Sunday, March 23, 2014

ubiquitous priming

Speculation about the operation of the brain is tricky. It defies easy analogies. But perhaps ubiquitous priming is a worthwhile one. In psychological studies, priming refers to the effect of stimuli on future responses to related stimuli. The earlier stimuli "prime" the psychological subject like priming a water pump or an engine. For a short time after priming, subjects respond more readily to similar stimuli.

In contrast to the brain's complex computations, priming has an easier analogy available: context. In human thought and behavior, the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Priming/context tailors results according to the situation. It's more complicated than a one-to-one mathematical function or a row of light switches. It's closer to sowing many seeds in proximity and allowing the plants to entangle. 

In the same way, priming/context could be ubiquitous, occurring at differing levels. As reductionist as it sounds, pieces of brain have surrounding pieces to act as context. One brain activation "primes" its counterpart because it contributes to overcoming its activation threshold in the "present" or in the "near future"—keeping in mind that these slivers of time are much smaller than the smallest human-perceptible instant. And thereby a small cluster of brain activations primes the clusters connected to it. And larger clusters prime larger clusters, and so on into greater sizes.         

Also, ubiquitous priming is an analogy of the value of the brain's structure. An item of information isn't just encoded in isolation but encoded to be additional priming for more items. From inborn instincts, information primes the brain for behaviors that are advantageous for natural selection. From cultural lessons, information primes the brain for the culture's focal points. From language, information primes the brain for the grammatical distinctions to match tense/mood/aspect/etc. From memories since birth, information primes the brain for recall of crucial episodes. Indeed, pushing the analogy into hyperbole, exactly how much of a human's identity, such as their preferences and goals and coping styles and experiences, can be thought of as their largest context, meaning their whole unique set of brain structures for ubiquitous priming? 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

glimmers of pragmatism in faith

I've mentioned the process many times. As pragmatism spread through my thinking, it thoroughly hollowed out my faith-beliefs. But my experience doesn't imply that the same outcome will happen to everyone else. To the contrary, followers of faith can tolerate or even adopt glimmers of pragmatic-like ideas. As usual, by "pragmatism" I specifically refer to my own somewhat informal variation on pragmatist philosophy, which I've described in previous entries.

The first manifestation of pragmatism in followers of faith is also the most familiar. Generally, they may act with admirable pragmatism whenever they wish to certainly accomplish something. This rule of thumb is especially active if they don't isolate themselves from the methods of contemporary culture. In response to serious illnesses or injuries, they turn to modern medicine. In response to financial risks, they buy insurance policies. In response to the loss of the ability to work due to age, they invest in long-term retirement plans. In response to the labor market, they pursue education in non-religious knowledge. They may quote the peculiar folk saying, "God helps those who help themselves." The lesson is clear, although it's seldom stated plainly: in practice, pure reliance on the supernatural is a secondary tactic, a back-up plan, a last resort, a fail-safe that might fail after all.

However, the lack of grand gestures by something supernatural isn't necessarily an obstacle to a faith. Its followers may compensate by incorporating pragmatism in a second and ingenious way. They may propose a calculated pragmatic definition of "supernatural intervention". After fortunate events, they officially designate small well-verified bits of natural realities as camouflaged specimens of covert supernatural adjustments. Previously I characterized this watertight theory as The God Of Loaded Dice. It miraculously transforms a temporary coincidence of several beneficial events into more than rolling a yahtzee; instead those individually unimpressive events are pieces in a single supernatural feat. Of course, part of its appeal depends on the well-known human craving to impose patterns onto shapeless data, and their related lack of intuition for the combined probability of numerous outcomes.

