Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Married Bachelors: How Compositionality Doesn’t Work

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Jerry Fodor (1998, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong) does a thorough job of summarizing convincingly (to me, anyway) the arguments against the theory that concepts are constituted by definitions; so you really don’t need me to tell you that KEEP doesn’t really mean CAUSE A STATE THAT ENDURES OVER TIME or that BACHELOR doesn’t really mean UNMARRIED MAN, right?  Not convinced?  Here’s what I found over the course of a morning’s empirical research:

Put ‘elephant bachelor’ into Google and you get things like:

Bulls generally live in small bachelor groups consisting of an old bull

Males live alone or in bachelor herds.

The males will sometimes come together in bachelor herds, but these are

The adult males (bulls) stay in bachelor herds or live alone.

When they are mature, male elephants leave the herd to join bachelor herds. 

Put in ‘deer bachelor’ and you get: 

During bowhunting season (late August early September) we see mule deer in bachelor groups, as many as 15 in a bunch, feeding on bloomed canola fields

Mule deer bachelor bucks are beginning to show up in preparation for the rut.

But during October, when they’re interested mostly in proving their manhood, rattling can be deadly on bachelor bucks. 

Put in ‘“bachelor wolves”’: 

surrounded in the snow by a starving and confused pack of bachelor wolves.

You can come up with a lot of names for these youngsters: rogue males, bachelor wolves, outcasts. Some call them the Lost Boys. 

Similarly, ‘bachelor’ combined with ‘walrus’, ‘whale’, ‘dolphin’, ‘penguin’, ‘swan’ (for the birds, it helps to add the term ‘nest’ to winnow the returns).

‘ethology bachelor’ yields: 

Bachelor herds refer to gatherings of (usually) juvenile male animals who are still sexually immature, or of ‘harem’-forming animals who have been thrown out of their parent families but not yet formed a new family group. Examples include seals, lions, and horses. Bachelor herds are thought to provide useful protection for social animals against more established herd competition or aggressive dominant males. Males in bachelor herds are sometimes closely related to each other. 

So bachelors don’t need to be men.  One might try to fix this by saying a BACHELOR is an UNMARRIED MALE or even an UNMARRIED ADULT MALE (to rule out babies) instead of an UNMARRIED MAN, but I struggle with the idea of UNMARRIED whales, penguins, and elephants.  Would that also cover animals that have mates, but are living together without the benefit of clergy?  Don’t worry about this too much because even MALE won’t do the trick. 

‘“bachelor females”’ returns: 

dormitory facilities, and the 7 35 or so bachelor females residing in defense housing on Civilian Hill were transferred to the renovated dormitories.

 I feel sorry for you. And yes, this was a half-fucked attempt to gain the affection of all the bachelor females in the world. 

‘“bachelor women”’ returns: 

Today, double standards still prevail in many societies: bachelor men are envied, bachelor women are pitied.

Maggie is a composite of a number of independent, “bachelor” women who influenced my formative years.

Did you know, for example, that half–exactly 50 percent–of the 1000 bachelor women surveyed say they actively are engaged at this very moment in their

independent bachelor women that is now taking place is a permanent increase. It is probably being reinforced by a considerable number of  [H. G. Wells 1916, What is Coming? A Forecast of Things after the War. Chapter 8.] 

Of particular note is the last example, specifically the fact that it dates back to 1916, before most, if not all, discussions of BACHELOR meaning UNMARRIED MAN. 

The phrase ‘“married bachelor”’ returns lots of philosophical (and theological!) treatises on whether it is meaningless, incoherent, nonsensical, or just plain impossible (for humans or for God); but, it also returns occurrences of the phrase in the wild, where it exists and is, thus, clearly possible: 

Nevertheless, a true married bachelor, we think, would have viewed his fate philosophically. “Well, anyway,” he’d say with a touch of pride,

Ever wonder what a married bachelor does on Friday Night (that is Wednesday in Saudi)? HE GOES TO BED EARLY (and dreams about his wife).

Most Chinese men in Canada before the war were denied a conjugal family life and were forced to live in a predominantly married-bachelor society.

It was one of the golden principles in services that there should be a decent interaction with fair sex on all social occasions and going “stags” (married bachelor) was looked down upon as something socially derelict or “not done”.

Peterson’s days as a married bachelor. SAN QUENTIN – According to recent reports from San Quentin, Scott Peterson is adjusting nicely to prison life.

Walter Matthau is the “dirty married bachelor“, dentist Julian who lies to his girlfriend, Toni (Goldie Hawn)by pretending that he is married.

…that her love for camping was so dominant; he thought he’d better join her and they would start their own camp or else he would be a married bachelor.

Some bad choices: sisters dissin’ sisters; no-money no-honey approach; loving the married bachelor ; or using your finance to maintain his romance.

It was just four of us – three singles and a married bachelor. As I. tasted the deep fried and cooked egg plants, dhal curry and deep fried papadams,

India is the uncomplaining sweetheart whom this married bachelor flirts with and leaves behind. Every time. And she knows it all and yet smiles

There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor. Of such was Captain Nichols. I met his wife. She was a woman of twenty-eight,    [Somerset Maugham 1919, The Moon and Sixpence. Chapter 46.]

Two of these are of particular note:  The final example dates back to 1919; and the penultimate example uses the phrase metaphorically (or more metaphorically, if you prefer).

As a child, I’m sure I would have found all of these examples quite puzzling and would have asked, “If ‘bachelor’ means ‘unmarried man,’ then how can there be a ‘married bachelor?’”

The issue here is compositionality.  How do we understand the meaning of phrases like ‘the brown cow’ or ‘the married bachelor’?  It can’t be the way Fodor (1998, p. 99) explains it.  Here’s what Fodor says, except I have substituted throughout ‘married’ for ‘brown’ and ‘bachelor’ for ‘cow’.  You will note that what makes reasonable sense for ‘the brown cow’ is incoherent for ‘the married bachelor’. 

Compositionality argues that ‘the married bachelor’ picks out, a certain bachelor; viz. the married one.  It’s because ‘married’ means married that it’s the married bachelor that ‘the married bachelor’ picks out.  If English didn’t let you use ‘married’ context-independently to mean married and ‘bachelor’ context-independently to mean bachelor, it couldn’t let you use ‘the married bachelor’ to specify a married bachelor without naming it.

