Beyond the Cartesian Theater: More Better Models and Metaphors
Before we can have a theory about anything, a theory that makes
quantitative, falsifiable claims, we need some kind of model. A model
is less rigorous than a theory, really just a way of thinking about
something. Climbing down the
ladder of rigor still another rung
we get to metaphors. A metaphor, like a model,
is just a way of thinking about
something, but unlike a model, it doesn't pretend to be complete but
merely lacking detail; rather it is completely
flimsy, and if you look at
it from the wrong angle, or
push just a little too hard, the whole thing
Right now we have no idea how to think about
the mind, but we have to think of it in some way. We can't help but think
in terms of metaphors, and if you choose the wrong ones, you end up
channeling your thinking in certain
directions and not in others, making assumptions without justification
and overlooking whole classes of
possibilities. No matter how well we know that we are speaking
our mental images and metaphors have a
on our subsequent speculation. As you speak, so you will think.
Moreover, the more deeply you want to go
with your investigations and speculations, the more this kind of
thing matters. You can have a somewhat wrong model in
mind and still come up with perfectly accurate empirical predictions.
When you are trying to rethink things in a fundamental way, however,
when you are trying to make conceptual leaps and
nail down what
might be true, what must be true, and what could not possibly be
true about the really big things like consciousness, the wrong
metaphor, or simply the lack of the right one, can really
What we would like is a
large and varied repertoire of
metaphors to draw from, with some awareness of each of their limitations.
We've already seen the Cartesian Theater, which
Daniel Dennett (Dennett 1991)
is right to dismiss as a valid metaphor for
the mind. He is also right in saying that it is very difficult to
exorcise it from our thinking about minds.
In this essay, I am not going to make a coherent
knock-down argument for any
particular point of view, but rather I will
kick around some models
and metaphors. These are just fragments, images
and half-baked ideas that for one
reason or another, keep coming to my mind as I think.
As with the proverbial blind men and the elephant,
I think there are grains of truth in each
of them, but limitations as well. I hope to
extend the range of discussion of the mind by adding to the
collection of idioms. Even the wrong ones (and they are all wrong, at some
level of detail - that's why they are just models and metaphors) at least
help us talk about minds. Inevitably, as I discuss what
each model gets right and gets wrong, this exercise will
lay bare some of
my own intuitions and opinions about the mind; but then again, that's kind
of the idea. At some point in the future, some of them, or parts of
some of them, may get stitched together into an
actual theory that is cognitively, phenomenologically, and
These days we can't help
but think of the mind in terms of computers. In spite of everything I
have written about consciousness, I still do it all the time, and I
even think it is often useful to do so, as long as you are aware of
the caveats that go along with it. The computer is simply the dominant
metaphor for minds (and lots of other things as well) just as the
clock and the steam engine were dominant metaphors in eras past.
(A pretty good discussion of the ascendancy of the computer model of
the mind can be found in P. Cisek's article in the Nov/Dec 1999
issue (Reclaiming Cognition) of the Journal of Consciousness Studies.)
In a sense, the more you actually know about how computers work the
longer the period of intellectual detox must be.
You just can't help
phrasing things in terms of live processor vs. dead data, a centralized
point of control, search and sort algorithms and the like. I really like
Dennett's pandemonium/fame model of mind as an
antidote to this (more on this
makes the point that the serial von Neumann type machine (a fancy way of
talking in an idealized, abstract sense about "the computer" as we
understand computers) is highly artificial even in our own minds.
That is, our minds, as they evolved, did not start out thinking that way.
Serial, von Neumann type thinking was a great trick, but one we learned
relatively late in the evolutionary game - it is not the natural
architecture of minds. As Dennett puts it,
our mind is a serial machine simulated on a massively parallel substrate.
It is this type of linear, symbolic thought that we get presented
to us when we try to introspect "how we think". We went on to build
computers to mimic this naive impression we have of our own thought
processes, and obviously it has worked out quite well for us in lots
of ways. But to imagine that we can capture the essence of thought
itself that way is a beguiling mistake.
Let me say up front that I am aware that I am putting up something
of a straw man
argument against computers here. There are many, many different
computer languages, and many, many different computing environments, and I am
lumping everything together as if it were the 1950's, and "computer"
means straightforward, old-school linear functional programming,
of the type we deal with in languages like C or assembly language.
I'm old-school - this is largely how I think of computers. At their
core, (or these days, their cores) computers darn well are
straightforward, old-school linear functional machines. In such a device,
there is a linear thread of control, laid down by the human programmer.
Control may pass to a subroutine, which may do all kinds of complicated
things, including passing control to still other subroutines, but when
it is done it issues a "return" statement of some kind, and control
pops back up to the calling code. (Yes, it really is called popping. Popping
the stack, as a matter of fact).
I assume that I need not go into too much detail as to why the computer
is such a compelling metaphor. It certainly seems as though they do a
lot of the stuff that minds do; after all, we designed them to. They
process information, they remember stuff, they seem to know stuff in
some sense or another, and you can program them to do seemingly any
cognitive task you can imagine, if you just have enough memory and
CPU cycles. I remember, upon first learning to program,
feeling the same confidence that the early researchers in the 1950's felt
that I should be able to whip up a functioning AI.
