Binary thinkers

Even Daniel Dennett, whose grasp of basic logic can best be described as “questionable”, finds himself struggling with binary thinkers:

Dennett waited until the group talked itself into a muddle, then broke in. He speaks slowly, melodiously, in the confident tones of a man with answers. When he uses philosophical lingo, his voice goes deeper, as if he were distancing himself from it. “The big mistake we’re making,” he said, “is taking our congenial, shared understanding of what it’s like to be us, which we learn from novels and plays and talking to each other, and then applying it back down the animal kingdom. Wittgenstein”—he deepened his voice—“famously wrote, ‘If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.’ But no! If a lion could talk, we’d understand him just fine. He just wouldn’t help us understand anything about lions.”

“Because he wouldn’t be a lion,” another researcher said.

“Right,” Dennett replied. “He would be so different from regular lions that he wouldn’t tell us what it’s like to be a lion. I think we should just get used to the fact that the human concepts we apply so comfortably in our everyday lives apply only sort of to animals.” He concluded, “The notorious zombie problem is just a philosopher’s fantasy. It’s not anything that we have to take seriously.”

“Dan, I honestly get stuck on this,” a primate psychologist said. “If you say, well, rocks don’t have consciousness, I want to agree with you”—but he found it difficult to get an imaginative grip on the idea of a monkey with a “sort of” mind.

If philosophy were a sport, its ball would be human intuition. Philosophers compete to shift our intuitions from one end of the field to the other. Some intuitions, however, resist being shifted. Among these is our conviction that there are only two states of being: awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious, alive or dead, soulful or material. Dennett believes that there is a spectrum, and that we can train ourselves to find the idea of that spectrum intuitive.

“If you think there’s a fixed meaning of the word ‘consciousness,’ and we’re searching for that, then you’re already making a mistake,” Dennett said.

I think Dennett is essentially correct; his spectrum approach is not dissimilar to my own probability perspective. The fact that we don’t have enough information to correctly calculate those probabilities and identify them doesn’t mean that it is not a more useful heuristic than reducing everything to Abelardian binary.

The exchange with the primate psychologist reminds me a little of my mostly failed attempt to explain the IQ delta between very high intelligence and ultra high intelligence to people who are essentially limited to the smart-normal-dumb spectrum. The talking lion can’t speak meaningfully about the experience of dumb lions. The UHIQ can’t speak any more meaningfully about the experience of midwits than the midwit can describe what it is like to have an IQ of 50.

It shouldn’t be hard to grasp the concept that different minds process information differently, and yet, the guy who firmly believes he’s wicked smart because he had a 105 IQ in a classroom full of sub-95 IQs quite often assumes the guy with a 140 IQ must be stupid because he can’t understand him.

To quote my old sensei, mind the gap.

Also, I’m with Chalmers. I suspect if Dennett spent more time with technology in general, and AI in particular, he’d better grasp the fundamental weakness of his position.