Repent for the Cosmic Castration Is Upon Us (part III)

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Lets engage in a bit of a thought experiment. Over the weekend you complete a workshop on dream interpretation. The presenter suggests that you buy a dream journal and put it by your bed. The presenter also makes note of the fact that it is imperative that you write your dream down in your journal immediately upon waking and before you engage in full body movement. You buy your dream journal, put it in the top drawer of your nightstand, and drift off to sleep. You awake the next morning with very vibrant and fascinating dream images dancing in your head. You say to yourself, “I’ll quick get a cup of coffee and then write these images down.” With coffee carefully prepared and steaming in your favorite mug you open page one of your dream journal and immediately hit a huge impasse: for the life of you, you cannot remember even one dream image let alone an entire sequence. You muse to yourself, “Ahhhh … I don’t know why exactly but now I know why our presenter said effectively ‘journal first, move later.’ ” Hopefully by the end of this post you’ll have some idea why you must journal first, move later. The answer will come as we continue (see parts I and II) summarizing the last chapter in Antonio Damasio’s 2010 book Self Comes to Mind. Damasio’s last chapter is entitled Living With Consciousness. To whet your appetite, the above thought experiment helps to illuminate why robots have a body but do not need a body. Robots having a body and also wishing that they had the capacity to need a body is the central theme of the short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (first published in 1968) by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Dick’s story was the basis for the popular early 1980s science fiction movie Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford. Lets leave our thought experiment lab and get back to Damasio’s book.

I finished part II by drawing attention to Damasio’s idea that “moral behaviors are a skill set.” Damsio continues by telling us that “conscious deliberation [moral or otherwise] is about reflection over knowledge.” Cognitive scientists often refer to “thinking about thinking” as metacognition. According to Damasio, metacognition takes place in an “offline mental space that overwhelms external perception.” This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If you are being chased by a tiger, chances are good that you are not thinking about moral indignations. Chances are you are thinking about saving your butt. As you are running from the tiger, it is the mid-brain, with its focus on here-and-now perception of the object world, that rules the mind. When the danger is over, maybe the upper-brain, with its focus on planning, morality, perspective taking, etc., will consume cognitive processing. What Damasio tells us is that even though different images or maps come from the mid- versus upper-brain, there is only one image processing center in the brain. As a result, both the mid- and upper-brains have to share this cognitive processing space. Here’s how Damasio puts it: “[T]he image-processing brain space … is the sum total of early sensory cortices.” He continues, “This same space needs to be shared by conscious reflection processes [e.g., upper-brain processes] and direct perception [e.g., mid-brain processes].” When cognitive scientists talk about how kids (or adults for that matter) with ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) have a tough time shifting focus, they are primarily talking about shifts between the object-oriented mid-brain and the imaginative upper-brain. When the dog named Dug in the 2009 movie Up yells SQUIRREL!!!!!, Dug is living out of the mid-brain (as most upper level animals, like dogs, do).

“We cannot run our kind of life in the physical and social environments that have become the human habitat,” writes Damasio, “without reflective, conscious deliberation.” But Damasio issues the following warning:

The conscious as well as the nonconscious components of this complex and fragile decision and execution device can be derailed by the machinery of appetites and desires [such as attachment], in which case a last recourse veto [such as “just say no”] is not likely to be effective. Split-second vetoes remind us of a well-known recommendation on the matter of drug addiction: “Just say no.”

What Damasio is telling us is that just saying no to the images coming from the middle-brain is simply silly. The activities of the middle- and upper-brains need to be coordinated or orchestrated in some way. For nay-saying (one of the key intervention strategies of cognitive/behavioral interventions) to be successful, Damasio suggests that the upper-brain must ask for the help of the mid-brain, not simply lord over it telling it “no.” Cognitive/behavioral interventions deny the mid-brain; they deny the body. They separate body from mind in one big cosmic castration. Like robots, behaviorists have bodies but they have no need for bodies. In stark contrast, John Bowlby argued that it is centrally early safe and secure attachment relationships that ultimately allow the mid- and upper-brains to work together, to balance and harmonize body and mind. Behaviorists dismissed Bowlby’s work simply because behaviorists have no need for body in the first place. Ergo, there’s no need to balance body and mind. Rejecting body makes life clean, efficient, easy, and quick. It makes life robotic. And given that we re now surrounded by such things as computers, smartphones, the Internet, Google, Netflix, TiVo, care robots, sex robots, etc., making life robotic makes sense.