There are, however, some problems with computers. Of course there are
the arguments against functionalism, and
the whole Hard Problem what-is-it-like-to-see-red thing. But there are
other reasons why a computer, at least a traditionally programmed one,
is not quite the model we are looking for.
So before we dismiss computers altogether (and I emphasize again that
dismissing them for good would be nearly impossible as well as
counter-productive, since we will always
be drawn to the extensive vocabulary of computers when talking about
minds) let's think about them for a bit. Ignoring for the moment
all of the what-is-it-like-to-see-red arguments, why are computers
not like minds? In particular, if we were to design a brand new
computer language, or a computer environment (like an SDK - Software
Development Kit) that would allow people to tinker with AI, what would
it look like?
Mental history is written by the mental winners. Thought only seems
logical, rigorous and inevitable in retrospect. I think, however, that thought
is marked by constant distractions. Some are dismissed, some are pursued,
and some fall in between, nudging or
coloring other threads of
thought. We are interrupt driven, and interrupts come not only from
outside, but from inside as well. When we
drill down or call a subroutine,
we might take off in a whole new direction, and never return (or never
quite return) to the original thread. Somehow, "low-level" routines
can derail the "high-level" routines, but not willy-nilly. The system
works, after all, and I can drive to work and bake cookies and
not forget what I am about. Somehow, in minds, there isn't this
distinction between low-level routines and high-level ones, such that
high-level routines call the low-level ones, which are bound to do
exactly as they are told and return to the caller. High-level and low-level
in minds is a bit of a two-way street.
This suggests that the mind is more like a fractal - patterns get
applied at high and low levels, and there is no such thing as a
low-level utility routine, only patterns that can be applied at any
level. Or even, perhaps, patterns that opportunistically apply
themselves at any level.
It also seems to me that for a computer to behave like a mind, it would
have to possess more of a memory, not just a memory of the type that
computers already possess. Computers store numbers in memory in a very
deliberate way, treating memory like a chest of drawers. Put the red socks
in this drawer, take them out of that drawer later. In a computer that
acted like a mind, however, the machine would
actually maintain the vapor trails of past thoughts
themselves. This sounds a little like a CPU cache, but whereas the cache
is invisible to the software by design, this would not be. Past thoughts,
including their flailings and dead ends,
would be stored as objects that can later
be held up to the light and examined.
It is misleading to think of the mind as a tiny spark of
active CPU, that accesses opaque memory by address
and plucks the datum stored there and loads it into a register.
The way a computer uses memory is like a warehouse filled with crates,
and a big overhead claw that can grab any crate and carry it to
a central platform. That's just not the way memory and mind work at all.
In a mind, reference is not opaque - in some funny way that I do not
pretend to have my arms around yet,
a reference subsumes the thing referred to.
In a mind, as new ways of thought are cobbled together with
routines, with threads or submodules invoking each other, the pattern
of linkages is abstracted from the particular problem at hand and
stored as a whole new invocable algorithm. Somehow, what is stored
must not be just the beginning state and the ending state of a particular
function or transformation, but the process of the transformation itself,
or what it is like to perform it. We must blur the distinction between
algorithm and data, so that our system works with blobs of
algorithmic data stuff. In fact, I think that there is likely no
distinct line we can draw in actual minds between data, algorithm,
and the execution engine (CPU) itself. In a mind, data gets applied to
new situations; data gets applied to other data; algorithms get
applied to each other; algorithms are treated as raw material for
other algorithms. A mind gets to see an algorithm all at once, to
comprehend it, which is a far different thing than merely executing
it. We humans, for instance, have a much easier time with the
than computers do, usually.
It is the hard and fast distinction between memory, data, and CPU that is
the most insidious effect of drawing on the computer metaphor. I do not
know much about neural nets, but I suspect that they help to dissolve the
data/algorithm distinction, although I also suspect that they
throw the baby out with the bathwater,
in that a neural net is crippled in its
capabilities. I do not believe that any neural net could have written the
quick sort algorithm,
It seems that for a computer to think at
all like a mind, it would have to have lots of processes going at once,
and these processes would trade off control between them, and they would
have a high degree of visibility into one another's workings. They might
help each other out, but they might exact a price for such help;
the helpers might demand more of a say, coloring the thoughts thought
or tugging some control away. Actually, phrased this way, the whole
thing sounds less like a computer environment and more like a
parliamentary government with lots of parties.
Moreover, the units
of processing (threads/routines/processes) would be able to connect
with each other with a higher probability of producing something
coherent than today's computers would. That is, a computer executing
a program walks a knife edge of coherence
surrounded by a sea of
chaos. Drop one bit, or walk off the end of an array,
and you are simply
done (General Protection Fault, blue screen of death).
