Mind

Does “recursivity” make us human?

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Here, Liz Else (New Scientist, (3 June 2011) tells us, that “recursivity” or “thoughts within thoughts” make us human:

Chimps, bonobos and orangutans just don’t tell stories, paint pictures, write music or make films – there are no great ape equivalents of Hamlet or Inception. Similarly, theory of mind is uniquely highly developed in humans: I may know not only what you are thinking, says Corballis, but also that you know what I am thinking. Most – but not all – language depends on this capability.

Actually, no, other sources say, these qualities don’t make us human. They identify us as human. They are a key characteristic, and not the only one, that we expect of humans, and would expect of intelligent space aliens.

The emerging point is that recursion developed in the mind and need not be expressed in a language. But, as Corballis is at pains to point out, although recursion was critical to the evolution of the human mind, it is not one of those “modules” much beloved of evolutionary psychologists, many of which are said to have evolved in the Pleistocene. Nor did it depend on some genetic mutation or the emergence of some new neuron or brain structure. Instead, he suggests it came of progressive increases in short-term memory and capacity for hierarchical organisation – all dependent in turn on incremental increases in brain size.

This is a critical insight in non-materialist neuroscience: The ability to think, not some supposed module in the ocean of the brain, explains things like language, religion, etc.

That said, a Mark Hauser retro-man will surely come out shortly with a study claiming to have found the quality in chimpanzees. But to see it, you’d have to be him.

27 Replies to “Does “recursivity” make us human?

  1. 1
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    I’m not quite clear what the “critical insight” is, here, and why it should be “in non-materialist neuroscience”.

    The concept of recursivity isn’t alien to “materialist neuroscience”.

    Could you explain?

  2. 2
    Neil Rickert says:

    The alleged ability of the human mind to think recursively is greatly exaggerated.

    (I teach recursion to mathematics and computer science students, and it does not come easily to most of them).

  3. 3
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    And yet, it is fairly common to hear human beings say things like:

    “Oh I see! You thought I was being sarcastic! No, no, I really meant it – your hair looks really good like that!”

    But perhaps not from your average computer science student 🙂

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    (I teach recursion to mathematics and computer science students, and it does not come easily to most of them).

    You should be teaching them how to teach others how to teach others how to teach others … how to teach recursion to mathematics and computer science students.

  5. 5
    junkdnaforlife says:

    A recent challenge to the materialist framework is Neuroplasticity. The phenomenon that our thoughts can change the physical structure of our brain. If mind is simply a product of the brain, then why would the mind have any physical effect on the brain…

    “The discovery of this feature of the brain is rather modern; the previous belief amongst scientists was that the brain does not change after the critical period of infancy.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity

    This reminded me of QM, and the collapsing wave function due to measurement/observation. The Copenhagen vs multi-world etc beef. Neuroplasticity would seem to support in some way the old, “consciousness causes collapse,” line.

  6. 6
    above says:

    Materialism is dead and has been for a while despite the wishful thinking of some.

  7. 7
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    junkdnaforlife:

    It amazes me, I have to say, that “neuroplasticity” is regarded as even “recent” let alone a “recent challenge to the materialist framework”.

    The notion that learning resulted from the creation of new synaptic connections dates at least to Donald Hebb (1904-1985), best known for “Hebb’s rule” often stated as “what fires together, wires together”.

    His work was pretty well the foundation of neuroscience; hence, neuroplasticity lies at the heart of neuroscience, and his principle (well substantiated by evidence) is the very mechanism by which “mind” (as in “what the brain does”) is linked to brain (or “how it does it”). Without neuroplasticity, brains simply couldn’t function; learning would be impossible, and learning is probably the most basic function brains do. We hesitate to describe anything that can’t learn as having a brain.

    So neuroplasticity in no way suggests that “the mind alters the brain”, nor indeed that the brain alters the mind. What it does suggest (and more than suggest) is that mental processes reflect changing weights of neural connections (as in artificial neural networks, which are derived entirely from the principle of Hebbian learning, and thus of brain plasticity).

    The brain isn’t a piece of hardware that runs software. In the brain, “hardware” and “software” are the same thing – all changes are recorded, physically, by changes in synaptic strengths, and they result from both internally generated inputs and external stimuli, received via the sense organs.

    Without brain plasticity, memory would be impossible.

    Without the concept of neuroplasticity, neuroscience wouldn’t exist.

  8. 8
    Ilion says:

    Materialism is dead and has been for a while despite the wishful thinking of some.

    Indeed. Yet, we will always have materialists — irrational persons who simply *will not* admit its death and then move on to figuring out what logically follows from the fact that materialism is false — amongst us.

