Friday, June 19, 2015

Why Would an AI System Need Phenomenal Consciousness?

In my last post on Jesse Prinz, we learned about the distinction between immediate, phenomenal awareness in consciousness in contrast to our more deliberative consciousness that operates with the contents of short term and longer term memory.  From moment to moment in our experience, there are mental contents in our awareness.  Not all of those contents make it into the global workspace and become available to reflective, deliberative thought, memory, or other cognitive functions.  That is, there are contents in phenomenal awareness that are experienced, and then they are just lost.  They cease to be anything to you, or part of the continuous narrative of experience that you reconstruct in later moments because they never make it to the neural processes that would capture them and make them available to you at later times.  

We also know that these contents of phenomenal consciousness are also most closely associated with the qualitative feels from our sensory periphery.  That is, phenomenal awareness is filled with the smells, tastes, colors, feels, and sounds of our sensory inputs.  Phenomenal awareness is filled with what some philosophers call qualia. 

Let me add to this account and see what progress we can make on the question of building a conscious AI system. 

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky got the Nobel Prize for their work uncovering what they call Dual Process Theory in the human mind.  We possess a set of quick, sloppy cognitive functions called System 1, and a more careful, slower more deliberative set of functions called System 2.  

System 1
System 2
Unconscious reasoning
Conscious reasoning
Judgments based on intuition
Judgments based on critical examination
Processes information quickly
Processes information slowly
Hypothetical reasoning
Logical reasoning
Large capacity
Small capacity
Prominent in animals and humans
Prominent only in humans
Unrelated to working memory
Related to working memory
Operates effortlessly and automatically
Operates with effort and control
Unintentional thinking
Intentional thinking
Influenced by experiences, emotions, and memories
Influenced by facts, logic, and evidence
Can be overridden by System 2
Used when System 1 fails to form a logical/acceptable conclusion
Prominent since human origins
Developed over time
Includes recognition, perception, orientation, etc.
Includes rule following, comparisons, weighing of options, etc.

In short, System 1 makes gains in speed for what it sacrifices in accuracy, and System 2 gives up speed for a reduction in errors. 

The evolutionary influences that led to this bifurcation are fairly widely agreed upon.  System 1 gets us out of difficulties when action has to be taken immediately so we don’t get crushed by a falling boulder, fall from the edge of a precipice, eaten by a charging predator, or smacked in the head by a flying object.  But when time and circumstance allows for rational deliberation, we can think things through, make longer term plans, strategize, problem solve, and so on. 

An AI system, depending on its purpose, need not be similarly constrained.  An AI system may not need to have both sets of functions.  And the medium of construction of an AI system may not require tradeoffs to such an extent.  Transmission time for conduction across neural cells is about 150 meters per second.  By the time the information about the baseball that is flying at you gets through your optic nerve, through the V1 visual cortex, and up to the pre-frontal lobe for serious contemplation, the ball has already hit you in the head.  Transmission time for silicon circuitry is effectively the speed of light.  We may not have to give up accuracy for speed to such an extent.  Evolution favored false positives over false negatives in the construction of many systems.  It’s better to mistake a boulder for a bear, as they say, than a bear for a boulder.  A better safe than sorry strategy is more favorable to your contribution to the gene pool for the species in many cases.  We need not give up accuracy for speed with AI systems, and we need not construct them to make the systematic errors we do. 

The neural processes that are monitoring the multitude of inputs from my sensory periphery are hidden from the view of my conscious awareness.  The motor neurons that fire, the sodium ions that traverse the cell membranes, the neurotransmitters that cross the synaptic gaps when I move my arm are not events that I can see, or detect in any fashion as neural events.  I experience them as the sensation of my arm moving.  From my perspective, moving my arm feels one way.  But the neural chemical events that are physically responsible are not available to me as neural chemical events.  A particular amalgam of neural-chemical events from my perspective tastes like sweetness, or hurts like a pin prick, or looks like magenta.  It would appear that evolution stumbled upon this sort of condensed, shorthand monitoring system to make fast work of categorizing certain classes of phenomenal experience for quick reference and response.  If the physical system in humans is capable of producing qualia that are experiencable from the subject’s point of view (It’s important to note that whether qualia are even real things is a hotly debated question  

then presumably a physical AI system could be built that generates them too.  Not even the fiercest epiphenomenalist, or modern property dualist denies mind/brain dependence.  But a legitimate question is, do we want or need to build an AI system with them?  What would be the purpose, aside from intellectual curiosity, of building qualia into an AI system?  If AI systems can be better designed than the systems that evolution built, and if AI systems need not be constrained by the tradeoffs, processing speed limitations, or other compromises that led to the particular character of human consciousness, then why put them in there? 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Artificial Intelligence and Conscious Attention--Jesse Prinz's AIR theory of Consciousness

Jesse Prinz has argued for that consciousness is best understood as mid-level attention.

Consciousness, Prinz argues, is best understood as mid-level attention.  

Low level representers in the brain are neurons that perform simple discrimination tasks such as edge or color detection.  They are activated early on in the process of stimuli from the sensory periphery. 

(a poorly taken, copyright violating picture from Michael Gazzaniga's Cognitive Neuroscience textbook.)

The activation of a horizontal edge detector, by itself, doesn’t constitute organized awareness of the object, or even the edge. 

Neuron complexes in human brains are also capable of very high level, abstract representation.  In a famous study, “Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the humanbrain,” Quiroga, Reddy, Kreiman, Kock, and Fried, they discovered the so-called Halle Berry neuron with some sensitive detectors inserted into different regions of the brains of some test subjects.  This neuron’s activity was correlated with activation patterns for a wide range of Halle Berry images. 

What’s really interesting here is that this neuron became active with quite varied photos and line drawings of Halle Berry, from different angles, in different lighting, in a Cat Woman costume, and even, remarkably, in response to the text “Halle Berry.”   That is, this neuron plays a role in the firing patterns for a highly abstract concept of Halle Berry. 

