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It’s the body, stupid

By Timothy Cocks Philosophy of pain 22 Mar 2017
“Eternal Springtime” Auguste Rodin

Nice essay from Ben Medlock on Aeon:

The body is the missing link for truly intelligent machines

“It’s tempting to think of the mind as a layer that sits on top of more primitive cognitive structures. We experience ourselves as conscious beings, after all, in a way that feels different to the rhythm of our heartbeat or the rumblings of our stomach. If the operations of the brain can be separated out and stratified, then perhaps we can construct something akin to just the top layer, and achieve human-like artificial intelligence (AI) while bypassing the messy flesh that characterises organic life…

…Now, it’s a bit of a leap to go from smart, self-organising cells to the brainy sort of intelligence that concerns us here. But the point is that long before we were conscious, thinking beings, our cells were reading data from the environment and working together to mould us into robust, self-sustaining agents. What we take as intelligence, then, is not simply about using symbols to represent the world as it objectively is. Rather, we only have the world as it is revealed to us, which is rooted in our evolved, embodied needs as an organism. Nature ‘has built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it’, wrote the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error (1994), his seminal book on cognition. In other words, we think with our whole body, not just with the brain.” (emphasis added)

It’s tempting to draw an analogy between computer scientists attempting to create intelligence in silico and the search for pain (or any experience for that matter) in the brain via fMRI. Disembodied ‘brains in vats‘, whether they’re made out of meat or silicon, will never provide the answers we seek.

Embodied approaches to minds and conscious experience seem to be a perfect fit for therapists of any stripe that touch others in attempts to alleviate pain.

-Tim Cocks

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  1. John Quintner

    Tim, thanks for posting this article. It encapsulates one of my main (constructive) criticisms of the NOI group’s current position, which could be described as “neuroexistentialism” (a term used by the eminent philosopher Patricia Churchland). I hope that Lorimer, David, et al. will modify their stance, as their opinion holds sway in many health professional forums.

  2. davidbutler0noi

    Gosh John – you have made a judgement on my mental framework from afar. While I am sympathetic to Churchland’s views such as the co-evolution of neuroscience, psychology and education, and find them quite liberating, these views are not the only elements in my or noigroup’s makeup.

    While Lorimer (not part of NOI by the way) and my views may hold a little bit of sway, we long for some new and practical contributions from the rich and resourced world of medicine and its specialities, to the problem of chronic pain. Maybe that may modify my stance, if at all. In this regard, I do need to ask – has Rheumatology given up on pain?

    All the very best


  3. jqu33431quintnerJohn Quintner

    David, yes my judgment was indeed made from afar (i.e. across the Nullabor) and I may be incorrect, an error for which I do apologise.

    However, my impression was gained from a close examination of the 10 Target Concepts and their respective explanations that you and Lorimer recently published on noinotes (“Supercharging Explain Pain”).

    To answer your question, Rheumatology has not “given up” on pain, mainly because the speciality never saw the need to embrace the topic with any degree of intellectual rigour.

  4. jqu33431quintner

    Tim, by “embodied approaches to minds and conscious experience” do you mean that in order to have that experience which we call “pain” it is necessary that we have a body? By the way, this is my understanding of what is meant by this phrase.

    But does it conflict with the banner that appears above the article: “The body is the missing link for truly intelligent machines”?

    A truly intelligent machine can play chess at a level that allows it to beat the most intelligent human being on the planet. What is the missing link here?

    1. Hi John
      Yes, I’m comfortable with the position that in order to have human-like pain one needs to have a human-like body. In contrast to the idea that a brain in a vat could have human-like pain, or any other experience. Evan Thompson and Diego Cosmelli have written a nice paper which contains the idea, amongst others, that a brain in a vat could indeed be part of a sentient system, iff the vat had all the properties of a body, at which point the argument essentially falls apart. ( I like Susan Hurley’s statement that “the skull is not a magical membrane” that rejects the separation of the brain as some kind of a thinking/feeling/experiencing thing from the body and the world.

      Chess playing machines or programs are examples of Weak AI (or narrow AI) – yes they can beat a human at playing chess, but they don’t know about chess, they don’t understand chess, nor is there anything that it is like for the machine/program to be playing chess. Searle’s Chinese Room argument (an implementation of a Turing Test) is often invoked here, although Searle himself doesn’t seem to be too interested in embodied, enacted formulations of mind, content that the brain instantiates a mind.

      My take on the missing link is that in order for there to be any sense of Strong AI – for a machine or program to be/have (although these words are problematic) a mind, rather than simulate a mind, the machinery needs to be embodied (embedded, enactive and extended too perhaps) although I think that it is an open question in regards to just what the minimal viable criteria for this embodiment are (Karl Friston and Andy Clark may suggest that a Markov Blanket begins to meet these criteria

      Outside of philosophy, the best thinking in this domain is Science Fiction, of course. Blade Runner is perhaps the finest depiction Strong AI and the dilemmas that may follow its realisation. Part of the difficulty in telling replicants from humans in the film is that they have bodies just like ours- we would have no difficulty in distinguishing a replicant from a human if the replicant’s ‘behaviour’ was instantiated on a computer monitor somehow. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey at first blush may seem to be a disembodied Strong AI, but i think there is an argument that HAL is embodied in the Discovery One spacecraft. HAL has access to the world through his famous (multiple) red eye lens, but can also, infamously, open (or not open) the pod bay doors, and perform other actions. While HAL’s embodiment is radically different from ours, it may still be a kind of embodiment, and there is a possibility that there is something that it is like to be HAL. More recently, GERTY in Duncan Jone’s absolutely brilliant ‘Moon’ is even more distinctly embodied, and I think a good case for a sentient, Strong AI. More recently again, the movie ‘Her’ features a seemingly Strong AI – ‘Samantha’. But Samantha’s disembodied voice makes it much harder to attribute true agency and consciousness to her. Ex Machina and Westworld (the recent TV series) are further examples of Science Fiction asking the best questions, but I’ve rambled on long enough.

      To answer your question, on the points raised above, no, I don’t think there is any conflict. A body, or perhaps more accurately embodiment, still remains the missing link.

      My best

  5. jqu33431quintner

    Tim, it seems that our positions are fairly close on what is meant by an “embodied approach” in relation to pain.

    Of course, with his sculpture “Eternal Springtime,” Rodin exemplifies the concept of “intersubjectivity” that is missing from much of our current discourse on pain.

    But let me draw you attention to Point 3 of the Essence of NOI (“Pain, stress and performance are outputs of the brain”) and to the explanation of Target Concept 3 in Noijam’s blog Explain Pain Supercharged (“You will have pain when your brain concludes that there is more credible evidence of danger than safety related to your body and thus infers the need to protect”).

    What I find worrying about these positions is that they assert the primacy of the brain over that of the person in whose body it resides. Does anyone else share my “neuroexistential” anxiety?

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