A top candidate for pragmatically defined "supernatural intervention" is the tangible aid provided by a follower's supportive community of faith. Human behavior is complex, unpredictable, spontaneous, reactive, etc. Therefore it doesn't appear obviously far-fetched to speculate that the supernatural is somehow contributing to the unknown mixture of factors driving anyone's specific actions and thoughts. And presumably the degree of supernatural influence on a follower is proportional to their degree of faith. Indeed, a third case of relative pragmatism is the tradition of measuring a follower's degree of private faith by verifying their public actions. "By their fruit you will recognize them." Followers are proven through demonstrated conformance. They must swear allegiance, obey the rituals, reply to the formal prearranged questions with prearranged answers, and recite the dogmas. When they refuse, then they're no longer acknowledged as followers. Like anyone else, their brains cannot be directly read by their peers, so these pragmatic definitions of their commitments are simply unavoidable.

Furthermore, some followers of faith may employ this approach on a larger scale to deflect tiresome doctrinal in-fighting. If any follower's degree of faith is identified by their actions anyway, then perhaps minutiae of doctrine don't matter much at all. This mindset has the motto "orthopraxy over orthodoxy". It's a fourth form of pragmatic thinking in faith: followers resolve to care very little about the total accuracy of their elaborate concepts of the supernatural domain, except for the meaningful impact of those concepts on their present experiences and actions. They ignore "deep" questions in their faith, which are under eternal debate among countless sects. They may reject most of their faith's complicated and debatable taboos altogether. Essentially, they admit that many of their faith's fine-grained distinctions are neither certain nor relevant—hence not applicable to doing the faith. They categorize the minor details of their faith according to a scale of pragmatism. The end result varies depending on how strictly they apply their scale. For some, the outermost margins of their faith are the sole parts that are unimportant and/or "open to interpretation". For others, only a select handful of their faith's most central beliefs are indispensable to proper compliance.

Nevertheless, thanks to human creativity, the meaningfulness of faith-beliefs could still be more loosely defined. Followers may suggest that their own entire faith isn't a more accurate reflection of realities than any other...except as judged on some pragmatic basis. This is a fifth application of pragmatism to faith, and it's the most thorough yet. Such followers no longer assert that any part of their faith is the closest representation of supernatural realities. Rather, their faith's solitary claim of greater worth is its better effect on humanity. They may summarize their viewpoint as, "The symbolic content of my faith is almost completely irrelevant, so long as it inspires happiness/hope/love/peace/clarity/etc." At this stage, faith is fairly characterized as a means for its followers, not an end in itself. If the faith they follow fulfills its purpose(s), and doesn't interfere with anything else, then they blatantly don't mind whether its statements are uncorrelated with discovered realities.

Ultimately, pragmatic judgment of faiths enables yet another progression. When faiths are treated as metaphorical tools, followers (tool users?) may reckon that the most sensible strategy is to place all faiths into a unified metaphorical toolset. Unfortunately but predictably, this yields a supernatural domain which is stunningly incoherent. It's incapable of producing singular logical answers to the most basic of questions. How many beings are there and what unearthly powers does each one have? What's responsible for evil? What happens in the afterlife? How did the universe begin, and how will it end? For followers of faith fusion, such straightforward questions must be dodged somehow. Like me, perhaps they unimaginatively respond, "These stories are fanciful human creations, which are sometimes useful for illustration or inspiration, but none are useful for directly representing realities. As fictional works, it's neither necessary nor feasible to expect the group to be reconcilable."

On the other hand, perhaps some followers may try to save their incoherent faith fusion through the unconventional retort, "The supernatural Something is real but also wholly ineffable. All faiths are incomplete attempts to reduce and control it. Any human idea about it can never be more 'correct' than the alternatives." Although their retort sounds intriguing and indisputable, it suffers from the fatal flaw of overreach. Its defeat of analysis is self-defeating. If every mental model of the Something cannot be checked for even partial accuracy, then the Something is literally unthinkable, indescribable, and alien. It admittedly succeeds in dodging every further question, but only by disqualifying every possible answer. It declares an uncertain amount of uncertainty, which sets it apart from pragmatic items of precisely limited uncertainty such as physics' Uncertainty Principle. Worse, under the presumption that all human ideas really achieve zero information about the Something, the most sensible course of action is to always disregard the pattern-less Something. Attempts to ponder it or base plans on it are futile and therefore wasteful.