Prinz is interested in consciousness conceived as mid-level representational attention that lies somewhere between these two extremes.  “Consciousness is intermediate level representation.  Consciousness represents whole objects, rich with surface details, located in depth, and presented from a particular point of view.”  During the real time moments of phenomenal awareness, various representations come to take up our attention in the visual field.  Prinz argues that, “Consciousness arises when we attend, and attention makes information available to working memory. Consciousness does not depend on storage in working memory, and, indeed, the states we are conscious of cannot be adequately stored.”

When you look at a Necker cure, you can first be aware of the lower left square as the leading face.  Then you can switch your awareness to seeing the upper right square as the leading face.  So you attention has shifted from one representation to another. 

That is the level at which Prinz is located the mercurial notion of consciousness, and trying to develop a predictive theory based on the empirical evidence.  And Prinz goes to some lengths to argue that consciousness in this sense is not what’s moved into working memory, it’s not the contents necessarily that have become available to the global workspace such as when they are stored for later access.  These contents may or may not be accessible later for recall.  But at the moment they are the contents of mind, part of the flow and movement of attention. 

Here I’m not interested in the question of whether Prinz provides us with the best theory of human consciousness, but I am interested in what light his view can shed on the AI project.  I’m particularly interesting in Prinz here because it’s arguable that we already have artificial systems that are capable, more or less, of doing the low level and the high level representations described above.  Edge detection, color detection, simple feature detection in a “visual” field are relatively simple tasks for machines.  And processing at a high level of conceptual abstraction has been accomplished in some cases.  IBM’s Jeopardy playing system Watson successfully answered clues such as, “To push one of these paper products is to stretch established limits,” answer:  envelope.  “Tickets aren’t needed for this “event,” a black hole’s boundary from which matter can’t escape,” answer:  event horizon.  “A thief, or the bent part of an arm,” answer:  crook.  Even Google search algorithms do a remarkable job of divining the intentions behind our searches, excluding thousands of possible interpretations of our search strings that would be accurate to the letters, but have nothing to do with what we are interested in.

So think about this.  Simple feature detection isn’t a problem.  And we are on our way to some different kinds of high level conceptual abstraction.  Long term storage for further analysis also isn’t a problem for machines.  That’s one of the things that machines already do better than us.  But what Prinz has put his finger on is the ephemeral movement of attention from moment to moment in awareness.  During the course of writing this piece, I’ve been multi-tasking, which I shouldn’t have.  I’ve been answering emails, sorting out calendar scheduling, making plans to get kids from school, and so on.  And now I’m trying to recall what all I’ve been thinking about over the last hour.  Lots of it is available to me to now.  But there were, no doubt, a lot of mental contents, a lot of random thoughts, that came and went without leaving much of a trace.  I say, “no doubt,” because if they didn’t go into memory, if they didn’t become targets of substantial focus, then even though I had them then I won’t be able to bring them back now.  And I say, “no doubt,” because when I am attending to my conscious experience now, from moment to moment, and I’m really concentrating on just this point, I realize that I’m aware of the feeling of the clicking keyboard keys under my fingers, then I notice the music I’ve got playing in the background, then I glance at my email tab, and so on.  That is, my moments are filled with miscellaneous contents.  I’ve mode those particular ones into a bigger deal in my brain because I just wrote about them in a blog post.  But lots of our conscious lives, maybe most, those contents come and go, like hummingbirds flitting in and out of the scene.  And once they are gone, they are gone.

Now we can ask the questions:  Do we want an AI to have that?  Do we need an AI to have that?  Would it serve any purpose? 

Bottom Up Attention

That capacity in us served an evolutionary purpose.  At any given time, there are countless zombie agents, low level neuronal complexes, that are doing discriminatory work on information from the sensory periphery and from other neural structures.  The outputs of those discriminators may or may not end up being the subject of conscious attention.  In many cases, those contents become the focus of attention from the bottom up.  So lower level system deems the content important enough to call your attention to it, as it were.  So when your car doesn’t sound right when it’s starting up, or when a friend’s face reveals that he’s emotionally troubled it jumps to our attention.  Your brain is adept at scanning your environment for causes for alarm and then thrusting them into the spotlight of attention for action.  

Top Down Attention

But we are able to direct the spotlight as well.  We can focus our attention, sustain mental awareness on a task or some phenomena, to suss out details, make extended plans, anticipate problems, and model out possible future scenarios and so on.  You can go to work finding Waldo:

gives a more detailed account of the evolutionary functions of consciousness. 

Given what we saw above about the difference in Prinz between conscious attention and short and long term memory, we can see conscious attention can be seen as a sort of screening process.  A lot of ordinary phenomenal consciousness is the result of low level monitoring systems crossing a minimal threshold of concern.  This, right here is important enough to take a closer look at.  

Part of the reason that the window of our conscious attention is temporally brief and spatially finite is that resources are limited.  Resources were limited when evolution was building the system.  It’s kludged up from parts and systems that we re-adapted from other functions.  There was no long view, or deliberate planning on the process.  Just the slow pruning of mutation branches on the evolutionary tree.  And it modifies the gene pool according to the rates at which organisms, equipped as they are, manage to meet survival challenges. 

Kludge:  Consider to different ways to work on a car.  You could take it apart, analyze the systems, plan, make modifications, build new parts, and then reassemble the car.  While the car is taken apart and while you are building new parts, it doesn’t function.  It’s just a pile of parts on the shop floor. 
But imagine that the car is in a race, and there’s a bin of simple replacement parts on board, some only slightly different than the ones currently in the car, and modifications to the car must be made while the car is racing around the track with the other cars.  The car has to keep going at all times, or it’s out of the race for good.  Furthermore, no one gets to choose which parts get pulled out of the bin and put into the car.  That’s a kludge. 