Computers are very chaotic systems (neighbors do not map to neighbors)
- change one thing about a
computation and you get drastically different results. This is not
generally how organic things work, including brains. I think that if
we were to create a development environment/language for true AI,
the fundamental bricks out of which the system created algorithms
would be hardier. They could knock around,
invoke or connect with
each other if not randomly, at least somewhat randomly, with a
greater probability of creating something that would run.
In "Consciousness Explained", (Dennett 1991) Daniel Dennett
proposed a so-called pandemonium model,
that partially echoes Marvin Minsky's Society Of Mind idea (Minsky 1985).
It is a good one, worth reprinting here:
There is no single, definitive "stream of consciousness" because there is no
central headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where "it all comes together" for
the perusal of the Central Meaner. Instead of such a single stream (however
wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in
parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts
as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of "narrative" play
short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get
promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity
of a virtual machine in the brain. The seriality of this machine (its
"von Neumannesque" character) is not a "hard-wired" design feature, but
rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists.
The basic specialists are part of our animal heritage. They were not
developed to perform peculiarly human actions, such as reading and
writing, but ducking, predator-avoiding, face-recognizing, grasping,
throwing, berry-picking, and other essential tasks. They are often
opportunistically enlisted in new roles, for which their native talents
more or less suit them. The result is not bedlam only because the
trends that are imposed on all this activity are themselves the
product of design. Some of this design is innate, shared with other
animals. But it is augmented, and sometimes even overwhelmed in
importance, by microhabits of thought that are developed in the
individual, partly idiosyncratic results of self-exploration and
partly the predesigned gifts of culture. Thousands of memes, mostly
borne by language, but also by wordless "images" and other data
structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its
tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.
I have already argued against adopting this
model as the truth, lock stock and barrel,
but I like aspects of it. I tend to agree with Dennett that thought is a lot
less linear and single-threaded than we think it is, and that there are
a lot of competing/cooperating specialist circuits at work (elsewhere
Dennett evocatively calls these "demons". This actually hearkens back
to the idea of computer processes, as certain types of
these are called "daemons" in UNIX and
Linux. Note also that "pandemonium" literally means "demons everywhere").
I accept that there could be lots of demons in my mind, perhaps that
entirely make up
my mind. It is certainly a great metaphor. But again, we can't let
it limit us, and we must think hard about the ways the things in our
minds might not be like individual, you know, demons, or
anything subject to the constraints that actual biological beings might
live and die under. How many demons are there? What delineates a demon?
How do new ones come into existence, and do they ever die? To what extent do
they compete, and what happens to the losers? To what extent do they
cooperate? Some people use terminology that suggests that the mind
is a "Darwinian memosphere".
Does natural selection work on demons in the same way that it does
on species? Can demons mate and produce offspring?
Or can they simply merge together like
Do individual demons change over time, or adapt?
Dennett uses the term "coalitions"
(there's that parliamentary thing again). After
allying themselves to accomplish something, does the coalition
fall apart into exactly the same set of individual demons that
went into it, or does the Voltron/coalition demon get to stick
around, added to the menagerie
along with its component demons? Perhaps a demon can sort of will itself
to have new powers, unlike biological beings. Maybe they reproduce in
a way that is more like mitosis than sexual reproduction. To what
extent do patterns of relations between demons harden and become
new demons themselves?
What do demons want? To the extent
that they compete, what resources are they competing for? How, if
at all, do they stack, or nest, or apply themselves to one another?
What are the channels of interaction between them? Do they all have
mutual visibility, as if they are sitting in a huge stadium watching
each other? Does any one demon, or
coherent coalition, hold the floor at any given time?
Or is it really more like a jungle, in which they happen
across one another from time to time, interacting sporadically and
And what are demons, anyway? Are they
kind of like algorithms, (like how to bake a cake) or are they individual
episodic memories? My answer would be "yes".
I guess they are more or less memes.
It also may well be the case that my general knowledge of how to bake a cake
is not merely synthesized from, but actually composed of, the collection
of individual memories I have of baking cakes, reading about baking,
etc. It could be something in between, in which the "how to bake a cake" demon
is not entirely independent of the individual memories, but is not simply
a collage of them either.
There could also be lots of levels making this whole thing up
with individual memories forming intermediate demons, which then form
the "how to bake a cake" demon. Perhaps there is
no fixed, individual "how to bake a cake" demon until needed, at which
point the demons synthesize it on demand.
Phenomenological Plausibility of Demons
Why does this whole demon/memosphere idea
seem even vaguely plausible in the first place from a first-person
point of view? As we go about through
our lives, we have a sense that our mind is not monolithic; that
there are parts of it working away offline. Not only
do results of these offline computations pop into our main
stream of consciousness, but there is a definite sense, in me
anyway, of a whole train of thought, in all of its
what-its-like-to-see-red glory, being plugged into
whatever else I was thinking about or experiencing. Such trains of
thought come complete with a sense that they didn't just come into
existence at the moment "I" became aware of them, but that they
had been developing on their own for some time.
Active percepts, not just past memories, are demons. You tune out
the actual shapes of the trees on the side of the road as you drive
to work each day, the colors of the houses on your street, etc.
