Consciousness, freedom and moral responsibility
Answering the question ‘Are we free?’ at the level of society suggests that the big multi-nationals have assumed control over many aspects of our lives (see: “What is control?”). Answering the same question at the level of the individual is much more difficult. It raises some profound philosophical questions to do with consciousness, freewill and moral responsibility. In considering issues of moral responsibility it is worth first examining ideas about the nature of consciousness and freewill.
There are legal definitions of responsibility and culpability that can vary from one legislative system to another. There are definitions within moral philosophy (e.g. Kant’s Categorical Imperative). There are mental health definitions that aim to ascertain whether a person has ‘mental capacity’. However, it is generally accepted that to have moral responsibility people need to consciously exercise freewill over the choices they make. Moral responsibility entails having freewill, and for people, freewill entails a self-determined and deliberate conscious decision.
John Searle regards consciousness as an emergent property of biological processes. There are no contradictions between materialistic, mentalistic and spiritual accounts. They are just different levels of description of the same phenomena. Consciousness is to neuroscience as liquid is to the chemistry of H2O. There is no mind / body problem – mind and body are again just different levels of description. It’s linguistic usage that confuses us. Consciousness does confer meaning onto things but that does not imply that subjective reality cannot be studied using objective methods.
YouTube Video, John Searle: Our shared condition — consciousness, TED, July 2013, 14:59 minutes
David Chalmers addresses head on the question of why we have conscious subjective experience and how reductionist explanations fail to provide answers. He suggests that consciousness could be one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe like space, time, and mass. He suggests the possibility that all information processing systems, whether they are ‘alive’ or not may have some degree of consciousness.
TED Video, David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?, Big Think, March 2014, 18:37 minutes
The view that degree of consciousness might correlate with how much a system is able to process information is set out in more detail in the following:
YouTube Video, Michio Kaku: Consciousness Can be Quantified, Big Think, March 2014, 4:45 minutes
Building on the idea that consciousness involves feedback, John Dunne from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, looks at self-reflexivity as practiced in many religions, and in mindfulness. Consciousness confers the capacity to report on the object of experience (Is ‘I think therefore I am’ a reported reflection on something we all take for granted?).
YouTube Video, WPT University Place: Consciousness, Reflexivity and Subjectivity, Wisconsin Public Television, March 2016, 40:17 minutes
The BBC have put together a short documentary on consciousness as part of its series called ‘The Story of Now’. Progress has been made in consciousness research over the last 20 years including in the measurement of consciousness and understanding some mental conditions s disorders of consciousness.
BBC, The Story of Now – Consciousness, February 2015, About 15 minutes
Susan Greenfield, addressing an audience of neuroscientists, says consciousness cannot be defined but suggests a working definition of consciousness as the ‘first person subjective world as it seems to you’. She distinguishes between consciousness, self-consciousness, unconsciousness and sub-consciousness. She considers boundaries such as ‘when does a baby become conscious?’, ‘are animals conscious?’, ‘what happens between being asleep or awake?’. Having ‘degrees of consciousness‘ seems to make sense and locates consciousness in transient (sub-second duration), variable ‘neural assemblies’ that have epicentres – like a stone creating ripples when thrown in a pond. The stone might be a strong stimulus (like an alarm clock) which interacts with learned connections in the brain formulated during your life experience, modulated by chemical ‘fountains’ that affect neural transmission. Depression involves a disruption to the chemical fountains and the experience of pain is dependent on the size of the active neuronal assembly. Consciousness is manifested when the activation of the neural assemblies is communicated to the rest of the brain and body. Sub-consiousness arises out of assemblies that are, in some sense, too small.
YouTube Video, The Neuroscience of Consciousness – Susan Greenfield, The University of Melbourne, November 2012, 1:34:17 hours
Some of the latest research on where in the brain consciousness seems to manifest can be found at:
Big Think Article, Harvard Researchers Have Found the Source of Human Consciousness, Phil Perry, January 2017
Prof. Raymond Tallis, however, has some issues with reductionists theories that seek to explain humankind in biological terms and attacks the trend towards what he calls neuromania. He also rejects mystical and theological explanations and, while not embracing dualism, argues that we have to use the language of mind and society if we are to further our understanding.
YouTube Video, Prof. Raymond Tallis – “Aping Mankind? Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”, IanRamseyCentre, December 2012, 18:16 minutes
YouTube Video, David Eagleman: Brain over mind?, pop tech, April 2013, 22:25 minutes
Here is a radio introduction:
BBC Radio 4, Neuroscientist Pauls Broks on Freewill and the Brain, November 2014, 11 minutes
Pinker thinks that our freewill arises out of the complexity of the brain and that there is no reason to postulate any non-mechanical entity such as the soul. He distinguishes automatic responses (such as pupil dilation) from those that are based on mental models and can anticipate possible consequences which are sufficient to account for freewill.
YouTube Video, Steven Pinker: On Free Will, Big Think, June 2011, 2:17 minutes
Alfred Mele speculates on their being different grades of freewill and throws doubt on experiments which claim to show that decisions are made prior to our becoming consciously aware of them.
YouTube Video, Does Free Will Exist – Alfred Mele, Big Think, April 2012, 15:10 minutes
Is consciousness necessary for freewill? Do we make decisions while we are not consciously aware of them? If we do, then does that mean that we are not exercising freewill? If we are not exercising freewill then does that mean we have no moral responsibility for our decisions?
According to Denett, consciousness is nothing special. We only think its special because we associate it with freewill. However, the only freewill that matters is the responsibility for our actions that biology has given us through mental competence. The competence to reflect on our own thoughts and those of others, to anticipate consequences of our actions, and to see and evaluate the consequences, gives us both freewill and a responsibility for our actions.