Resources are also limited because evolution built a system that does triage.  The cognitive systems just have to be good enough to keep the organism alive long enough to bear its young, and possibly make a positive contribution toward their survival.  The monitoring systems that are keeping track of its environment just need to catch the deadly threats, and catch them only far enough in advance to save its ass.  It’s not allowed the luxury of long term, substantial contemplation of one topic or many to the exclusion of all others.  Furthermore, calories are limited.  Only so many can be scrounged up during the course of the day.  So only so many can be dedicated to the relatively costly expenditure of billions of active neural cells. 

The evolutionary functions of consciousness for us give us some insight into whether it might be useful or dangerous in an AI.  First, AIs can be better planned, better designed than evolution’s brains.  An AI need not be confined to triage functions, although we can imagine modeling human brains to some extent and using them to keep watch on bigger, more complex systems where more can go wrong than human operators could keep track of.  An AI might run an airport better, or a subway system, or a power grid, where hundreds or thousands or more subsystems need to be monitored for problems.  The success of self-driving Google cars already suggest what could be possible with wide spread implementation on the street and highway systems.  So bottom up indicated monitoring could clearly be useful in an AI system. 

Top down, executive directed control of the spotlight of attention, and the deliberate investment of processing resources into a representational complex with longer term planning and goal directed activity driving the attention could clearly be useful for an AI system too.  “Hal, we want you to find a cure for cancer.  Here are several hundred thousand journal articles.” 

The looming question, of course, is what about the dangers of building mid-level attention into an AI?  Bostrom’s Superintelligence has been looming in the back of my mind through this whole post.  It’s a big topic.  I’ll save that for a future post, or 3 or 10 or 25.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

Evil Demonology and Artificial Intelligence

Eliminativists eliminate.  In history, the concepts and theories that we build about the world form a scaffold for our inquiries.  As the investigation into some phenomena proceeds, we often find that the terms, the concepts, the equations, or even whole theories have gotten far enough out of synch with our observations to require consignment to the dustbin of history.  Demonology was once an active field of inquiry in our attempts to understand disease.  The humour theory of disease was another attempt to understand what was happening to Plague victims in the 14th century.  Medieval healers were trying to explain a bacterial infection with yersenia pestis 600 years before the microbe, the real cause, had even been identified.  Explanations of the disease symptoms in terms of imbalances of yellow bile, blood, black bile, and phlegm produced worthless and ineffective treatments.  So we eliminate humour theory of disease, demonology, the elan vital theory of life, God, Creationism, and so on as science marches on.  

Eliminativism has taken on the status of a dirty word among some philosophers, a bit like people who are quick to insist that they believe women are equal and all that, but they aren’t “feminists” because that’s too harsh or strident.  

But we can and should take an important lesson from EM, even if we don’t want to be card carrying members.  Theory changes can be ontologically conservative or ontologically radical depending on the extent to which they preserve the entities, concepts, or theoretical structures of the old account. 

That is, we can be conservative; we can hold onto the old terms, the old framework, the old theory, and revise the details in light of the new things we learn. 

Here’s how the Churchlands explains the process. 

We begin our inquiry into what appears to be several related phenomena, calling it “fire.”  Ultimately, when a robust scientific theory about the nature of the phenomena is in place, we learn that some of the things, like fireflies and comets, that we originally thought were related to burning wood, are actually fundamentally different.  And we learn that “fire” itself is not at all what we originally thought it was.  We have to start with some sort of conceptual scaffolding, but we rebuild it along the way, jettison some parts, and radically overhaul parts of it. 

My point then, is that we must take a vital lesson from the eliminativists about the AI project.  At the outset of our inquiry, it seems like terms such as “thinking,” “consciousness,” “self-awareness,” “thoughts,” “belief,” and so on identify real phenomena in the world.  These terms seem to break nature at the joints, as they say.  But we should be prepared, we should be eager even, to scrap the term, overhaul the definition, toss the theory, or otherwise regroup in the light of important new information.  We are rapidly moving into the golden age of brain science, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence research.  We should expect that to produce upheaval in the story we’ve been telling for the last several hundred years of thinking about thinking.  Let’s get ahead of the curve on that. 

With that in mind, I’ll use these terms in what follows with a great big asterisk:  * this is a sloppy term that is poorly defined and quite possibly misleading, but we’ve gotta start somewhere. 

Folk psychological terms that I’m prepared to kick to the curb:  belief, idea, concept, mind, consciousness, thought, will, desire, freedom, and so on.  That is, as we go about theorizing about and trying to build an AI, and someone raises a concern of the form, “But what about X?  Can it do X?  Oh, robots will never be able to do X….”  I am going to treat it as an open question whether X is even a real thing that needs to be taken into account. 

Imagine we time traveled a medieval healer from 14th century France to the Harvard school of medicine.  We show him around, we show him all the modern fancy tools we have for curing disease, we show him all the different departments where we address different kinds of disease, and we show him lots of cured patients.  He’s suitably impressed and takes it all in.  But then he says, “This is all very impressive and I am amazed by the sights and things going on here.  But you call yourselves healers? What you are doing here is interesting, but where are your demonologists?  In 700 years, have you not made any progress at all addressing the real source of human suffering which is demon possession?  Where is your department of demonology?  Those are the modern experts who I’d really like to talk to.”    

We don’t want to end up being that guy. 

We should expect, given the lessons of history, that some of the folk psychological terms that we’ve been using are going to turn out to not identify anything real, some of them will turn out to not be what we thought they’d be at all, and we’re going to end up filling in the details about minds in ways that we didn’t imagine at the outset.  Let’s not be curmudgeonly theorists, digging in our heels and refusing to innovate our conceptual structures.  But on the other hand, let’s also not be too ready to jump onto to every new theoretical bandwagon that comes along.   

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Turing and Machine Minds

In 1950, mathematician Alan M. Turing proposed a test for machine consciousness.  If a human interrogator could not distinguish between the responses of a real human being and a machine built to hold conversations, then we would have no reason, other than prejudice, for not admitting that the machine was in fact conscious and thinking. 

