Sunday, December 19, 2004

From the Mailbag

Editorial Note: the following email is reproduced here with the author's consent. It is a response to my previous post on Conscious Robots.

Hi Richard
Fascinating to see how people read something but don't really read it. Putting this website up is giving me huge insight into the problems humans have in assimilating knowledge. My conclusion so far is that they look for the thing they want to see, not what's actually there.

1) The point i'm trying to make is that 'I' am not my brain. 'I' am just my 'conscious' brain (which is why i'm a conscious robot not a robot). This is a crucial distinction. My conscious brain is controlled by feelings that it cannot control consciously. It's all there on the Until you start seeing yourself as your conscious mind and not the whole you, you're going to miss the point completely.

2) genetic determinism.
You think we are 'more than evolution'. What's your justification for this, and what was the method of change? What kind of structures do you think natural selection is capable of creating? Evolution is a 2 stage process - random changes (mutations/ sexual mixing), followed by selection. Selection means picking the characteristics thrown up by chance that enhance the survival chances of the genes. What you're suggesting is that natural selection can create a brain that is capable of doing something that wont enhance the survival chances of its genes. But you're going to have to explain how that's possible. If an organism is created by chance that decides to do whatever it likes, it will reduce the survival chances of its genes, not increase them. And then it will die. I need to add some more about evolution to help you see this. You can blame your professors. They probably started with Plato. But starting with plato when you're trying to understand human behaviour is like turning to Hippocrates when you're trying to cure cancer. Poor plato didn't have Darwin to tell him why humans exist, or what they've been programmed to do. Hence you fall into the assumption of thinking that humans can be 'more than evolution' without realising that it's impossible to be more than evolution - there's simply no mechanism of change to make us 'more than evolution'.

3) people are complex creatures - we act from a variety of motivations. Again, refer to above. How could we? nothing has programmed us to act from any motivation other than the maximisation of our genetic survival chances. In which case, we have to look at our current actions and understand why they increase the survival chances of our genes. Read the Selfish Gene and Mating Minds by Geoffrey Miller to understand this one.

4) 'Well-being', 'happiness', whatever you want to call them: what do you think created these things inside our skulls? Do you think we create them for ourselves? Do you not think that 'well-being' is electrons moving through neurones or chemicals moving through neurotransmitters? What else can any emotion or feeling be other than mechanisms of the brain? In which case, again, you've got to answer the question of 'how did these chemical pathways get to be like they are?' And the only answer you have is 'natural seleciton'. in which case, you're back to the question - ok, if 'well-being' is created by natural selection, then how does it help spread my genes? Well-being, just like your eyes and your ears is a mechansim created by chance and natural selection to increase the survival chances of your genes. We know this because we have no alternative explanation other than God.

I suggest you go see your professors and say 'Tell me about evolution'. Because what you're doing at the moment is like trying to build an atom bomb without understanding what an atom is.

The commments you make are the comments Plato would have made. Things changed 150 years ago.

best regards


The first issue is an interesting one. See my comments here for why I think we should include our subconscious as part of our mental identity.

Regarding point 4, I'm a welfare externalist. That is, I think that one's wellbeing depends in part upon the external world, in addition to one's own internal mental states. This is not in conflict with metaphysical naturalism. See my posts on ethics - especially Desire Fulfillment (follow that link to discuss welfare externalism) and An Analysis of Value.

For the record, let me add that I know a lot more about biology than I do Plato. (Though one might suggest this simply shows I know very little Plato!)

The central two points (i.e. #2 and #3) will be the focus of my next post...


  1. Wow. I'm glad I don't get emails like that. My first suggestion would be to let this guy be. His attitude, combined with his (lack of a) knowledge base may make engaging him counterproductive.

    You're absolutely right that genetic determinism is absurd. Genes definitely influence behaviors, but they don't determine them. Rather, they determine tendencies and limits. The entire body of research addressing the nature-nurture question has made this quite clear. Nature and nurture are both at work.