YouTube Video, Daniel Dennett Explains Consciousness and Free Will, Big Think, April 2012, 6:33 minutes
Freewill and moral responsibility
Where do we draw the line between behaviour that we explain as driven by neurological/ neuro-chemical factors and those we explain in psychological, disease and demonic terms? Professor Robert Sapolsky shows how behaviours that were once explained as demonic are now explained neurologically. This parallels a shift from believing that the locus of control of peoples’ (unusual and other) behaviour has moved from demons and gods, to people, to disease, to brain structures and chemistry. What does this say about our sense of autonomy, individuality and ability to create moral positions?
Youtube video, 25. Individual Differences, Stanford, February 2011, 53:53 minutes
Assuming that we do have choice then this brings with it moral responsibility for our actions. But moral responsibility according to which system of values? Sam Harris argues that we take an odd stance when considering moral questions. In general we are willing to accept that different people are entitled to take different stands on moral questions and that there are no right or wrong answers. We tend to leave moral judgements to religions and are prepared to accept that in principle any moral value system could be right and therefore we cannot criticise any. However, Sam Harris points out that we do not do this in other domains. In health, for example, we are prepared to say that good health is better than bad health and than certain things lead to good health and should be encouraged while other don’t and should be discouraged. By the same token, if we accept that certain moral choices lead towards enhanced wellbeing (in others and ourselves) while other choices lead to pain and suffering then the normal application of scientific method can inform us about moral decisions (and we can abandon religious dogma).
TED Video, Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions, TED, March 2010, 23:34 minutes
Peter Millican discusses the relationship between freewill, determinism and moral responsibility. He describes Hume’s notion of responsibility, how ideas of right and wrong arise out of our feelings, and how this is independent of whether an act was determined or not. However, our feelings can often be in conflict with lower order feelings (the desire to smoke) constraining higher order feelings (wanting to give up smoking) and that our higher order freewill can therefore be constrained, giving us ‘degrees of freewill’ in relation to particular circumstances.
YouTube Video, 7.4 Making Sense of Free Will and Moral Responsibility – Peter Millican, Oxford, April 2011, 9:48 minutes
Corey Anton sets out a philosophical position – there is ‘motion without motivation’ and ‘motion with motivation’. We call ‘motion with motivation’ ‘action’. Some motivations result from being pushed along by the past (x did y because of some past event or experience) and some motivations are driven by the future (x did y in order to). Freewill is more typically associated with actions motivated by the intention to bring about future states.
YouTube Video, The Motives of Questioning Free Will, Corey Anton, 8:12 minutes
Intentionality and Theory of Mind
If it is our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts that gives us the capacity to make decisions, then, in the social world, we must also consider our capacity to reflect on other people’s perceptions and thoughts. This creates a whole new order of complexity and opportunity for misunderstanding and feeling misunderstood (whether we are or not). Watch the video below or get the full paper.
YouTube Video, Comprehending Orders of Intentionality (for R. D. Laing), Corey Anton, September 2014, 31:31 minutes
How do our ideas about other people’s intentions affect our moral judgements about them, and what is going on in the brain when we make moral judgements? Liane Young highlights the extent to which our view about a person’s intentions influences our judgements with respect to the outcomes of their actions, and goes on to described the brain area in which these moral evaluations appear to be taking place.
TED Video, TEDxHogeschoolUtrecht – Liane Young – The Brain on Intention, TEDx Talks, January 2012, 14:34 minutes
Even though we may not have a definitive answer to the question ‘Are we free?’, we can say some things about it that may affect the way we think.
- We cannot say definitively whether the world is pre-determined in the sense that every state of the universe at any one time could not have been otherwise. This partly arises out of our ignorance about physics and whether in some sense there is an inherent lack of causality.
- If the universe does obey causal laws then that does not mean that the state of the universe would be necessarily knowable.
- Whether or not the universe is knowably pre-determined is independent of our subjective feelings of consciousness and freewill. We behave as if we have freewill, we assume others are conscious sentient beings with freewill and the moral responsibility that arises out of this.
- However, within this framework there are acknowledged limitations on freewill, degrees of consciousness and consequently degrees of moral responsibility.
- These limitations and degrees arise in numerous ways including our own resources, imagination and capacity for reflections (self-consciousness), cognitive biases and controlling factors (including our own genetics, families, cultures, organisations and governments) that either subconsciously or consciously constrain our options and freedom to make choices.
- There could be a correlation between degree of consciousness and the integrated information processing capacity of a system, perhaps even regardless of whether that system is regarded as ‘alive’.
- Wellbeing seems to be enhanced by the feeling that we have the freedom to control our own destiny whether or not this freedom is an illusion.
- The more we find out about psychology, the mind and the brain, the more it looks as if we can explain and predict our actions and choices more accurately by an appeal to science than an appeal to our own intuitions.
- Our intuitions seem largely based on the pragmatic need to survive and deal effectively with threat within our limited resources. They are not inherently geared to finding the ‘truth’ or accurately modelling reality unless it has payoff in terms of survival.
- Some of our behaviour is ‘automatic’, either driven by physiology or by learning. Other behaviour is mediated by consulting internal states such as our interpretations and models of reality, and testing possible outcomes against these models as opposed to against reality itself.
- Our internal models can include models of our own states (e.g. when we anticipate how we might feel given a future set of circumstances and thereby re-evaluate our options).
- Our internal models can include speculations on the models and motivations of other people, organisations, other sentient beings and even inanimate objects (e.g. I’ll pretend I do not know that he is thinking that I will deceive him). Anything, in fact, can be the content of our models.
- We associate freedom with our capacity to have higher levels of reflection, and we attribute greater moral responsibility to those who we perceive to have greater freedom.
- We evaluate the moral culpability of others in terms of their intentions and have specialised areas in the brain where these evaluations are made.