I won’t debate the merits or sufficiency of the Turing Test here.  But I will use it to introduce some clarifications into the AI discussion.  Turing thought that if a machine could do some of the things we do, like have conversations, that would be an adequate indicator of the presence of a mind.  But we need to get clear on the goal in building an artificial intelligence.  Human minds are what we have to work with as a model, but not everything about them is worth replicating or modeling.  For example, we are highly prone to confirmation bias, we have loss aversion, and we can only hold about 7-10 digits (a phone number) in short term working memory.  Being able to participate in a conversation would be an impressive feat, give the subtleties and vagaries of natural language.  But it’s a rather organic, idiosyncratic, and anthropocentric task.  And we might invest substantial effort and resources into replicating contingent, philosophically pointless attributes of the human mind instead of fully exploring some of the possibilities of a new, artificial mind of a different sort.  Japanese researchers, for example, have invested enormous amounts of money and effort into replicating subtle human facial expressions on robots.  Interesting for parties maybe, but we shouldn’t get lost up side tributaries as we move up the river to the source of mind. 

One of the standard objections to Turing’s thesis is this:  But a Turing machine/Artificial intelligence system can’t/doesn’t have _______________, where we insert one of the following: 

a. make mistakes.    (Trivial to build in, but inessential and unimportant.)
b. have emotions  (Inessential, and philosophically and practically uninteresting.)
c. fall in love  (Yawn.)
d. care/want  (Maybe this is important.  Perhaps having goals is essential/interesting.  It remains to be seen if this cannot be built into such a system.  More on goals later.)
e. freedom  (Depends on what you mean by freedom.  Short answer:  there don’t appear to be any substantial reasons a priori why an artificial system cannot be built that has “freedom” in the sense that’s meaningful and interesting in humans.  See Hume on freewill.
f. produce original ideas.  ( What does original mean?   A new synthesis of old concepts, contents, forms, styles?  That’s easy.  Watson, IBM’s jeopardy dominating system is being used to make new recipes, and lots of innovate, original solutions to problems.)
g. creativity  (What does this mean?  produce original new ideas?  See above.  Complex systems, such as Watson, have emergent properties.  They are able to lots of new things that their creators/programmers did not foresee.)
h. do anything that it’s not programmed to do.  (“Programmed” is outdated talk here.  More later on connectionist systems.  Can sophisticated AI programs do unpredictable things now?  Yes.  Can they now do things that the designers didn’t anticipate?  Yes.  Will they do more in the future as the technology advances?  Yes.) 
i. feel pleasure or pain  (I’ll concede, for the moment, that building an artificial system that has this capacity is a ways off technologically.  And I’ll concede that it’s a very interesting philosophical question.  I won’t concede that building this capacity in is impossible in principle.  And we must also ask why is it important?  Why do we need an AI to have this capacity?)
j. intelligence
k. consciousness
l. understand
m. qualitative or phenomenal states  (See Tononi, Koch, and McDermott)

I think objections a-h miss the point entirely.  I take it that for a-h, the denial that a system can be built with the attribute is either simply false, will be proven false, or the attribute isn’t interesting or important enough to warrant the attention.  i through m, however, are interesting.  And there’s a lot more to be said about them.  For each, we will need more than a simple denial without argument.  We need an argument with substantial principled, non-prejudicial reasons for thinking that these capacities are beyond the reach of technology.  (In general, history should have taught us to be very skeptical of grumbling naysaying the form of “This new-fangled technology will never be able to X.”  But one of the things I’m going to be doing in the blog in the future is caching out in much more detail what the terms intelligence, consciousness, understand, and phenomenal states should be taken to mean in the AI project context, and working out the details of what we might be able to build.   

But more importantly, I think the list of typical objections to Turing’s thesis raises this question:  just what do we want one of these things to do?  Maybe someone wants to simulate a human mind to a high degree of precision.  I can imagine a number of interesting reasons to do that.  Maybe we want to model up the human neural system to understand how it works.  Maybe we want to ultimately be able to replicate or even transfer a human consciousness into a medium that doesn’t have such a short expiration date.  Maybe we want to build helper robots that are very much like us and that understand us well.  Maybe a very close approximation of a human mind, with some suitable tweaks, could serve as a good, tireless, optimally effective therapist.  (See the early AI experiments with a therapy program.) 

But the human brain is a kludge.  It’s a messy, organic amalgam of a lot of different models and functions that evolved under one set of circumstances that later got repurposed for doing other things.  The path that led from point A to point B, where B is the set of cognitive capacities we have is convoluted, circuitous, full of fits and starts, peppered with false starts, tradeoffs, unintended consequences, byproducts, and the like.

A partial list of endemic cognitive fuckups in humans from Kahneman and Tversky (and me):  Confirmation Bias, Sunk Cost Fallacy, Asch Effect, Availability Heuristic, Motivated Reasoning, Hyperactive Agency Detection, Supernaturalism, Promiscuous Teleology, Faulty Causal Theorizing, Representativeness Heuristic, Planning Fallacy, Loss Aversion, Ignoring Base Rates, Magical Thinking, and Anchoring Effect. 

