The philosopher and the thermostat


Daniel Dennett profile in today’s Guardian

“He’s famous among philosophers as an extreme proponent of robot consciousness, who will argue that even thermostats have beliefs about the world. This argument turns out to be more about what constitutes our own beliefs than about the inner life of a thermostat. Part of this is because he uses the term “opinions” for the kind of conscious and considered ideas about the world that many people would mean by beliefs. He doesn’t think a thermostat is conscious. But he thinks its behaviour embodies assumptions about the world, and these can’t be distinguished, in their effects on the world, from beliefs: “Intentional systems have beliefs, or as-good-as beliefs. I use the word beliefs for the intentional states of all of them, including the notorious thermostat. But we have opinions as well as beliefs.”

Hippo campus rock

Prompted by conversations last night with Marko about Steely Dan, I listened to some this morning on the way into work, and my state of ‘zeitgeist distance’ at the moment was elegantly reflected back to me all the way from 1972.

You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean
The weekend at the college
Didn’t turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand

College, knowledge, campus, hippos… Had a great, though brief, conversation last night with Sanjay Khanna about the importance of forgetting, which led me to dig out some wikipedia stuff on the brain.

From the entry on the hippocampus:

“There is some controversy in psychology and the neurosciences about the precise role of the hippocampus, but it is generally agreed that it is essential for the formation of new memories about personally experienced events (episodic or autobiographical memory). Some researchers prefer to think of the hippocampus as part of a larger medial temporal lobe memory system responsible for general declarative memory (memories which can be explicitly verbalized – these would include e.g., memory for facts in addition to episiodic memory).

There is some evidence that, although these forms of memory often last a lifetime, the hippocampus ceases to be crucial for the retention of the memory after a period of consolidation. Damage to the hippocampus usually results in profound difficulties in forming new memories (anterograde amnesia), and normally also affects access to memories prior to the damage (retrograde amnesia). Although the retrograde effect normally extends some years prior to the brain damage, in some cases older memories are spared – it is this sparing of older memories which leads to the idea that consolidation over time involves the transfer of memories out of the hippocampus to other parts of the brain.”

When Nokia announced Lifeblog, Anne Galloway juxtaposed it against the idea of “forgetting machines”. If our life recording devices are ‘outboard-hippocampi’ then perhaps balance and consolidation processes are the natural progressions.

Hopefully Anne will reveal more about her “forgetting machine” in due course.

One other gem for the psychogeographically-inclined from the wikipedia entry on the hippocampus:

“The hippocampus is believed to be particularly important for finding shortcuts and new routes between familiar places. Some people are better at this than others, and brain imaging shows that these individuals have more active hippocampi when navigating.

London’s taxi drivers are required to learn a large number of places — and know the most direct routes between them (they have to pass a strict test, the Knowledge, before being licensed to drive the famous black cabs). One study showed that part of the hippocampus is larger in taxi drivers than in the general public, and that more experienced drivers have bigger hippocampi. It may be that having a bigger hippocampus helps you to become a cab driver. It also seems that finding shortcuts for a living may make your hippocampus grow.”

How one gets an MRI scanner in the back of a Black Cab is anyone’s guess.