Or, maybe they themselves don't follow their claim consistently, so it shouldn't be interpreted too seriously. Despite what they say, maybe some of them follow a faith that contains ideas, no matter how hazy, unsettled, or implicit. It could resemble an indistinct "Ietsism-plus", where Ietsism strictly-defined is the minimalist faith that "Something supernatural exists but we know nothing else about it." I once praised Ietsism for its unassuming humility about its knowledge, in comparison to many other supernatural beliefs. Accordingly, forms of Ietsism-plus are less praiseworthy. As soon as a follower begins to state Truths about their Something, they're back to admitting that it's disingenuous to call all faiths equivalent, because the faiths now have differing levels of accuracy depending on compatibility with their Something-Truths. To take one example of many, I imagine that a typical follower of Ietsism-plus may opt to preach a Truth that the Something is strongly in favor of life (don't bother asking them how they acquired this Truth). Then the controversy immediately begins. Doesn't this Truth imply that the faiths that don't outlaw war are less correct approximations about the Something than the faiths that do? What about veganism? What about executing wrongdoers? When pivotal practical details aren't brushed aside, followers of forms of Ietsism-plus probably aren't as sincerely committed to the notion that it's both possible and valuable to fuse all diverse faiths into a unique hypothetical crowd-pleasing Something.

Notwithstanding the purposeful vagueness of their Something, it shares at least one characteristic with the gods of other faiths: for whatever reason it "coincidentally" reaches most of the same ethical conclusions as its follower(s). This is why debates between much different faiths cannot be won through all participants invoking the common justification, "Because my god thinks so." Instead of that, they likely switch into a more persuasive and objective mode of which is (drumroll please) pragmatic. They try to identify concrete measurements and effects of their ethics' superiority: who will be helped or hurt, whose rights take priority, what rules are feasible, etc. Pragmatism acts as a neutral territory for everyone to meet. For this reason and others, I'm thankful that it isn't exclusive to my point of view, and that it can be of use to followers of faith in many ways.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

orderly abstract intelligence is a highly principled remix

When arguing against the natural evolutionary origin of humanity, flattery doesn't hurt. Consider the entire class of arguments which praise the uniqueness of humans in comparison to other biological organisms. For if humans are so incredibly special, then how could they be products of natural processes? How could their distinctiveness arise from an evolutionary continuum?   

Most often, the topic of human uniqueness focuses on intelligence and behavior. Does any other animal do _____? Is any other animal motivated by ______? Can any other animal easily solve puzzles like _______? And if not, then how are humans different? Expressed in a single debate-ready question: what is the mechanism behind the human flair for abstract intelligence, as opposed to the earthy intelligence demonstrated by "lower" animals?

Of course, in the context of evolution denial, mentioning this mysterious question probably isn't intended to lead to physical answers; the questioner is probably insinuating that the question has an equally mysterious metaphysical answer. However, regardless of the intent behind it, the question is still intriguing for anyone who accepts materialistic naturalism. Clearly there isn't yet a proven definitive answer to it—everyone will notice when there is one, because it will lead to unmistakable artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, informed speculation is necessary to fill the gap.

So speculate I shall. I concede that humans' abstract intelligence must operate somehow. My current thinking is that the question is framed to be subtly misleading. It deliberately hints that abstract intelligence is an additional centralized semi-independent ability which only human brains possess. In this view, the non-abstract, i.e. concrete and animal-like, portions of the brain receive and refine sense data and primal drives. Then those results flow into the supplementary "humans are awesome" brain part (e.g. the antiquated hypothesis of the pineal gland's function), where abstract intelligence performs miracles on the information.

This simplistic paradigm is unlikely. My current impression is that abstract intelligence acts more like an energetic remix of concrete intelligence. It's a complex set of coordinated interactions with all the types of concrete intelligence; it reuses, repurposes, redirects, even reprograms. It achieves unprecedented combinations. Although it's certainly a novel innovation in brain design that obviously produces drastically exceptional output, it's not built as a completely distinct type of intelligence. This more complicated paradigm is compatible with the known structure of the human brain, which indeed includes lengthy and numerous interconnections among the various parts that are devoted to identifiable types of concrete intelligence. The prefrontal cortex is a famous site for the junctions of these prominent interconnections, thereby creating excess routes.