It’s clear that something that distinguishes the uses documented above from the more usual UNMARRIED MAN (more or less) uses.  I was tempted to say that the more usual uses are literal as opposed to figurative (metaphorical?).  Yes, but as has been pointed out, while it may be literally correct to say that the Pope is a bachelor, it feels like an incorrect usage.

Well, it just goes on and on.  At this point, of course, apoplectic sputtering occurs to the effect that these are metaphorical uses and should be swept under the rug where all inconvenient counterexamples are kept and need never be dealt with.  But speaking of KEEP, as Fodor (pp. 49-56) points out, Jackendoff’s program (though not in so many words) to accommodate things like this by proliferating definitions of KEEP.  Fodor characterizes this as just so much more messy than thinking that KEEP just means keep.  I agree.

For more about married bachelors, see also

Primitive Concepts and Innateness

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Fodor (1998, p.15), presenting the (his) RTM view of concepts, says, “I can’t … afford to agree that the content of the concept H2O is different from the content of the concept WATER.”  At least in part, this is a consequence of his assertion that “Concepts are public; they’re the sorts of things that lots of people can, and do, share.” (p.28, italics in original) 


If the content of concepts is public (I, for one have no problem with this view), then nobody and everybody is responsible for them and their denoters have to be learned.  It’s easy enough to argue, following Eric Baum (2004, What Is Thought?), that our genome builds us in such a way that we all acquire categories in pretty much the same way.  I’m not sure why I insisted on “categories” in the previous sentence rather than sticking with “concepts.”  I guess it’s because I have already done a lot of thinking about concepts and I’m not sure whether I’m willing to grant concepthood to categories.     


A priori, there must be a set of parameterizable functions that are built-in by the genome.  When I talk about parameterization here, I’m talking about learning processes; when I talk about parameterizing models, I’m talking about the inputs to a particular content model at a moment in time.  The former takes place during concept development; the latter during concept utilization.  Taking such a set of parameterizable functions as a basis, content models can (only) be constructed from these components.  The genome thus ensures that ceteris paribus (over a reasonable range of normal human ontogenetic experience) the structure of the content model(s) epigenetically constructed will tend to converge (dare I say they will be the same up to some threshold of difference?). 


The convergence we expect to find looks like this: If things that are modeled by a particular content model a in creature A are pretty much the same things that are modeled by a particular content model b in creature B, and if that is true also for particular content models c, d, e, …, etc. in C, D, E, …, etc., then those content models are the content model of a concept whose satisfaction conditions include (pretty much) those things.  Moreover, the human genome is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that in the vast majority of cases (enough to ensure the functioning of language, anyway) we can take these models to implement (represent?) by definition the same concept.  That is, sameness of concepts across individuals arises from the identity of the (shared) facilities available to construct them and the identity of the (shared, lower level) processes that construct them out of (things that turn out to be) invariants these processes extract from the real world. 


DOG means dog because the (already strongly constrained) models the human brain automatically constructs when presented with dogs are such that across individuals the models will use identical processes in identical ways (process identity is obviously level-sensitive—I can’t possibly argue that the neural circuits are isomorphic across individuals, but I can argue that the brain is sufficiently limited in the ways it can operate that there is at some level of explanation only one way a dog model can be implemented).


This is similar to the poverty of the stimulus argument that argues for much of language to be innate.


I think we’re almost there now, but it occurs to me that I have built this on the identity of things, which may itself be tendentious.  There’s no problem with saying a particdular thing is identical to itself.  But that’s not where the problem arises.  How do we know what a thing is?  A thing is presumably something that satisfies the concept THING.  But careful examination of the reasoning above shows that I have assumed some kind of standardized figure-ground system that reliably identifies the things in an environment.  Now where are we?  Suppose the things are dogs.  Do we have to suppose that we know what dogs are?


Let’s try to save this by saying by substituting environments for things and then talking about world models.  That is, if the environment that is modeled by a particular world model a in creature A is pretty much the same environment that is modeled by a particular world model b in creature B, and if that is true also for particular world models c, d, e, …, etc. in C, D, E, …, etc., then those world models are the world model of a world whose satisfaction conditions include (pretty much) those environments.  Moreover, the human genome is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that in the vast majority of cases (enough to ensure the identification of things, anyway) we can take these models to be (implement, represent?) by definition the same world model.


As a practical matter, this does not seem to be a problem for human beings.  We learn early how to parse the environment into stable categories that we share with others in the same environment.  Somewhere in this process, we acquire thingness.  Thingness is necessary for reference, for intentionality, for aboutness.  I don’t know, and I don’t think it makes much of a difference, whether thingness is innate or (as I suspect) the acquisition of thingness requires postnatal interaction with the environment as part of the brain’s boot process.


Fodor (1998, p.27) and the Relational Theory of Mind (RTM) crowd have a rather similar way around this.  “[A]ll versions of RTM hold that if a concept belongs to the primitive basis from which complex mental representations are constructed, it must ipso facto be unlearned.”  This is actually several assertions.  The most important one from my point of view is:


There are innate (unlearned) concepts. 


I take it that my use of the word innate here will seem comfortably untendentious when I tell you I am explicitly ruling out the possibility that unlearned concepts are injected into us by invisible aliens when we are small children.  The only worry I have about innate concepts is that like Baum I suspect that in reality the members of the set of such innate concepts are far removed from the concepts traditionally paraded as examples of concepts, that is, I don’t think COW is innate any more than KODOMO-DRAGON.  (Baum doesn’t talk much about concepts per se, but his central position is that everything that’s innate is in our DNA and our DNA has neither room nor reason to encode any but the most primitive and productive concepts.)  Fodor is coy about COW and HORSE, but he counterdistinguishes the status of COW from the status of BROWN COW, which “could be learned by being assembled from the previously mastered concepts BROWN and COW.”


