How personality makes cognitive science hard

August 13, JDN 2457614

Why is cognitive science so difficult? First of all, let’s acknowledge that it is difficult—that even those of us who understand it better than most are still quite baffled by it in quite fundamental ways. The Hard Problem still looms large over us all, and while I know that the Chinese Room Argument is wrong, I cannot precisely pin down why.

The recursive, reflexive character of cognitive science is part of the problem; can a thing understand itself without understanding understanding itself, understanding understanding understanding itself, and on in an infinite regress? But this recursiveness applies just as much to economics and sociology, and honestly to physics and biology as well. We are physical biological systems in an economic and social system, yet most people at least understand these sciences at the most basic level—which is simply not true of cognitive science.

One of the most basic facts of cognitive science (indeed I am fond of calling it The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science) is that we are our brains, that everything human consciousness does is done by and within the brain. Yet the majority of humans believe in souls (including the majority of Americans and even the majority of Brits), and just yesterday I saw a news anchor say “Based on a new study, that feeling may originate in your brain!” He seriously said “may”. “may”? Why, next you’ll tell me that when my arms lift things, maybe they do it with muscles! Other scientists are often annoyed by how many misconceptions the general public has about science, but this is roughly the equivalent of a news anchor saying, “Based on a new study, human bodies may be made of cells!” or “Based on a new study, diamonds may be made of carbon atoms!” The misunderstanding of many sciences is widespread, but the misunderstanding of cognitive science is fundamental.

So what makes cognitive science so much harder? I have come to realize that there is a deep feature of human personality that makes cognitive science inherently difficult in a way other sciences are not.

Decades of research have uncovered a number of consistent patterns in human personality, where people’s traits tend to lie along a continuum from one extreme to another, and usually cluster near either end. Most people are familiar with a few of these, such as introversion/extraversion and optimism/pessimism; but the one that turns out to be important here is empathizing/systematizing.

Empathizers view the world as composed of sentient beings, living agents with thoughts, feelings, and desires. They are good at understanding other people and providing social support. Poets are typically empathizers.

Systematizers view the world as composed of interacting parts, interlocking components that have complex inner workings which can be analyzed and understood. They are good at solving math problems and tinkering with machines. Engineers are typically systematizers.

Most people cluster near one end of the continuum or the other; they are either strong empathizers or strong systematizers. (If you’re curious, there’s an online test you can take to find out which you are.)

But a rare few of us, perhaps as little as 2% and no more than 10%, are both; we are empathizer-systematizers, strong on both traits (showing that it’s not really a continuum between two extremes after all, and only seemed to be because the two traits are negatively correlated). A comparable number are also low on both traits, which must quite frankly make the world a baffling place in general.

Empathizer-systematizers understand the world as it truly is: Composed of sentient beings that are made of interacting parts.

The very title of this blog shows I am among this group: “human” for the empathizer, “economics” for the systematizer!

We empathizer-systematizers can intuitively grasp that there is no contradiction in saying that a person is sad because he lost his job and he is sad because serotonin levels in his cingulate gyrus are low—because it was losing his job that triggered other thoughts and memories that lowered serotonin levels in his cingulate gyrus and thereby made him sad. No one fully understands the details of how low serotonin feels like sadness—hence, the Hard Problem—but most people can’t even seem to grasp the connection at all. How can something as complex and beautiful as a human mind be made of… sparking gelatin?

Well, what would you prefer it to be made of? Silicon chips? We’re working on that. Something else? Magical fairy dust, perhaps? Pray tell, what material could the human mind be constructed from that wouldn’t bother you on a deep level?

No, what really seems to bother people is the very idea that a human mind can be constructed from material, that thoughts and feelings can be divisible into their constituent parts.

This leads people to adopt one of two extreme positions on cognitive science, both of which are quite absurd—frankly I’m not sure they are even coherent.

Pure empathizers often become dualists, saying that the mind cannot be divisible, cannot be made of material, but must be… something else, somehow, outside the material universe—whatever that means.

Pure systematizers instead often become eliminativists, acknowledging the functioning of the brain and then declaring proudly that the mind does not exist—that consciousness, emotion, and experience are all simply illusions that advanced science will one day dispense with—again, whatever that means.

I can at least imagine what a universe would be like if eliminativism were true and there were no such thing as consciousness—just a vast expanse of stars and rocks and dust, lifeless and empty. Of course, I know that I’m not in such a universe, because I am experiencing consciousness right now, and the illusion of consciousness is… consciousness. (You are not experiencing what you are experiencing right now, I say!) But I can at least visualize what such a universe would be like, and indeed it probably was our universe (or at least our solar system) up until about a billion years ago when the first sentient animals began to evolve.