- We evaluate the morality of a choice against some value system. Science offers a value system that we are prepared to accept in other domains, such as health. As in health there are clearly some actions that enhance wellbeing and others that do not. If we accept science as a method to assess the effects on wellbeing of particular moral choices, rather than use our fallible intuitions or religious dogma, then we can move forward in the achievement of greater wellbeing.
- Even if we could ascertain whether and how we are conscious and free, the ultimate question of ‘why?’ looks impossible to resolve.
Given the multitude of factors from physiology to society that control or at least constrain our decisions (and our speculations about them), it is no wonder that human behaviour appears so unpredictable. However, there are also many regularities, as will become apparent later.
Another take, by a physicist, on consciousness as an emergent property of the integrated processing of information.
YouTube Video, Consciousness is a mathematical pattern, June 2014, 16:36 minutes
Corey Anton illustrates how language contains within it, its own reflexivity. We can talk about how we talk about something as well as the thing itself.
YouTube Video, Talk-Reflexive Consciousness, Corey Anton, April 2010, 9:58 minutes
Part 1 looked at language and thought, mental models and computational approaches to how the mind represents what it knows about the world (and itself). Part 2 contrasts thinking in words with thinking in pictures, looking first at how evidence from brain studies inform the debate, and then concludes how all these approaches – linguistic, psychological, computational, neurophysiological and phenomenological are addressing much the same set of phenomena from different perspectives. Can freedom be defined in terms of our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts?
The Flexibility of Thought
Although we often seek order, certainty and clarity, and think that the world can be put in neat conceptual boxes, nothing could be further from the truth. Our thoughts and our language are full of ambiguity, flexibility and room for interpretation. And this is of great benefit. Just like a building or a bridge that cannot flex will be brittle and break, our thinking (and our social interaction) is made less vulnerable and more robust by the flexibility of language and thought.
Wittgenstein realised that categories do not really exist in any absolute sense. A particular concept, such as ‘furniture’, does not have necessary and sufficient defining features so that we can say definitively that any one object, say a piano or a picture, is furniture or not. Rather pieces of furniture have a ‘family resemblance’ that makes them similar, but without any hard boundaries on what is inside or outside the category. Steven Pinker describes a man who was unable to categorise but nevertheless had amazing feats of memory.
YouTube Video, Professor Steven Pinker – Concepts & Reasoning, NCHumanities, First published October 2014, 1:10:40 hours
Pinker also considers reasoning – both deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning is where a conclusion necessarily follows from a set of premises or assumptions – all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, leads inevitably to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. Inductive reasoning is where we generalise from the particular – so we encounter five white swans and this leads us to the generalisation that ‘all swans are white’ even though this may not necessarily follow. He concludes that people can do deductive reasoning so long as they are dealing with concrete and familiar content, but easily go awry when the content is abstract. As for inductive reasoning, people are generally not very good, and thinking is subject to all manner of biases (as described by Kahneman).
Representation of Concepts in the Brain
Since technology has become available to scan brain activity, there has been a spate of studies that look at what is happening in the brain as people perform various mental tasks.
TED Video, Nancy Kanwisher: A neural portrait of the human mind,TED , March 2014, 17:40 minutes
Control Systems in the Brain
As well as looking at individual functional components it is possible to identify some of the gross anatomical parts of the brain with different forms of control.
- Cerebrum – Control mediated through conscious abstract thought and reflection
- Cerebellum – Learned control and un/sub-consious processes
- Brain stem – Innate level control
These ideas and a more fully elaborated nine-level brain architecture can be found in a free downloadable ebook available from:
For more on the imaging techniques see:
YouTube Video, Magnetic Resonance Imaging Explained,ominhs, October 2011, 5:30 minutes
If you want to find out more about magnetic imaging techniques then there are several videos in the following Youtube playlist:
Using Functional Nuclear Magnetic Imaging (FNMI) techniques on people as they look at pictures of different objects (faces, road signs etc.) reveals not only something about object recognition in the brain’s visual system but also says something about how we may form categories and concepts. Interestingly, it appears to validate the more armchair philosophical speculations about the ‘fuzziness’ of concepts (e.g. Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblance’). For example, in his research, Nikolaus Kriegeskorte investigates patterns of neural activity in humans and monkeys. The neural activity suggests conceptual clusters such as animate ‘bodies’ (e.g. a human or animal body) and inanimate objects, despite visual similarities between the members in each group. If we consider the complexity of these patterns of activity and the way in which the patterns overlap, it is possible to see how concepts can, at the one time, be both ‘fuzzy’ (i.e. have no necessary and defining features) and yet distinct (i.e. given separate linguistic labels such as animate or inanimate).
TSN Video, Representational similarity analysis of inferior temporal object population codes – Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, The Science Network, August 2010, 23:11 minutes
In fact, brain and cognitive scientists have made considerable progress in bridging between our understanding of brain activity and more symbolic representation in language.
TSN Video, Emergence of Semantic Structure from Experience – James McClelland, The Science Network, August 2010,1:16 hours
The eventual direction of this type of work will be to integrate what we know about the brain into a simulation of how it works.
Goals, Tasks and Mental Representation
Whilst both language and patterns of neural activity can be considered as mental representation, somehow neither really capture the level of representation that we intuitively feel underlie the performance of tasks and the ‘navigation’ towards goals.
When people perform tasks they have a model in their mind that guides their behaviour. To illustrate this, imagine going from one room to another in your house at night with the lights turned off. In your mind’s eye you have a mental map of the layout of the house and you use this to help guide you.
As you stumble about in the dark you will come across walls, pictures, doorways, stairways, shelves, tables and so on. Each of these will help reinforce your mental image and help validate your hypotheses about where you are. If you come across objects you do not recognise you will start to suspect your model. Any inconsistencies between your model and your experience will cause tension and a search for a way of reconciling the two, either by changing your model or by re-interpreting your experience.