    His explanation of "wellbeing" reflects his ignorance of genetics, and development. The pathways in the brain aren't entirely determined by genetics. In fact, many of them are almost entirely determined by experience. From very early in brain development, the brain develops and gets rid of connections depending on the use of those ocnnections. Sure, genetics determines how those connections gets forms, and limits the types of pathways, but so what? The very fact that experience plays such a large role in brain development defeats his "genetic determinism."

    I don't even know what the sentence "I am just my conscious brain" means. It seems downright nonsensical to me. Does he mean that my impression of myself is just the experiences of which I'm conscious? That seems almost tautological. My conscious experience of myself is just my conscious experience of myself.I doubt that's what me means though. I'm sure what he really means is "all there" on his website, but frankly, the claim seems so nonsensical that I'm not motivated to spend the time searching for it.  

    Posted by Chris

  2. I think welfare is internal BUT we really dont have the capacity in general to short circut all the millions of connections to the external world theoretically a pleasure machine could do that - but maybe not in pracitce.
    As for genetic determanism you can assume for starters that whatever humans have in common is largely genetically determined - ie if you feel fear at a time that others would feel fear. If it is very different there is a high chance it has a high degree of experience in it (of course in reality everything is a bit of both) 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  3. Oh, I don't mind too much - I suspect I just caught him on a bad day (he's made more cordial comments elsewhere). Besides, it's given me a chance to discuss some interesting topics! :)

    "I don't even know what the sentence "I am just my conscious brain" means."

    My understanding was that he's trying to limit our sense of authorship/responsibility. The suggestion is that if our subconscious mind does something, then it was done by some power that ought not be considered our own. We should instead think of it as an external force. I think this suggestion is mistaken, but I don't think it's nonsensical. (I'm not entirely sure though, now that you mention it.) 

    Posted by Richard

  4. Hmm... well, that formulation at least seems to have meaning, but I can't think of how one could argue for it. What priveleges the actions I consciously intend (or at least, that I believe I consciously intend, as we are sometimes mistaken in this belief)? Why not privelege the unconscious, instead, since it is doing the bulk of the work in determing even the behaviors of which I am consciously aware? So, now I'm just my unconscious self! That seems just as silly, but it's probably easier to argue for. 

    Posted by Chris

  5. > but I don't think it's nonsensical

    I think this assumption will, however, have huge effects on the final conclusions. in the current listner (i think) they were talking about using the 'alienating ones subconcious" method to treat anorexia. 

    Posted by genius

  6. It was amusing for me to see this e-mail because i myself have been subject to torrents of abuse from this fellow on many occasions. He has also been banned from several forums, as I recall. I think you got off quite lightly, all things considered... 

    Posted by Hugo Holbling

  7. Could I just say two things: firstly I apologise deeply for my rudeness. Secondly, now i read it back I can't quite see what all the fuss is about. OK, I was horribly condescending occasionally, but I certainly didn't intend to be rude. I think if you read it with one tone of voice you get rude, if you read it with another tone you get questioning. But that's obviously my wishful thinking. I'm fascinated by Hugo's comment, because this email was actually my first of any such correspondence and I haven't actually been to any forums other than this yet - which is my excuse for winning the rudeness award. I hope you'll see much more humility in the more recent comments I've made. I'm intrigued to know who's my alter-ego on Hugo's site. Incidentally, if you look at Richard's post -which is the one I was replying to - you see 'simply wrong' twice and 'absurd'. Which I found condescending in perhaps a similar way. It's my mission to show why 'absurd' and 'simply wrong' are both 'simply wrong', and I hope that i've learned my lesson about how to present my ideas in future. Thanks for all your input.
    Loads of love, Conscious Robot. 

    Posted by consciousrobot

  8. No problem, CR, I've appreciated your other comments. (And, as the initial disclaimer said, the 'awards' weren't meant to be taken too seriously!) 

    Posted by Richard


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