So with all of that said, again, what do we want an AI to do?  I don’t want one to make any of the mistakes on the list just above.  And I think that we shouldn’t even be talking about mistakes, emotions, falling in love, caring or wanting, freedom, or feeling pleasure of pain.  What these things show incredible promise at doing is understanding complex, challenging problems and then devising remarkable and valuable solutions to them.   Watson, the Jeopardy dominating system built by IBM, has been put to use devising new recipes.  Chef Watson is able to interact with would be chefs, compile a list of preferred flavors, textures, or ingredients, and then create new recipes, some of which are creative, surprising, and quite good.  The tamarind-cabbage slaw with crispy onions is quite good, I hear.  But within this seemingly frivolous application of some extremely sophisticated technology, there is a more important suggestion.  Imagine that Watson’s ingenuity is put to work in a genetics lab, in a cancer research center, in an engineering firm building a new bridge, or at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting the formation and movement of hurricanes.  I submit that building a system that can grasp our biggest problems, fold in all of the essential variables, and create solutions is the most important goal we should have.  And we should be injecting huge amounts of our resources into that pursuit.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Building Self-Aware Machines

The public mood toward the prospect of artificial intelligence is dark.  Increasingly, people fear the results of creating an intelligence whose abilities will far exceed our own, and who pursues goals that are not compatible with our own.  See Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence:  Paths, Dangers, Strategies for a good summary of those arguments.  I think resistance is a mistake (and futile) and I think we should be actively striving toward the construction of artificial intelligence.

When we ask “Can a machine be conscious?,” I believe we often misses several important distinctions.  With regard to the AI project, we would be better off distinguishing at least between qualitative/phenomenal states, exterior self-modeling, interior self-modeling, information processing, attention, sentience, executive top-down control, self-awareness, and so on.  Once we make a number of these distinctions, it becomes clear that we have already created systems with some of these capacities, others are not far off, and still others present the biggest challenges to the project. Here I will focus just on two, following Drew McDermott:  interior and exterior self-modeling. 

A cognitive system has a self-model if it has the capacity to represent, acknowledge, or take account of itself as an object in the world with other objects.  Exterior self-modeling requires treating the self solely as a physical, spatial-temporal object among other objects.  So you can easily spatially locate yourself in the room, you have a representation of where you are in relation to your mother’s house, or perhaps to the Eiffel Tower.  You can also easily temporally locate yourself.  You represent Napoleon as am 18th century French Emperor, and you are aware that the segment of time that you occupy is after the segment of time that he occupied.  Children swinging from one bar to another on the playground are employing an exterior self-model, as is a ground squirrel running back to its burrow.  

Exterior self-modeling is relatively easy to build into an artificial system compared to many other tasks that face the AI project.  Your phone is technologically advanced enough to put itself in a location in space in relationship to other objects with its GPS system.  I built a CNC machine in my garage (Computer Numeric Controlled cutting system) that I ”zero” out when I start it up.  I designate a location in a three dimensional coordinate system as (0, 0, 0) for the X, Y, and Z axes, then the machine keeps track of where it is in relation to that point as it cuts.  When it’s finished, it returns to (0, 0, 0).  The system knows where it is in space, at least in the very small segment of space that it is capable of representing (About 36” x 24” x 5”). 

Interior self-modeling is the capacity to represent yourself as an information processing, epistemic, representational agent.  That is, a system has an interior self-model if it represents the state of its own informational, cognitive capacities.  Loosely, it is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know.  It is a system that is able to locate the state of its own information about the world within a range of possible states.  When you recognize that watching too much Fox News might be contributing to your being negative about President Obama, you are employing an interior self-model.  When you resolve to not make a decision about which car to buy until you’ve done some more research, or when you wait until after the debates to decide which candidate to vote for, you are exercising your interior self-model.  You have located yourself as a thinking, believing, judging agent within a range of possible information states.  Making decisions requires information.  Making good decisions requires being able to assess how much information you have, how good it is, and how much more (or less) you need or how much better you need it to be in order to decide within the tolerances of your margins of error. 

So in order to endow an artificial cognitive system with an interior self-model, we must build it to model itself as an information system similar to how we’d build it to model itself in space and time.  Hypothetically, a system can have no information, or it can have all of the information.  And the information it has can be poor quality, with a high likelihood of being false, or it can be high quality, with a high likelihood of being true.  Those two dimensions are like a spatial-temporal framework, and the system must be able to locate its own information state within that range of possibilities.  Then the system, if we want it to make good decisions, must be able to recognize the difference between the state it is in and the minimally acceptable information state it should be in.  Then, ideally, we’d build it with the tools to close that gap.  Imagine a doctor who is presented with a patient with an unfamiliar set of symptoms.  Recognizing that she doesn’t have enough information to diagnosis the problem, she does a literature search so that she can responsibly address it.  Now imagine an artificial system with reliable decisions heuristics that recognizes the adequacy or inadequacy of its information base, and then does a medical literature review that is far more comprehensive, consistent, and discerning than a human doctor is capable of.  At the first level, our AI system needs to be able to compile and process information that will produce a decision.  But at the second level, our AI system must be able to judge its own fitness for making that decision and rectify the information state short coming if there is one.  Representing itself as an epistemic agent in this fashion strikes me as one of the most important and interesting ways to flesh out the notion of being “self-aware” that is often brought up when we ask the question “Can a machine be conscious?” 

McDermott, Drew.  “Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness,”  The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, 117-150.  Zelazo, Moscovitch, and Thompson, eds.  2007.  Also here:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Myth of the Afterlife

This just came out.  I wrote the lead chapter in it.  Buy it at Amazon:

The Myth of the Afterlife

Monday, March 30, 2015

The F Word Lecture

Here's video, shot by Nathan Lusher (Thanks Nathan!), of my talk from Manteca a few days ago.  I spoke to the Stanislaus Humanists at the Manteca Public Library.  This year there wasn't a huge angry mob outside, but hey, you can't win them all.  

Many believers defend their belief by invoking faith.  Believing by faith, we are told, solves whatever problems there may be with the evidence.  Believing by faith is widely thought to be admirable and virtuous.  

But believing despite lacking or contrary evidence is dangerously misguided.  I make a case to believers why they should not resort to this defense and I explain why faith from the believer to the skeptic cannot be prescriptive.  It implies no intellectual obligation to believe.  Faith is believing without rules.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The F Word

The F Word.

I'm speaking to a secular humanists group tonight in Manteca at the Manteca Public Library at 7:00.  I'll be talking about the problems with believing by faith.

