Neil Rickert: Studying Cognition and Consciousness

Continuing the discussion from Science and Philosophy:

@nwrickert thanks for some of your really excellent contributions here.

Can you tell us about you and your work?

I have been thinking about The Theological Implications of Artificial Inteligence.

So I’m interested to learn about you and your field of study, both because it is interesting, and because I want to be ready for a talk in a couple months.

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You are a professor, but I can’t find your work. Very minimalistic webpage @nwrickert:

Though I did find this blog post:

Psychologists tend to divide themselves into cognitivists and behaviorists. The behaviorists study behavior of people or of experimental animals. Cognitivists tend to study beliefs, thoughts, and the like. It sometimes seems as if those two groups are at war. Cognitivists are often pointing out what they see as flaws in behaviorism, while behaviorists are often pointing out what they see as follies in cognitivism. It sometimes seems to me that each side is about right in its criticism of the other side.

My interest in such questions comes from my interest in human cognition. I have tried to look at cognition in terms of how it might have evolved, and how understand the evolution of cognition, intelligence, etc, might help us better understand cognition itself. Evolution is usually described in terms of natural selection. And it has seemed to me that nature wouldn’t give two hoots about our beliefs. Rather, it would be our behavior that is selected for by evolutionary processes. So the behaviorist viewpoint seems to be a natural fit.

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I also want to commend your tolerance of religious belief:

It is almost 50 years since I dumped religion. Yet, somehow, I don’t have any urge to be anti-theist.

Or why should I object when James McGrath, who identifies himself as a progressive Christian, makes a post on his blog with the title “Young-Earth Creationism is a Cult.” And he has a number of other good posts on his blog, today. McGrath gets it. He understands that if God is creator (as he presumably believes), then science tells us the how of creation. He accepts evolutionary biology.

Though, perhaps you can complete your thought…

[I started this post almost 6 hours ago. A power failure, due to storms, interrupted things. I saved as a draft, running on the UPS, before shutting down the computer. I had planned to write more than above, but the long hiatus interrupted my train of thought.]

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I retired in 2006, though I worked part time for a few years after that – considered myself semi-retired.

I started studying this around 1990, or a few years earlier. I was actually trying to understand learning (how humans and other biological creatures can learn). And that actually does connect up with evolution in some way.

I found that I was also learning a lot about human cognition and consciousness.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to show for this. They say that we should “think outside the box.” But what I found, is that if you think too far outside the editor’s box, then you won’t get published.

In my estimation, I have mainly been doing philosophy rather than science. But my approach is very different from the way that philosophers traditionally look at it.

There are a lot of assumption that philosophers take for granted. Since their main tool is logic, they need a bunch of starting premises. As I look into cognition, I am explaining a lot that they take for granted. And they don’t see me as saying anything important, because they already take it for granted.

As an example, philosophers look to belief formation as the basis for acquiring knowledge. But, as I see it, concept formation and concept modification are far more important.

In a way, this is a bit like evolution. Many people (particular critics of evolution) see niches as fixed and evolution as adaptation to a niche. That’s somewhat analogous to belief formation and further refining beliefs. But, as you are aware, niche change and niche construction is also very important. And that’s roughly analogous to concept change and to the construction of new concepts.

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It isn’t going to be much of a challenge (in my opinion). The way AI systems work is very different from the way that human cognition works.

On the other hand, my own conclusions about cognition and consciousness is likely to be seen as a challenge to theology – if I ever find a way of communicating those ideas. It doesn’t challenge the broad idea that there is a god. But it does challenge other theological and philosophical assumptions.

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Agreed. How would you articulate and explain the biggest differences?

Hey Neil,
I have never really learned about you view of consciousness at TSZ.
This may be another opportunity.
As you know, I’m a fan of quantum consciousness because of the pretty good accuracy of Hameroff/Penrose predictions that have been confirmed by experimental evidence…
What’s the experimental evidence for your views?

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An AI system uses computation.

The starting assumption is that there is already information, and it computes (or uses logic) with that already existing information.

We should instead, look at a cognitive system as primarily a measuring system. I am mainly thinking in terms of analog measurement. A ruler is an analog measuring device, but the measurements we make are digital values.

An analog measuring system does not start with information. It starts with the world, and produces information. Measurement is a process for creating information from the world.

Philosophers make a similar mistake. They think that when a photon strikes the retina, that’s information and we can compute with it. However, William James thought that what you would get is “a blooming buzzing confusion.” I agree with James. To get useful information, you have to use a somewhat systematic procedure to get the information that you want.

Here’s an illustration that I sometimes use. To measure temperature, we can use the expansion of a column of mercury in a tube. Then we measure the height of that column. From the height and the shape of the column, we can compute how much the volume of mercury expanded. We then use the laws of thermal expansion to compute the temperature.

Or we can skip the entire computation, and just directly calibrate the mercury column in terms of temperature. No computation is actually needed, and we don’t need prior knowledge of the details of the law of thermal expansion. And that’s what I think the brain is doing – it is directly calibrating its measuring systems so that very little computation is needed.

My tentative advice to neuro-scientists: Stop looking at the brain as a computer, and start looking at it as a complex measuring system. When you see a neuron fire as it reaches a threshold, think of that as indicating a calibration mark in the measuring system. When you see “Hebbian Learning”, think of that as the measuring system readusting and recalibrating itself.

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I’m not an experimentalist. I’m a theoretician.

Our current state of knowledge is such that the experimentalists need a good theoretical basis to guide their investigations.