Saturday, April 26

Rant

The Historical Stupid Files

Much nonsense has been written on the subject of human consciousness, from both those whom we would expect to know better, such as Roger Penrose in The Emperor's New Mind* and those whom we wouldn't, such as John Searle in his Chinese Room piffle.**

But one of the stars in this particular field of nonscience has to be Julian Jaynes, author of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Jaynes claims that until very recently - as late as the 10th century BC - the human mind was not unified as we find it today, but bicameral, the left hemisphere disconnected from the right.  Humans of the day were effectively schizophrenic, not in the soap-opera sense of having multiple personalities, but in the genuine clinical sense of paranoia and hearing voices.

Jaynes' evidence for this is literary.  He argues that older works such as the Iliad display no sign of such modern mental faculties as introspection, where more recent works, such as the Odyssey, do show this.

Now, perhaps it happened that in both translations of the Iliad that I have to hand*** the obvious implications of introspection were the result of careless editing.  Jaynes is a psychologist, not a historian or linguist, but perhaps he reads fluent Ionic Greek.  Never mind that.

Never mind that even if these two poems were not the work of the same man (which is historically uncertain), they were likely created only about a century apart, not a very long time for such a significant evolution of human mentality.  Never mind that people not only write poems and stories like this today, but act like this today, and yet are often not diagnosably schizophrenic.  Never mind either that this is not at all the behaviour we see in unfortunate individuals who do suffer from a bicameral mind or split brain.

Never mind that.

Instead, let's go to the oldest one in the book, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In the story, Gilgamesh rejects the advances of the goddess Ishtar because he has read the myths and knows that this never ends well for the hero.

Yes folks, it's a trope subversion, and one that predates the Iliad by hundreds of years, if not a thousand and more.  This particular passage is only found in the Akkadian version of the Epic; the much older Babylonian version is incomplete and doesn't appear to refer to this part of the tale.  Nevertheless, the entire tale of Gilgamesh is deeply and incontrovertibly introspective, rendering Jaynes' thesis incoherent on a literary basis as well.

And the whole topic arose only because I was browsing the TV Tropes wiki for a subject that I have now entirely forgotten.

* Penrose argues three points: First, that human consciousness is non-algorithmic, which is very likely true; that human-like consciousness could not arise from a Universal Turing Machine, which is unsupported by logic or evidence; and that human consciousness is directly dependent on quantum events, which is impossible.

** Searle's argument goes like this: Suppose we have a man locked in a room with a library full of books.  He receives via a slot in the wall, pieces of paper covered with illegible symbols.  Following instructions in the books, he writes a new set of symbols on another piece of paper and feeds that back out through the slot.

Unbeknownst to the man in the box, the symbols are Chinese; the pieces of paper he receives are questions, and the pieces of paper he returns are answers.  He neither speaks nor reads a word of Chinese, and yet via the Room he is conducting fluent conversations.

Searle argues that since the man does not understand Chinese, artificial intelligence is impossible.

If you experienced a Huh? moment there, you are not alone.  The argument rests on a multitude of fallacies, including  - depending on where how you slice it - self-contradiction, circularity, assuming the consequent, the fallacy of composition, and a good old-fashioned helping of non-sequitur.

To put it most simply, though the man doesn't understand Chinese - because Searle stipulated that - the room does - because Searle stipulated that.  There are more subtle arguments to Searle's incorrectness, but it's not necessary to go into those here, because Searle's response is always the same, to wit, "Artificial intelligence is impossible because I said so."

*** E. V. Rieu's prose version and Richmond Lattimore's verse translation.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 05:24 PM | Comments (15) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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1 Whoa.

The man doesn't understand Chinese... but the ROOM does.

I've heard the Chinese room paradox a hundred times and never made that connection. You seriously just blew my mind.

Posted by: Mark at Sunday, April 27 2008 01:41 PM (QBM6A)

2 is this bait for me?
how delicious.
wink

Posted by: matoko_chan at Sunday, April 27 2008 02:14 PM (bqE4v)

3 Nah, here I'm mostly beating up on Jaynes.

This comment on my earlier post was bait for you. smile
There are two problems with the idea of quantum consciousness. First is that it is an unnecessary hypothesis; human consciousness displays no signs of quantum behaviour. Second is that it's impossible.

Quantum consciousness is to neuroscience what homeopathy is to medicine.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at Sunday, April 27 2008 03:21 PM (PiXy!)

4 I had the same reaction to the Chinese room when I first heard it: the room understands Chinese. That was obvious to me, but maybe it was because I was already a computer programmer. The idea of distilling understanding to a physically instantiated algorithm just didn't seem all that surprising. I mean, that's exactly what you do with a computer program.



Posted by: Yahzi at Monday, April 28 2008 03:32 AM (yn9dj)

5 While Jaynes thesis has really no evidence going for it, its such a neat idea that it has shown up in fiction several times.