My presentation is here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ad hominem: Your Sins Keep You from Seeing God

I'm recycling this post from 2007.  This guy put his finger on something:

A group of philosophers sympathetic with the Christian take on things have constructed a complicated and technical account of God beliefs and their source in human cognition known as reformed epistemology. On the view, espoused by Plantinga and Wolterstorff and widely cited and supported in recent years, humans are endowed by God with an innate faculty for sensing God under the right circumstances. This sensus divinitatus is one aspect of a properly functioning cognitive and belief forming system in humans. When it is not corrupted by the invasive noetic effects of sin, this faculty produces a belief in God that is immediate, direct, and non-inferentially justified. That is, a belief in God is properly basic according to the reformed epistemologists. It is not supported by any other independent or more fundamental facts. It cannot be justified on the basis of other beliefs. Rather, it’s axiomatic like the law of non-contradiction or the identity of indiscernibles. The sensus divinitatus will manifest itself in a variety of ways—when you see a sweeping vista of majestic mountaintops, or when your first child is born, or upon pondering the vastness and magnificence of the universe in the night sky.

Misinterpreting these feelings of the divine as indicators of a non-Christian God as a Hindu might, or suppressing them and denying that God is manifest in experience are all the by-products of a sinful nature. Doubters, skeptics, and deniers—anyone who doesn’t buy into the Reformed Epistemology picture—have all had their God given God detectors corrupted, co-opted, and distorted by sin. What they need, of course, is the salvation of Jesus to cleanse them of their immorality and to restore the proper function of their belief faculties. Then they will see that they were not right with God before. And then they will have properly basis religious experience of God. So the view has a the tidy way to deal with criticisms and legitimate objections. No objection to the whole scheme can have any merit because it arises from doubt, which is really just wickedness. If you had some experiences that seemed to have profound religious significance, like any normal person you would wonder about alternative explanations. Could this just be a weird artifact of my neurology? I wonder what natural explanation there could be for this strange disassociation? Maybe I ate something bad? The full-blown theistic supernatural explanation is one possibility. But according to Reformed Epistemology any suspicion that you have that it might have been something natural is really the result of your innately evil nature and the taint that sin has placed on your ability to think straight. They position undercuts any objections with an ad hominem attack on the moral character of the questioner. 

The whole scheme is also clever (and insidious) for inventing a notion of private evidence that shouldn’t be held up for any public scrutiny by someone who has doubts. Once you’re in the special club, you’re provided with “self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit” that gives you perfect, unassailable assurance about your God doctrine no matter what empirical questions or doubts may arise. Ordinarily, evidence is something that is sharable and public. The prosecuting attorney displays the gun that was the murder weapon for everyone in the court, the dentist looks at X-rays, and your mechanic points to the leaking oil around a gasket as evidence that there is a problem. But this special God feeling isn’t like that; it’s just a feeling you have that something’s got to be true, so it can’t be shared with anyone else. Plantinga and some of the people in this camp suggest that the earnest Christian in this situation ought to consider alternative explanations for their experience. Many properly basic beliefs, including the God one presumably, are defeasible. If you have the experiences, and if your conviction that that’s really God your feeling persists after you have scrutinized the belief and reflected on what might be causing it, then you will have a warranted, and true belief that there is a God.

Needless to say, the notion of private evidence here is deeply problematic. Imagine an IRS agent telling you that she’s got self-authenticating, private evidence that you can’t see that you owe the government an extra $20,000 tax dollars. Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. Then suppose furthermore that they assure you that their conclusion is right because they have thought long and hard about it and considered other possibilities. Evidence that's private isn't really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant. 

Here’s a model of human rationality and religious belief that is much more accurate. Humans are endowed by evolution with a remarkably effective set of problem solving skills that can be group loosely under the general heading “reason.” In the right circumstances, our reason allows us to devise complicated and elegant solutions to challenges, make accurate inferences and predictions, and arrive at many well-justified and true beliefs. We manage to cure diseases like polio and land people on the moon. But our cognitive systems are kludgey and imperfect. They’re strapped together with disparate functions and tools that were available at various stages in a long, convoluted evolutionary history. Sometimes they don’t track the truth at all, like when you have an attack of claustrophobia, or you can’t bear to even look at a dish that once made you sick when you were a child. Sometimes our cognitive faculties overreact, mislead, underestimate, or misjudge. 

Our fancier faculties of reason are also often overwhelmed by a variety of emotional, psychological, and biological forces that erode our ability to reason well and see the truth. One legacy of our evolutionary history appears to be a powerful disposition towards religious belief, experiences, and feelings. Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker have recently argued that natural selection may have endowed us with a sort of mind-attribution module. Construing other organisms behavior as the product of the planning and goals within their minds, whether they really have them or not, would be an effective mechanism for anticipating and projecting the behaviors of potential predators and prey. But we’re just built to take it too far and endow everything with a mind—the wind, the ocean, the starry sky, and the world itself. 

In an earlier post, I called it the Urge—a powerful and seductive need we have to be religious. Completely aside from the factual question of God, it is obvious to anyone who observes humans and their religious activities that we desperately want there to be a God and we will adopt the most contorted gymnastics of reasoning to rationalize the belief. Even if there are some theists with good reasons, there are far more with sloppy, fallacy ridden, biased grounds that they offer for their beliefs. And in lots of these cases, it’s not really the poor reasoning that is offered in defense of someone’s God belief that led them to believe at all. More often it is the case that people have the belief first as a result of the Urge’s infiltration of their consciousness, and then they back fill that conclusion with some superficial reasons. So the Urge is really the dark side of your nature that threatens to corrupt your more noble aspects. It’s the alluring, siren call of religion itself, not sin, that will co-opt reason’s ability to see the world in an accurate light. 