  9. 9
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    I guess I’m not really sure what “materialism” is, and why it’s “dead”.

    I’m probably a materialist, but if so, it doesn’t feel very dead, and I don’t seem to hold the views often ascribed to “materialists”.

    So can someone explain what they are?

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    You might be a materialist if:

    1. You deny the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

    2. You deny that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and was raised from the dead.

    3. You deny that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God.

    (Not literally, of course. God doesn’t have hands, or a right or left side. Nor does he literally sit. He has no ass, and Heaven is his throne and the Earth his footstool. Not literally of course. God has no feet. Even though he did walk in the Garden.)

    4. You don’t believe in life after death.

  11. 11
    above says:

    Elizabeth

    -“So neuroplasticity in no way suggests that “the mind alters the brain”, nor indeed that the brain alters the mind. What it does suggest (and more than suggest) is that mental processes reflect changing weights of neural connections (as in artificial neural networks, which are derived entirely from the principle of Hebbian learning, and thus of brain plasticity).”

    You’re contradicting yourself in that peragraph. Neuroplasticity is simply this: Changes in the brain caused by a subject’s experience. So yes, the brain does change.

    From your writting it seems like you think that the mind and the brain are the same. Do you hold that view or am I missing something?

  12. 12
    Ilion says:

    Elizabeth Liddle:I guess I’m not really sure what “materialism” is, and why it’s “dead”.

    It’s “dead” because it’s self-refuting — in effect, it cuts its own throat.

    ‘Materialism’ is the philosophy (such as it is) which asserts, in terms of physics, the metaphysical position that there is no God. ‘Physicalism’ and ‘naturalism’ are subtle variations of focus when expressing the same metaphysical assertion. Or, to put it more directly, ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’ and ‘naturalism’ are but expressions of “western-style” atheism (*).

    ‘Materialism’ is the philosophy (such as it is) which asserts that *all things* are reducible to matter, and states of matter, and interactions between bits of matter.

    This is why the materialists who actually think about what they are asserting (in contrast to garden-variety ‘materialists’ who latch onto it as being a “scientific” refutation of the reality of God) *always* end up asserting that beliefs and thoughts, and consciousness and reasoning, and minds themselves, are but illusions and epiphenomena of the physical brain. These assertions — while indeed stupid — are not *simply* stupid things that some materialists have decided, for whatever reason, to assert. Rather, they follow, logically and inescapably, from the initial assertion of materialsm itself.

    Of course, even these “thinking” materialists studiously avoid seeing the inherent absurdity of the conclusions they have reached, and thus the self-refutating nature of the initial premise. Of course, should they ever stop refusing to see the self-refutation of the initial premise, they’d no longer be materialists.

    (*) “Western-style” atheism — the atheism which denies Judeo-Christianity — asserts that nothing except matter exists. “Eastern-style” atheism (for instance, Buddhism), asserts that nothing at all exists.

    Elizabeth Liddle:I’m probably a materialist, but if so, it doesn’t feel very dead, and I don’t seem to hold the views often ascribed to “materialists”.

    It doesn’t matter in the least what ad hoc mish-mash of mis-matched propositions this or that self-described ‘materialist’ asserts — what matters is what logically follows from the -ism itself. And what logically follows from the -ism shows the -ism itself to be self-contradictory; and, in fact, worse than *merely* self-contradictory; for, were materialism the truth about the nature of reality, then beliefs and thoughts, and reasoning … and minds themselves … simply cannot exist in the world we inhabit.

  13. 13
    Ilion says:

    Every single human mind is the irrefutable proof that atheism is false.

    To put it another way: every single human mind is the irrefutable proof that ‘theism’ is true.

  14. 14
    junkdnaforlife says:

    El: “So neuroplasticity in no way suggests that “the mind alters the brain”

    Wiki:

    “According to the theory of neuroplasticity, experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom.”

    What does experience have to do with a mind?

    Mind:
    Most agree that minds are constituted by conscious experience and intelligent thought. Common attributes of mind include perception, reason, imagination, memory, emotion, attention, free-will and a capacity for communication.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind

    More to the point:

    “Current trends in neuroscience offer evidence that we can consciously improve our health and well-being by simply changing our minds.

    “Newsweek science columnist and senior editor Sharon Begley reveals the details of this scientific paradigm shift…”

    Read more at Suite101: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Brain: Research Reveals Impact of Mental Training on Psychiatric Disorders | Suite101.com http://www.suite101.com/conten.....z1OR5uF5x0

  15. 15
    above says:

    So in sum,

    In as much as one asserts as (Elizabeth seems to have done), that mind and brain are the same they have only managed to refute themselves. I think Haldane put it nicely in the following quote:

    “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.”