It's not difficult to imagine the routes guiding the flow of data. But what if abstract intelligence also consists of routes for the flow of delegating reasoning? What if it's partly a metaphorical engine for translating data from one type of concrete intelligence to a second, and enabling the second's specialized processing on the initial data? What if the primary strategy is to "summon help" from diverse intricate types of concrete intelligence that have evolved for eons? For example, invoking the visual cortex to examine an abstract image as if it had originated from the eyes. If this were accurate, then it's an amusing instance of inversion of control, like the tail wagging the dog. When the triggered "lower" intelligence sends the solution back to the dispatching junction, the solution itself triggers yet another flow. I suppose this abstract give-and-take could last for a while, as intermediate solutions provoke further intermediate solutions.

On the other hand, unhampered conscious remixing of both data and reasoning would be chaotic. Under normal conditions the operation of abstract intelligence isn't a subjective experience of total bedlam, so presumably the remix obeys any number of organizing principles. The first could be the presence of fresh salient external data. Perhaps such data interrupts and overpowers most abstract loops of brain activity. Evolution surely has rewarded brains which prioritize sudden pertinent events in the organism's surroundings.

The second organizing principle could be the bonds supplied by narratives. Narratives furnish a strongly coherent context for abstract intelligence, and the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. In fact, I suspect that narratives are extremely influential and versatile tools for steering human thought at all levels of abstractness. Narratives derive strength from three features. First is language. The decoding of language systematically and rapidly activates swarms of ideas. So any organizing principle that harnesses language already has extensive access to the brain. But note that strong narratives can also be nonverbal. The second strong feature of narratives is episode. Like episodes in reality, episodes in narratives can have wide-ranging effects simultaneously. An episode isn't one thing, sensation, or concept. It's a blend of many in a momentary span of time, and the blend can cause any number of cascading reactions in the brain all at once. And in effect the blend reinforces the mutual association of all the data in the specific episode, according to the proverb for behavioral conditioning: "neurons that fire together wire together." The third strong feature of narratives is sequence. Narratives present the episodes in a particular sequence, and thus sequencing is an indispensable clue for comprehending and extracting relationships among episodes. The sequence is raw material for countless examples of abstract intelligence. It may tie together otherwise disparate data items: the sequence of merging any collection with a count of two and any collection with a count of three yields a collection with a count of five. It facilitates replaying or reciting: even a familiar telephone number demands more effort to state in reverse. I'm deeply interested in the precise representation of sequences in the "massively parallel" brain, because generally parallelism and sequencing are hard to reconcile.    

The third organizing principle could be timing. This includes forms of external synchronization such as tempo, rhythm, and repetition. Perhaps insistent timing effectively filters brain activation patterns, through direct disruption of patterns that don't match the timing. Moreover, timing seems like an unavoidable factor in the brain's coding of information. Nerve cells need to activate in timed groups—each nerve cell is too simple to encode information by itself. Each cell's contribution to the "meaning" is interdependent on other cells activated at that time, like a single minuscule display-dot that at one time is part of a "B" and at a later time is part of a "6". Timing shows up significantly in more ways, too. Overall brain activity has a customary timing, such as alpha waves or beta waves. During conversation, unexpected timing of phrases is considered highly distracting...and a sign of non-native speakers. During abstract data handling, timing is related to the boundaries between separate items: the start of the following item shouldn't be timed before the end of the preceding item. I wonder if it might encode data containment as well, via several coinciding timings of differing lengths. The larger enclosing unit could have a long timing, and the smaller enclosed units could have shorter timings that begin and conclude within the longer timing of the larger unit. Needless to say, music of all kinds is a prime example of the operation of this organizing principle.
The fourth organizing principle could be remodeling: restructuring the brain in order to act as a better-fitting model of specific information. As previously mentioned, remodeling ultimately occurs at cell level, when each cell's selective activation has lasting (or should I say memorable?) side effects by activating another cell. At coarser levels of detail, remodeling is merely a cumbersome synonym for learning—not just learning greater motor-nerve control over the body but also over inaccurate abstractions. Brain remodeling is like continuously redrawing a map by trial and error, whether that entails erasing mistakes or adding more information. Drastic changes are less possible at older ages, of course. Meanwhile, at a still-coarser level of detail, remodeling is societal and cultural. Explicitly and implicitly, culture introduces fundamental abstractions and then introduces more and more elaborate abstractions by remixing its fundamentals. Naturally, the preceding three organizing principles are effective tools for brain remodeling. For instance, a ritualistic chant may be a sensory experience that expresses a narrative and is always repeated according to predetermined timing. Remodeling nurtures and vitalizes abstract intelligence's potential. From generation to generation, remodeling ensures that the total cultural products of abstract intelligence are communal. The teaching, modification, and preservation of culture comes from a long-lived population of humans who remodel each other's brains.