I don’t think Fodor really needs COW to be innate.  I think the problem is that he doesn’t want it to have constituents.  I sympathize.  I don’t want it to have constituents.  But making COW innate is not the only alternative.  All that is needed is a mechanism that allows for cows in the world to have the ability to create a new primitive COW that is (by my argument above) the same primitive COW that Little Boy Blue has and indeed the same primitive as most everybody else familiar with cows has.  In other words, what I have proposed is a mechanism that enables concepts to be public, shareable, primitive, and learnable.  I haven’t got a good story about how one could be familiar with cows and not have the same concept COW as most everybody else.  Maybe if one’s familiarity with cows was always in the context of partially obscuring bushes one might come to acquire a concept COW that meant bushes partially obscuring a cowlike animal.  But if that were the case, I’d expect that same COW concept to be created in others familiar with cows in the same context.


The rest of the story is that this way of making COW primitive but not innate requires reexamination of the assertion that there are innate concepts.  It looks like the things I am postulating to be innate are not properly concepts, but rather concept-building processes.  So the correct statement is:


There are innate (unlearned) concept-building processes that create primitive concepts.  I’d be willing to buy the so-called “universals” of language as a special case of this.


It will work, I think, because the putative processes exist at prior to concepts.  So, we still have primitive concepts and non-primitive concepts in such a way as to keep RTM in business for a while longer.  And we can build a robust notion of concept identity on identity of primitive concepts without requiring all primitive concepts to be innate.  This does not, of course, rule out the possibility (offered by the ethology of other species, as Fodor points out) that we also possess some innate primitive concepts.



How language processing might go awry

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Re: April Benasich’s ongoing studies of Specific Language Impairment in children ( If we believe Maass, et al. (2004, “On the computational power of circuits of spiking neurons”)  with respect to the ability of a (plausible, cortical) recurrent neural network to retain in its state a usable record of (order of) the last three seconds of its inputs, we may get some insight into possible underlying mechanisms for what Benasich hypothesizes to be  “the primary deficit in … SLI … the inability to integrate and discriminate two or more sensory events which enter the nervous system in rapid succession.” 


Maass’s work suggests that in normal processing, asynchronous discriminations can be replaced by synchronous discriminations.  I interpret this to mean that as soon as the neural circuitry has enough of the stimulus to recognize, it can be pulsed out synchronously to the next stage of processing.  Looking at psychophysical results like those of Richard Warren (1970, “Perceptual Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds.”  Science 167: 392-393) could be interpreted as indicating that a later pulse can refine or override (confirm or disconfirm) the data delivered in an earlier pulse. 


So here’s what I think happens.  Suppose Stimulus A is followed in quick succession by Stimulus B.  Sometime during or after Stimulus A (because the neuro-glial circuitry doesn’t have to wait until what we think is the “end” of a stimulus before reacting) the circuitry approaches or settles into a provisional identification of an Event Pattern of, call it, Type X.  Event Pattern Type X is the pattern of activation (state) created by A in the context of mutter-mutter (unknown or irrelevant—whatever the state was when A arrived).  This provisional identification state somehow gets sent on as a synchronous pulse.  That pulse “runs out of oomph” somewhere and leaves neuro-glial elements in its trail primed with EPSPs and IPSPs.  (All I intend by that is to indicate that the pulse isn’t sufficient in and of itself to cause recognition of A tout court (as Jerry Fodor would say).


In normal processing, sometime during or after Stimulus B (which follows Stimulus A in rapid succession) the circuitry will  approach or settle into a provisional identification of an Event Pattern of Type Y (which is the state created by B in the context of immediately preceding A and whatever came before).  That information gets sent on in a pulse.  In between, there may be (there probably are) confirming or disconfirming pulses (possibly at regular intervals).  The net result is (insert hand waving here) recognition of A followed by B.


So what could be happening in SLI?  Possibilities are:


1)       Stimulus history traces decay so rapidly that at the time Stimulus B arrives, it has insufficient context information and gets sent on as an Event Pattern of Type Z (B in the context of mutter-mutter).  In later processing, this acts as disconfirmation of Pattern Type X (A in the context of mutter-mutter) rather than confirmation of the temporal evolution from A to B.  So information about A is lost.  I suppose it’s also possible that the apparent disconfirmation could be treated as spurious, so information about B could be lost.  Or the conflict could lead to no decision and loss of the distinctness of A and B.  Checkmate in all cases.


2)       State information isn’t being read out on a rapid enough schedule, so what comes through is only Event Pattern Type V (in the context of mutter-mutter, A followed by dim intimations of B) or Event Pattern Type W (dim intimations of A followed by B followed by whatever).  In either case, one of the stimuli is represented only by dim intimations that don’t reach above whatever threshold is necessary to affect subsequent stages, so information about A or B is lost.


3)       There is a timing mismatch in later processing so that differential decay rates of EPSPs and IPSPs cause information from what should have been distinct pulses to get muddled and the pattern looks like Pattern Type U (A overlaid with B in the context of mutter-mutter overlaid with A).  So the distinctness of A and B is lost.


4)       The state attractor that has developed in the neural circuit that gets first crack at A followed by B classifies them both the same way (like /p/ and /b/, I suppose Merzenich might say).

030828 – Are human beings rational?

Thursday, August 28th, 2003

030828 – Are human beings rational?

My wife asked an interesting question: Do I think that human beings are inherently rational.  I think the answer is emphatically no.  Human beings have the ability to learn procedures.  One of the procedures that human beings have discovered, found useful, and passed along culturally is the procedure of logical analysis or logical thinking.  The fact that in many cases logic enables us to find good solutions to certain classes of significant problems ensures that logical analysis will be one of the procedures activated as a candidate for execution in a broad range of external circumstances and internal states.

What strikes me is that the end result of evolution selecting organisms with greater and greater ability to learn and apply procedural patterns has resulted in an organism that is capable of learning to simulate serial computations, at least on a limited scale.  Certainly it was Dennett who put this idea into my mind, but I do not believe that he arrived at this conclusion by the same path that I did.

This raises an interesting question: what kind of pattern and procedural learning capabilities are required in order to be able to simulate serial computations or, more precisely, to be able to learn and execute a logical thinking pattern?  Human beings certainly aren’t much in the way of serial computers.  We’re not fast.  We’re not computationally adept.  We don’t have a lot of dynamic memory.  Our push down stack for recursion seems to be limited to one level.  (The fact that we must use the logical thinking pattern to analyze pathological sentences like, “The pearl the squirrel the girl hit bit split,” rather than the (unconscious) language understanding pattern simply underlines this limitation on our capability for recursion.)

