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[]'s take on the education system

Great little interview with a psychologist on how he believes our education system is failing us.  

To be honest, you’ve probably heard it all before if you’re a current or recent student. Our collective obsession with standardized tests has crowded out the focus we should be providing on qualities like creativity, practical problem-solving, and ethical reasoning.

Even though I’ve heard people give the same diagnoses for our educational system, this article was interesting in part because the interviewee, Robert Sternberg, claimed that we should add wisdom to the list of skills —like creativity— that should be taught in school. It made my ears perk up to hear this coming from a bona fide scientist rather than a philosopher or cultural critic. An excerpt:

(bold is the questioner)

Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills, but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.

[…]

Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?
Yes, we do. A whole bunch of my colleagues and I study wisdom. Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values.

The division between technical competencies and a type of “soft” reasoning ability reminds me of a distinction that philosophers have made for centuries. In a nutshell, there are two types of reasoning, or “rationalities:” Instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental rationality concerns itself with selecting the best means to achieve a given end. For example, the road tripper who is figuring out the best arrangement to pack her gear in her trunk so everything will fit is exercising instrumental rationality. Intrinsic rationality deals with setting the goals/ends an actor may strive towards. If the same road tripper deliberates between driving to Yosemite or Las Vegas, exercises intrinsic rationality in weighing how much she values sweeping vistas of mountains and forests versus casinos.

In this view, the critique against modern schooling seems to be that we’re getting really good at cultivating certain types of instrumental thinking in students, but are ignoring all things intrinsic. Students may be damn good on the ACT, but they can’t be counted on to think ethically or make value judgements unless those are already given. This, coupled with the fact that the institutions our students spend the majority their time in tend to emphasize performance and prestige above all else, leads to an environment that is successful at producing “people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense,” according to Sternberg.

Obviously, this needs to change, but the conversation gets weird to me when we look hard about how Sternberg conceives of the “ethical reasoning” that seems to be part of his conception of wisdom. Rather than describe something that resembles reasoning about ethics and morals, he seems to say we should take those as givens and think about how to implement them.  

Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps: [1] seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment); [2] identifying it as an ethical problem; [3] seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit); [4] seeing it as personally relevant; [5] thinking about what ethical rules apply; [6] thinking about how to apply them; [7] thinking, “What are the consequences of acting ethically?”—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded; [8] and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is that ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.

(numbers added)

This is beginning to look a lot like the instrumental rationality that we’re trying to escape from, especially the “what’s in it for me?” mentality that sneaks through in step 7. Sternberg seems to think our students are receiving the correct ethical principles already, and following an 8-point plan is all that is necessary. This description of what needs to happen doesn’t quite explain the presence of the social ills he wants to combat, unless you believe that people do have socially constructive values, but something goes wrong in the Sternberg 8-point™ plan so they never end up acting on them. This is possible, but it is much easier to explain the same phenomena as originating from deficient values/lack thereof as opposed to thinking everyone is a saint on the inside but can’t make the connection between [4] and [5], for example.

In any common-sense conception of wisdom, critical thinking plays a large part. Questioning the “ends” is part of what makes intrinsic rationality such an interesting concept, and potentially useful (instrumental — hah!) in achieving what Sternberg wants to. Rather than banking on our educational institutions to provide us with the correct values off the bat, we can task our students to engage in a little bit of intrinsic rationality and interrogate the ideas they come across. Hopefully, after reflection and a bit of adolescent angst, they arrive on the side of altruism, curiosity, civic engagement, and a deep concern for the well-being of the world, rather than the tribalism Sternberg describes.

Perhaps Sternberg is using “wisdom” and in a sense different than mine, but I’ll claim his idea of it doesn’t look like the wisdom we want. Part of wisdom is indeed using your “abilities not just for your own selfish ends,” yet, the decision to be altruistic must be a result of autonomous reasoning as opposed to the internalization of dogma that only happens to be constructive

The Efference Copy Paper

Here is the paper I wrote while doing a little bit of research on efference copies. Each sentence was restricted to fewer than 17 words. While trying to stay under the limit makes for slow going, it’s a rewarding exercise. The sentences end up sounding a bit simple, but the primary purpose of any paper is to be understood. After that, you can worry about trying to dazzle a reader with your insights (or confuse them into believing you have any).

Efference and Objectification

Perception begins with bugs. Spiders, praying mantises, and bees have all demonstrated the ability to perceive the world around them.[1] This is impressive. It prods us to reconsider which species have perceptual capabilities similar to our own. Yet, there remains a high standard of proof for attributing perception. The existence of efference copies in simple organisms appears to be evidence of perceptual ability. If this is correct, types of worms and slugs will be granted perception. Close examination suggests this conclusion is misguided. The existence of efference copies alone is not a sufficient mark of perception.