    That would include the belief that the mind is the brain of course.

  16. 16
    above says:

    Ilion,

    Since we’re on the topic of materialism I want to mention one more thing. What is matter anyways?

    Can anyone ever answer that question without ever referencing the mind?

  17. 17
    Mung says:

    It’s “dead” because it’s self-refuting — in effect, it cuts its own throat.

    What, you’ve never heard of zombies!?

    Long live the living dead!

  18. 18
    Mung says:

    What is matter anyways?

    It’s stuff without form.

    Does that sound like Genesis 1 or what!

    Matter + Form = ???

    Thomists? Anyone?

    Is it substance?

  19. 19
    above says:

    When have we as human beings ever encountered matter without form?

    Never.

  20. 20
    Ilion says:

    Indeed, Above, we never have. For, just as there is no such thing as “living matter,” there is no such thing as “formless matter” … there is no such thing as “generic” matter.

    What is matter anyways?

    Matter is matter. To insist upon any other answer is to ask: “Of what non-material substance is matter comprised?

  21. 21
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    @above, #11

    Elizabeth

    -”So neuroplasticity in no way suggests that “the mind alters the brain”, nor indeed that the brain alters the mind. What it does suggest (and more than suggest) is that mental processes reflect changing weights of neural connections (as in artificial neural networks, which are derived entirely from the principle of Hebbian learning, and thus of brain plasticity).”

    You’re contradicting yourself in that peragraph. Neuroplasticity is simply this: Changes in the brain caused by a subject’s experience. So yes, the brain does change.

    From your writting it seems like you think that the mind and the brain are the same. Do you hold that view or am I missing something?

    No, I don’t think mind and the brain are the same, but nor do I think that the mind is something that does one set of things and the brain is something that does another. I think they are two aspects of the same thing, which is, essentially what we are.

    Put most simply (and possibly too glibly), I’d say: mind is what the brain does.

    But equally validly: mind is that aspect of thinking that we experience, and take ownership of; brain processes are that aspect of thinking that explains how that experience is generated.

    Or again: mind is the systems-level description of mental process; brain is the cellular-level description.

    None of those are entirely satisfactory, of course, but that is because to me, separating mind and brain is like separating heads from tails, or, perhaps more accurately, separating physics from chemistry.

    That is why, to me, it is just as much as absurdity to think that neuroplasticity indicates that the “mind alters the brain” as to think that it means that “the brain alters the mind”, and to risk yet another analogy, equivalent to trying to distinguish between magnetism and electricity. Perhaps we need a new term, equivalent to “electromagnetism”!

    So I don’t think that “the subject’s experience causes change” is any better (or indeed worse) a formulation than “brain change initiated by a stimulus causes the subject to experience something”. Which formulation we choose depends simply on what question we want to answer. For example if we want to know why London cabbies have enlarged hippocampi, we can say “because of long experience of trying to navigate London”. However, if we want to know how someone who is very good at navigating London does so, we could say “by activating their very strong hippocampal circuitry”. Neither statement is wrong – they are just answers to different (and perfectly valid) questions – the first is primarily a “why” question, and the second is a “how”.

    (Although of course, both “how” and “why” questions can be asked at both,and many other,levels).

    This is why I am so keen on Denis Noble:

    http://videolectures.net/eccs07_noble_psb/

    It’s worth listening to in full, but if you want a taster, there’s an interview here:

    http://videolectures.net/eccs07_noble_int/

    He, like me, is a monist, as opposed to a dualist, but is vehemently (like me!) non-reductionist!

    My own take on the materialist vs non-materialist argument is that it’s the wrong argument! The important debate, to my mind, is between reductionist and holistic. And in that debate, as far as understanding ourselves is concerned, holistic is by far the most productive approach. As Denis Noble says, with enough computing power we might be able to make simple bottom-up models of neuronal systems, but even if we had infinite computing power, the result wouldn’t tell us anything (or anything we’d be capable of understanding). Systems can only be comprehended at the level of the system.

    That doesn’t mean that neurons, and synapses, and neurotransmitters, and ions, and electrons don’t matter, they do. But they only make sense as the substrate of systems, and the human mind, I suggest is one of the most extraordinary systems in the universe.

  22. 22
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    @ilion, #13

    Every single human mind is the irrefutable proof that atheism is false.

    To put it another way: every single human mind is the irrefutable proof that ‘theism’ is true.

    Oddly enough, I held the same view for about half a century 🙂

    So I understand its force. How I came to change my view is off-topic (and complicated) but I will say that the world makes no less sense, and is no less bright, than it did before.