So, is human language ability the result of the evolution of ever more sophisticated procedural pattern learning capabilities?  Is the driving force behind the evolution of such enhanced procedural pattern learning the advantage obtained by the organisms who best understand their conspecifics?  Is this evolution’s de facto recognition that brawn being equal, better brains confer a reproductive advantage?  Now if better understanding of one’s conspecifics is the goal, language ability may just fall out automatically, because if one has a mechanism that can build a model of others, it makes it a lot easier to figure out what the other intends or is responding to.

Clearly, since the ability to take the viewpoint of another person does not manifest itself in children until some time after they have acquired at least the rudiments of language, the manifestation of the ability to take the viewpoint of another person is not a requirement for the acquisition of at least the rudiments of the language.  There seems to be a subtle distinction to be made here: when daddy says “hudie” (the Chinese equivalent of “butterfly”) and looks at, or taps, or points to a butterfly or a representation of a butterfly, something has to help the child attend to both the butterfly instance and the sound.  That something may be the emerging model of the other.  Or maybe it’s the other way around as I suggested earlier: the trick is for the parent to take advantage of his or her own model of the child in order to intuitively construct or take advantage of the situation in which both the butterfly and the sound of the word will be salient to the child.

Still, I keep coming back to the idea that the internal model of the other is somehow crucial and the even more crucial is the idea that the internal model of the other contains the other’s model of others.  As I think about it though, it seems to me that creating an internal pattern, that is to say learning a pattern, based on experience and observation of the behavior of another organism is not a capability that is uniquely human.  It would seem to be a valuable ability to have.  What seems to be special about the patterns we humans develop of other people is that we attribute to the other a self.  An or to animal can get a long way without attributing a self (whatever that means) to other creatures with which it interacts.

030718 – Self-Reporting

Friday, July 18th, 2003

030718 – Self-Reporting

Is there any advantage to an organism to be able to report its own internal state to another organism?  For that is one of the things that human beings are able to do.  Is there any advantage to an organism to be able to use language internally without actually producing an utterance?

Winograd’s SHRDLU program had the ability to answer questions about what it was doing.  Many expert system programs have the ability to answer questions about the way they reached their conclusions.  In both cases, the ability to answer questions is implemented separately from the part of the program that “does the work” so to speak.  However, in order to be able to answer questions about its own behavior, the question answering portion of the program must have access to the information required to answer the questions.  That is, the expertise required to perform the task is different from the expertise required to answer questions about the performance of the task.

In order to answer questions about a process that has been completed, there must be a record of, or a way to reconstruct, the steps in the process.  Actually, is not sufficient simply to be able to reconstruct the steps in the process.  At the very least, there must be some record that enables the organism to identify the process to be reconstructed.

Not all questions posed to SHRDLU require memory.  For example one can ask SHRDLU, “What is on the red block?”  To answer a question like this, SHRDLU need only observe the current state of its universe and report the requested information.  However, to answer at question like, “Why did you remove the pyramid from the red block?”  SHRDLU must examine the record of its recent actions and the “motivations” for its recent actions to come up with an answer such as, “In order to make room for the blue cylinder.”

Not all questions that require memory require information about motivation as, for example, “When was the blue cylinder placed on the red cube?”

Is SHRDLU self-aware?  I don’t think anyone would say so.  Is an expert system that can answer questions about its reasoning self-aware?  I don’t think anyone would say so.  Still, the fact remains that it is possible to perform a task without being able to answer questions about the way the task was performed.  Answering questions is an entirely different task.


Thursday, July 17th, 2003


I think I am getting tired of the gee-whiz attitude of linguists who are forever marveling at “the astronomical variety of sentences and a natural language user can produce and understand.”  Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002).  I can’t recall anyone marveling at the astronomical variety of visual images a human observer can understand, or the astronomical variety of visual images a human artist can produce.  I am also tired of the gee-whiz attitude linguists take with respect to the fact that there can be no “longest” sentence.  With essentially the same argument, I can assert that there can be no “largest” painting.  So what?

Another gee-whiz topic for linguists is the fact that, “A child is exposed to only a small proportion of the possible sentences in its language, thus limiting its database for constructing a more general version of that language in its own mind/brain.”  Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002).  It is also the case that a child is exposed to only a small proportion of the possible visual experiences in the universe, thus limiting its database for constructing a more general version of visual experience in its own mind/brain.  If one is to marvel at “the open ended generative property of human language,” one must marvel at the open ended generative property of human endeavor in art and music as well.  And if we do that, must we also marvel at the open ended generative property of bower bird endeavor in bower building and whale endeavor in whale song composition?

Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002) refer to “the interface systems — sensory-motor and conceptual-intentional”.  Note that there is a nice parallelism between sensory and conceptual and between motor and intentional.  I like it.

Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002) observe that it is possible that “recursion in animals represents a modular system designed for a particular function (e.g., navigation) and impenetrable with respect to other systems.  During evolution, the modular and highly domain specific system of recursion may have become penetrable and domain general.  This opened the way for humans, perhaps uniquely, to apply the power of recursion to other problems.”

Here, again, is a suggestion that to me points at a new kind of model found only in humans: a model of the self?  perhaps in some sense a model of models, but otherwise behaving like models in other animals.

A cat may be conscious, but does it, can it, know that it is conscious?


Wednesday, July 16th, 2003


Babies are born with reflexes (IRM-FAP’s).  I wonder if the corresponding models mirror the reflexes.  It’s certainly a better place to start than a) all connection weights set to zero or b) connection weights set to random values.

How do babies to imitation?  How does the organization make the connection between what is seen at its own body?  Is the basic rule for babies: imitate unless homeostatic needs dictate otherwise?

“No” is an active response.  Absence of “no” seems to indicate “no objection”.