Posted by: Kayle at Monday, April 28 2008 05:24 PM (yG9oH)

6 Actually, when you stick *only* to the oldest available version of the Gilgamesh epic, the evidence for introspection resembling the form you see even in the Odyssey is pretty close to nil.

Have you actually bothered to *read* the damned book? *Something* clearly changed in humanity's cognitive architecture over the period he's interested in, and it's to Jaynes' credit that he made a pretty compelling attempt at sketching an explanation for several odd things that need explaining. It sounded wacky to me when I first heard about it, but having gone into the book skeptically I've found myself actually using his ideas as a jumping-off point into my own research right now (I'm in neurobiology w/ an interest in human brain evolution).

I can't say much right now without giving the game away, but I can say that while Jaynes (unsurprisingly) got the functional neuroanatomy wrong, he was onto something. Things haven't stood still since the late '70s, and surprisingly the main thrust of the book is actually *more* credible now than it was then. (Hint: begin here.)

Posted by: Shoshin at Wednesday, April 30 2008 05:36 AM (5XE7d)

7 Shoshin, extrapolating all of humanity's mental capabilities from one book is not really valid.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Wednesday, April 30 2008 06:02 AM (+rSRq)

8
Actually, when you stick *only* to the oldest available version of the Gilgamesh epic, the evidence for introspection resembling the form you see even in the Odyssey is pretty close to nil.
So it's introspective - the whole Epic is undeniably deeply introspective - but not in the right way?  And you chalk this up to major evolutionary changes rather than literary ones, when humans had been around a hundred times longer than literature?
*Something* clearly changed in humanity's cognitive architecture over the period he's interested in
Clearly nothing.  As I said, people write stories the same way today; people act the same way today.

I'm aware of the evidence for the acceleration of human evolution.  But we're not lizards on an island, and there is zero biological evidence to support Jaynes, and considerable evidence refuting him.  As I also noted, we know how bicameral minds behave, and it's not at all as Jaynes suggests.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at Wednesday, April 30 2008 09:07 AM (PiXy!)

9 Then it's a good thing that's not what I'm doing, Steve. It's actually just one mental capability that happens to be a really good trick.

Andrew, I notice you didn't answer my question. I'll take that as a no. And I am in fact denying that the epic, in its oldest incarnation, is deeply introspective -- the only convincing bits that show this are from later Akkadian versions. And I am in fact denying that people think, write, and act in the same way today. (Well, almost all people -- there are actually some alive that are more or less the same, but then telling you who they are would be a spoiler.)

"Bicameral" refers to the functional hypothesis -- the idea that during the 12,000-4000 YBP period people took marching orders from hallucinations. This part, I think, has something to it, though its plausibility hinges a lot on Jaynes' underlying ideas about the evolution of language, which are actually pretty smart too. Callosotomized patients are actually not at the top of the list of reasons to believe Jaynes got the neuroanatomy wrong, which you'd know if you'd RTFB, because not only does he spend about five pages discussing them, but his actual anatomical hypothesis centers around the anterior commissure, not the corpus callosum. But it's still wrong, I think, for other reasons.

"Zero biological evidence", eh? So the dozens of genes expressed during brain development that have been shown to have undergone strong selection in the last 6K years -- those are what, nothing? We don't really know precisely what they do yet, but the evidence for cognitive change in humans over the last few thousand years is there in the DNA, and it's not controversial.

Posted by: Shoshin at Wednesday, April 30 2008 12:58 PM (5XE7d)

10 "And you chalk this up to major evolutionary changes rather than literary ones, when humans had been around a hundred times longer than literature?"

1. Not a major evolutionary change; there's no such thing. It's one small change (well, technically *two* small changes...) that had big consequences.

2. Not just literature, but what the literature tells us about the psychology of the authors. Jaynes actually tried to hedge by suggesting ways that this could have been a solely cultural thing and did some handwaving about plasticity (ironic that this is the one area where he showed insufficient boldness), but a story involving biological change driven by natural selection actually makes *more* sense than one that doesn't.

Posted by: Shoshin at Wednesday, April 30 2008 01:12 PM (5XE7d)

11
Andrew, I notice you didn't answer my question. I'll take that as a no.
Sorry, I was running late for work when I posted that. You are correct.

Does it matter? What you are arguing seems to coincide almost completely with my expectations. (Though I'm glad that he at least addressed the subject of corpus callosotomies. Doesn't make his argument any less absurd, though.)
And I am in fact denying that the epic, in its oldest incarnation, is deeply introspective -- the only convincing bits that show this are from later Akkadian versions.
And I disagree entirely. The Epic is essentially and unavoidably introspective. The whole point of it is introspection. Are you arguing about the way it is written? Can you point me to a specific translation that you think supports this?
"Bicameral" refers to the functional hypothesis -- the idea that during the 12,000-4000 YBP period people took marching orders from hallucinations.
Which is ridiculous. I've read the Old Testament, the Iliad and Odyssey, parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh, various translations of Greek and Roman and Egyptian myth. The people who wrote these works, the fictional or fictionalised characters who appear in them, are modern people, no different to you or I except in the specifics of their beliefs.

