score of 100 is judged to be normal. I once saw a vanity plate in Harvard square, IQ 205, so I assumed the driver of that car had a higher intelligence quotient than 204. If we can measure it that finely, and can make machines having artificial intelligence, surely we must recognize the real McCoy when we meet it face to face, mind to mind.

But since every person on Earth is unique in having a different immune system, nervous system, upbringing, education, work history, emotional life, reservoir of life experience, etc., I wonder how we can claim to measure intelligence as if it were the same mental quality across all those fundamental variables.

For myself, I find that my performance on a specific task depends on the situation I am in at the time, and also on whether or not I have been in that situation before. My mind is a mix of facets, elements, or dimensions of conscious and habitual experience. These facets come into play in varying degrees and proportions, so that on each occasion my mind is composed to meet the needs of the moment. That is, I find my so-called intelligence is present on a sliding scale. Or, put differently, is composed of different facets as called up in me by different situations.

As I was starting to think of writing this blog, I happened to be reading the 1874 edition of Charles Darwin’s book on human evolution, The Descent of Man. In the third chapter, Darwin compares the “mental powers of man and the lower animals.” I took those mental powers to be an early treatment of what today we might collectively refer to as intelligence. I perked up and paid close attention to what Darwin had written to see how his list of mental powers compared with the one I have been compiling under the guise of dimensions of consciousness or, as I now say, situated intelligence.

In my system I break consciousness into three main divisions: perception, judgment, and action. Perception deals with sensory input to the mind, judgment deals with determining the meaning of such input as a preparation for action, and action itself deals with how we go about forming an apt response to that input. These three divisions of mind connect our continuous loop of engagement with the world so, like the old serpent Ouroborus depicted as biting its own tail, our actions come full circle and we are in a position to compare the bite of perception in the context of our intended action, allowing us to revise our stance in making another round of action unto subsequent perception. That act of comparison is what we are conscious of at the moment so, as I see it, is the fundamental basis of what we call intelligence.

How do my 2014 dimensions of consciousness stack up against Darwin’s 1874 treatment of mental powers shared by people and animals? His point, of course, is that human minds have evolved from animal (primate) minds, so our mental powers are variations on the earlier powers possessed by our ancestors. Those variations can be either elaborations or diminutions, depending on the developmental pressure applied by our need to fit into the particular environmental situations we face from year to decade to century to millennium. Our sense of smell and pedal dexterity, for example, have decreased from what they were in the wild, while our vocalizations and manual dexterity have increased.

Grouping Darwin’s mental powers according to my distinctions between Perception, Judgment, and Action, I discover under the heading of Perception the following mental powers in common: same senses in man as primates, curiosity, anticipation, foresight, dread, danger, attention, distraction, senses of pleasure and pain, memory required for recognition, wonder, and sense of beauty.

Under the heading of Judgment: choice, instincts, intuition, abstraction, conception, association of ideas, episodic memory, cunning, deceit, deliberation, imagination, dreams, emotions (affection, alarm, ennui, fidelity, gratitude, jealousy, happiness/misery, love, magnanimity, passions, revenge, ridicule, suspicion, sympathy), reason, language (cries of pain, fear, surprise, anger, murmurs mother to child, song), self-consciousness, sense of humor.

Darwin glosses entire repertoires of behavior under Action, along with self-improvement. In the following chapter, he deals with the common powers of sociability, social instincts, social virtues, judgment on conduct, and transmission of moral tendencies.

His conclusion in 1874 is that the “intellectual powers” “of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement.” Wayfarers that we are today, up on two legs and following our inclinations, our modern intelligence is living proof of Darwin’s belief.

The question now is, can we transfer that advancement to our machines so that they serve as the next stage in the trend we have begun? Taking us with them, or leaving us behind?

I will follow up that query in my next blog.

So, how does it happen, this mental life of ours?

From our point of view, we are born to engage as best we can  the local precinct of whatever universe we find ourselves in. Basically, elaborate neural networks in our brains offer hospitality to a wide variety of signals sparked by whatever part of that universe is within reach of our senses. In different proportions, those signals shape the dimensions of our situated intelligence every instant of our lives, serving as our subjective (and distorted) version of the world. Our job is to interpret as best we can that fleeting mix of signals, and to respond more-or-less appropriately. Voilà, our streaming mental life.

Let us stop willing the mind not to exist because it defies the ideology in which we have been schooled.  And, too, stop assuming that the world we individually entertain is the one and only real world. Let’s get with evolution’s program for our species of primate. The program that plants the presumed order of the universe so firmly in our minds, when all we have to go on is the blur our senses present to us. We are the most willful species imaginable. It is time to admit it so we can transcend our past errors and fulfill the promise we are born to.

Rip off the blinders of our self-serving orthodoxies and join the company of universal beings we might become if we stop claiming to be the one people chosen (by ourselves) above all others. That claim is proof of the distortions that come with our subjective versions of the world.

What I am asking is that we accept the fact that we know only the flickering impressions on the inner walls of the dark caves we inhabit throughout life. That we live in subjective confinement within our minds. That our powers are puny in comparison to the majesty of the stars from which the atoms in our bodies have been created and donated to the universe.

If we can update our thinking and cherished beliefs, then we might at last transcend the narrow thread of history we have come to believe in as if it were true, go beyond our previous attainments, and so become beings worthy of the planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe that have hosted us all along—and of which we are integral parts.