It is often the case that mental representations are vague and fragmentary, needing reinforcement from the environment to maintain and validate them. Even so, conceptual models create expectations which guide the interpretation of experience and tension is created when the internal representation and the external experience are out of step.
In this example, by turning out the lights, we remove a major element of external feedback from the environment. All that is left is the conceptual or mental model supported by far less informative sensory mechanisms. Because you know your house well, the mental model acts as a strong source of information to guide behaviour. Even if you are in a strange house, your knowledge about how houses are typically designed and furnished will provide considerable guidance.
Now consider an example where there is still a strong mental model that drives task performance, except it is less obvious because it does not involve the disabling of any sensory feedback from the environment.
Imagine performing the task of putting photographs in a physical album. You are driven by a view of what the finished product will look like. You may imagine the photographs organised by date, by place, or by who or what is shown in them. Alternatively, you may organise the album to tell a story, to be a random collection of pictures in no particular order, or to have all the better shots at the front and the worse ones at the back. Perhaps you have some constraints on the photos you must include or leave out. All these factors and visualisations form the conceptual model that stands behind the performance of the task. The activity of conceptual modelling is to capture this ‘mind’s eye’ view.
The mental model is not the task itself. The task of putting photographs in the album might be done in many different ways. For example, the behaviour would be quite different if the album were on a computer, involving mouse clicks and key presses rather than physical manipulation of the photographs. The task behaviour would also be different if you were instructing somebody else to put the photographs in the album for you.
The model is the internal mental representation that guides the task behaviour. It can be seen to be different from the behaviour itself, because the behaviour can be changed while keeping the model the same. If instructing somebody to put photographs in the album a particular way is not working effectively, you can take over the job yourself. You have the same image of the end product even though you achieve it in a different way.
A mental model need not necessarily be a goal. The model of the house was simply a representation that allows many different tasks to be performed and many different goals to be achieved. The goal may be to get out of the house, to get to the fuse box, or to check that somebody else in the house is safe. The same mental representation may support the achievement of many different goals.
Imagination, Envisioning and Visualisation
From the above it will be clear that although the mind can respond in an immediate and simple way to what is going on around it, for example by pulling back a hand when it touches something hot, it is also capable of sophisticated modelling of what might happen in the future. This is imagination or envisioning.
Francis Galton in 1880 published a classic paper in the journal Mind called the Statistics of Mental Imagery in which he set out some of the main characteristics of the ‘mind’s eye‘, in particular how people vary in the vividness of their mental images.
Jean Paul Sartre in ‘The Psychology of Imagination’ distinguishes between perception, conceptiual thinking and imagination.
The following playlist from the Open University looks at imagination and envisioning from perspectives from art through to neurophysiology.
Stephen Kosslyn has been researching mental imagery since the 1970’s and argues that people have and can inspect internal mental images when performing tasks. They form a model or representation of reality in addition to propositional representations.
Youtube Video, 12. The Imagery Debate: The Role of the Brain, MIT OpenCourseWare, August 2012, 55:11 minutes (Embedded under policy of Fair Use)
However, the psychology of imagination is somewhat out of fashion at the moment as neurological approaches come to the fore. But talking about the mind in terms of mentalistic concepts like imagination is under-exploited, both as a means of understanding mental representation and as a therapeutic tool.
Youtube Video, Interview Ben Furman 2 – Imagination in modern psychology, MentalesStärken, October 2014, 6:43 minutes
One approach to understanding how we think is phenomenology (Edmund Husserl). This focuses on subjective experience. It is looking inside our own heads rather than trying to construct an objective and theoretical account. Philosophers (Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir) and psychologists (Amedeo Giorgi) have taken this approach. The focus of phenomenology is on being, existence, consciousness, meaning, and intuition. This, in some sense, comes before the great philosophical questions like what is truth and why are we here. It is the sheer realisation that we exist at all and concerns fundamental ideas like the nature of the self and the relationship of self to reality – what we perceive and how we interpret it, before we start to analyse it, put linguistic labels on it or think about it in any logical sense.
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, Phenomenology, January 2015, 43 Minutes
An idea that comes out of phenomenology is the notion of the gap between what we perceive and our reflections on our perceptions. So, we see a glass of water, but the content of our thought can be about our perception of the glass of water as well as the perception itself. That we can reflect upon what we are seeing is well and simply just seeing it. So much is obvious. Indeed when I ask you to pass the glass of water I am making a reference to my perception of it and the assumption that you can perceive it too. If I ask, “where is the glass of water?” I am making a reference to a belief that the glass of water exists for both you and me even though I am unable to perceive it.
The interesting idea is that the notion of freedom derives from this ability to not just perceive but to be able to reflect on the perception. This removes us from responding to the world in a purely mechanical way. Instead, there are intermediary states that we can consult when making decisions.
It turns out that what the phenomenologists referred to as the gap between perception and reflection, the psychoanalysts have referred to as the distinction between the id, ego and super-ego, the psychologists have developed into the notion of mental models, Kahneman refers to as system 1 and system 2 thinking, linguists think of in terms of semantic structure, and the neurophysiologists have identified as being associated with higher layers of the brain such as the cortex, are all pretty much the same thing!
Mind the Gap
How the mind represents reality can be described at different levels from patterns of neural activity through to mentalistic concepts like imagination.
In reading the following very general and abstract account of mental processes, it is useful to think of an example, like driving a car. For an experienced driver it is almost automatic and requires little conscious thought or effort (until a child unexpectedly runs into the road). For a new driver it is a whole series of problems to be solved.