Do you realise just how many people today fervently believe in gods, angels, demons, ghosts, spirits and other such supernatural phenomena? Do you have any grasp on how many of these people believe they have received actual signs and messages from these beings? Have you read the New Testament? The Odyssey? Modern religious literature? If introspection only arose when the bicameral mind unified (which I absolutely dismiss), and the bicameral mind was the source of beliefs in spirits (which I absolutely dismiss), then why do we see clear evidence of introspection before the event and incontrovertible evidence of belief in spirits after?
"Zero biological evidence", eh? So the dozens of genes expressed during brain development that have been shown to have undergone strong selection in the last 6K years -- those are what, nothing?
Yep. Show me one that is actually linked to this "bicameral mind" foolishness. Show me the recessive trait that would have to have persisted to the modern day. Show me the individuals today who won a double helping of this gene in the genetic lottery. Show me that they are different, mentally and genetically, from the rest of us.
We don't really know precisely what they do yet, but the evidence for cognitive change in humans over the last few thousand years is there in the DNA, and it's not controversial.
Fine, "evidence for cognitive change". I'm not denying that humans and the human brain are subject to evolutionary change. I'm saying there is zero evidence for Jaynes' thesis.
Not a major evolutionary change; there's no such thing. It's one small change (well, technically *two* small changes...) that had big consequences.
Of course it's a major evolutionary change, and of course there are such things. You don't get them from single mutations; you don't get them in short periods of time; and you don't get them spreading instantly out to completely isolated sub-populations. From a standpoint of population genetics too, Jaynes' idea is ludicrous.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at Wednesday, April 30 2008 02:16 PM (PiXy!)

12
Not just literature, but what the literature tells us about the psychology of the authors. Jaynes actually tried to hedge by suggesting ways that this could have been a solely cultural thing and did some handwaving about plasticity (ironic that this is the one area where he showed insufficient boldness), but a story involving biological change driven by natural selection actually makes *more* sense than one that doesn't.
Absurd. Utterly absurd.

Literature changes over time. If you ever bothered to read any, you would have noticed this. New forms, new styles, new techniques. At the time the Epic of Gilgamesh was invented, literature was brand new. There wasn't anything to refer to, no comparison, no extant body of criticism. There was oral tradition, but literature was an entirely new invention. We'd be astonished if there wasn't a marked difference in literary approaches a thousand years later.

In short, you, like Jaynes, present flimsy and subjective literary evidence, and no biological evidence that such a thing could happen, much less that it did happen. Nor do you address any of the obvious objections to the idea, literary, biological, psychological or sociological. Not least that any species taking "marching orders from hallucinations" is doomed to extinction in a matter of weeks, as we can observe in creatures infested with certain types of parasite.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at Wednesday, April 30 2008 02:16 PM (PiXy!)

13 "Show me one that is actually linked to this "bicameral mind" foolishness. Show me the recessive trait that would have to have persisted to the modern day. Show me the individuals today who won a double helping of this gene in the genetic lottery. Show me that they are different, mentally and genetically, from the rest of us."

Working on it. smile "Show me" is an attitude I respect, but all I can do at the moment is write out an IOU.

Re: pop-gen, you're wrong. Take lactase persistance as a toy model: 6000 years ago, nobody in Europe had it. Now the vast majority do. The frequency of dominant alleles under positive directional selection follows a sigmoid curve as a function of time: lots of time at low frequencies (>0.2), a comparatively sudden zoom to high frequency (<0.cool , then a long time approaching fixation. The time frame is exactly what you'd expect for something with a selection differential of around 10%, of which we have several established examples in humans. Again, not controversial.

Hallucinations can actually be adaptive. When someone draws using perspective, you're hallucinating a 3D image. And a damn good thing, too. Evolution doesn't care about how veridical your perceptions are except insofar as they *work*.

I'm in kind of a rush myself, so that's going to have to be the extent of it -- engaging in exegesis of ancient texts would turn into this into a week-long marathon and I'm sure we have better things to do. This is kind of inherently futile anyway, since you're speaking from a position of comparative ignorance and I'm speaking from one of self-imposed secrecy since I'm hoping to get some papers out of this eventually. I mainly interjected  because it annoys me when people bash things they haven't taken the trouble to understand just to make themselves feel clever.

Toodles.

Posted by: Shoshin at Thursday, May 01 2008 03:05 AM (5XE7d)

14 Smilies: oh how I hate them. 0.8 != sunglasses.

Posted by: Shoshin at Thursday, May 01 2008 03:06 AM (5XE7d)

15 Also managed to get my < and > mixed up. How embarrassing.

Posted by: Shoshin at Thursday, May 01 2008 03:16 AM (5XE7d)

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