We check if organisms have perception by seeing if they exhibit perceptual constancies. A perceptual constancy is an ability. Imagine I have a red water bottle. The top half is in sunlight, while the other half is in shade. Therefore, the top appears a light red, while the bottom looks darker. The human visual system attributes the same shade of red to the entire bottle. This happens despite it looking like it is two different shades of red. The ability to do this is a perceptual constancy. The visual system can attribute the same redness despite different kinds of light hitting the eye. This light is called the “proximal stimulus” and is registered the moment it strikes retinal sensors. For example, the two halves of the bottle cause different registrations of proximal stimulus. In realizing a perceptual constancy, the visual system also engages in “objectification.”[2] It picks out elements in the proximal stimulus relevant to the object. It also ignores elements specific to its perspective of the object. In terms of the example, the visual system did two things in exercising objectification. First, it identified which parts of the registered stimulus were due to the bottle’s redness. Second, it discarded parts caused by circumstantial factors like shade and perspective.

Using the new vocabulary, an explanation of perceptual constancies takes shape. A perceptual constancy is the ability to represent accurately despite variation in registrations of proximal stimulus. The thing represented can be a particular or an attribute.[3] Objectification also happens if and only if there are perceptual constancies. Therefore, it is a reliable indicator of perceptual constancies, and thus perception.[4]

Some maintain organisms like the nematode worm exhibit objectification, as evidenced through efference copies. Efference copies arise to handle conflicting behavior associated with sensory input. When tactile sensors in the head of the worm are stimulated, it moves backward. If similar sensors are activated in its tail, it moves forward. The result is a cruel dilemma. Moving forward stimulates its head sensors, inducing backward movement. Backward movement stimulates its tail sensors, triggering forward movement. Under these circumstances, the poor worm would be unable to move meaningfully in either direction. Fortunately, its sensory system, and those like it, has overcome the problem. Imagine the worm receives stimulus from its tail and activates the move forward reflex. To avoid the feedback loop described, the activation sends an efference copy to the sensory system. This copy functions as a report to the rest of the organism. It indicates that the worm is moving forward.[5] Therefore, any stimulation of head sensors is due to movement, not obstacles or predators. The activation of the second, move-backward reflex is then inhibited, allowing the worm to travel peacefully.

Supporters claim the worm’s sensory system discriminates between different types of proximal stimulus. Due to the efference copy, the worm “knows” further stimulus is caused by its own movement. This amounts to a type of separation between stimulus caused by distal objects versus circumstantial factors.[6] The result is to inform appropriate worm behavior. Efference copies, it seems, are evidence of objectification.

We can call what happens in the worm “objectification.” Yet, it bears little relation to the stronger kind displayed in perceptual constancies. There is a high standard for marking processes as perceptual objectification. It is set in the science of visual psychology.

Scientists explain the natural world. Good explanations implicate only what is necessary to explain the phenomena in question, and no more. Imagine frogs croaking in a pond. We can explain their croaks as plangent pleas to a wizard to retransform them into humans. This is unlikely. Nothing about the croaks suggests the presence of magic or that the frogs were once human. An explanation that doesn’t posit the existence of wizards and animal-human transmutation would suffice. Viewing the croaks as mating calls is simpler, and does the same explanatory work. It fits with our existing biological knowledge. Scientists would have to be presented with compelling circumstances to resort to the anthro-amphibian explanation. Perhaps the croaks sound like “help” and wizards were spotted in the area. Otherwise, the mating call description remains the most likely to be accurate.

Visual psychologists must settle on explanations of animal behavior. Behaviors can often be explained in terms of the proximal stimulus and an animals’ neurology. This is in contrast to explanations that implicate objectification or perception. Consider olfactory navigation by salmon. We can sufficiently explain how they traverse oceans back to their home stream. Olfactory proximal stimulus causes the neurons to fire in a certain pattern, driving accurate navigation. No reference is made to external objects or perception. This neuro-causal explanation is the simplest, and most descriptive science has to offer.[7] If science only postulates a neuro-causal explanation, objectification or perception are probably not taking place. By contrast, the science does implicate external objects in some causal explanations of behavior. In these circumstances, we can be confident objectification and perception are present.

No reference to objectification is present in the scientific explanation of nematode worm behavior. It is a neuro-causal explanation that does not implicate objects in the distal environment. The worm does not separate aspects of the proximal stimulus. Its sensory system does not distinguish which elements are perspectival. It merely reacts to the stimulus. This is true despite the presence of efference copies. They only inhibit reflexes, and have no bearing on how stimulus is processed.[8] We can, however, still maintain the worm’s actions are relevant to environmental objects. Its sensory system functions to keep it from bumping into things. This is a functional explanation of its behavior, and implicates external objects. Indeed, any behavior, perceptual or non-perceptual, can be explained functionally. Yet, we’re interested in what causes worm behavior. The science only appeals to the stimulus received in its causal explanation. There is no compelling evidence to reference external objects. This suggests efference copies alone aren’t indicators of objectification, and thus perception.

