Machine Math?

Calculators are an often used example in the philosophy of mind.  Sometimes they’re used analogously, to show how computational algorithms can be implemented in a variety of mediums (say, the very different circuitries of the calculator and the human brain).  Other times, they’re used metaphorically, as objects that we can attribute intentional states: the calculator ‘knows’ how to add and ‘believes’ that 2+2=4.  But how appropriate are comparisons between calculators and humans?  Is it a matter of implementing the same (or nearly the same) algorithm?  Or is the comparison a mere metaphor?   Stanislas Dehaene is the champion of the surprising view that neither of these (caricatured) approaches can be right: calculation is neither a matter of merely attributing intentional states, nor do humans and calculators implement algorithms in the same way.

(Apologies if this topic seems old hat to any – if you are a person already familiar with Dehaene, ‘cultural re-mapping’, number sensing, and the like, the payoff to re-reading this extremely cool and interesting stuff about human mathematical capabilities, is some very exciting and interesting new advances in brain localization and machine-learning)

Dehaene’s view is that our mathematical abilities result from the mixture of two evolved mechanisms, and, importantly, a sprinkling of language.  The first of these evolved mechanisms is a capacity to distinguish a certain amount of discrete quantities, or numerosity: the ability to tell apart one, two, three, and maybe four and five.  Then, there is the capacity to distinguish differences in quantity: that six is bigger than one, or that twenty is less than sixty.  Both of these abilities can be found in animals, and, yes, human children.  And it’s easy to understand why such mechanisms might persist over time*:  as an organism, it is very handy to have a capacity to determine between alternatives; whether option (a) was better than (b) because more nutrients, or less competition, or what have you. Continue reading “Machine Math?”


Memory as storage space

DrawersFindings published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, and reported in Wired, add to the evidence that remembering ought not be conceived as the retrieval of an item from a store.

Psychologist Kimberly Wade performed an experiment in which subjects played a gambling task, in pairs. Each member of the pair was entrusted to keep track of her own score. Afterwards, footage was doctored to give the impression that one member of a pair had cheated. The partner of the framed subject was found to show a strong willingness to testify that they themselves had seen their partner cheat, once shown the doctored footage.

The results add to the evidence against a conception of memory as storage of passive vehicles of content. The misremembering in this experiment is not the result of deteriorating memory but rather of further experience. This suggests that what one experiences after the event is perhaps as epistemologically relevant to the quality of the memory as the conditions at the time the memory was formed. Nonetheless, the store metaphor is still popular in fields like philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. Is that a mistake?

For the article in Wired go here.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Neuroethics: Ethics and the Sciences of Mind
By Neil Levy , University of Melbourne
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Where is my mind?

Kasparov extending his mind
Kasparov's mind

When is a thing or process a part of a person’s body or bodily process? It seems that though human beings are not normally born with large titanium deposits, a titanium knee implant at a certain point of one’s life is part of one’s knee, part of one’s body just as much as one’s hand, spine, or brain. Similarly, when a person undergoes heart transplant it seems clear that the ‘new’ heart is now a genuine part of her body. Having undergone the transplant successfully, it would be tremendously odd to say that her body was heartless, but connected to some other person’s heart. It is her blood that the heart is in the business of circulating. Continue reading “Where is my mind?”