Staying on the straight and narrow will require resisting the temptation of religion’s easy, emotionally satisfying answers to the biggest metaphysical questions. Living up to your potential to reason clearly and evaluate the evidence objectively demands that you be constantly vigilant against seduction of religion’s false comforts.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Double Standards for Jesus

I got interviewed by Alan Litchfield recently for his podcast:

Take a listen to hear me get pretty heated up about the narcissism of many contemporary Christians' views about God, and for details about my recent Manteca lecture that was met with a crowd of angry, tongues-speaking evangelicals trying to exorcise me out of town.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thinking Critically About God

My recent lecture to the Stanislaus Humanists in Manteca, CA on Jan. 15 has caused some controversy locally.  See some of the heated letters to the editor here: under the Opinion section.  

In response, I wrote this letter to the editor of the paper.  Let's hope they publish it and I get an opportunity to talk to some of that local church groups.  The pastor of the church that demonstrated that night has declined my offer.  

My name is Matt McCormick.  I am the professor who gave the lecture to the Stanislaus Humanist group at the Manteca Library on January 15. 

I’d like to thank the Stanislaus Humanists for inviting me to speak.  And I’d like to thank all of the people from Manteca who came out either to hear me speak, or to participate in the events outside the building that night. 

My lecture has stirred up quite a bit of controversy.  I’d like to present a few thoughts on what I take to be a fundamental issue, and I’d like to make an offer to any churches or other groups in Manteca. 

The most fundamental requirement for a successful democracy, and for human prosperity and happiness, is for individuals to, first, be informed with the full range of relevant ideas, particularly concerning important decisions, and, second, for them to have the critical thinking skills to be able to reason clearly, accurately, and reliably about that body of information. 

In religious organizations, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the tradition, the social model is fundamentally authoritarian; the clergy lead, they shepherd, they give their congregations the answers, they enforce belief conformity, they exclude dissenters, they exclude contrary ideas, they discourage doubts, and they discourage independent thinking.  Much of this was evident in the dangerous rhetoric in response to my coming to speak in Manteca.  Many of the comments and reactions before, during and after have been dangerous, combative, and confrontational.  One pastor, praying about my lecture before I came to town said, “We drive back any atheist movement right now in the name of Jesus. . . We must repel the demonic attack on our city," and he prayed, "God, cause a storm to happen or something [on Wednesday night]."  Another pastor said that I was an "evangelical atheist," and "they're going to try to put up billboards, they're going to try to do other things to convince people that God is not real. . .  And, as far as I'm concerned, this is our house.  This is our house.  This is our city." 

The social model for a liberal arts education at a university like where I am a professor is fundamentally democratic; my job is to encourage people to actively consider contrary ideas, think for themselves, make their own decisions, be independent, to not blindly trust authority, and to not be manipulated by emotional ploys or rhetoric.  Our goal is to get people to reason well.  We are neutral with regard to the outcome of that reasoning process; people should be free to draw whatever conclusion they deem to be best supported by sound reasoning and the evidence.  Creating atheists is not my goal; I would rather people become thoughtful, rational, well-informed believers in God than have them be dogmatic and irrational. 

Many pastors, preachers, priests, and other clergy are dedicated to keeping you believing no matter what the evidence is.  And they wittingly or unwittingly use a variety of methods to do it that are at odds with your being an independent, informed, and effective critical thinker.  Some of them and some of their methods encourage ignorance, superstition, intolerance, irrationality, and narrow-mindedness.  We should all be deeply concerned about clergy who would capitalize on the ignorance of people who don't have the critical thinking skills or the information to know any better, to keep them from making thoughtful, informed, reasonable decisions for themselves. 

So with all of that in mind, I’d like to make an offer.  I would like to come and speak to any church or group in the Manteca area who would host me, and present some of my questions and doubts about the resurrection of Jesus.  People should have free access to information, including viewpoints that may seem outrageous or offensive, and they should be able to develop informed, reasonable conclusions about matters of great importance on the basis of the full body of relevant information.  My email address is

Monday, January 27, 2014

Talking them out of God

On my recent visit to Manteca to speak to Stanislaw Humanists about the resurrection, we had a bit of drama with some local church members.  When I arrived at the library to speak, there were 300 or so people assembled outside for a counter-protest/prayer vigil/religious service.  They had a P.A. system set up, were playing music, praying, passing out food, and so on.  During my talk, among other things, they encircled the building, held hands, and prayed fervently about what was going on inside.  A number of them sat through my talk and asked some questions after.  A couple of self-described “security” guys came in and out during the talk, had intense conversations on radio headsets, and scowled at me while I talked.  A number of them lurked outside the open door to the lecture hall and listened.  I invited them to come in and sit down, but they refused.  Some others who were passing by shouted into the room later in the talk.  And when I walked back to my car at the end of the night, a car full of people followed me slowly and finally drove off when I got in my car and started it. 
Here’s a video of the talk:

(Inexplicably, YouTube won't let me embed this one.)  

In a video of their sermon the week before, one of the pastor’s said, “We must drive back this demonic attack from our city” language during the prayer.  And also note the territorial language in their characterization of my visit. 

There’s a lot to comment on here.  But I want to focus on a particular issue that’s been on my mind.  Let’s talk on a meta-level about what’s going on when someone like me tries to give a carefully reasoned argument for why someone like the believers who showed up to my talk should stop believing. 

First, the Salem Witch Trials argument that I’ve been presenting for some years now, and in my book, is, as far as I can tell, a devastating argument against anyone who thinks that there is adequate historical evidence to justify believing in the resurrection.  No false modesty here.  The point is that if the really sketchy historical information we have about Jesus warrants concluding that he was resurrected, then the evidence we have concerning witchcraft at Salem, which is vastly better by any measure of quantity and quality, warrants us in concluding that there were really witches at Salem.  But, of course, there was no magic at Salem.  So we should reject both.  There are lots more details about this argument in my book. 

