Archive for John Searle

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Blue

Posted in Divine Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Courtesy of Dr. Pablo de Heras Ciechomski/Visualbiotech

A computer simulation of the upper layer of a rat brain neocortical column

OK, so perhaps this should have been the first post of this category, since it is arguably the top project at the intersection of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Yes, by “Blue” I am referring to Henry Markam’s Blue Brain project, started back in 2005. What we encounter in the Blue Brain project is nothing less than a possibility of a simulated “consciousness” and other complexities of the brain (although only on the level of a rat’s at the moment, and at 1/10th of its speed), approached from the other side of computation, namely by creating individual neurons instead of the more common top-down approach in grammatical computing — the revolution of third wave cybernetics, as Katherine Hayles would have put it.

Even the strong AI skeptic John Searle in one of his lectures commented that [citation needed], even though the mind is not a software, and the brain is not a supercomputer, the computer may be constructed as such to simulate the brain. He denies by all means the grammatical approach to consciousness with his famous Chinese Room argument, but he never did deny semantic approaches, only stating that such approach is not yet possible. But with the Blue Brain — although this project leans towards cognitive science instead of AI — such an approach is, at least, on the horizon of possibility.

You can read more extensively about the Blue Brain and its progress here and here, but now let us continue on to our analysis. What do we have here with the Blue Brain is no less a science simulating the full complexity of a mind, right down (or, rather, up from) its neuron basis. How do we integrate this into our cognitive mapping? What we need to understand first and foremost is how this project requires an understanding that, 1) the mind comes from a whole, not of any one of its parts, and therefore, 2) non-localizable to any kernel whatsoever.

This, of course, is what Slavoj Žižek, in his The Parallax View, called “the unbearable lightness of being no one”. Are we not, today, with cognitive science, confronted with the fact, already acknowledged with Hume, that the subject does not exist? In today’s context, however deep we pry open the skull and dig the brain, we find nobody home, no kernel of the soul, no subject. This is the paradox of the 21st-century narrative of the subject.

What the Blue Brain project provides is no less than a common ground for us to think about silicon-based versus carbon-based life — whereas before, we see carbon-based life as evolving, as beings whose consciousness comes later, silicon-life were beings programmed through “consciousness” (grammatical understanding of the relations of objects, etc. — which is where I suspect the true “uncanny valley” lies). Artificial Life provided a change by introducing chaos and emergence into the foray, but did not necessarily look into complex nervous systems. If and when the Blue Brain project succeeds, what we will have is no less than a complete brain simulation of a species, a silicon-based brain, “comparable to the Human Genome Project,” as Markam put it on the link above.

While I remain an agnostic to the Moravecian idea of downloading minds into computers (and totally an atheist apropos the idea that the subject will remain the same), I do believe that the Blue Brain project and its completion will require us to rethink our subjectivity and humanity as a whole. Silicon-based and carbon-based life will have a fully similar grounding, and so many new spaces of cognitive science will open up, as well as new spaces of transhumanity and ubiquitous technology. All of us will have to confront not only the fact that there is nobody home, but also that home is temporary, shredding every last bit of our humanistic grounding — the unbearable lightness of being Blue.

If (and possibly when) the Brain is implemented into a body, then things will go much further. Thoughts? Feel free to comment away!

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Chinese Room and the Cogito

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Chinese Room

The Chinese Room

Cogito ergo sum is perhaps the most abused three-word phrase in our contemporary intellectual sphere, so much so that most of us no longer bothered to read further on the subject and what Descartes really meant. “I think therefore I am” has been recycled over and over by changing the verb into every other activity, from shopping to tweeting. All these has of course one underlying assumption, a false reading of the Cartesian subject as a substantial subject. Truth be told, the mind-body split did not come from Descartes at all — the idea has obviously been around since the pre-Socratic era (why else would we have the narratives of heaven and hell?). The true Cartesian revolution is in fact the opposite one: that of a total desubstantialized subject.

This does not mean, again, a subject desubstantialized of of a body and becoming a free-flowing mind, a (mis)reading found everywhere today in the intellectual sphere, and especially in the area of third-wave cybernetic research. Among the most fiercest proponents of this version of Descartes is none other than John Searle, the proponent of the famous Chinese Room argument. Unknowingly for Searle, however, the Chinese Room argument is, in fact, at one point, an ultimately Cartesian paradox.

What does the res cogitans, the thinking substance, mean, then, if not the common misreading of it as a declaration of a subject of pure thought? Here, it is crucial to look at what kind of thinking the cogito is first formulated under. The thinking that brought upon the cogito is none other than pure doubt — the doubting of reality and my existence within it. This doubt is irreducible, so much so that, in what may pass as a rather desperate move, the doubt itself becomes the only positive proof of the thing that I doubt — I exist only insofar as I doubt my existence. Rather than a substance of pure thought (“that can be downloaded into computers”, as Hans Moravec put it, etc…), the Cartesian subjectivity is a void of pure self-doubt.

(It is of course true that, in Descartes, there is ultimately a mind-body duality: the subject does not depend on the world, res extensa, to truly exist. This is, however, not because they are two separate substances, but because the former is a precondition of the latter; because the cogito is a prior void around which res extensa can only emerge as such.)

Does John Searle not reproduce exactly same motive in his Chinese Room argument, but instead of doubting the true existence of his reality, he doubts the cognition of computer programs? The famous Cartesian doubt, “What if God is a liar” is here replaced by Searle’s “What if I ultimately do not understand the symbols with which I communicate, but only know its perfect grammar?” Of course, the path they take in the end is different: If Descartes were a Searlean, he would have claimed that he cannot prove his own existence; if Searle were a Cartesian, he would have acknowledged that it would not be possible for one to know grammar without knowing semantics, for ultimately meaning is generated from structure, as the Structuralists already have it.

A great answer to the Chinese Room argument, and so far the best, I think, is the systems reply, claiming that it is the whole room instead of the person that understands, because cognition could not be localized to a single source. This would be the true Cartesian revolution, that cognition is separate from any particular subject, and the true Lacanian experience of the subject as barred. Searle rejected this argument by saying that if the entire room is located inside the brain, that would not make a subject understand any more than he does, despite his being able to communicate — which, of course, presupposes an ideal subject that “truly understands.”

Here, Daniel Dennett’s reply is worth noting: Dennett claims that if such non-thinking-but-nevertheless-communicating subjects exist, they would be the ones surviving natural selection, hence we would all be “zombies”. Does this not perfectly mimic the humanists’ fear of the post-struturalist alienation of the subject from language? Dennett, perhaps rather unfortunately, then goes on to say that the Chinese Room is impossible because we are not zombies — which, again, presupposes an ideal, non-alienated subject.

Distributed cognition is where the barred subject takes its place in contemporary cybernetics, and this is, contrary to popular belief, ultimately a Cartesian move that fully separates cognition from its local basis, as the separation of mind from its carbon basis. It turns out that Descartes was not only the first Lacanian, as Žižek put it, but also the first third-wave posthumanist. It is a sad fact, thus, that leaders in the field of cybernetics overlook this fact and, in both sides of the argument, tend to return to Aristotelian ideals, to illusions of wholeness.

Okami: Divine Subjects and Image-Instruments

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Okami

Okami

OK, most of you probably know that I’m a hardcore Wii fan by now, so I’m guessing it’s about time to put the gaming geek of myself to elucidate my Lacanian new media theories. One of the core concepts of my thesis is a new subjective experience I call the divine subject. This notion of transcendent subjective experience made possible by technology has its roots in cybernetics and the Macy conferences of the 20th century, as Katherine Hayles has explained in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman. The postmodern notion of contingent bodies and posthuman transformations is not, as many may argue, a rejection of the liberal humanist subject of Enlightenment (“ethics is deconstructed with biotechnology,” “it’s all about the dehumanizing market,” etc.), but instead, as John Searle is well aware, a faithful move to take the Cartesian subject one step further: a desperate move to preserve the cogito under postmodernity — precisely because thought is the only viable experience, we need no more bodies!

What better piece of literature to illustrate the divinity of the subject than Okami, a game in which you actually take control of God herself? This game in which your avatar is the Japanese sun God, Okami Amaterasu (taking the form of the white wolf avatar, Shiranui), has as its core element the ability for players to create objects in the scenes by painting on them directly — you create suns by painting circles in skies, stars by painting dots, cut enemies by painting slashes, etc. This is a perfect example of what Lev Manovich calls the transformation from image to image-instruments. With the advent of the computer age, signifiers now has a double role: not only a part of the sign, but also something to be acted upon, a portal to another dimension.

What to say of today’s world of signs? It is no longer the Baudrillardian object-dominated world of simulacra in which subjects are fashionably dead, but a world in which the simulacra is an extension of subjective experience. The correct way to read the popular postmodern dystopia in which even our bodies is nothing but a simulacra is not that we are dead, reduced to mere Foucauldian sand imprints, but the opposite one: every simulacra may be our body. (Is this not the ultimate dream of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, etc?) With Žižek, the (Cartesian) subject is not dead, but preserved through its reflexivity.

Okami perfectly illustrates my thesis: with signifiers evolving from its original purpose to include a role as portals of actions, with subjects depending more and more on avatars (the contingent simulacra body, explained further on my theories of the psychoanalytic monitor phase) both for social interaction and individual enjoyment, it is only prudent to note the possibility that there is an evolution going on in the dialectics of the Symbolic and Imaginary orders. Does the divine paintbrush of Okami not show that the Imaginary self may very well lie outside the visible biological self?