We can think of a person experiencing the world as a sensory ‘device’ attuned to monitoring our state of internal need and the gap between expectations and experience (our orientation). If all our needs are met, by default we coast along on automatic pilot simply monitoring the environment and noting any differences with our expectations (maintaining orientation). Expectations tune our sensory inputs and the inputs themselves activate neural pathways and may elicit or pre-dispose to certain outputs (behaviours or changes to internal states). Where we have needs, but know how to satisfy them (i.e. we have mastery), we engage appropriate solutions without effort or thought. The outputs can be behaviours that act on the world or changes to internal states (e.g. the states in our internal models). Some circumstances (either internal or external) may trigger a higher level control mechanism to over-ride default responses. When needs are met and experience and expectation are more or less aligned, our autonomic and well-learned responses flow easily. This, in Kahneman’s terms is relatively effort free, automatic and more or less subconscious, system 1 thinking.
Dissonance occurs when there is an unmet need or a difference between expectation and experience e.g. when there is a need to deal with something novel or some internal state is triggered to activate some higher level control mechanism (e.g. to inhibit an otherwise automatic reaction). If sufficient mental resources are available the mind is triggered to construct a propositional, linguistic or quasi-spatial/temporal representation that can then be internally inspected or consulted by the ‘mind’s eye’ in order to envisage future states and simulate the consequence of different outputs/behaviours before making a decision about the output (e.g. whether to act on the outside world or an internal state, and if so how). This is what Kahneman refers to as system 2 thinking. When we have done some system 2 thinking we sometimes go over it and consolidate it in our minds. These are the stories we construct to explain how we met a need or managed the difference between expectation and experience. The stories can then act as a shortcut to retrieving the solution in similar circumstances.
In a very simple system there is a direct mapping between input and output – flick the switch and the light comes on. In a highly complex system like the human brain the mapping between input and output can be of extra-ordinary complexity. At its more complex, an input might trigger an internal state that creates an ‘on the fly’ (imaginary) model of the world which is then used to mentally ‘test’ different possible response scenarios before deciding which response, if any, to make.
As we experience the world (through learning and maturation) we adjust our expectations in line with our experience. Our brains and and expectations become a progressively more refined model of our experience. When we are ‘surprised’, and recruit system 2 problem-solving thinking, we produce solutions. Solutions are outputs – either behaviours that act on the world or changes to internal states. Problem solving takes effort and resource but results in solutions that can potentially be re-used in similar circumstances in the future. This type of learning is going on at all levels of experience from the development of sensory-moror skills like walking or driving a car through to high level cognitive skills such as making difficult decisions and judgements in situations of uncertainty (e.g. a surgeon’s decision to operate on a life-threatening condition). System 1 and system 2 thinking are really just extremes of a spectrum. In practice, any task involves thousands of separate sub-processes some of which are highly learned and automatic and some of which require a degree of problem solving. To an outside observer these processes often appear to mesh seamlessly together.
The learning we do and the models we construct in our minds are very dependent on our own experiences of the world (and this accounts for many of the biases in the way we think). Although our models can be influenced by other people’s stories about how the world works e.g. though our education, peers, family, media etc. (or observing what happens to others), the deepest learning takes place through our own direct experience, and because our experiences are all just different samples of a larger reality, we are all different from each other. Each one of us has merely sampled an infinitely small fraction of an omniscient reality but because of the consistencies in the underlying reality (for example, we all experience the same laws of physics) there are sufficient commonalities in our models that we understand each other to a greater or lesser extent.
Need and maintaining orientation drive us all, and when under normal (but not total) control, we have wellbeing. However, we must always have some manageable gap, so that the system is at least ticking over. This is easily achieved because as lower level needs are satisfied we can always move to others further up the hierarchy, and constant change in the world is usually enough to drive the maintenance of our orientation.
Radio programme links
An index of BBC Radio programmes on cognitive science can be found at:
An index of BBC Radio programmes on Mental processes can be found at:
This Blog Post: ‘Representations of Reality Enable Control’ shows how different levels of description can be used to represent the knowledge that enables us to meet our needs and deal with the unexpected.
Next Up: ‘Are we free?’ delves deeper into freewill, consciousness and moral responsibility. If we are free, then in what sense is this true?
What is the relationship between the world and our mental representation of it? What is the representation that we use to model the world, and run through in our minds alternative futures enabling us to anticipate and predict what might happen? How do we ‘mind the gap‘ between our expectations and our experience and work out how to fill our unmet needs? Things are not always what we expect.
YouTube Video, 10 Amazing Illusions – Richard Wiseman, Quirkology, November 2012, 2:36 minutes
Previous blogs considered how being oriented, and having purpose, formed the basis for having control, and how when needs were un-met, without control, wellbeing will suffer. Orientation was seen as a mental map or model that allows us to navigate around our knowledge and thoughts, to know where we are going and to plan the necessary steps on the way.
Representation is Crucial
I want to know whether it is shorter to go from B to D via A or C. I am told that A is 80 miles west of B. B is 33 miles south of C. C is 95 miles south east of D. D is 83 miles north of A. A is 103 south west of C. What’s the answer?
It is very difficult to figure this out without drawing a map or diagram. With a map the answer is visually obvious. Even knowing that A is Swindon, B is London, C is Stevenage, and D is Birmingham doesn’t help much unless you have a good knowledge of UK geography and can see the problem in your ‘mind’s eye’.
But even problems like ‘will I be happier taking a boring but highly paid job at the bank or a more challenging teaching job?’ are difficult to think about without employing some spatial reasoning, perhaps because they can involve some degree of quantitative comparison (across several dimensions – happiness, financial reward, degree of challenge etc.).
How you represent a problem is crucial to whether or not it is easy or difficult to solve.
The ‘framing’ of a problem and the mindset you bring to it, considerably influences which kinds of solutions are easy to find and which are near to impossible. If we think the sun goes round the earth then we will have considerably more difficulty predicting the positions of the planets than if we think the earth goes round the sun. If we think somebody is driven by a depressive disease when in fact their circumstances are appalling, we may give them medication rather than practical help. Having a suitable representation and mindset are crucial to enabling control.