Damasio gives us this “take home” statement: “Outsourcing expertise to the nonconscious space is what we do when we hone a skill so finely that we are no longer aware of the technical steps needed to be skillful.” This is why we can drive a car without thinking about driving a car. If a pilot were to think about flying, he or she could not fly effectively. The same goes with surgeons performing surgery. Or musicians performing a symphony. But, sadly, today, we are outsourcing our thinking. We are outsourcing our skill sets to the Internet and Google. Can this actually be done? Do you want your pilot Googling how to fly, or your surgeon Googling how to perform open heart surgery? Or, more simply, do you want the average person to Google how to be moral? I would hope that the answer is a resounding No! But what are we increasingly saying Yes! to? Yup, robots performing surgery, robots flying planes, and even robots telling us what is right and what is wrong. But, again, keep in mind, robots have bodies but they do not need bodies. No images per se come from robot bodies. Robot bodies have no appetites or desires to “derail things.” And many argue that this is a good thing. Appetites and desires (like attachment) are simply too messy, too unpredictable, too uncontrollable. Many advocate for simply castrating body from mind. The Internet is a castration. Cognitive/behavioral interventions are a castration. Behavioral drugs are a castration. Parentification and role-reversal (topics I have blogged about before) are castrations. Taken as a whole we arrive at the cosmic castration. As a recent article on AI (artificial intelligence) puts it,

To a large extent, roboticists will probably try to avoid emergent properties of consciousness…. A key reason: utility. A household robot like Rosie [of Jetsons cartoon fame] does not need “personhood” and emotions in order for “her” to do a good job; in fact, sentience might well get in the way.

As the above article correctly points out, robots do not have to be human because it is a human proclivity to make the inanimate, animate. (This is the driving force behind empathy.) As the article points out, roboticists are hard at work trying to exploit “the human tendency to anthropomorphize, or to ascribe agency and intelligence where it, in fact, does not exist.” Why make robots human when humans will naturally project a self onto a robot. Today we see famous actors projecting a self onto Apple’s very HAL-like Siri. This fits with the Internet and its call to project multiple selves willy nilly. Suffice it to say that projecting selves willy nilly (i.e., onto robots or within virtual worlds) undermines the development of Bowlby’s autonomous self. It may well be that the days of the autonomous self are coming to a close. Sorry. I’m on my soapbox. Back to Damasio.

Consider this quote by Damasio:

We develop skills in the clear light of consciousness, but then we let them go underground, into the roomy basement of our minds, where they do not clutter the exiguous square footage of conscious reflection space.

I mean no disrespect here but how quaint. With the advent of the Internet, the above sounds outdated. The Internet allows us to outsource whatever we wish. We don’t have to worry about the precious “square footage of conscious reflection space.” With the Internet, conscious reflection space is as big as one wishes it to be for Internet use encourages us to separate mind from body. Why worry about balancing body and mind when you can jettison body and let mind roam freely within digitally-created worlds. But what about those pesky skills that Damasio keeps referring to like morality and playing a symphony, those pesky skill sets that take a lifetime (in some cases) to develop? Oh wait, robots will be performing all of those skills. So then what exactly do we do with our time? Sit around and surf the net? Even most 1960s hippies got bored of surfing psychedelic worlds and got so-called real jobs and became productive members of society. Perhaps the same will happen with the Internet hippies of 2012 who are taking the psychedelic drug that would be the Internet.

Damsio makes it clear that the body, and along with it unconscious processes, will not go away easily and quickly. Damsio writes,

The power of nonconscious, emotional factors is so well recognized that a perfectly monstrous machinery of electoral influence has developed as an industry over the past few decades, along with less publicized but equally sophisticated methods of influential jury selection.

Even though the body and the nonconscious will not go away without a fight, it is clear that very sophisticated processes are in place to make sure that it eventually does: enormous sissors to castrate body from mind.

I’ll stop here and start part IV (the last part in this series) talking about Damasio’s chapter section entitled Educating the Cognitive Unconscious. But, again, this information only applies if one is so motivated to educate the cognitive unconscious, to develop skill sets like moral thinking, reflective thinking, piloting a plane, performing surgery, playing a symphony, being in a committed relationship, etc. If this applies to you, then join me for part IV in the next week or so. If you have already outsourced your skills to the Internet and robots, then my guess is that part IV will be largely lost on you. As they say, stay tuned.

PS – So, why must we journal first, move later? Dreams are created mainly in the upper reflective imaginative brain. Recall from above that there is only one image processing center. The body and body movement also produces images. When we get up and grab a cup of coffee, we are in essence overwriting imaginative images with body images. And because the imaginative images of dreams have not been consolidated and stored in memory, once body images overwrite imaginative images, those imaginative images are lost. Our thought experiment above points out that there are two central areas of the brain producing images—object perception versus imaginative perception—and that these two areas must share one image processing center. Humor is where we clearly see the images of the body co-occupying the image processing center space with the imaginative images of mind. For more on this theme, see Henry Bergson’s Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (originally published back in the early 1920s). People with a well developed sense of humor enjoy the tickle they receive when body based images and imaginative images share space in the image processing center in, well, fun and unpredictable ways. So, tune in Leno tonight and let your body and mind based images have a bit of fun. And while you are engrossed in a guffaw, think kindly about the robot who has no need nor capacity for humor.

PSS – What, you don’t watch Leno. OK, then how about the following Saturday Night Live bit featuring Daniel Radcliffe on the growing trend of becoming proficient without expending any effort. The piece is entitled You Can Do Anything: