The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The ghost is the machine

A glorious rant from Nick Harkaway on embodied cognition:

Because NO, NO, NO, you are not a ghost driving a machine. You are not a tiny green homunculus sitting at the controls of a steampunk automaton. You are not Spock trapped in a body that wants to be Kirk. You are not dual, you are not refined intellect riding gross matter like an unruly mustang. You are not Ariel carried by Caliban.

What are you, then? Please, allow Nick to explain.

What’s the difference between cognition and consciousness, anyway? Do brain scientists and/or philosophers of mind draw a sharp distinction? I think I like the word “cognition” about 10X better than “consciousness.” Consciousness feels flat, passive; a thing that is. Cognition feels sharp, active; a thing that does.


While backing up Harkaway 1000%, I still have a certain fondness for “consciousness” as the thing-that-is-constructed, the game of self that we play. “Cognition” strikes me a a bit Pinker-esque, a bit too biologically determinative, as if once we understand all those neurons, that process and its biological location(s), we understand the human creature. There is neither consciousness nor cognition without flesh, and I share Harkaway’s utter lack of interest in the idea of the “ghost” at the controls, but flesh isn’t sufficient for consciousness.

Or maybe it would be more accurately stated that one flesh isn’t sufficient for consciousness. You need that ever shifting set of conflicts and consensus between a body of bodies, at the very least, for consciousness. (And maybe some other things, too.)

“One flesh isn’t sufficient for consciousness.” Wow. I like that a lot.

Yeah, one of the ideas buried in Gödel Escher Bach and I Am A Strange Loop is basically — the mind isn’t a computer, the mind is made of meat, and meat fucks up sometimes. But then it (usually) figures it out.

Unlike logical systems, our minds are neither sound nor complete. They’re just meat and electricity.

And the thing about meat and electricity is — you can suddenly jump the tracks. You can get to the point outside the system, because the system wasn’t closed to begin with.

The question of consciousness reminded me of this.

In Thinking, Fast, and Slow, Daniel Kahneman sets up a schema I like. Basically consciousness — even consciousness! — is split up into <a href=”,_Fast_and_Slow#Two_systems”>two systems, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is like, “yo, I GOT this!” System 1 jumps to conclusions. System 1 doesn’t need to read every word in the sentence to get the gist. System 1 fills in the gaps. System 1 is your gut.

System 2, on the other hand, is deliberate. And basically, for most of us, it kicks in only when it really has to. Think of it like a math problem: we can do simple arithmetic, times tables, etc., in our heads, and most of us probably don’t even need to think about it. More complicated arithmetic, long division, we usually need to write down.

System 2 is all the stuff that consciousness needs to “write down.” It actually needs to stop what it’s doing and devote scarce resources to deal with the problem directly.

But within System 2, there’s a second division, between algorithmic thinking and rationality. Kahneman attributes this to Keith Stanovich (who also coined the system 1 and system 2). Basically, we can be very deliberate — follow a procedure, apply a formula, debug code, run through a checklist. But we can also be self-critical — saying, “wait, that can’t be right” or questioning our original assumptions or framing. Again, we can jump the tracks. Algorithmic thinking is conscious, but it’s not really engaged. It’s not rational in this substantive, kaleidoscopic, imaginative, reimaginative sense.

Shall we consider Cartesian duality from the perspective of parasite horror literature?

The classic of the genre is /Alien/, but there the parasite hijacks only the body of the host and not the mind. Mind hijacking parasites seem to have become more prevalent in the last 25 years or so though; classic episodes of ST:TNG and X-Files come to mind, as do the films /Shivers/ and /The Faculty/. (There’s a bit of a grey area in terms of whether a parasite that controls behavior does so by hijacking only motor control or by altering the actual cognitive process of the host, but I think the flavor of these examples counts as mind hijacking.)

In his excellent book /Parasite Rex/, at the end of Chapter 4, Carl Zimmer surveys the genre and says that the earliest example he can find is the 1951 Heinlein novel, /The Puppet Masters/.

Actually, I think Zimmer makes a rare misstep in this discussion by failing to highlight duality. He says:

This precise horror of parasites has its roots in how we see our relationship to the natural world. Before the nineteenth century, Western thought saw humans as distinct from the rest of life. . .

The idea that understanding parasites changes how we view our place in the natural world has some merit, but in the case of mind hijacking parasites I would say a much stronger point is that this fear represents a clear cultural rejection of mind-body duality.

Peter’s discussion of mind hijacking parasites makes me think immediately of this year’s The Last of Us, a zombie game in which the “zombies” have actually been infected by an imaginary strain of cordyceps fungi, which does actually change the behavior of infected insects.

Which may point to a bigger question–are zombie stories largely “mind hijacking” stories, or are they essentially dualist stories which enact the possibility of a body being hijacked after the death of the mind? (That is, a body absolutely absent of a mind.)

Of course, we should mention /Toxoplasma/

I don’t know the details of different zombie literature that well, but I would guess it goes either way. It’s not that more modern stories are /always/ focused on biological causes, but I think they are more open to the possibility. Although even older cases you would imagine as more dualist, like Satanic possession, often have a physical component like a mark on the body that seems to suggest some underlying questioning of full duality.

Since Gavin brought up /Cordyceps/, I wanted to plug /Life in the Undergrowth/, which is currently available on both Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus.

/Sacculina/ also worth mentioning, although not affecting us humans yet happily; /Last of Us 2/ :)?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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