Your eyes pick up all these details (that is, the corresponding photons
do actually strike your retinas), and somewhere
there is a perceptual demon who, according to this way of thinking,
conscious of all that stuff, but "you" aren't aware of it, unless
there is a conscious effort at attention to such details.
Now of course
this sense could be an illusion. Dennett makes a good point about
this. He says that qualophiles like me first argue that the target
of our speculation, subjective consciousness itself, is in principle
not amenable to third-person scientific techniques of investigation.
But then we claim that some aspects of it are also outside our capacity
for first-person introspection as well. How can we possibly
posit with a straight face something that can not be detected by
third person or first person methods? ("Does anyone, on
reflection, really want to say that?", he asks. "Putative facts
about consciousness that swim out of reach of both "outside" and
"inside" observers are strange facts indeed.") In what way is this
different at all from the infamous luminiferous ether?
there is this sense - the sense that I (whatever "I" am) am
peripherally aware, then sometimes acutely aware, of whole other
trains of thought/experience that have a time sense associated with
them. A sense that even though "I" wasn't aware of the train of
thought/experience a moment ago, it was churning away on its own,
and now that I am aware of it, I am patched into
it, complete with its sense of its own conscious history.
This is where Dennett and I part ways. He denies the
consciousness of the demons. I think that even if his pandemonium model
is roughly correct, there is no reason the individual demons themselves
could not be conscious. He, of course, believes that consciousness
just is "fame in the mind", i.e. the collective activity of
lots of (unconscious) demons.
Have you ever been listening to an oldies station, and heard
a song that you have not heard in years or decades,
but had the distinct sense that the very same song was
going through your head sometime in the past week?
Of course you have. I have had this sense suspiciously often.
Often enough, in fact, that I have a hard time believing that I actually
just happened to be replaying all those songs consciously
in the few days before I heard them on the radio.
I think that all of my song memories are playing all the time,
but "I" am not aware of them. And if song memories, what other
memories are on hot standby in the same way?
Is there a "Dancing In The Moonlight" demon,
who just sings that song all the time,
forever until you die? I can't rule it out. It may be that all of
our old moments of consciousness are still in there, as some kind of
How do you ever get a thought in edgewise, with all these demons
singing? Not to mention the ones thinking, remembering, and sensing
your shoes through the soles of your feet. I suspect that you (or perhaps
I should go with the scare quotes, "you")
tune them out. Like the
jackhammer outside your window, it's not as if the demons go away or
stop, but after a short while they just don't impinge upon "you"
anymore, unless it would be a good idea for them to do so. But
what are the forces that determine how good or bad an idea it is
for them to seize the stage
(there's that Cartesian theater again)?
I think it is entirely likely that all of the demons are conscious
to some extent or another, whether or not "I" am conscious of what
they are conscious of. At one time it took a lot of concentration
for me to tie my shoes, but now I could almost do it in my sleep.
I constructed a tying-shoes demon, and when I tie my shoes, somewhere
in my mind, it is hard at work, concentrating like mad (although I
can willfully focus my attention on the act of shoe tying and make
it conscious). There may be lots and lots of willful and creative
consciousness in my mind that "I" don't know about.
I have a strong suspicion that a great deal of the mind's activity
is inhibitory. We spend an awful lot of effort shutting down streams
of information, and channeling activity. If you sense another
metaphor coming on, you are right. It strikes me that, to borrow an
image from the memeticists, the mind is like an organism under
constant assault by viral memes (demons). We tune out the singing
demons by quickly developing antibodies to them. If the "Dancing In
The Moonlight" demon sings the same song in the same way for too long,
we jam the signal by installing a counter-signal, a
counter demon. We handicap;
we compensate. It doesn't stop, but we accommodate it
by adjusting the state of our consciousness to account for its
constant presence. And of course, even though I speak of singing demons,
this goes for the remembering-my-childhood-cat-Fluffy demon as well,
and the demons that notice the trees along the highway.
The demon and its meme-jamming anti-demon are locked in a
self-canceling embrace forever,
leaving the mind as an intricate balance of tensions, like a bicycle
If you have ever
trued a warped bicycle wheel, you will know
exactly what I mean.
If you haven't, each spoke can be tightened or
loosened by twisting the bushing at its outer end with a truing wrench.
if you loosen or tighten the spokes in one area, the wheel goes out of
true, and warps. You try to bring it back
into true by tightening and loosening spokes, but it is tricky, prone
to all sorts of overcorrection and misbalancing of the tensions across
the whole wheel. You bring one area into true, then spin the wheel a bit and
discover that a quarter turn away from your original area is now
bent out like a Pringle's potato chip.
But the counter-balanced demon is still always poised,
ready to make a play for the Stage if it gets the right input, or
if it can figure out how to adapt itself to new circumstances.
The demons want to dominate, to grab center stage. In order to
maintain a thought or percept at all, you must be good at
developing and maintaining antimemes, of countering all of the
different assaults and distractions from the different demons.
Imagine the little Dutch boy of the fable, with a million
fingers in a million holes in the dyke. Or, you wait until
the whole system reaches some kind of equilibrium for some amount
of time. If some demon really wants to apply itself, maybe you just
This idea of demons/antidemons (or memes and antimemes) respects
a couple of ideas. Most importantly, it respects a sense of holism
in the mind. The mind, according to this conception of it, really
is one unified thing, with a balance of tensions keeping much of it
more or less inert at any given time. This image helps
make sense of some of the conscious-but-not-conscious scenarios
people have devised over the years: the ticking clock you are not
aware of until it stops, the pattern of the design on the carpet,
the sensation of your socks against your ankles.
Your "peripheral" awareness of such things is in there, and part of
your overall conscious field, but neutralized by an antimeme.
Carried further, it may well be the case that our whole mind,
every sensation and even every memory, is just like that:
always right there, as part of your all-at-once now, but tuned out.
The cacophonous demons are not off somewhere,
each in its own soundproof room. They are all there, all the time,
fully patched in. We actively exert ourselves to cancel them out,
and this exertion is a collective exertion, performed by other demons.
The mind is a self-policing pandemonium.
Darwinian Memosphere of Demons
I like the idea of active demons, even if most of them live in
the shadows most of the time, rather than the mind as presiding over
a mountain of static data. The mind is clearly great
at parallel processing, but even that understates the situation, I
think. When we are given
a fact, say, that contradicts something we know, even somewhat
indirectly, it is remarkable
how quickly we notice. If we learn something new and surprising
about cars, it is hardly plausible that we run through all
the thoughts and memories involving cars (individual cars as well
as general car knowledge) in our minds and
adjust them accordingly. Facts, memories, are recalled as needed, as
if by magic. It certainly seems as if the old fact jumps
up, as if offended, to take on the newcomer. Old thoughts are less
like dead data waiting to be accessed, searched, sorted, or
applied, than like little sparks of mind themselves, capable of
I suspect that
there is no single burly stagehand guarding the Stage, screening
demons who want their moment in the spotlight.
Demons can jump on and apply themselves to any detail of a new
or developing stimulus (thought or percept) that catches their fancy.
In this way, they get to flesh out the
"focused-upon" detail more fully. However,
uppity demons get smacked down. Demons can jump on
the Stage, applying themselves whenever they want, but there is a cost.
If they are just spamming,
grabbing the spotlight when
they have nothing to contribute, they either strengthen the counter-demon
response and get tuned out extra in the future, or they get corrupted
somehow. In order to survive intact over the long term, demons
must tiptoe through the minefield of existing demons on the way
to the stage without stepping on anyone else's tail or hoof.
You know how sometimes you remember an event from the distant
past, and you are not sure if you are actually remembering the event
or remembering your subsequent remembering of it on other occasions?
Your memorable recalling of it in the past has effectively jammed
the original memory. Any toehold or reference tag that would have
triggered the original memory will also now trigger the memory of
the memory. The original has been masked.
Was Fluffy yellow? I always thought of him as
yellow. But Mom has a photo and he's black. Oops.
If you have to bribe too may stagehands to get
onstage, you may find that you have nothing left once you get there.
Demons who cry wolf get ignored later.
I speculate that different demons have different niches in the
memosphere. Some are swaggering alphas, that apply themselves broadly
and promiscuously to whatever processing that needs doing, while some
are rarely seen, and just stay in their tiny niche, with very specific
criteria for activation. According to this
notion, a swaggering alpha's identity may be so smeared
out and indeterminate that it hardly has an identity left, just
the barest shape of one, a tone or coloring it can impart.
(The notion of causation might be such a demon.)
While at the other end of the spectrum, the den-dwelling, seldom-seen
demons get to keep their specificity in sharp detail.
Perhaps the alphas are more appropriately seen as promiscuous
eager beavers, willing to trade quality and specificity for
sheer quantity and frequency, whereas the den-dwellers
make the opposite call. As in nature,
different demons employ different strategies and make different
evolutionary compromises, until just about every conceivable
niche is filled.
Just as it may weaken or corrupt a demon to apply itself overly
broadly, demons may be similarly insulted by allowing other,
incompatible demons to pass onto the Stage. There may be, for instance,
a demon that enforces or embodies what we think of as a valid chain
of logical inference, and it will not tolerate another demon that violates
its criteria for a valid chain of inference
to ascend. To allow such a thing would be to make it less likely
that the valid inference demon would be allowed to ascend in the
future. In this way, demons collectively constitute rules or constraints
on each other. A truth I am certain of or perhaps even a symbol I know how to
interpret may be a rock-solid demon that will simply always win
competitions with other demons.
What about the mind's current state makes it enticing for the next
demon or coalition of demons to make a play for the Stage? What
sorts of current thoughts create a hospitable niche for subsequent
thoughts? I suspect that the answer is far from deterministic, or
rather, that it is chaotic: you never know what details or
seemingly unimportant aspects of a thought or percept will strongly
grab hold of a demon's fancy and take you in a whole new
direction. In particular, I tend to believe that it is not necessarily
the overall big idea or perceived direction a current thought is
going in that subsequent thoughts hook into
but those aforementioned distractions,
even if most of the distractions do not go anywhere interesting and
wind up being dead ends. Moreover, I
think that demons do not necessarily have a preference for high-level
deployment as opposed to low-level filling out the detail of some
thought or percept - they just like a good fit.