    Indeed, in a very important (to me) sense, my God hasn’t even gone away. Just as mind and brain merged as two sides of the same thing, so did God and the Universe. I think “pantheist” is probably the label, but I don’t like labels much 🙂

  23. 23
    Ilion says:

    Oddly enough, I held the same view for about half a century

    If you no longer do, then did you really ever in the first place? If one understands that the reality of minds is an irrefutable confirmation that atheism is false – if one understands that the reality of minds existing in the physical/material world is an irrefutable confirmation that there is a Mind who is logically prior to the physical/material world – then one cannot un-understand it.

    Truth does not change into falsehood with the passage of a few years.

    Indeed, in a very important (to me) sense, my God hasn’t even gone away. Just as mind and brain merged as two sides of the same thing, so did God and the Universe.

    “The Universe” is just matter-in-motion; there is no Mind there. And, any “god” made in your (or my) image is not The God.

    … but I don’t like labels much.

    Ah, the old “I refuse to be pinned down to any specifics” gambit; which is to say, “Don’t quote me on that.”

    Saying “… I don’t like labels much” is no more evidence of Deep Thought than being a political “moderate/undecided” is; quite the opposite, in fact.

  24. 24
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    ilion @ 23
    (I just composed a detailed response but seem to have lost it! I’ll try to recall what I can.

    “Oddly enough, I held the same view for about half a century”

    If you no longer do, then did you really ever in the first place? If one understands that the reality of minds is an irrefutable confirmation that atheism is false – if one understands that the reality of minds existing in the physical/material world is an irrefutable confirmation that there is a Mind who is logically prior to the physical/material world – then one cannot un-understand it.

    Well, I seemed to manage it all the same 🙂 Seriously, this is one of those debates that never seems to go anywhere (and I’ve even had it with atheists). Whichever position one holds seems the only tenable one, even if (especially if) one once held the other. I don’t think either are refutable (which doesn’t mean I think that both are correct, or that neither is!) It’s a bit like a Necker cube, in my experience, and a while back, the cube flipped the other way. I think it’s the right way round now. 🙂

    Truth does not change into falsehood with the passage of a few years.

    No, but understanding of truth can, and must, if we are to grow.

    “Indeed, in a very important (to me) sense, my God hasn’t even gone away. Just as mind and brain merged as two sides of the same thing, so did God and the Universe.”

    “The Universe” is just matter-in-motion; there is no Mind there. And, any “god” made in your (or my) image is not The God.

    Well, I remain enough of a Thomist to agree that we can only know what God is Not 🙂

    However, I think one of the big problems in talking about “matter” or “materialism” is that a kind of dualism creeps in which is unnecessary, and seems to posit a kind of dual materialism – there is one kind of stuff, which is matter, and another kind of stuff, with comparable properties, but which is non-material, such as Mind, or, even God (or psi, maybe). And by has “comparable properties” I mean “has an observable effect on the material world”.

    I would call myself a monist (that’s a label I am happy to accept) in the sense that I think there is only one material world, and only one set of properties that govern its interaction with itself. But that just as an ocean wave consists neither of air, nor water, but of the interface between them (and an “interface” is not material – it consists of neither substance), and has quite different properties (can be travelling in a different direction), so the mind consists of a kind of interface between a sentient organism and its environment. It consists neither of the organism nor the environment but of the way the two interact, and has its own properties. Nonetheless, as with the wave, which without water and air cannot exist, so the mind, without organism and environment, cannot exist either.

    And if you like, what is left of my God is an interface – the interface between our minds and the universe. Or, if you prefer, the God that is Love. I still have that one. 🙂

    “… but I don’t like labels much.”

    Ah, the old “I refuse to be pinned down to any specifics” gambit; which is to say, “Don’t quote me on that.”

    Not at all. I am happy to be as specific as you like. It’s just that I usually find that when I’m given a label, it ascribes to me a whole lot of positions I don’t actually hold. So I am wary.

    Saying “… I don’t like labels much” is no more evidence of Deep Thought than being a political “moderate/undecided” is; quite the opposite, in fact.

    I didn’t say it was (and don’t think so). And I’m not “moderate/undecided”, I’m pretty clear. I hope I’m still a bit open-minded, but as I head into my 7th decade, I’m happy to have the field narrowed somewhat. My working memory capacity isn’t improving any with age!

  25. 25
    above says:

    @Elizabeth
    I don’t think I disagree with the big picture that you’ve painted in these last few posts but I do disagree with some of the details.