After accounting for the constraining influence of organizing principles, it's more plausible that orderly abstract intelligence could occur through remixes of brain impulses. In this way, the mass of unintelligent pieces is neither a disjointed mob nor a rigid clockwork. If it were the disjointed mob, then it couldn't make any coherent cumulative progress. If it were the predictable clockwork, then it couldn't adapt to imperfect or surprising data. The inner workings of a principled remix lies in the middle between these extremes. That mode in the middle really isn't any more obscure than the two extremes, so perhaps it's unhelpful to use the magical-sounding term "emergent" just to describe its large-scale pattern effects. Something similar occurs all the time in other huge dynamically-structured groupings which incorporate small interactions among individual items or subgroups: colonies of eusocial insects, Internet routers, political movements in democracies, buyers and sellers in economies, cells in multicellular organisms, air masses in weather. For these common groupings, usually nobody objects to the simultaneous existence of the whole and also every item. Strictly speaking, the whole itself is an extant grouping and therefore it and its effects aren't emerging. The appearance of emergence is a side-effect of enlarging the viewing scale. The contents of abstract intelligence "emerge" from a large-scale view on innumerable synaptic teams.

Then the relevant follow-up question is how this applies to the experience of emergence in the brain. The other cases of large-scale observation have obvious observers and methods, such as an economist collecting many surveys or a weather satellite tracking many clouds. The counterpart in the brain could be one more organizing principle: resistance. If a cell at a somewhat central position resists activation until it receives a multitude of synchronized signals from other cells, then it distinguishes between small-scale and large-scale activation. Its activation "represents" a trending pattern. The resistant cell "ignores" a tiny impulse sent by lone cells but it "observes" a relatively wide signal sent by cooperative cell groups. And this setup could be repeated again, with entire groups of somewhat central resistant cells chained in turn to other groups of resistant cells. In effect, the cumulative resistance builds and builds, until the cells near the end of the chain only activate whenever the sending group of cells is especially plentiful. The active cell groups overcome resistance by forming the necessary alliance, acquiring the necessary key, lowering the necessary drawbridge, switching on the necessary transistor gate voltage. Some of the most influential coalition cells could be the ones which are tied to pain and pleasure, so that relatively neutral sensations or ideas are less likely to dominate overall brain activity. Resistance produces a selective result. Chaotic cell activations normally lose and are filtered out. Normal consciousness is infamously narrow because there can only be few popular victors. On the other hand, the competition is held a multitude of times, so it's also possible for past losers to overcome resistance later. At first, half-baked thoughts might have difficulty leaping the hurdles to consciousness, but once those thoughts have developed further, the resurfacing i.e. "emergence" could be sudden—the half-baked subconscious thought grew into an unconventional intuitive insight which broke into consciousness.

However, for emergence in particular, I realize that resistance and my other organizing principles are more complicated and/or unpoetic in comparison to metaphysical explanations. It's more comforting to propose that orderly abstract thinking is imposed reliably on the disarray from "above", rather than confronting the proposal that it's constructed from out of the "below" disarray using inherently fallible strategies. Unfortunately, reality on its own continues to refuse to conform to human preferences.