In this post, I’m rambling aloud about the human “parliamentary mind” and speculate about the intelligence of other arguably-sentient creatures.
The Parliamentary Mind
“Some years ago, there was a lovely philosopher of science and journalist in Italy named Giulio Giorello, and he did an interview with me. And I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but the headline in Corriere della Sera when it was published was “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” And I thought, exactly. That’s the view. Yes, we have a soul, but in what sense? In the sense that our brains, unlike the brains even of dogs and cats and chimpanzees and dolphins, our brains have functional structures that give our brains powers that no other brains have – powers of look-ahead, primarily. We can understand our position in the world, we can see the future, we can understand where we came from. We know that we’re here. No buffalo knows it’s a buffalo, but we jolly well know that we’re members of Homo sapiens, and it’s the knowledge that we have and the can-do, our capacity to think ahead and to reflect and to evaluate and to evaluate our evaluations, and evaluate the grounds for our evaluations.
It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.”
-Daniel Dennett, (whom I’m seeing in a lecture in two weeks!)
My favorite article in recent memory is “UX and the Civilizing Process“. I highly recommend it. Synopsis:
“Now if etiquette civilizes human beings, then the discipline of UX civilizes technology. Both solve the problem of taking a messy, complicated system, prone by its nature to ‘bad’ behavior, and coaxing it toward behaviors more suitable to social interaction. Both succeed by exposing intelligible, acceptable behaviors while, critically, hiding most of the others.”
Anyway, not really engaging the meat of that article today. Just jumping off from this bit:
The concept of a person is arguably the most important interface ever developed.
In computer science, an interface is the exposed ‘surface area’ of a system, presented to the outside world in order to mediate between inside and outside. The point of an (idealized, abstract) interface is to hide the (messy, concrete) implementation — the reality on top of which the interface is constructed.
A person (as such) is a social fiction: an abstraction specifying the contract for an idealized interaction partner. Most of our institutions, even whole civilizations, are built to this interface — but fundamentally we are human beings, i.e., mere creatures. Some of us implement the person interface, but many of us (such as infants or the profoundly psychotic) don’t. Even the most ironclad person among us will find herself the occasional subject of an outburst or breakdown that reveals what a leaky abstraction her personhood really is. The reality, as Mike Travers recently argued, is that each of us is an inconsistent mess — a “disorderly riot” of competing factions, just barely holding it all together.
The Travers piece linked is also recommended, especially if you’re not on-board with the idea that the singular self is a fiction. From that piece, The Government Within:
So you and every person you interact with are each a whole society of separate agents, with an internal economy, government, and politics. Some people may be organized like monarchies with a strong central self, others may be more anarchic bundles of disparate impulses, others may be flexibly improvising democracies of interest. A kind of mental anarchy is probably the infantile ground state, with structures of governance emerging over time. We all probably are familiar with people who have either too much or too little governance over their impulses. Personal interactions are like diplomatic missions between countries, and our social selves the ambassadors, forced to represent a complex system in a simple, polished, and understandable form.
I like the idea of minds as social structures, the result of tiny pseudo-institutions or markets. Human Intelligence could be seen as parliamentary. The parliament isn’t a perfect abstraction because it sort of continues this metaphor of homunculi that has so poisoned our view of our own minds, but it is useful enough for understanding the multiplicity within our own heads.
My mind wandered, though, to the more alien mind-governments we might attempt diplomacy with.
There is more to the world than the cleanly-formed nation-state.
The Cephalopod Confederacy
What kind of internal government rules the Octopus? Octopi are unusual, alien, and in some ways terrifyingly intelligent creatures that are not given their proper due. I’m not asking “what is it like to be an Octopus” so much as “how would a human dignitary, observing the government from the outside, describe the Octopus decision-making process?” (Heterophenomenology: a fun and pragmatic tool).
Perhaps the Octopus doesn’t have a sense of self. Three fifths of her neurons are in her arms. Perhaps the Octopus is a series of pseudo-sovereign feifdoms, or a network of independent kingdoms that conduct foreign affairs from a central head office (get it?)
The octopus mind and the human mind probably evolved for different reasons. Humans-like other vertebrates whose intelligence we recognize (parrots, elephants, and whales)-are long-lived, social beings. Most scientists agree that an important event that drove the flowering of our intelligence was when our ancestors began to live in social groups. Decoding and developing the many subtle relationships among our fellows, and keeping track of these changing relationships over the course of the many decades of a typical human lifespan, was surely a major force shaping our minds.