So: the demons that are maximally compatible with all the existing
demons are allowed to take the Stage.
Each new moment of consciousness is new and unique, however. So
it is not the case that old demons simply get to relive their
glory days in the spotlight; more likely they get to inform the
creation of a new demon - they get to be the primary parent, or
chief architect. Each incumbent demon is like a craftsman, or
a specialized muscle that shapes a new demon. Although some are
more like specific memories, some are more like general facts
or general strategies. Some are more algorithmic/prescriptive,
and others more data/descriptive, on a sliding scale. Each
has a bit of "what is it like?" and each has a bit of "what does
it do?". Indeed, it is hard to separate the two aspects. When I drive
down my street and see an object in my field of vision that ultimately
resolves to "house", it is probably not the case that my "house"
demon simply grabs the spotlight; more likely it helps spawn a new
moment of consciousness, a new, yet distinctly housey demon.
We often speak of our minds containing models: models of reality,
models of self, models of my cat, etc. What sense can we make of such
talk if our minds are constituted by demons? Are there models at
all, if each new moment of consciousness is whipped up
on the fly dynamically? I feel comfortable saying yes.
Any model is a black box with an interface. You ask certain
questions in the right way, and the model gives you consistent answers.
The model may be implemented by a static table of bits or a database,
with a relatively mechanical query engine, or it may be implemented
by a raucous parliament. Our "models" may not be as model-like
as we suppose.
image blurs the distinction between immediate sensations and
memory, which to my way of thinking is one of its virtues.
Memory is smarter and more active than is generally
supposed. Memories are not in cold storage, off in a file cabinet,
but right in your mind now, pressing on your consciousness.
Finally, this image bolsters an intuition that the
ability to get bored is essential for intelligence. As you are
assaulted by the same thoughts, you tune them out. You cease to be
conscious of what isn't novel. Could autism be somehow related
to meme immune deficiency disorder?
So what are the selection criteria for letting demons on the
demons do get promoted to the inner circle? Whoa - what inner
circle? Alright, yes, there is no Cartesian theater, not exactly, but
even Dennett acknowledges that there is something like a consensus
that forms (pretty quickly at that) about what the narrative center
of gravity is (or was) at any moment in my mind. This may be an
artifact of the narrative-spinner demon, the chatterbox, and
may not mean as much as it seems with regard to what "I" am thinking,
but there is something to the notion that I thought about Fluffy
today, but had not in the week before today. There is something
like a spotlight of attention on certain
trains of thought,
even though (as I suspect) there are lots and lots of other trains of
thought going on at the same time. So with my invocation of the Cartesian
theater, here is an example of my using
a discredited metaphor because, dammit, it helps me say what I want
The Spotlight of Attention
While I am here, I should just say that the proverbial spotlight
of attention is a bad metaphor, even though I just used it. Attention
is actively created, not passively observed. The spotlight metaphor
wrongly suggests that the thing attended to in the mind already
exists, in all its detail, in the dark before the spotlight is shone
on it. It is really a bad
metaphor for the same reason that the whole Cartesian Theater is. In
fact, it really is an aspect of the same metaphor, come to think
of it. Where was the last time you saw a spotlight, drawing
your attention? Probably the theater. Rather than imagining that
all of our thoughts, percepts, memories, etc. are all there, fully
realized, but in the dark until their moment in the spotlight,
it is more likely the case that we function as a sort of just-in-time
mental reality generator, creating things on the fly as we "turn
our attention to" them.
The idea of demons having to pay a cost for inappropriate activation
may help improve the "spotlight of attention" metaphor. As a demon,
you get to create the spotlight any time you want, making other
demons conform to you. Seizing attention is really a way of corralling
or bullying other demons into trying to apply themselves to you,
even at a cost to themselves of less-than-appropriate activation.
Depending on the situation, seizing attention is like issuing an
"all hands on deck" with more or less urgency.
Attention, then, isn't some spotlight being shone on a particular
demon, but is the collective combinations of lots of demons,
perhaps with one at the center as a ringleader or catalyst. Things
like pain or a threat tend to focus the attention. This may be a way
of having one imperative light a fire under
all of the demons, in effect shouting at them, "I don't care if this
doesn't fit your criteria of applicability! Find a way to apply yourselves
to this situation, however suboptimally to yourselves!"
The Burbling Spring
According to naive, classical AI, we build our thoughts, our
world, logically, using existing rules and facts like girders in an
erector set. This does not seem right to me. Perhaps we
humans have a certain creative wellspring within us. The stuff
of which our thoughts and percepts are made
just bubbles up from the ground. As with an actual spring, left on its
own, this stuff just lies on the ground in a puddle. But when channeled
appropriately, it can become something
intricate and powerful. This metaphor appeals to my sense that
a lot of the tricky stuff the mind does is inhibitory. It is the
way we constrain our thoughts, forcing them at great pressure
where we want them, that makes us smart, and not necessarily
(or exclusively) the gushing of the spring itself. The more tightly
we constrain our thoughts, the more things we rule out, the more
powerful the jet of thought becomes. Einstein was a genius not
because he had greater water pressure in his spring than the rest
of us, but because of the narrowness of his pipes:
the integrity of his reality-model, and all
the huge spaces of possibility he ruled out, left only very narrow
channels through which his water could spurt.