Efference copies without perception are observed in other species. Consider crayfish. While more complex than worms, they utilize efference copies in a similar way. The lower abdomens of crayfish are covered in sensitive hairs that trigger a tail-flipping escape response.[9] This leaves them susceptible to a similar type of feedback loop described above. Efference copies prevent this scenario. As self-initiated movement commences, a crayfish’s sensory system blocks signals from the hairs. The registration of stimulus does not progress far enough in the system to trigger a response.[10] Clearly, objectification is not present in this situation either. There is no evidence crayfish distinguish proximal stimulus caused by objects versus circumstantial factors. The causal explanation of crayfish behavior does not implicate objects in the world. Functionally, the crayfish is escaping predators. Yet, the behavior can be sufficiently explained with respect only to the initial proximal stimulus. Hypothetical predators need not enter the conversation. Objectification and perception are equally absent from the causal explanations of crayfish and worm behavior.

Efference copies are a fascinating biological feature. They allow species to better interact with the environment. Yet, their presence is not an indicator of perception. That capacity still begins with bugs, and seemingly not earlier.

 

Works Cited

Burge, Tyler. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford University Press, 2010.

—. "Perception: Where the Mind Begins." The Royal Institute of Philosophy. 2014.

—. "Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind ." n.d.

Crapse, Trinity B and Marc A Sommer. "Corollary discharge across the animal kingdom." National Neuroscience Review (2008): 587-600.


[1]Burge, Perception: Where the Mind Begins

[2]Burge 397, Origins of Objectivity

[3]Burge 1, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[4]Burge 2, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[5]Crapse and Sommer

[6] Burge 11, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[7] Burge 425, Origins of Objectivity

[8] Burge 12, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[9] Crapse and Sommer

[10] Crapse and Sommer

Nozick's Experience Machine and Video Games

Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia asks us to imagine a machine that we can plug into and it will simulate anything we desire. While we’re inside, we can experience the joys associated having a fulfilling job, listening to good music, falling in love, or talking with friends. Think of it like a pleasant Matrix. All of these images and corresponding feelings are produced by some clever electrical stimulation of our neurons and as long as we are plugged in, our experience is indistinguishable from real life.

Nozick says we gain something by imagining such a machine and then “realizing we would not want to use it.” He believes our repulsion to plugging in is summarized in three points.

  1. We actually want to do things and not only have the experience that we’ve done them. Wanting the experience of doing something, as Nozick says, is often just an indicator that we want to do the thing. How else are you going to get the experience?

  2. We want to be the type of person that actually does things. To plug into the experience machine is to acquiesce to the triumphs and vicissitudes of real life and become a type of “indeterminate blob,” according to Nozick. With every experience preordained, there is no opportunity to indicate or build one’s general, or moral, character. If we’re plugged into the machine, it’s impossible for us to know whether we are “courageous , kind, intelligent, witty, or loving,” and depending on what you believe, if we don’t have the opportunity to exercise these traits outside of a determined environment, we can’t be any of the above.

  3. Plugging in limits us to an artificial reality. This cuts us off from any type of “deeper reality,” and the potential spiritual experience that can come with it.

I would not use the experience machine, and I think if you asked most people they would say they wouldn’t either. (If you believe that pleasure is the chief human good, then I can see how you could argue that plugging in is the rational thing to do, as pleasure itself is not concerned with whether it is caused by electrodes tickling your brain or some good pasta. If you have that position send me a message; I want to talk about it). Yet, I think there’s a paradox here: if what Nozick says is true, why do so many people play video games?

There is, I admit, nothing wrong with the act of playing video games. Yet, I’ve observed many people, mainly college-aged males, devote hours and hours of their days to staring at their computer screens, engaging in what is as close to artificial stimulation of the neurons as you can get without cracking your skull open and poking around. I know very little biology, but video games, I believe, stimulate the same areas of your brain (nucleus accumbens) as drugs and alcohol, and are certainly as addictive. They are approximate experience machines.

So, why do people game so much? I offer some potential explanations.

It could be the case people do not realize they are “plugging in.” When someone fires up their computer, they are probably not opening fortnite with the intention of getting spoon-fed pleasurable experiences, but rather think they are just killing time. Nozick doesn’t pop out and give us the run-down of what we are about to do and the ramifications of doing it. To gamers, playing is only a slight diversion and not an artificial all-encompassing world.

