Thursday, October 09, 2008

minsky 9: the self

Overview of Chapter 9 of The Emotion Machine (summary, online draft, buy)

The Single Self idea keeps us from wasting time about difficult questions about our mind

How does vision work? "Your Self simply peers out through your eyes"
How does memory work? "Your Self knows how to recollect what might be relevant"

Sometimes physicists strive to construct a single model or a grand unified theory. Nevertheless, physics contains many different subjects and each has its own (useful) way of describing the world. Whenever a subject becomes important to us we tend to build multiple models. This diversity is a principle source of our resourcefulness

We each make multiple models of ourselves

Our subpersonalities will frequently need to compete for control of higher level processes

William James (1890) on recalling childhood:
"... that child is a foreign creature with which our present self is no more identified in feeling than it is with some stranger's living child today ..."
Daniel Dennett (1991) on Self:
"... like spider webs, our tales are spun by us; our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source ... their effect on any audience ... is to encourage them to posit a unified agent whose words they are, about whom they are ... a 'centre of narrative gravity'"
Instead of asking about our Identity it is better to ask, "Which of my models of myself best serves my present purposes?"

Personality traits

We describe people as having character traits - disciplined, honest, attentive, friendly

Possible causes for personal traits:
Inborn, genetic -
Learned -
Investment principle - hard to displace tried and trusted methods that work
Archetypes and Self-Ideals - our cultural heroes and villains
Self control - to keep ourselves from constantly changing our goals and priorities

Nevertheless, the concept of traits can be treacherous, for example, the generalities of astrology influence many

Self Control

To achieve long range goals you need self control. But self control is hard. We use tricks to achieve self control, we threaten or bribe ourselves, "I'll be ashamed if I give in to this", "I'll be proud if I can accomplish this"

Why must we use devious tricks to control or Ways to Think, instead of just choosing to do what you want to do?

Directness would be too dangerous (see Chapter 3) We would probably die if one part of our mind could take over the rest. In emergencies our instincts need to take over

Many of us spend much of our lives seeking ways to make our minds behave

Dumbbell ideas and dispositions

People like two part distinctions. Minksy provides many examples, both of traits (eg. solitary v. sociable) and of alleged characteristics of right and left brain thinking (eg. rational v. intuitive). Many things seem to come in opposing pairs.

Minsky thinks two part distinctions are too simple:
" usually makes little sense to commit ourselves, for all future times, about which objects to like and dislike - or about which persons, places, goals or beliefs we should seek to avoid, or accept or reject - because all such decisions should also depend on contexts ....most dumbbell distinctions ... appear to be so simple and clear that they seem to be all that you need - and that tempts you to stop. Yet most of the novel ideas in this book came from finding that two parts are rarely enough - and eventually my rule became: when thinking about psychology, one should never start with less than three different parts or hypotheses!"

Why do we like the idea of a self?

What leads us to the strange idea that our thoughts cannot just proceed by themselves, but need something else to control them? We use words like "Me" and "I" to keep us from thinking about what we are!

Various ways in which the Single-Self concept is useful to us:
Localised body is consistent with Single-Self
Private mind - the idea (illusion?) that only you hold the keys to the strong closed box of your private mind
Explaining our minds - if we can think "I perceive the things that I see" then it keeps us from wasting time on questions about perception that we don't know the answer to
Moral responsibility - to justify our laws and moral codes we assume that Selves are responsible for intentional deeds
Centralised economy / Decisiveness - "Thats enough thinking, I've made my decision!"
Causal attribution - we like to attribute causes
Attention and focus - we often think we have a single stream of consciousness to which we attend
Social relations - others think of themselves as Single Selves, we might be seen as weird if we didn't play along!

Our minds are messy. We spend large parts of our lives tidying them up - selecting, suppressing, refining

What is pleasure and why do we like it?