This image counters
the natural image of thoughts being structures built out of
smaller elements like Legos or girders. Instead, we build (or
train) channels, or forms, like those wooden forms construction
workers make into which they pour concrete, and the thoughts,
percepts, mentality, flow through the forms. The more tightly
we build the forms or channels, the greater the force with which
the thoughts spurt through, and the farther they get. These forms
are built of the sorts of things we would expect to constrain thought -
beliefs, habits, facts, etc.
Tape vs. Blob
I think it is seductively easy to assume that we are perfectly
integrated all the time. That is, we can say concretely that
"I have belief p" or "I know that p". I suspect that while in
general we know what we know, think what we think and believe
what we believe, it often takes some effort to
our reality and tease out the tangles.
Not all of us make this effort, and none of us does it perfectly.
The underlying image that I take exception to is that of a
single, unified reality model, like a great big blob or structure,
with any new facts/thoughts/percepts having to be integrated into it.
In contrast, I wonder to what extent our mind is like a tape that
we keep adding to our entire conscious lives, recording our
facts/thoughts/percepts as memories. In this view, there is no
reason at all why p and ~p could not perfectly well coexist at
different places on the same tape. Obviously, there is some integration,
but the image of the tape respects the sense in which our knowledge
and beliefs might be context-specific strategies or algorithms
rather than some kind of Pure Knowledge, fully abstracted, globally
applied, and globally accessible.
Synthesis/Analysis Feedback Loop
One one hand, there is a sense that
parts of my mental processing are farmed out
to submodules, or performed by somewhat autonomous demons. On the other
hand, there is a strong sense that I am intimately connected to
my thoughts and percepts, that there is some kind of deep
at work. Thoughts and percepts have a sort of
all-at-once quality, to the point where it seems that in some
sense, I am my thoughts and percepts. Assuming we have
good reasons for taking these conflicting intuitions seriously,
how do we reconcile them? The following is a guess at what might
be happening with certain mental operations.
It seems to me that as I am forming a thought, or taking in a
complex percept, I have to synthesize perceptual fragments into some kind of
whole. Different sense modalities get bound; tables, chairs,
pine-scented air fresheners get recognized as such individually
as well as belonging in the larger context. But as soon
as something comes together as a single, unified thought, it
gets broken down again, analyzed, almost as if it were new
raw data. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Once a thought or percept is put together into a whole,
the mind seems to strive to see, given the whole and without regard
to the pieces that gave rise to it, what pieces it can make out
of it. Then it tries to assemble the pieces into a coherent whole
again, possibly winding up with a somewhat different end result from that
which it started with. I imagine this coalescing/fragmenting
loop happening as many times as it has to until the whole thing
stabilizes: the thing you synthesize each time through the loop,
and the collection of parts you analyze it into, are the same
in successive iterations. The survivors of this process, the things
that live long enough, are what we recognize as thoughts or percepts.
It may be that this corresponds somewhat to Dennett's "fame in the
brain" idea, the longer you sustain the loop, the more iterations,
the more you attract the attention of other demons, and the
more famous the process becomes. Perhaps it is the thoughts that
are quickly resolved that are automatic, and never get very
famous, and the tricky cases, the ambiguous ones, are those
that take a while to settle down, and have to draw on demons
far and wide to work out a stable configuration.
This image gives voice to the e pluribus unum, the
one-yet-many sense we (or I, at least) get from consciousness.
It also incorporates the idea of feedback loops, which I think
must be present in minds. The parts influence the whole, which
influences the parts, etc.
Multi-dimensional hyperspaces are an almost ridiculously
pregnant metaphor for all kinds of things.
I once read that one of the reasons for this is that a hyperspace
is, to put it in modern terms, non-chaotic. Neighbors map to neighbors,
always. If you have n variables, and you plot a point
in an n-dimensional hyperspace, and then if you vary any of the variables
your resulting point in the hyperspace will also vary continuously.
On a normal two dimensional
grid, you can only get away with this for two variables. If you try
to represent more than two variables, at some point you will get
discontinuous jumps as you continuously vary some of the variables.
How does this help us talk about minds? What if everything we know,
every memory, every fact, is a blob or shape in a hyperspace?
The number of variables that characterize the objects in the space,
and thus the number of dimensions in the hyperspace, correspond to
some set of to-be-determined primitives.