With respect to internal models, updating the model is not the trick.  The trick is turning off the Plant (effectors) for the purpose of thinking about actions.  Being able to talk to oneself is an outgrowth of being able to think about actions without acting.  The model can only be updated when action is taken, because that’s the only time the model can get an error signal.  Well, that’s true when the model models an internal process.  It’s interesting question to consider when a model of an external process gets updated.

An appeal to parsimony would suggest that a model of an external process gets updated when the model is being used, shall I say, unconsciously.  That is, if we assume a model of an external process is some kind of generalization of a model of an internal process, then the circumstances under which a model of an external process is updated will be some kind of generalization of the circumstances under which a model of an internal process is updated.

As an off the wall aside, this might account for the difficulty humans experience in psychotherapeutic circumstances.  Simply thinking about one’s worldview and recognizing that it should be changed is, by my model, not going to change one’s worldview.  In effect, change to an unconscious process can only take place unconsciously.

Margaret Foerster (personal communication) indicates that in her therapeutic experience, change begins when a patient is confronted with a highly specific example of his/her maladaptive behavior.  Not all highly specific examples have the effect of initiating change, but examples that do are recognizable by the therapist from the reaction of the patient (who also recognizes at a “gut” level) the significance of the example.  That is, the example creates a state in which the predictions of the patient’s internal model do not match the actual results.  To the extent that the internal model was invoked automatically rather than using the model analytically, the mismatch triggers (by my hypothesis) the (automatic) model correction (learning) process.

Foerster observes that in the sequel to such a significant therapeutic intervention, the patient experiences (and reports) additional related mismatches.  I don’t know that my model has anything to say about the fact that such mismatches are experienced consciously.  Nonetheless, I would be surprised to find that an unconscious model would change in a major way in response to a single mismatch.  I would rather expect gradual change based on accumulating evidence of consistently erroneous predictions.  On the other hand, I would expect the model to respond fairly rapidly to correct itself.  Notice that I say “correct itself”.  That is my way of indicating that the process is unconscious and not directly accessible, although significant change will manifest itself in the form of a recognizably (to both patient and therapist) different “way of thinking”.

Actually, I don’t think I have to worry about the fact that the mismatches Foerster describes are experienced consciously.  On reflection, I think mismatches are experienced consciously.  For example, when one is not paying attention and steps off a curb, the mismatch between expectation (no curb) and reality (sudden drop in the level of the ground) is most assuredly experienced consciously.

But back to the double life of models: it is all very well to say that a model can be used off line and that the experience of so doing is a mental image of some sort, but aside from the question of how a model is placed on line or off line, there remains the question of how inputs to the off line model are created.  Not to mention, of course, the question of why we “experience” anything.  So far, it would seem that there is nothing in a description of human behavior from the outside (for example, as seen by a Martian) that would lead one to posit “experience”, aside, that is, from our hetero phenomenological reports of “experience”.  That’s still a stumper.

Query: do hetero phenomenological reports of “experience” require the faculty of language?  Without the faculty of language how could one obtain a hetero phenomenological report?  How could one interpret such a report?  Is it the case that the only way a Martian can understand a hetero phenomenological report is to learn the language in which the report is made?  How much of the language?

Would it be sufficient for a Martian who only understood some form of pidgin like “me happy feelings now”.  The point seems to be that somehow English speakers generally come to understand what the word “experience” means and can use in appropriate hetero phenomenological contexts.  What would be necessary for a Martian to understand what “experience” means?


Tuesday, July 15th, 2003


Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch in their Science review article (2002) indicate that “comparative studies of chimpanzees and human infants suggest that only the latter read intentionality into action, and thus extract unobserved rational intent.” this goes along with my own conviction that internal models are significant in the phenomenon of human and self-awareness.

Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch argue that “the computational mechanism of recursion” is critical to language ability, “is recently involved and unique to our species.”  I am well aware that many have died attempting to oppose Chomsky and his insistence that practical limitations have no place in the description of language capabilities.  I am reminded of Dennett’s discussion of the question of whether zebra is a precise term, that is, whether there exists anything that can be correctly called a zebra.  It seems fairly clear that Chomsky assumes that language exists in the abstract (much the way we naively assume that zebras exist in the abstract) and then proceeds to draw conclusions based on that assumption.  The alternative is that language, like zebras, is in the mind of the beholder, but that when language is placed under the microscope it becomes fuzzy at the boundaries precisely because it is implemented in the human brain and not in a comprehensive design document.

Uncritical acceptance of the idea that our abstract understanding of the computational mechanism of recursion is anything other than a convenient crutch for understanding the way language is implemented in human beings is misguided.  In this I vote with David Marr (1982) who believed that neither computational iteration nor computational recursion is implemented in the nervous system.

On the other hand, it is interesting that a facility which is at least a first approximation to the computational mechanism of recursion exists in human beings.  Perhaps the value of the mechanism from an evolutionary standpoint is that it does make possible the extraction of intentionality from the observed behavior of others.  I think I want to turn that around.  It seems reasonable to believe that the ability to extract intentionality from observed behavior would confer an evolutionary advantage.  In order to do that, it is necessary to have or create an internal model of the other in order to get access to the surmised state of the other.

Once such a model is available it can be used online to surmise intentionality and it can be used off line for introspection, that is, it can be used as a model of the self.  Building from Grush’s idea that mental imagery is the result of running a model in off line mode, we may ask what kind of imagery would result from running a model of a human being off line.  Does it create an image of a self?

Alternatively, since all of the other models proposed by Grush are in models of some aspect of the organism itself, it might be more reasonable to suppose that a model of the complete self could arise as a relatively simple generalization of the mechanism used in pre-existing models of aspects of the organism.

If one has a built-in model of one’s self in the same way one has a built-in model of the musculoskeletal system, then language learning may become less of a problem.  Here’s how it would work.  At birth, the built-in model is rudimentary and needs to be fine-tuned to bring it into closer correspondence with the system it models.  An infant is only capable of modeling the behavior of another infant.  Adults attempting to teach language skills to infants use their internal model to surmise what the infant is attending to and then name it for the child.  To the extent that the adult has correctly modeled the infant and the infant has correctly modeled the adult (who has tried to make it easy to be modeled), the problem of establishing what it is that a word refers to becomes less problematical.