But octopuses are neither long-lived nor social. Athena, to my sorrow, may live only a few more months-the natural lifespan of a giant Pacific octopus is only three years. If the aquarium added another octopus to her tank, one might eat the other. Except to mate, most octopuses have little to do with others of their kind.
So why is the octopus so intelligent? What is its mind for? Mather thinks she has the answer. She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell.
This branch of creatures is far more alien than its terrestrial origin really suggests. There’s evidence that the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis contains gene sequences “usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods—octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid—may be able to see with their skin.” Having their own sensory agencies could reinforce the idea of semi-autonomous, independent kingdoms sharing the borders and resources of Octopusdom.
The Human League
There are recognizable intelligences closer to us. There are our primate cousins, of course, but their structural similarities to us don’t appear to make them especially able to interface with us. Instead, human ‘diplomatic’ efforts tend to be directed towards more structurally distant mind-governments: the cool otherness of the Feline emirate and the obedient pro-human Canine regime, for instance. These are minds whose politics we’ve strongly directed through bribery, coups, trade of goods/services, and defensive pacts. We have as long a record of molding minds of other creatures as we do bodies (as if there were a sharp distinction…). It is unclear whether the mental politics of our mammalian allies are as legitimate as we think our own are, or if they are mentally ‘hollow states‘ (in the Robb sense), feigning familiarity to humans in order to keep the relationship between us going. I suppose that’s an open question in human-to-human interaction, too, though, and the issue is muddled in my mind. It may not make a difference from the heterophenomenological standpoint.
We increasingly recognize the prowess and sovereignty of the oddly familiar Dolphin mind, although we find ourselves frustratingly unable to communicate: we still have not decoded their language, and they lack the ability to interface with us with familiar facial/bodily signals, instead presenting that same flat smirk that so many people find adorable but that I find chilling. Sorry, Dolphins. At least some humans are considering non-intervention pacts.
But the Dolphin’s evolutionary path is familiar, and their social intelligence is evident. They also present a case of intelligent life that could be cognitively capable of tool use but lacks the environment to, for instance, create fire or appreciate the wheel or writing and construct a technological society. I mean, it could be small-minded to believe that only familiar early technologies can create high-energy civilizations. Maybe.
The Insectoid Collective
Ants, bees, and perhaps molds all demonstrate apparently-intelligent behavior. It sort of cheapens the idea of intelligence, doesn’t it, that complex organization can emerge out of creatures with so few neurons? But you don’t need an internal representation of the world if you have a thousand co-conspirators- you can specialize in a simple behavior and have a common interface to communicate some results to other insects, other black-boxes with a few specialized functions. This “swarm intelligence” is more of a network than the institutional analogy of the other minds described above. It seems that the “mind” in swarm species might be bigger than the individual’s body.
We are searching for earth-like planets, with earth-like biomes. I imagine that should we succeed, the creatures we find there may be startlingly earth-like.
Don’t get me wrong- I’m sure that there is a vast number of planets that harbor life that we couldn’t easily fathom, perhaps organisms that defy our technical definition for life or intelligence, or that fail our simple tests for what is a habitable environment. Maybe Earth isn’t the norm but it’s a type of planet we’re selecting for.
Perhaps convergent evolution is a universal norm in related environments. Maybe we’ll realize that in clear earth-like atmospheres in predatory food chains between multi-cellular organisms, we’ll often find eye-like and ear-like sensors. And we’ll inevitably find locomotion: flagellum, legs in their various forms, maybe crude wheels, wings, fins… maybe they’ll get by with rolling, rhythmic contractions, gas expulsion, directed growth/decay, eating-and-shitting, floating.
How large is the design space for likely biological minds? Is the sample of minds on Earth today representative of the likely mind-types we’d find elsewhere? It isn’t much help to us even if it were true, since different cultures and histories and bodies would still make communication a difficult task either way.
I could imagine that the universe is stuffed full of organized-but-not-socially intelligent life, 99.9% effectively single-celled, and of the remainder, 99.9% no more complex than mold, and of the remainder, 99.9% incapable of meaningful social interaction with humans. Of those that remain past that, shuffling past the dogs and cats and dolphins of the universe, a few tribalistic civilizations persist for a few millenia and then either birth non-biological life or die out altogether. Non-biological life would be designed to interface with social creatures. They might more reliably seek to communicate, and they would presumably continue to exist for a long time. On the other hand, I can only assume that the design space for non-biological minds is even larger than the set of likely evolution-driven, biological minds.