Some shapes may overlap without harm, like the circles in a Venn
diagram, but others are incompatible. Different shapes react in different
ways when new shapes of various kinds step on
them. In this view, our whole mental
reality exists as some kind of n-dimensional modern art
sculpture park. Some shapes
are big, some are small, many enclose others, some are relatively
featureless, while others have all kinds of strange appendages and
protuberances. Some may even be more amorphous, and others harder,
to accommodate (or not) intersection with others. Since we can always
entertain thoughts that violate any of our existing beliefs, the
rules about intersection and incursion of shapes into each other
are not absolute.
The nice thing about the idea of the mind-hyperspace
is that it takes some of the work
out of knitting our thoughts and percepts
together into a coherent single reality. You just add the new
(thought, percept, etc.) to the space. If it trips over or bumps
into or intersects with
an existing thought, there is an incompatibility that needs
to be worked out. We are thus freed of the computer model in which,
in order to assimilate a new thought, we must walk through all the
old thoughts, calculating their logical consequences, to see
if the new thought can coexist with the old ones. Note that the
hyperspace image is kind of like the burbling-spring-with-channels
image, with existing thoughts, by virtue of their sitting there in
the hyperspace, constraining the space into which new thoughts may
form. Only instead of water (or cement) constrained by pipes, channels
or plywood forms, new thoughts are yet more
shapes, molded out of whatever the old thoughts are made of (kind of
This image also respects the idea that a lot of the mind's work is
inhibitory, that the tricky thing is setting up constraints. Existing
habits, established long term goals, routine expectations, etc.
limit the sorts of thoughts and perceptions we will have, but not
absolutely: they constrain, but do not dictate precisely, and
perhaps the constraints themselves are a bit squishy.
Another thing I like about this model is that it suggests a way to
deal with things like this: imagine a broken appliance. Now when
I did that, I immediately and effortlessly envisioned my trusty
hand mixer (I've always preferred those to the counter-hogging,
trendy, high-tech Kitchen Aid ones) shorting out and throwing sparks
out its little air vents in the back. Now this has never happened to me,
so this is not a memory I am replaying. How is it that we can so easily
take a vague specification and come up with a very specific image
that falls into that class? If the class is defined by a shape or blob
in hyperspace, and all examples are somehow enclosed within it, all we
have to do is throw a dart
into the class-shape - choose a random point
within it - and we come up with the hand mixer throwing sparks.
As an extra wrinkle, it may be that the shapes in the hyperspace
do not have a distinct surface, but are somehow fuzzy - delineated
probabilistically. Sometimes things can violate a shape's personal space,
or get away with an incursion that it "shouldn't".
Often, rules and boundaries can be broken, and sometimes
broken a lot. It may be that the presence of an existing shape only
makes it less likely that a new thought will be able to occupy that
space. Certain shapes may be constituted to be more defensive of their
integrity than others. As when we threw the dart to choose the broken
mixer image, the generation of new thoughts may not be completely
determined by the old ones, but merely constrained, so that the final
placement of them in the hyperspace is determined by something else:
perhaps it is random, perhaps it is some little creative
tickle. Ultimately, when all other considerations
are accounted for, it may be that certain patterns or linkages or
contrasts or tensions simply please us.
As the metaphors go, this one contains even more
hand-waving than most.
What are the bases, that determine the number of dimensions? One
dimension (thus one axis) for each primitive quale? For each new
kind of idea? Can't the
mind create new dimensions on the fly? How does that work, without
incurring a combinatorial explosion? Surely there isn't a "broken
appliance" shape in all of our minds; surely we don't create such a shape
until asked the question, so aren't we right back where we were, having
to walk through laboriously, gathering all the disparate examples
of appliances that could be broken, breaking them, and tossing them
into the newly created "broken appliance" shape? And how would this
be manifested physically or computationally? The whole sculpture park
also seems pretty static, too - it seems that the shapes should do more,
or change moment to moment.
Yes, yes, and yes. It's just an image, but one I keep thinking in terms of.
Your mileage may vary.
You may have noticed by now that some of these metaphors of the mind
are mutually exclusive. The itch that
motivated the tape vs. blob image is not respected very well by the
sculpture park in hyperspace image. Moreover, both of them are pretty
static - it is unclear who or what does any work in either. Demons and
parliaments, however, do lots of work. To what extent do existing thoughts
constrain the space in which new thoughts can occur, as opposed to
actively constructing new thoughts, as opposed to being the raw material
out of which new thoughts are constructed (possibly by the new thoughts
I think it is not the case that old thoughts
simply form the skeleton or scaffolding of which new ones are constructed.
Perhaps there are ways of combining
parts of the images (Darwinian, competing demonic ever-shifting shapes in
a hyperspace? A tape on which is recorded a domain-specific structure
corresponding to each moment's mental state?) How do thoughts fall
along the descriptive/prescriptive, data vs. algorithm divide?
And what is it like to see red, anyway? Not much help there.
I promised very little at the beginning of this essay - just a
grab bag of images and metaphors. The hope is that
they add to our vocabulary, so that when we have to
a figure of speech colloquially, we have a broader range of such
figures of speech to choose from, and we do not automatically rule
out entire classes of models, hypotheses, and theories in our choices
pandemonium - "demons everywhere"
antibody demons (jamming the signal, counter-demons)