The wonderful thing is that people can re-invent representations and make difficult problems easy. However, this often takes effort and because we are lazy, for the most part we do not bother and continue to do things in the same old way – until, that is, we get a surprise or shock that makes us think again.
Language and Thought
So familiar and ingrained is the notion of orientation and navigation that spatial metaphors are rife in language – ‘I don’t know which way to turn’, ‘she’s a distant relative but a close friend’, ‘house prices are climbing’, ‘I take a different position’ etc. However, language may only be a symptom or product of our thoughts and not the mental representation itself.
Philosophers and linguists have long speculated on the relationship between language and thought. Is it possible to think about certain things without the aid of linguistics hooks to hang the thoughts on?
Steven Pinker considers language as a window on how we think. Our choice and use of different linguistic constructions reveals much of the subtlety and nuances of our thoughts and intentions. How we phrase a sentence is as much to do with allowing space for interpretation, negotiation and the management of social roles as it is to do with the ‘face value’ communicating of information.
TED Video, Steven Pinker: What our Language Habits reveal, TED, September 2007, 17:41 minutes
Pinker also differentiates thought and language, demonstrating that it is possible to have thought without language and that we think first and then put language to the thoughts in order to communicate. For example, babies and animals are able to make sense of the world without being able to put it into language. We translate between different languages by reference to underlying meaning. Pinker uses the term ‘mentalise’ as the ‘language’ of thought. We often think with our senses, in images, sounds and probably also our other senses. We can also think non-linguistically in terms of propositions and abstract notions. This is not to say that language and thought are not intimately bound up – what one person says influences what another person thinks. However, the fact that words can be invented to convey new concepts suggest that the thoughts can come first and the language is created as a tool to capture and convey the thought.
TED Video, Stephen Pinker: Language and Consciousness, Part 1 Complete: Thinking Allowed w/ J. Mishlove , ThinkingAllowedTV, October 2012, 27:17 minutes
But just as language reflects and may constrain thought, it also facilitates it and allows us to see things from different perspectives without very much effort. In general, metaphor allows us to think of one concept in terms of another. In so doing it provides an opportunity to compare the metaphor to the characteristics of the thing we are referring to – ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’. A summer’s day is bright, care-free, timeless and so forth. Metaphor opens up the possibility of attributing new characteristics that were not at first considered. It releases us from literal, figurative thought and takes us into the realm of possibility and new perspectives.
TED Video, James Geary, Metaphorically Speaking, TED, December 2009, 10:44 minutes
Despite the importance of language as both a mechanism of capturing and shaping thought, it is not the only way that thought is represented. In fact it is a comparatively high level and symbolic form of representation. Thoughts, for example, can be driven by perception, and to illustrate this it is useful to think about perceptual illusions. The following video shows a strong visual illusion that people would describe in language one way, when in fact, it can be revealed to be something else.
YouTube Video, Illusion and Mental Models, What are the odds, March 2014, 2:36 minutes
This video also illustrates the interaction between prior knowledge and the interpretation of what you perceive. It also mentions the tendency to ignore or find the easiest (most available) explanation for information that is ambiguous or difficult to deal with.
Mental representations are often referred to as mental models. Here’s one take of what they are:
Youtube Video, Mental Models, kfw., March 2011, 3:59 minutes
It turns out that much of the most advanced work on mental models has been in the applied area of user interface design. Understanding how a user thinks or models some aspect of the world is the key to the difference between producing a slick, usable design and a design that is unfathomable, frustrating and leads to making slips and mistakes.
Youtube Video, 4 2 Lecture 4 2 Mental Models 15 28, OpenCourseOnline, June 2012, 15:28 minutes
Mental models apply to people’s behaviour (output) in much the same way as they apply to sensory input.
Youtube Video, Visualization – A Mental Skill to learn, Wally Kozak, May 2010, 4:05 minutes
In the same way that an expert learns to ‘see’ patterns quickly and easily (e.g. in recognising a disease), they also learn skilled behaviours (e.g. how to perform an examination or play a game of tennis) by developing an appropriate mental representation. It is possible to apply expert knowledge in, for example, diagnosis or decision making without either language or thought. Once we have attained a high degree of expertise in some subject, much ‘problem solving’ becomes recognition rather than reasoning.
YouTube Video, How do Medical Experts Think?, MjSylvesterMD, June 2013, 4:44 minutes
So mental representations apply at the level of senses and behaviours as well as at the higher levels of problem solving. We can distinguish between ‘automatic’, relatively effort-free thinking (system 1 thinking in Kahneman’s terms) and conscious problem solving thought (system 2 thinking).
System 1 thinking is intuitive and can be the product of sustained practice and mastery. Most perceptual and motor skills are learned in infancy and practiced to the point of mastery without explicitly realising it. In language, a child’s intuitive understanding of grammar (e.g. that you add an s to make a plural) is automatic. System 1 thinking can also be applied to seemingly simple skills, like catching a ball or something seemingly complex, like diagnosing the illness of a patient. A skilled general practitioner often does not have to think about a diagnosis. It is so familiar that it is a kind of pattern recognition. With the automated mechanisms of system 1 thinking you just know how to do it or just see it. It requires no effort.
System 2 thinking, by contrast, requires effort and resource. It is the type of thinking that requires conscious navigation across the territory of one’s knowledge and beliefs. Because this consumes limited resources, it involves avoiding the pitfall, locating the easier downhill slopes and only climbing when absolutely necessary on the way to the destination. It is as if it needs some sort of central cognitive control to allocate attention to the most productive paths.
Although, to my knowledge, Daniel Kahneman does not reference it, the mechanism whereby system 2 problem solving type thinking becomes system 1 type automated thinking was described and then thoroughly modelled back in the 1970s and 80s. It is a process called ‘universal sub-goaling and chunking’ and accounts well for empirical data on how skills are learned and improve with practice.