Nothing matters more than the wellbeing of the planet we live on in the vast chill of space. We know that now. It is past time to act on that certainty. Burning fossil fuels is a luxurious habit, like smoking cigarettes, an evil (in the sense of unhealthy) habit. Crowding the planet with our ways of doing things is not our destiny if we are to survive.

If we don’t naturalize ourselves and become first-and-foremost citizens of the Earth, then our glorious achievements cumulatively amount to our own demise.

How ironic is that? All because we claim to take as real the world as we find it, while in the meantime fabricating a world of our own making to suit ourselves from inside the black boxes we truly inhabit.

It is past time to bring our actions into compliance with the living order of nature, not our self-serving fantasies as cast upon the waters of our beliefs.

 

 

 

Mind cannot be inconsistent with the forces that drive the material universe because that’s the meaning of is, to be or exist as a feature of the All, which includes the affective and figurative as well as the material. Mind is the realest thing there is. Just try living without one!

The beauty of mind is that it gives us both a personal self and a world, invites us to participate, to engage, to selectively peer through the walls of our personal black boxes, to hear, to touch, to taste, to smell. And always to remember what we’ve done.

Without mind there’d be no atoms or molecules to speculate about, to chase down, to combine in new ways; no cell parts, no cells, no tissues, no organs, no organisms, no habitats, no living systems, no culture, no art, music, theology. No sorrow. No joy.

Without mind at the heart of our respective black boxes there’d be nothing at all because, quite simply, we would have no way of knowing anything about whatever was around us. It takes a mind to know anything at all, including how the brain “works.”

The physical brain knows nothing at all, as a car engine or nuclear reactor knows nothing. As artificial “intelligence” knows nothing.

It takes a mind to convert rival signals in adjacent cortical columns into a sense of spatial depth before two eyes peering from different perspectives a few inches apart. A mind to learn through trial and error, discrepancies, disparities, and simple mistakes. A brain can compare signals, but mind is a virtual quality residing in relationship between signals, a quality arising from such a comparison, but not reducible to it, as humans are not reducible to the mud or stellar refuse they are made of.

In our minute portion of the universe, it is our privilege to engage courtesy of the power of reaching out with our minds. No minds, no awareness, no universe to be part of. Instead of grousing that the mind is a fiction, a myth, an illusion, an impossible speculation, I think it would be more productive to find sufficient grace to appreciate the gift of feelings and awareness so we can get on living harmoniously with the colorful and moving impressions they provide us.

362. Minds in Black Boxes

November 19, 2014

Metaphorically, a black box is a kind of generic puzzle container. You try to solve a puzzle you can’t see directly, using clues you can discover by any means short of actually opening the box. In that sense, a wrapped birthday present is a puzzle you can size up, heft, shake, listen to, bend, sniff, turn upside down, and so on to gain a sense of what’s inside. A wrapped soccer ball would respond differently to manipulation than a pair of dumbbells in a package of the same size and proportions.

I first came across black-box problems during my brief stay at MIT over sixty years ago where they took the form of electrical circuits containing various arrangements of resistors, capacitors, and induction coils sealed in a box with only input and output terminals outside the box. The challenge was to determine the structure of the circuit hidden within the box by observing how it transformed a range of electrical inputs into outputs exhibiting specific characteristics.

Those were the days (early 1950s) when behaviorism with its stimulus-response paradigm reigned in the psychological world so that rats in mazes and animal behavior in general were treated much like black boxes as input-output systems observable only from the exterior. Human behavior was seen as a response to external environmental situations and manipulations, and fully understandable as a transformation of ambient stimulation.

Psychology and neuroscience have come a long way since then, yet still cannot account for minds as higher order systems emerging from molecular and cellular brains.

My approach turns the black-box problem on its head. The minds of scientists and the rest of us are not outside, pondering the box, but are themselves firmly seated within an opaque container surrounding their embodied minds, a figurative “box” allowing multiple circuits of engagement with family, community, culture, and nature through our personal input and output terminals (perception and bodily behavior). The minds we so desire to explain are the very tools we use to explain everything else as if mind were the absolute standard of understanding and judgment. Uncritically, we want it both ways.

“Objectivity” is a subjective judgment we make within our very own black box when we’ve convinced ourselves that we know what we’re doing. Which accounts for the common conceit that what I think is indeed true while what you think is a gross distortion or misconception.

Each of us looks upon her world from just such an idiosyncratic point of view from within her personal black box. Making the world (not the mind or the self) become the problem. Any reality beyond the confines of the black box we are born within (the semipermeable skin that contains our organic self) is an experiential hypothesis, not an absolute given. From our point of view, the world is the puzzle to be solved, not the mind, the seat of our situated intelligence, which determines the perspective from which we each construct our own worlds

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No getting around it, we learn by sensing and doing. This requires liberal doses of time, frustration, variation, imagination, refinement, experimentation, curiosity, and practice, practice, practice. If leeway for such a program is not built into our schools, then we fall back on rote learning to be fed back on the test.

Better, we let students pose their own answers, and wrestle with working them through, making a great many errors along the way. Those errors will be their own errors, which they will learn to correct in short order.

Education based on trial and error is far better than learning to mimic a paradigm from the outset. How would you go about solving this problem? How do you see this situation? What options can you think of for ways to move ahead? Which option is the fastest? Cheapest? Most enjoyable? Easiest? Hardest? In the long/short run, best?

The role of education is to unleash the promise with which each child is born to this and future worlds, not to shape that promise to the desires of a select group of strangers driven by self-serving interests.