Dualists, on the other hand, are speaking words, structured into grammatical sentences, but I’m not even sure they are forming coherent assertions. Sure, you can sort of imagine our souls being floating wisps of light and energy (ala the “ascended beings”, my least-favorite part of the Stargate series, which I otherwise love), but ultimately those have to be made of something, because nothing can be both fundamental and complex. Moreover, the fact that they interact with ordinary matter strongly suggests that they are made of ordinary matter (and to be fair to Stargate, at one point in the series Rodney with his already-great intelligence vastly increased declares confidently that ascended beings are indeed nothing more than “protons and electrons, protons and electrons”). Even if they were made of some different kind of matter like dark matter, they would need to obey a common system of physical laws, and ultimately we would come to think of them as matter. Otherwise, how do the two interact? If we are made of soul-stuff which is fundamentally different from other stuff, then how do we even know that other stuff exists? If we are not our bodies, then how do we experience pain when they are damaged and control them with our volition? The most coherent theory of dualism is probably Malebranche’s, which is quite literally “God did it”. Epiphenomenalism, which says that thoughts are just sort of an extra thing that also happens but has no effect (an “epiphenomenon”) on the physical brain, is also quite popular for some reason. People don’t quite seem to understand that the Law of Conservation of Energy directly forbids an “epiphenomenon” in this sense, because anything that happens involves energy, and that energy (unlike, say, money) can’t be created out of nothing; it has to come from somewhere. Analogies are often used: The whistle of a train, the smoke of a flame. But the whistle of a train is a pressure wave that vibrates the train; the smoke from a flame is made of particulates that could be used to smother the flame. At best, there are some phenomena that don’t affect each other very much—but any causal interaction at all makes dualism break down.

How can highly intelligent, highly educated philosophers and scientists make such basic errors? I think it has to be personality. They have deep, built-in (quite likely genetic) intuitions about the structure of the universe, and they just can’t shake them.

And I confess, it’s very hard for me to figure out what to say in order to break those intuitions, because my deep intuitions are so different. Just as it seems obvious to them that the world cannot be this way, it seems obvious to me that it is. It’s a bit like living in a world where 45% of people can see red but not blue and insist the American Flag is red and white, another 45% of people can see blue but not red and insist the flag is blue and white, and I’m here in the 10% who can see all colors and I’m trying to explain that the flag is red, white, and blue.

The best I can come up with is to use analogies, and computers make for quite good analogies, not least because their functioning is modeled on our thinking.

Is this word processor program (LibreOffice Writer, as it turns out) really here, or is it merely an illusion? Clearly it’s really here, right? I’m using it. It’s doing things right now. Parts of it are sort of illusions—it looks like a blank page, but it’s actually an LCD screen lit up all the way; it looks like ink, but it’s actually where the LCD turns off. But there is clearly something here, an actual entity worth talking about which has properties that are usefully described without trying to reduce them to the constituent interactions of subatomic particles.

On the other hand, can it be reduced to the interactions of subatomic particles? Absolutely. A brief sketch is something like this: It’s a software program, running on an operating system, and these in turn are represented in the physical hardware as long binary sequences, stored by ever-so-slightly higher or lower voltages in particular hardware components, which in turn are due to electrons being moved from one valence to another. Those electrons move in precise accordance with the laws of quantum mechanics, I assure you; yet this in no way changes the fact that I’m typing a blog post on a word processor.

Indeed, it’s not even particularly useful to know that the electrons are obeying the laws of quantum mechanics, and quite literally no possible computer that could be constructed in our universe could ever be large enough to fully simulate all these quantum interactions within the amount of time since the dawn of the universe. If we are to understand it at all, it must be at a much higher level—and the “software program” level really seems to be the best one for most circumstances. The vast majority of problems I’m likely to encounter are either at the software level or the macro hardware level; it’s conceivable that a race condition could emerge in the processor cache or the voltage could suddenly spike or even that a cosmic ray could randomly ionize a single vital electron, but these scenarios are far less likely to affect my life than, say, I accidentally deleted the wrong file or the battery ran out of charge because I forgot to plug it in.

Likewise, when dealing with a relationship problem, or mediating a conflict between two friends, it’s rarely relevant that some particular neuron is firing in someone’s nucleus accumbens, or that one of my friends is very low on dopamine in his mesolimbic system today. It could be, particularly if some sort of mental or neurological illness in involved, but in most cases the real issues are better understood as higher level phenomena—people being angry, or tired, or sad. These emotions are ultimately constructed of axon potentials and neurotransmitters, but that doesn’t make them any less real, nor does it change the fact that it is at the emotional level that most human matters are best understood.

Perhaps part of the problem is that human emotions take on moral significance, which other higher-level entities generally do not? But they sort of do, really, in a more indirect way. It matters a great deal morally whether or not climate change is a real phenomenon caused by carbon emissions (it is). Ultimately this moral significance can be tied to human experiences, so everything rests upon human experiences being real; but they are real, in much the same way that rocks and trees and carbon emissions are real. No amount of neuroscience will ever change that, just as no amount of biological science would disprove the existence of trees.

Indeed, some of the world’s greatest moral problems could be better solved if people were better empathizer-systematizers, and thus more willing to do cost-benefit analysis.


One thought on “How personality makes cognitive science hard

  1. […] I was hoping for some sort of news item to use as a segue, but none in particular emerged, so I decided to go on with it anyway. I haven’t done any cognitive science posts in awhile, and this is one I’ve been meaning to write for a long time—actually it’s the sort of thing that even a remarkable number of cognitive scientists frequently get wrong, perhaps because the structure of human personality makes cognitive science inherently difficult. […]


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