030615 – (Heterophenomnological) Consciousness

Sunday, June 15th, 2003

030615 – (Heterophenomenological) Consciousness

It’s dreary and raining and that may make people a bit depressed.  That, in turn, may make it harder for people to find a satisfactory solution to their problems.   Realizing that, I feel a bit better.  It is sometimes useful to bring something into consciousness so one can look at it.

Although we may not have access to the underlying stimulus events (constellations) that directly determine our feelings, we can learn about ourselves just as we learn about other things and other people.  We can then shine the spotlight of consciousness on our inner state and try to glean what clues we can by carefully attention.

When I say we can learn about ourselves, that is to say that we can create an internal model of ourselves and use the predictions of that model to feed back into our decision-making process.  Such feedback has the result of modifying our behavior (as a feedback system does).

The interesting thing about the internal model is that it not only models external behavior, but also models internal state.

Interesting aside: consciousness can be switched on and off.  We can be awake or asleep.  We can be “unconscious”.

What are the design criteria for human beings such that consciousness is an appropriate engineering solution?


  • Exist in world.
  • Basic provisioning.  Homeostasis. Obtain fuel.
  • Reproduction.  Mate.  Ensure survival of offspring.

Capabilities Required to Attain Goals:

  • Locomotion.
  • Navigation.
  • Manipulation.

Functions Required to Implement Required Capabilities

  • Identification of things relevant to implementation of goals.
  • Acquisition of skills relevant to implementation of goals (note that skills may be physical or cognitive).

Capabilities Required to Support Required Functions

  • Observation.  Primary exterosensors.
  • Memory.
  • Ability to manipulate things mentally (saves energy).  This includes the ability to manipulate the self mentally.
  • Ability to reduce power consumption during times when it is diseconomic to be active (e.g., sleep at night).

Damasio (1999, p.260) says:

“Homeostatic regulation, which includes emotion, requires periods of wakefulness (for energy gathering); periods of sleep (presumably for restoration of depleted chemicals necessary for neuronal activity); attention (for proper interaction with the environment); and consciousness (so that a high level of planning or responses concerned with the individual organism can eventually take place). The body-relatedness of all these functions and the anatomical intimacy of the nuclei subserving them are quite apparent.”

Well, I have an alternative theory of the utility of sleep, but Damasio’s is certainly plausible and has been around for a while in the form of the “cleanup” hypothesis: that there is something that is generated or exhausted over a period of wakefulness that needs to be cleaned up or replenished and sleep is when that gets done.  It raises the question of whether sleep is an essential part of consciousness and self-awareness or is it a consequence of the physical characteristics of the equipment in which consciousness and self-awareness are implemented.

One talks to oneself by inhibiting (or is it failing to activate) the effectors that would turn ready-to-speak utterances into actual utterances.  In talking to oneself, ready-to-speak utterances are fed back into the speech understanding system.  This is only a slight variation of the process of careful (e.g., public speaking) speech or the process used in writing.  In writing, the speech utterance effectors are not activated and the ready-to-speak stuff is fed into the writing system.

But does it always pass through the speech understanding system?  IOW is it possible to speak without knowing what you are going to say?  Possibly.  Specific evidence: on occasion one thinks one has said one thing and has in fact said something else.  Sometimes one catches it oneself.  Sometimes somebody says you said X, don’t you mean Y and you say oh, did I say X, I meant Y.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s necessary to talk to oneself to be conscious.  There are times when the internal voice is silent.  OTOH language is the primary i/o system for humans.  One might argue that language enhances consciousness.  As an aside, people who are deaf probably have an internal “voice” that “talks” to them.  Does talking to yourself help you to work things out?  Does the “voice” “speak” in unexpressed signs?  When a deaf person does something dumb, does he/she sign “dumb” to him/herself?

Is there something in the way pattern matching takes place that is critical to the emergence of consciousness?  The more I think about consciousness, the less certain I am that I know what I am talking about.  I don’t think that is bad.  It means that I am recognizing facets of the concept that I had not recognized before.  That seems to be what happened to Dennett and to Damasio.  They each had to invent terminology to express differences they had discovered.

Ultimately, we need an operational definition of whatever it is that I’m talking about here.  That is the case because at the level I am trying to construct a theory, there is no such thing as consciousness.  If there were, we’d just be back in the Cartesian theatre.  Is the question: How does it happen that human beings behave as if they have a sense of self?  I’m arriving at Dennett’s heterophenomenology.  (1991, p.96) “You are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you….”

To approach the question of how heterophenomenological consciousness emerges, it is essential to think “massively parallel”.  What is the calculus of the brain.  A + B = ?  A & B ?  A | B ?  A followed by B?  Thinking massive parallelism, the answer could be: All of the above.  It must be the case that serial inputs are cumulatively deserialized.  There’s an ongoing accumulation of history at successively higher levels of abstraction (well, that’s one story, or one way of putting it).  Understanding language seems to work by a process of successive refinement.  Instinctively it’s like A & B in a Venn diagram, but that feels too sharp.

The system doesn’t take “red cow” to mean the intersection of red things with cow things.  The modifier adds specificity to an otherwise unspecified (default) attribute.  So the combination of activation of “red” and the activation of “cow” in “red cow”  leads to a new constellation of activation which is itself available for further modification (generalization or restriction or whatever).  This probably goes on all the time in non-linguistic processing as well.  A pattern that is activated at one point gets modified (refined) as additional information becomes available.  Sounds like a description of the process of perception.

Massively parallel, always evolving.  It doesn’t help to start an analysis when the organism wakes up, because the wake-up state is derived from (is an evolution of) the organism’s previous life.  Learning seems to be closely tied to consciousness.  Is it the case that the “degree” of consciousness of an organism is a function of the “amount of learning” previously accumulated by the organism?

We know how to design an entity that responds to its environment.  An example is called a PC (Personal Computer).

There’s learning (accumulation of information) and there’s self-programming (modification of processing algorithms).  Are these distinguishable in “higher” biological entities?  Does learning in say mammals, necessarily involve self-programming?  Is a distinction between learning and self-programming just a conceptual convenience for dealing with Von Neuman computers?

