[Humanist] 30.834 learning from strange minds?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Mar 20 07:59:43 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 834.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2017 06:49:49 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: strange minds

Consider the following, from John Tooby's and Leda Cosmides' 
Foreword to Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness: An Essay on 
Autism and Theory of Mind (1995):

> Just as common sense is the faculty that tells us that the world is
> flat, so too it tells us many other things that are equally unreliable.
 > It tells us, for example, that color is out there in the world,
> an independent property of the objects we live among. But scientific
> investigations have led us, logical step by logical step, to escape
> our fanatically insistent, inelastic intuitions. As a result, we know
> now that color is not already out there, an inherent attribute of
> objects....
> In the last two decades, though, scientific psychology has finally
> begun to slip the bonds imposed by this seductive but misdirecting
> folk psychology. Cognitive scientists were awakened by a series of
> encounters with alien minds, whose starkly contrasting designs and
> surprising incapacities drew attention to previously overlooked
> natural human competences and to the computational problems they
> routinely solve. They encountered artificial mentalities in the
> computer lab that had obstinate difficulties in seeing, speaking,
> handling objects, understanding, or doing almost anything that humans
> do effortlessly. They encountered thousands of animal species each of
> which could solve a striking diversity of natural
> information-processing problems that other species could not. They
> encountered the developing minds of infants and children, which
> forced them to confront the intractable computational and
> philosophical problems that plague empiricist models of how children
> acquire knowledge. And they encountered neurologically impaired
> individuals who displayed unanticipated dissociations of cognitive
> deficits and abilities. These and a host of other factors alerted
> psychologists to the necessity for--and to the actuality of--a vast
> nonconscious realm of evolved, specialized, computational problem
> solvers that construct and interpret the world.

For the moment let's suspend the question raised by the easy  
assumption of a computational model of mind. What I find particularly 
illuminating about this passage (perhaps made possible in part by that 
very model of mind) is the membership of his list of alien minds, 
specifically the presence of artificial intelligence 
shoulder-to-shoulder, as it were, with non-human animal cognition (for 
which see, as soon as you can manage, Frans de Waal's Are We Smart 
Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?), that of human children and the 
neurologically impaired, among which he focuses his study on the 
autistic. I was in fact led to Baron-Cohen's book by Peter Wegner's 
repeated charge that Turing Machines are autistic.

But what makes this list of his interesting to me is, more specifically, 
that we don't get either the statement that digital machines are 
'intelligent', or about to be, or its panicked opposite, that these 
machines can never be 'intelligent', but their role with respect to 
human cognition, as strangers from which (whom?) we can learn more about 
our own cognition.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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