This theoretical model gave rise to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) software called ‘Soar’ to model a general problem solving mechanism.
According to this mechanism, when confronted with a problem, a search is performed of the ‘problem space’ for a solution. If a solution is not found then the problem is broken down into sub-tasks and a variety of standard methods are used to manage the search for solutions to these. If solutions to sub-goals cannot be found then deeper level sub-goals can be spawned. Once a solution, or path to a solution, is found (at any level in the goal hierarchy) it is stored (or chunked) so that when confronted with the same problem next time it is available without the need for further problem solving or search.
In this way, novel problems can be tackled, and as solutions are found they effectively become automated and easy to access using minimal resource.
The ambitions of the Soar project, which continue at the University of Michigan, are to ‘support all the capabilities of an intelligent agent’. Project funding comes from a variety of sources including the US department of Defense (DARPA).
The Soar architecture is covered in the following Open Courseware Module from MIT.
Youtube Video, 19. Architectures: GPS, SOAR, Subsumption, Society of Mind, MIT OpenCourseWare, January 2014, 40:05 minutes
Whatever the state of the implementation, the Soar cognitive architecture is in close alignment with much else that is described here. It provided insight into the following:
- How system 1 and system 2 type thinking can be integrated into a single framework
- How ‘navigation’ around what is currently believed or known might be managed
- How learning occurs and an explanation for the ‘power law of practice’ (the well established and consistent relationship between practice and skill development over a wide range of tasks)
- How it is possible to create solutions out of fragmentary and incomplete knowledge
- How the ‘availability principle’ described by Kahneman can operate to perform quick fixes and conserve resources
- What a top-down central cognitive control mechanism might look like
- The possible ways in which disruption to the normal operation of this high level control mechanism might help explain conditions such as autism and dementia
In this blog: ‘The Representation of Reality Enables Control – Part 1’ looked at language and thought, mental models and computational approaches to how the mind represents what it knows about the world (and itself).
Part 2 contrasts thinking in words with thinking in pictures, looking first at how evidence from brain studies inform the debate, and then concludes how all these approaches – linguistic, psychological, computational, neurophysiological and phenomenological are addressing much the same set of phenomena from different perspectives. Can freedom be defined in terms of our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts?
We are all deluded. And for the most part we don’t know it. We often feel as though we have control over our own decisions and destiny, but how true is it? It’s a bit like what US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, famously said in February 2002 about the ‘known knowns’, the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’.
Youtube video, Donald Rumsfeld Unknown Unknowns !, Ali, August 2009, 34 seconds
The significance for ROBOT ETHICS: If people can only act on the basis of what they know, then it is easy to see the implications for artificial Autonomous Intelligent Agents (A/ISs) like robots, that ‘know’ so much less. They may act with the same confidence as people, who have a bias to thinking that what they know and their interpretation of the world, is the only way to see it. Understanding the ‘goggles’ through which people see the world, how they learn, how they classify, how they form concepts and how they validate and communicate knowledge is fundamental to embedding ethical self-regulation into A/ISs.
How can a brain that is deluded even get an inkling that it is? For the most part, the individual finds it very difficult. Interestingly, it is often those who are most confident that they are right who are most wrong (and dangerously, who we most trust). The 2002 Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime studying the systematic biases in our thinking. Here is what he says about confidence:
Youtube video, Daniel Kahneman: The Trouble with Confidence, Big Think, February 2012, 2:56 minutes
The fact is, that when it comes to our own interpretations of the world, there is very little that either you or I can absolutely know as demonstrated by René Descartes in 1637. It has long been know that we have deficiencies in our abilities to understand and interpret the world, and indeed, it can be argued that the whole system of education is motivated by the need to help individuals make more informed and more rational decisions (although it can be equally argued that education and training in particular, is a sausage factory in the service of employers whose interests may not align with those of the individual).
The significance for ROBOT ETHICS: Whilst people may have some idea that there are things they do not know, this is generally untrue of most computer programs. Young children start to develop ethical ideas (e.g. a sense of fairness) from an early age. Then it takes years of schooling and good parenting to get to the point where, as an adult, the law assumes you have full responsibility for your actions. This highlights the huge gap between an adult human’s understanding of ethics and what A/ISs are likely to understand for the foreseeable future.
The debate about whether we should act by reason or by our intuitions and emotions is not new. The classic work on this is Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ published in 1781. This is a masterpiece of epistemological analysis covering science, mathematics, the psychology of mind and belief based on faith and emotion. Kant distinguishes between truth by definition, truth by inference and truth by faith, setting out the main strands of debate for centuries to come. Here is a short, clear presentation of this work.
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 1 of 4), teach philosophy, September 2013, 4:52 minutes
From an individual’s point of view, by a process of cross validation between different sources of evidence (people we trust, the media and society generally, our own reasoned thinking, sometimes scientific research and our feelings), we are continuously challenged to construct a consistent view about the world and about ourselves. We feel a need to create at least some kind of semi-coherent account. It’s a primary mechanism of reducing anxiety. It keeps us orientated and safe. We need to account for it personally, and in this sense we are all ‘personal’ scientists, sifting the evidence and coming to our own conclusions. We also need to account for it as a society, which is why we engage in science and research to build a robust body of knowledge to guide us.
George Kelly, in 1955, set out ‘personal construct theory’ to describe this from the perspective of the individual – see, for example this straight-forward account of constructivism which also, interestingly, proposes how to reconcile it with Christianity – a belief system based on an entirely different premise, methodology and pedigree):
But for the most part there are inconsistencies – between what we thought would happen and what actually did happen, between how we felt and how we thought, between how we thought and what we did, between how we thought somebody would react and how they did react, between our theories about the world and the evidence. Some of the time things are pretty well what we expect but almost as frequently, things don’t hang together, they just don’t add up. This drives us on a continuous search for patterns and consistency. We need to make sense of it all:
Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011,4:31 minutes
But it turns out that really, as Kahneman demonstrates, we are not particularly good scientists after all. Yes, we have to grapple with the problems of interpreting evidence. Yes, we have to try and understand the world in order to reduce our own anxieties and make it a safer place. But, no, we do not do this particularly systematically or rationally. We are lazy and we are also as much artists as we are scientists. In fact, what we are is ‘story tellers’. We make up stories about how the world works – for ourselves and for others.