    First let me say that I am open to several interpretations of the mind/body issue. Open to idealism, substance dualism, property dualism, plurality of aspects that extend from the mathematical to the metaphysical, to emergence and so on. The one position that I reject as I consider to be not only absurd but self-refuting is monistic materialism.

    Case in point:
    -“But equally validly: mind is that aspect of thinking that we experience, and take ownership of; brain processes are that aspect of thinking that explains how that experience is generated.”

    Although I am open to that possibility I am very cognizant of the underlying metaphysical claim that matter (whatever that word may mean – as of yet, nobody I ever asked was able to affirm that he has ever experienced such thing) is primary. That could be the case, sure, but there’s a possibility that we find ourselves in an idealistic world, where mind has primacy.
    To say that brain generates mind is to say that we have solved the problem of consciousness which we haven’t.

    -“That is why, to me, it is just as much as absurdity to think that neuroplasticity indicates that the “mind alters the brain” as to think that it means that “the brain alters the mind”,”

    I understand where you’re coming from as I now understand your philosophical commitment a little better. But the fact remains that given a different metaphysic, e.g. dualism, neuroplasticity is evidence against materialism (which in its honest form is reductive). That’s where Ilion’s argument comes from.

    -“The important debate, to my mind, is between reductionist and holistic. And in that debate, as far as understanding ourselves is concerned, holistic is by far the most productive approach.”

    In as much as I endorse say an emergentist, a pluralist or even idealist (in some sense) metaphysic I agree with that statement and find refreshing that a trained neuroscientist is actively opposed to the chimera of reductionism. But like I said, I am also open to dualism, which if true would change things somewhat.

    -“That doesn’t mean that neurons, and synapses, and neurotransmitters, and ions, and electrons don’t matter, they do. But they only make sense as the substrate of systems, and the human mind”
    This I agree with as well although I think the human mind is more than a ‘system’. I actually think two things:
    (1) There will always be something elusive about mind
    (2) It’s a fundamental part of reality that plays a central role in creation both ontologically and epistemologically

    I also think, that some of the disagreement (although it now appears to be much less) is due to the nuances and difference of semantic that we use.

    -“But that just as an ocean wave consists neither of air, nor water, but of the interface between them (and an “interface” is not material – it consists of neither substance), and has quite different properties (can be travelling in a different direction), so the mind consists of a kind of interface between a sentient organism and its environment. It consists neither of the organism nor the environment but of the way the two interact, and has its own properties. Nonetheless, as with the wave, which without water and air cannot exist, so the mind, without organism and environment, cannot exist either.”

    Here I agree with the exception of the last sentence. Sure you can view the mind as the interface (which in my opinion can easily be referred to a substance) of how the body and the environment interacts. In so far as the mind has causal efficacy I think it’s perfectly fine to be referred to as a substance (but the semantic arguments is not really what I am going so here). In as much as the last sentence is concerned I don’t think we know the answer to that. Sure what you’re saying is a possibility but I don’t think we can say with any certainty because that is a metaphysical matter.

    -“the God that is Love”
    This I must say pleasantly surprised me. I honestly have difficulty seeing how you can refer to yourself as an atheist after saying something like that. That is one of the central ideas of Christianity. I understand that you might have changed your mind about say specific doctrines of a given denomination but if that understanding of God hasn’t changed then maybe you haven’t abandoned Theism after all. I’m not trying to label you. I’m just glad to see that your understanding of God through the spiritual message of Christianity is still part of who you are. In line with keeping an open mind, I don’t see anything holding you back in taking the next logical step and grounding that spiritual understanding in an ontology to be honest. I’m not saying you should nor am I trying to convince you of anything. Just thinking out loud after reading what you said. 🙂

  26. 26
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Thanks, above!

    Your post warmed my heart 🙂

    Funnily enough, I do think that neuroscience has, in principle “solved the problem of consciousness” 🙂 It’s just that it’s hard to explain without sounding too reductionist to be convincing!

    One day I’m going to have a go at explaining it though. Not that it’s my work, but I’m really interested in how to convey it.

    Hofstadter had two shots at it, and Dennett has had a couple, also Edelman and Tononi.

    It’s my retirement project 🙂

  27. 27
    above says:

    I think this might be the first point of serious disagreement then! 🙂

    I tend to agree more with thinkers like Chalmers, Kripke, Hasker (dualists) and Nagel (thinks that consiousness may never be unveiled). I have read some of dennett’s arguments but have also read his critics and I can’t say that I was even close to being convinced.

    Maybe you will do a much better job when you complete your project and I can tell my friends, about chatting with you online before you became famous!(Since I think that whoever actually solves the problem will be on a fast track for a nobel prize!)

    All the best in your endeavors! 🙂

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