Video games and the experience machine may also be very different things. Inside the experience machine, you’re under a type of grand illusion, believing everything you do is real and has significant importance to your own life, but it isn’t really happening. By contrast, very few people are under the illusion that they are actually inside a video game when they’re playing, and even if they did believe that, it would be another leap to assume that what they experience in the game constitutes their entire life. Because people can recognize the division between video games and what is real, they can presumably get up and choose to participate in either one whenever they please.

The distance between video games and the physical world is also getting smaller. What I mean by this is that in-game events are beginning to have a significant and lasting impact on actual lives. Consider Ninja, the internet star whose video-game prowess nets him an estimated $500,000 a month, and has made him something of a celebrity. For Ninja, video game actions and decisions are real-life actions and decisions, as they determine his income and public reputation. Video games, if played with others, can also encourage pro-social behavior. Trying to win a round or match on a team in any game requires a fair bit of coordination, and video games might be one of the only places some can cooperate with others in a constructive manner.

I feel old and crotchety writing this, but it concerns me how much time we spend in these types of “constructed worlds.” Video games, I feel, are inherently different than the constructed worlds of fiction and movies as those are focused on communicating a specific narrative while video games are just mindless. I know there are narrative-focused games out there, but those aren’t the kinds people are addicted to.

This piece is highly speculative. If you disagree or have something to add, please leave a comment. I would love to listen.

Link to the text of Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Decisions and Values

The Art of Decision-Making

Title is a bit misleading. I expected this to be a piece about making complex decisions with imperfect information, and it is in a sense, but the actual content of the article gets closer to a discussion of values and identity — which are of no doubt instrumental in making large decisions.

It’s just that I would have liked more elaboration on quotes like these:

A scenario-planning starter kit, Johnson writes, contains three possible futures: “You build one model where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.

Nonetheless, I liked it. One thing that I’ve always wondered about is how our own desires and preferences (or even values) can be so foreign to us even though they are supposed to function as the guiding principles of our lives. And, even if we can articulate our most valued positions, it’s difficult to see what it actually looks like to “be altruistic” or “live authentically.”

Perhaps this is explained by one of the theories in the article that our largest decisions aren’t “decisions” per se in that we take stock of our principles and then decide to act on them, but a result of “opting.” In short, opting is when we decide to “shift our values instead of optimizing them.” For example, if one were to “opt” to go to a certain college, it means they went not because they currently valued the the defining characteristics of the institution, but grew to value what the school had to give them. Think someone who was afraid of going to a party school and not focusing enough on coursework, but then going to the party school, throwing down, and deriving a lot of value from it. The “old person’s” values are not optimized, but the “new person’s” values are, in part because they were created partially in response to the situation.

As Maggie Rogers would say in “Give a Little” (Emphasis added).

But if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could get to know each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little
And if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could learn to love each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little

I do disagree with Callard’s account of aspiration as it is presented in the article, though. Callard claims that we “aspire to self-transformation by trying on the values we hope one day to posses.” The author, Rothman, gives an example of a student taking a music appreciation class to illustrate the point.

Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to.

This, Rothman/Callard claims, is the first step in transformation. Perhaps I’m being nit picky, but I think characterizing this scenario as “you just want to want to” is misleading. Clearly, you want to listen to the symphony, but the reason why it’s difficult is not because you, on some level, don’t want to, but because you haven’t built up the correct “appreciative framework” for deep engagement to happen.

I can want to watch a movie, but if I don’t have practice looking for the interesting things in a film, or the correct cinematic vocabulary to identify them, I might become bored and restless even though I actually want to watch it. You can probably experience this phenomena yourself if you sit down to watch a sport you don’t know the rules of, or read a novel set in a time period that you know nothing about.

The article is also good for the “vegemite principle.”

if you’ve never tasted Vegemite, a mysterious and beloved Australian “food spread” made from brewer’s yeast, then neither a description of what it’s like (black, gooey, vegetal) nor experience with other spreads (peanut butter, marmalade, Nutella) will suffice to tell you whether you’d like it.

If you notice any errors or believe I have given uncharitable/inaccurate accounts of the ideas in the article, please let me know. General comments are also greatly appreciated.

1/9/19
  1. Makes me want to visit Australia

  2. Ever wonder which animals have minds?

the second paper gets very technical very quickly, but the brief upshot (from what I understand) is that there are two sufficient conditions for having a mind: you can either be conscious (feel pain, experience what it is like to be awake, etc…) or be able to represent things. From what certain experiments have told us, some insects are able to represent things, and therefore they have minds.

This is an extremely short account of what is clearly a very interesting and complex idea, and I want to share more about it later when I’m confident I fully understand the entire argument. I’m taking Tyler Burge’s class right now (Burge is the author of the article and a leader in the field of philosophy of mind) so I should be learning about this topic at a steady pace.