There’s “association” and “analysis”

There is learning and there’s self programming.  Lots of things happen automatically.  Association and analysis.  Segmentation is important: chunking is a common mechanism.  Chunking is a way of parallelizing the processing of serial inputs.  Outputs of parallel processors may move along as chunks.  Given that there’s no Cartesian observer, every input is being processed for its output consequences.  And every input is being shadow processed to model its consequences and the model consequences are fed back or fed along.  Associations are also fed back or fed along.  In effect there is an ongoing assessment of what Don Norman called “affordances”, e.g., what can be done in the current context?  The model projects alternate futures.  The alternate futures coexist with the current inputs.  The alternate futures are tagged with valences.  Are these Dennett’s “multiple drafts”?  I still don’t like his terminology.  Are the alternate futures available to consciousness?  Clearly sometimes.  What does that mean?  It is certainly possible for a system to do load balancing and prioritization.  If there is additional processing power available or if processing power can be reassigned to a particular problem.  Somehow, I don’t think it works that way.  Maybe some analyses are dropped or, more likely, details are dropped as a large freight train comes roaring through.  Tracking details isn’t much of a problem because of the constant stream of new inputs coming in.  Lost details are indeed lost, but most of the time, so what?

Language output requires serialization as do certain motor skills.  The trick is to string together a series of sayings that are themselves composed of ordered (or at least coordinated) series of sayings.  Coordination is a generalization of serialization because it entails multiple parallel processors.  Certainly, serial behavior is a challenge for a parallel organism, but so are all types of coordinated behavior.  Actions can be overlaid (to a certain extent, for example: walk and chew gum; ride a horse and shoot; drive and talk; etc.) Week can program computers in a way that evolution cannot hardwire organisms.  On the other hand, evolution has made the human organism programmable (and even self programmable).  Not only that, we are programmable in languages that we learn and we are programmable in perceptual motor skills that we practice and learn.  Is there some (any) reason to think that language is not a perceptual motor skill (possibly writ large)?

Suppose we believe that learning involves modifications of synaptic behavior.  What do we make of the dozen or so neurotransmitters?  Is there a hormonal biasing system that influences which transmitters are most active?  Is that what changes mode beyond just neural activity in homeostatic systems?  Otherwise, does the nature of neuronal responses change depending on the transmitter mix, and can information about that mix be communicated across the synaptic gap?  These are really not questions that need to be answered in order to create a model of consciousness (even though they are interesting questions) but they do serve as a reminder that the system on which consciousness is based is only weakly understood and probably much more complicated even than we think (and we think it’s pretty complicated).

I seem to have an image — well, a paradigm– in mind involving constraints and feature slots, but I don’t quite see how to describe it as an algorithm.  This is a pipelined architecture, but with literally millions of pipelines that interact locally and globally.  The answer to “what’s there?” or “what’s happening?” is not a list, but a coruscating array of facets.  It is not necessary to extract “the meaning” or even “a meaning” to appreciate what is going on.  A lot of the time, nothing is “going on”; things are what they are and are not changing rapidly.

Awareness and attention seem to be part of consciousness.  One can be aware of something and not pay attention to it.  Attention seems central — the ability to select or emphasize certain input (and/or output) streams.  What is “now”?  It seems possible to recirculate the current state of things.  Or just let them pass by.  Problem: possible how?  What “lets” things pass by?  The Cartesian observer is so seductive.  We think we exist and watch our own private movie, but it cannot happen that way.  What is it that creates the impression of “me”?  Yes, it’s all stimulus-response, and but the hyphen is where all the state information is stored.  What might give the impression of “me”?  I keep thinking it has something to do with the Watslawyck et al. [(1969(?) The Pragmatics of Human Communication] idea of multiple models.  This is the way I see you. This is the way I see you seeing me.  This is the way I see you seeing me seeing you.  And then nothing.  Embedding works easily once: “The girl the squirrel bit cried.”  But “The girl the squirrel the boy saw bit cried” is pathological.

As a practical matter, if we want to create an artificial mind, we probably want to have some sort of analog to the homunculus map in order to avoid the problem of having to infer absolutely everything from experience.  That is, being able to refer stimuli to an organism centric and gravity aware coordinate system, goes a long way towards establishing a lot of basic concepts: up-down, above-below, top-bottom, towards-away, left-right, front-back.  Add an organism/world boundary and you get inside-outside.  I see that towards-away actually cheats in that it implies motion.  Not a problem because motion is change of position over time and with multiple temporal snapshots (naturally produced as responses to stimuli propagate through neural fields), motion can be pretty easily identified.  So that gets things like fast-slow, into-out of, before-after.  We can even get to “around” once the organism has a finite extent to get around.

What would we expect of an artificial mind?  We would like its heterophenomenology to be recognizably human.  What does that mean?  Consider the Turing test.  Much is made of the fact that certain programs have fooled human examiners over some period of time.  Is it then the case that the Turing test is somehow inadequate in principle?  Probably not.  At least I’m not convinced yet that it’s not adequate.  I think the problem may be that we are in the process of learning what aspects of human behavior can be (relatively) easily simulated.  People have believed that it is easy to detect machines by attempting to engage them in conversation about abstract things.  But it seems that things like learning and visualization are essential to the human mind.  Has anyone tried things like: imagine a capital a.  Now in your imagination remove the horizontal stroke and turn the resulting shape upside down.  What letter does it look like?

Learning still remains intransigent problem.  We don’t know how it takes place.  Recall is equally dicey.  We really don’t seem to know any more about learning skills that we do about learning information.  We’re not even very clear about memorizing nonsense syllables for all the thousands of psychological experiments involving them.  Is learning essential to mind?  Well, maybe not.  Henry can’t learn any conscious facts, and he clearly has a mind (no one I know of has suggested otherwise).  Okay, so there could be a steady state of learning.  The ability to learn facts of the kind Henry Molaison couldn’t learn isn’t necessary for a mind to exist.  We don’t know whether the capacity for perceptual motor learning is necessary for a mind to exist.  Does a baby have a mind?  Is this a sensical question?  If not, when does it get one?  If so when did it develop?  How?

