AI and cognitive psychology rant (getting more and more OT - tell me if I should shut up)

Anton Vredegoor anton at
Fri Oct 24 16:00:12 CEST 2003

Stephen Horne <steve at> wrote:


>One thing that has become clear in neuroscience is that almost all
>(perhaps literally all) parts and functions of the brain benefit from
>learning. Explicit memory is quite distinct from other memory
>processes - it serves the conscious mind in a way that other memory
>processes do not.


>At a more extreme level, entire memories can be fabricated. The harder
>you search for memories, the more they are filled in by made up stuff.
>And as mentioned elsewhere, the brain is quite willing to invent
>rationalisations for things where it cannot provide a real reason. Add
>a psychiatrist prompting and providing hints as to the expected form
>of the 'memory' and hey presto!


>Many people seem to have an obsession with a kind of mystic view of
>consciousness. Go through the list of things that people raise as
>being part of consciousness, and judge it entirely by that list, and
>it becomes just another set of cognitive functions - working memory,
>primarily - combined with the rather obvious fact that you can't have
>a useful understanding of the world unless you have a useful
>understanding of your impact on it.

Sorry that I had to cut your long (but excellent) post to comment only
on a small subset of it. I want to reply only to the part that
concerns memory and consciousness, because I feel that you are having
a problem with these while the answer is already present in other
parts of your post.

According to Merleau-Ponty there is something to "the whole is more
than the sum of the parts" and other gestalt-like consciousness
mysticism. He explains this as the effect that having a sense of
direction and purpose gives each of the components that are involved a
new meaning such that they all operate coherently.

For example a primate can use a stick as an instrument, but a human
can use an instrument to build other instruments, thereby potentially
transforming the meanings of *all* objects in the environment, and
thereby finally being able to rearrange the environment itself or
gaining the powers to transport to some other place with such
efficient methods that the effect is virtually the same as rearranging
the environment.

My understanding of this point is that this effect is also seen very
prominently in the way we remember things. But contrary to your
position I see this rearranging of the constituent parts of our memory
-in a certain sense the basis of our consciousness- not as something
"fabricated" or "rationalized" (or in some other semi-pejorative

The way we structure our past is a positive accomplishment and we
should value it as such instead of insisting that there is only one
past and that any deviation from the "standard" (who's standard
anyway?) is showing some tendency to "evade problems" or gain unlawful
advantages over others.

In fact there is no fixed past at all, and the past that we have now
can be changed very easily, without using time-machines even. The
complete reality whether individual or shared is just a figment of our
collective or individual imagination and is therefore subject to
change without warning.

Ok, let me try to back up these bold claims with some trivial examples
of how our individual and collective pasts can be changed or are
changed or have been changed.

First a little "Gedankenexperiment", suppose you have been luckily
married for over twenty years and now I'm showing you a photograph
(supposedly of the kind that can't be forged) of your partner in a
compromising situation with someone else. I can back up this data with
several other facts, accumulated over the years, each of which you
have no prior knowledge of. Does this change your past, or just your
image of the past, so that it now comes closer to the "real" past?

If one looks at this example carefully one might wonder if this newer,
more "real", past is not also a figment of our imagination, and so on.

Another example, suppose someone on clpy who's first name is Alex came
into the possession of some convincing information linking corporate
culture and social factors to the divergence of programming styles and
data formats, in fact proving without a shred of doubt to him that
social factors are for 95% or more responsible for the generation of
divergent cultures of programming (with the accompanying dialects of
programming languages) through the process of "math-envy". This would
lead to some interesting new perspectives on macros being responsible
for the diverging of communities of programmers, making them into
mechanisms rather than sources. This could lead to a new world view
where from now on not macros would be avoided, but rather a certain
way of competition of programmers which would be identified as
unhealthy for the community as a whole. Would this change the past?
Certainly the whole macro-wars history of clpy would gain a new

Next consider the event of the twin tower airplane attack. Suppose it
was finally publicly acknowledged that there where no foreign nations
involved in the attack but that it was just a rather small group of
individuals acting on their own, backed by some very rich capitalist
but still only a small group of people acting in their own selfish
interest. Also no weapons of mass destruction could be found in Iraq,
Hussein had no connection with Osama bin Laden, and so on. This would
make the American attacks on two countries into war crimes and would
lay open speculations about the oil-industry being behind these so
called anti terrorism activities. Taking civil rights away from the
citizens of the united states could be another motivating factor for
certain powerful groups in the American government. Of course this is
all nonsense and pure speculation, but a quick view of what is still
written in Japanese history books about world war two, or an
investigation of what Iraqi school children had to learn about Saddam
Hussein will quickly disperse any doubts about what is possible in the
ways of completely misrepresenting collective memory.

Another example, imagine you had been suffering from a stomach ulcer
that was incurable and had taken drugs for years in order to reduce
the acidity of your stomach content. Someday someone comes along and
mentions that it's all caused by a bacterium called helicobacter and
you could be cured in two weeks. If you believed this person, would
this change your personal past?

There *is* no fixed past. What is possible is to make a past that is
purposeful, makes one strong and directed and flexible and open to
change. We should start seeing our pasts as an accomplishment and an
asset, and -realizing the moldability of it all- begin healthy
cooperations with other people to synchronize our pasts, incorporating
all the little "facts" of all people into a grand unifying theory in
which all these past episodes have a new meaning, and where everything
can find its place.

If you still think that's not magic, it's probably better to keep it
that way in order not to compromise the wonderful life that is
theoretically possible, given these observations.


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