Emotions are hard to describe because they seem hard to split into parts. Hence there seems to be nothing to use as pieces of explanation

Minsky argues that pleasure is a suitcase word for quite a few different processes:
  • Satisfaction - achieving an ambition
  • Exploration - a quest, the pleasure is not only at the end
  • Goal suppression - critics and other goals suppressed
  • Relief - if the goal was the elimination of an irritation
Pleasure and satisfaction refer to extensive networks of processes we don't yet understand. We tend to treat complex, hard to grasp things as single and indivisible.

The pleasure of exploration

Adventurousness is an antidote for exploring unfamiliar terrain, which can lead to pain and distress. Learning by small incremental positively rewarded steps is limited

When we are learning a new technique, we need to work harder with fewer rewards, while enduring the additional stress of being confused and disoriented. We may have to abandon older techniques which have served us well. We may arouse a sense of loss or grief and a temptation to quit. Such learners have trained themselves to enjoy discomfort

Exploring the contradiction of enjoying discomfort: Pleasure is not a basic all or nothing thing just as the Self is not a single thing. Some parts of the mind may be uncomfortable but other parts enjoy forcing those first parts to work for them: "Good, this is a chance to experience awkwardness and to discover new kinds of mistakes"

We can envisage pleasure as negative, in the way it can suppress competing goals

What makes feelings so hard to describe?

The alleged mysteries of "subjective experience" or "directness of experience" arises from the inability of our higher level processes to detect all the intermediate steps involved in these experiences, eg. touching, redness. Some philosophers (dualists) conclude that materialist explanations of such things is impossible. Minsky argues that they have not worked hard enough to imagine adequate models of those processes.

How important is "privileged access" to our own mind? Sometimes our self assessments are inept, our friends may have better ideas of our real state

The sense of having an experience

Perception or Sensations are not "basic" (see Chapter 5). More signals flow down to the sensory cortex than in the opposite direction, presumably to help us see what we expect to see. We frequently "see" things that do not exist, eg. this square:

How is a human mind organised?

Each normal child eventually learns to:
  • recognise, represent and reflect upon some of his own internal states
  • self reflect on some of his intentions and feeling
  • identify with aspects of how others behave
Summary of the kinds of structures would support these developments:

1) Deal with various situations by activating certain sets of resources, which are different Ways to Think
2) How would we determine which resources to select?
(a) for simple situations use use If--> Do rules
(b) for more versatile situations use Critic --> Selector schemes

3) The adult mind develops multiple levels of functioning and each level contains Critics and Selectors (See Chapters 5,6,7)

4) Various Ways to Think might also have levels of different symbolic expressiveness (See Chapter 8)
5) Our model needs to have room for answers to questions we haven't thought of asking yet. Envision the mind as a decentralised cloud of yet unimagined processes, interacting in still unspecified ways

Central and Peripheral Controls

We have various "alarmers" which interrupt higher level processes. Sometimes our thinking processes "break down". Some examples:
  • trouble recalling past events
  • trouble solving an urgent problem
  • cannot decide which action to take
  • lost track of what you were trying to do
  • a surprise happens
But we are capable of rapid recovery

Mental Bugs and Parasites

Examples of mental parasites include self reproducing sets of ideas (memes) which can displace competing ideas - doctrines, philosophies, faiths, beliefs

The dignity of complexity

Our brains have evolved in a process that has taken 30 million centuries

Some of our sources of human resourcefulness come from three vastly different time scales:
  • Genetic endowment
  • Cultural heritage
  • Individual experience
Most of our commonsense knowledge may be embodied as metaphors in the form of panalogies (See Chapter 6)

We have multiple descriptions of things - and can quickly switch among them
We make memory records of what we've done - so that later we can reflect on them
Whenever one of our Ways to Think fails, we can switch to another
We split hard problems into smaller parts, and keep track of them with our context stacks
We manage to control our minds with all sorts of bribes, incentives and threats

Our minds have bugs! For example, our powerful imagination can lead us to set out on extensive but futile quests!

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