But here’s what I want to get to.  First, this sort of argument has almost no effect on the majority of believers who hear it.  That is due, in large part to motivated reasoning.  This is a well-studied proclivity in humans to acquire a belief, and then evaluate all new information they encounter in ways to make it conform to that belief.  Preference inconsistent information is critically evaluated with much more sever skepticism, and preference consistent information is accepted with much less critical scrutiny.  That is, if it’s not what we want to hear, we figure out some hyper-critical way to find flaws in it and reject it.  We all do it about lots of topics.  My book full of skeptical arguments about Jesus, not surprisingly, has brought motivated reasoners out in droves. 

These days, I find the base phenomena of motivated reasoning and the psychology of belief more interesting than actually engaging in the philosophical debate over that Salem argument.  The Salem argument is a slam dunk, as I see it.  The only question that remains is, what are the real reasons, psychological, social, personal, and neurobiological, that it just bounces off of so many believers? 

One of the reactions in Manteca got my attention.  Someone said something like this, “He’s making this argument comparing Jesus to the Salem Witch Trials or some nonsense, and he thinks that Jesus wasn’t real. [That wasn’t my argument, of course]. But we all know because of the presence of Jesus in our lives, and because of what we’ve seen God do that God is real and Jesus is his one true son. . . .  “ 

So I want to talk about that part:  the body of evidence that folks like the ones who showed up for my talk, take to be resounding proof of God.  I’m going to speculate a bit about what that is. 

First, this group of believers, like many in the U.S., is highly adept at getting themselves into a state of religious ecstasy, for lack of a better term.  Watch this bit of video, shot by local activist Dan Pemberton, of them praying.

Note the swaying, waving of hands, eyes closed, speaking in tongues, moral elevation, and altered state of consciousness in many of them.  And notice how quickly and easily they can slip into this state as they work themselves up.  There are some very powerful feelings surging through people here.  Undeniably uplifting, positive feelings of elation, transcendence, connection with something larger, and so on.  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have called something like this moral elevation: 

But I think what’s going on here also merges on to religious ecstasy:

Ok, so let’s take a believer and take the sum of all these ecstatic moments that she’s had as a part of her evidence.  What else is there? 

There’s probably also a number of cases where she’s prayed fervently for something—for a loved one to get better from illness, for someone to overcome drug addiction, for guidance about some important decision, and so on—and then as she sees it, later, the outcome she prayed for happened.  A loved one got over an illness, someone recovered from drug addiction, etc. 

What else?  All of her friends and family believe fervently.  They are utterly convinced.  God existence and God’s presence in their lives is an obvious truth to them.  The fact that so many people around her, including lots of people whose judgment she trusts, itself is a part of her evidence.  It’s part of what’s leading her to believe.  And this makes perfect sense.  We all look to the people around us for guidance about what to believe. 

So what would be required to bring someone like this around?  Importantly, a person who believes needs to care about believing reasonably, they need to care about the evidence, they must have as a priority something like Hume’s principle:  Believe all and only those things that are best supported by the evidence.  And believe them with a conviction that commensurate to the quality and quantity of evidence in your possession.  And make a concerted effort to gather all the relevant evidence (pro and con) that time, resources, and prioritization requires.  Call this set of priorities a Rationality Principle. 

Obviously, the Rationality Principle is huge.  Lots of people don’t have it as a priority.  Lots of people don’t understand parts of it.  And lots of people fail to see how central it is to their achieving lots of their goals.  So a real discussion with a believer that has the goal of getting them to not believe may just turn into a broader, and more fundamental discussion of why she ought to adopt or care about this principle. 

Next?  Well, it’s important to note, I think, that our hypothetical believer here has a lot of what we should call evidence.  She has a number of observations, experiences, events in her life, and a lot of information that is relevant to whether God is real.  And as she sees it, that information all points towards the God conclusion.  So if we can assume that she holds the Rationality Principle, then we’ve got to address this body of evidence.  We’ve got to look at the ecstatic experiences, the “answered prayers,” the community belief, and the rest, and we’ve got to figure out what the best explanation of all of that is.  God’s existence is a possible explanation, but it’s pretty clearly not the best explanation.  But convincing someone of that is the hard part.  A nice, short analysis of a reasoning mistake that is often made about prayer is in this video:   

The problem with this piece that that the writing and the tone here is inflammatory.  Even though he’s making a set of very good points about how prayer is set up to be non-disconfirmable, he does it in a way that will offend people and obscure the message. 

What about the religious ecstasy?  I have a number of ideas about what might put those experiences into a larger, natural context for people.  They are common in lots of human religions, including ones that make contrary claims to Christianity.  So one person arguing for God on the basis of her ecstatic experiences is faced with millions of other people having just the same sorts of experiences but taking them to imply that the opposite is true.  People also have these experiences, or something very close to them, at Justin Bieber concerts, during football games, when the national anthem is played, during chick flicks, and so on.  They are common, easily induced naturally, and we don’t have any substantial reason to think that the best explanation here is supernatural. 

What about the community believer evidence?  Education is the best key here.  Manteca, for instance, is an isolated, rural town.  Lots of the people there who got sucked into that church at an early age have never seen or considered the alternatives.  They’ve never been around non-believers.  They know very little about other religious movements, religious history, or the broader context of human religious belief.  Learning the basics about worldwide religious movements puts human religiousness into context, and usually suggests a natural, rather than a supernatural explanation.  The Internet will save us, I think.  It is democratizing information for humanity in a way that has never occurred in history.  A massive flood of information is available to a greater portion of people on the planet every day.  And at the end of the day, the more someone like the people in Manteca, or someone in backwater village in India, knows about what other people out there in the world think, they more they will put 2 and 2 together.  In a few generations, religiousness, especially the worst, most dangerous parts of it, will drop dramatically.  Daniel Dennett is good on this point here:

So there’s a sketch of what I think is going on in the head of a subset of American Christian believers.  That’s an enumeration of their evidence, and some rough suggestions about what it will take to win them, or more likely, their children or their grandchildren over.