The significance for ROBOT ETHICS: The implications for A/ISs is that they must learn to see the world in a manner that is similar (or at least understandable) to the people around them. Also, they must have mechanisms to deal with ambiguous inputs and uncertain knowledge, because not much is straightforward when it comes to processing at the abstract level of ethics. Dealing with contradictory evidence by denial, forgetting and ignoring, as people often do, may not be the way we would like A/ISs to deal with ethical issues.
Sifting evidence is not the only way that we come to ‘know’. There is another method that, in many ways, is a lot more efficient and used just as often. This is to believe what somebody else says. So instead of having to understand and reconcile all the evidence yourself you can, as it were, delegate the responsibility to somebody you trust. This could be an expert, or a friend, or a God. After all, what does it matter whether what you (or anybody else) believe is true or not, so long as your needs are being met. If somebody (or something) repeatedly comes up with the goods, you learn to trust them and when you trust, you can breathe a sigh of relief – you no longer have to make the effort to evaluate the evidence yourself. The source of information is often just as important as the information itself. Despite the inconsistencies we believe the stories of those we trust, and if others trust us, they believe our stories.
Stories provide the explanations for what has happened and stories help us understand and predict what will happen. Our anxiety is most relieved by ‘a good story’. And while the story needs to have some resemblance to the evidence, and like in court can be challenged and cross-examined, what seems to matter most is that it is a ‘good’ story. And to be a ‘good’ story it must be interesting, revealing, surprising and challenging. Its consistency is just one factor. In fact, there can be many different stories, or accounts, of precisely the same incident or event – each account from a different perspective; interpreting, weighing and presenting the evidence from a different viewpoint or through a different value system. The ‘truth’ is not just how well the story accounts for the evidence but is also to do with a correspondence between the interpretive framework of the listener and that of the teller:
YouTube Video, The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED, October 2009, 19:16 minutes
Both as individuals and as societies, we often deny, gloss over and suppress the inconsistencies. They can be conveniently forgotten or repressed long enough for something else to demand our attention and pre-occupy us. But also sometimes, for the sake of a ‘better’ story (often one that better reflects the biases in our own value system), the inconsistencies and the evidence about ourselves and the human condition fight back. Inconsistencies can re-emerge to create nagging doubts, and over time we start to wonder – is our story really true?
The significance for ROBOT ETHICS:Just like people, A/ISs will have to learn who to trust, identify and resolve inconsistencies in belief, and how to construct a variety of accounts of the world and their own decision making processes in order to explain themselves and generally communicate in forms that are understandable to people. Like in human dialogue, these accounts will need to bring out certain facets of it’s own beliefs, and afford certain interpretations, depending on the intent of the A/IS and taking into account a knowledge of the person or people it is in dialogue with. Unlike, in human dialogue, the intent of the A/IS must be to enhance the wellbeing of the people it serves (except when their intent is malicious with respect to other people), and to communicate transparently with this intent in mind.
Some Epistemological Assumptions
In these blog postings, I try not to take for granted any particular story about how we are and how we relate to each other? What really lies behind our motivations, decisions and choices? Is it the story that classical economists tell us about rational people in a world of perfect information? Is it the story neuroscientists tell us about how the brain works? Is it the story about the constant struggle between the id and the super-ego told to us by Freud? Is it the story that the advertising industry tell us about what we need for a more fulfilled life? Or is it the story that cognitive psychologists tell us about how we process information? Which account tells the best story? Can these different accounts be reconciled?
The epistemological view taken in this blog is eclectic, constructivist and pragmatic. As we interact with the world, we each individually experience patterns, receive feedback, make distinctions, learn to reflect, and make and test hypotheses. The distinctions we make, become the default constructs through which we interpret the world and the labels we use to analyse, describe, reason about and communicate. Our beliefs are propositions expressed in terms of these learned distinctions and are validated via a variety of mechanisms, that themselves develop over time and can change in response to circumstances.
We are confronted with a constant stream of contradictions between ‘evidence’ obtained from different sources – from our senses, from other people, our feelings, our reasoning and so on. These surprise us as they conflict with default interpretations. When the contradictions matter, (e.g. when they are glaringly obvious, interfere with our intent, or create dilemmas with respect to some decision), we are motivated to achieve consistency. This we call ‘making sense of the world’, ‘seeking meaning’ or ‘agreeing’ (in the case of establishing consistency with others). We use many different mechanisms for dealing with inconsistencies – including testing hypotheses, reasoning, intuition and emotion, ignoring and denying.
In our own reflections and in interactions with others, we are constantly constructing mini-belief systems (i.e. stories that help orientate, predict and explain to ourselves and others). These mini-belief systems are shaped and modulated by our values (i.e. beliefs about what is good and bad) and are generally constructed as mechanisms for achieving our current intentions and future intentions. These in turn affect how we act on the world.
The significance for ROBOT ETHICS:To embed ethical self-regulation in artificial Autonomous, Intelligent Systems (A/ISs) will require an understanding of how people learn, interpret, reflect and act on the world and may require a similar decision-making architecture. This is partly for the A/IS’s own ‘operating system’ but also so that it can model how the people around them operate so that it can engage with them ethically and effectively.
This Blog Post: ‘It’s Like This’ sets the epistemological framework for what follows in later posts. It’s the underlying assumptions about how we know, justify and explain what we know – both as individuals and in society.
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