It begins to feel like the problem it is to figure out what the question should be.  “Consciousness” seems not to be enough.  “Mind” seems ill-defined.  “Self awareness” has some appeal, though I struggle to pin down what it denotes: clearly “awareness” of one’s “self” but then what’s a “self” and what does “awareness” mean?  Surely self-awareness means 1)  there is something that is “aware” (whatever “aware” means”), 2) that thing has a “self” (whatever “self” means), and that thing can be and is “aware” of its “self”.  A person could go crazy.

Is this a linguistic question — or rather a meta linguistic question: what does “I” mean?  What is “me”?  In languages that distinguish a “first person” it would appear that these questions can be asked.  And by the way, what difference does it make if the language doesn’t have appropriate pronouns and resorts to things like “this miserable wretch begs forgiveness”?  Who’s doing the begging?  No.  That’s not the question.  What’s doing the begging. heterophenomenologically, it doesn’t matter if I say it referring to myself or referring to another person.  Except that it has for me a special meaning when it refers to “my self” and that special meeting is appreciated, that is, understood, by others hearing “me” say it.

I don’t know anything about children learning what “I” and “me” refer to.  I remember reading something about an (autistic I think) child who referred to himself in the third person, for example: “he’s thirsty”

Consciousness seems to require inputs.  That is, one cannot just “be conscious” rather one must “be conscious of” things.  That sounds a bit forced, but not if it is precisely the inputs that give rise to consciousness.  No inputs, no consciousness.  Something in the processing of inputs gives rise to the heterophenomenological feeling of being conscious.

Does self-awareness have to do with internal models?  Does the organism have an internal model of the universe in which exists?  Does that model include among the entities modeled, the organism itself?  And is it necessary that the model of the organism include a model of the internal model of the universe and its component model of the organism?  It may not be an infinite series.  In fact it can’t be.  The brain (or any physical computer) has finite capacity.

But doesn’t a model imply someone or something that makes use of the model?  We keep coming back to metaphors that encourage the Cartesian fallacy.

Let’s think computer systems design.  Hell, let’s go all the way, let’s think robot design.  The robot exists in a universe.  The robot’s program receives inputs from its exteroceptors about the state of the universe and its inputs, suitably processed, are abstracted into a set of signals representing the inputs — in fact representing the inputs over a period of time.  The same thing is happening with samples representing the interoceptors monitoring the robot’s internal mechanical state: position of limbs, orientation, inertial state (falling, turning, whatever), battery/power level, structural integrity.

On the goals side, based on the internal state, the robot has certain not action triggers, but propensity triggers.  For example: When the internal power level or the internal power reserves fall below a particular threshold, the goal of increasing power reserves is given increased priority.  But we do not assume that the robot has a program that specifies exactly what to do in this state.  The state should trigger increased salience (whatever that means) and attention to things in the current environment that are (or have been in the learned past) associated with successful replenishing of power reserves.

At all times, the important question is: “what do I do now?”  The answer to this question helps determine what needs “attention” and what doesn’t need “attention”.  As a first approximation, things not “associated” with current priority goals are not attended to.  Well, it’s not quite a simple as that.  Things that don’t need attention, even though associated with an ongoing task (like walking or driving) don’t get attention processing.  Attention is the assignment of additional processing power to something.  Additional processing power can boost the signal level to above the consciousness threshold and can reduce the decay rate of attended signals.

No one has succeeded in explaining why heterophenomenological evidence indicates that people feel “conscious” sometimes and when they don’t feel “conscious” they don’t “feel” anything and they shift back and forth.  It’s a processing thing.  If I close my eyes and lie quietly, I’m not asleep.  I still hear things.  I can still think about things.  So consciousness can be turned on and off in the normal organism.  What’s going on here?  Understanding the neural connections won’t do it.  We would need to know what the connections “do”; how they “work”.

Sleep.  In effect, the organism can “power down” into a standby state (for whatever evolutionary reason).  If the threshold for external events is set high, most of them won’t make an impact (have an effect).  It’s like a stabilized image on the retina.  It disappears — well, it fades.  No change equals no signal.  If there’s nothing to react to, the organism, well, doesn’t react.

If outside inputs are suppressed, where do daydream inputs come from?  Not a critical question, but an interesting one.  Somebody pointed out that so-called “dream paralysis” is a good thing in that it keeps us from harming ourselves or others in reaction to dream threats or situations.

030515 – Perceptual(?) oddities

Thursday, May 15th, 2003

030515 – Perceptual(?) oddities

In 1969, I remarked to Jerry Fodor, who was then my research advisor at M.I.T., that I had recently had an experience in which I glanced at a scene out the window of a bus, glanced away, and then realized that I had seen some word that seemed unlikely to have appeared in the scene.  I had no idea where the word had appeared, but I felt confident that I had indeed seen it.  I returned my gaze to the scene, scanning it as systematically as I could, looking for the word.  After perhaps five or more seconds, I finally located it.  It was on a sign on a building with many signs.

What struck me as notable was that I knew I had seen the word, but I had no idea where in the scene, I had no idea whether the word was written in large or small letters, or what color the letters were.  All I had was the experience of having seen the word, but beyond knowing what the word was, apparently nothing.  Fodor’s comment to me was that clearly the brain’s system for reading does not mark words it reads with their location in space.  (Although note that students often remember where a certain piece of information was located on a page.)

Since then, I have noticed the same phenomenon, reading a word and not knowing where the word appeared in the visual field without having to mount a conscious search.  Is it right to call this perception without awareness or is it actually awareness without perception.

This morning, while listening to the news on the radio, the phone chirruped briefly as if someone had dialed an incorrect number and almost immediately realized it and hung up.  I noticed that I had no idea whether the sound of the phone had occurred before during or after whatever was being said on the radio at the time, that is, my uncertainty of the temporal relationship between the sound of the phone and the sound of the voice on the radio was uncertain over a range of two seconds or more.  This does not worry me.  I can’t think of a reason I would need to be able to make a finer distinction (except in a psycho-acoustic experimental paradigm).

There is, of course, a line of psycholinguistic experiments that explore variants of this phenomenon.  The subject listens to a sentence and at some point in the sentence there is a beep or a click.  The subject is then asked to identify where in the sentence the sound occurred.  The perceived temporal position of the sound can be manipulated by systematically varying the grammatical structure of the sentence.