A Modicum of Thought

a weekly pursuit of depth of thought

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The Challenge

The challenge was simple in nature. To combat the inevitability of slow decline, a good friend of mine and I mutually proposed a weekly sharing of just one item of depth discovered that week. In theory, a simple task – really, if life has become so comfortably numb that a single thought over the span of seven days remains elusive – well then, all the more reason we need to double down on honing the mind to explore what is essential, what is invisible to the eye.

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Do Dogs Think?

Alright, yeah – I am back into thinking about consciousness. Ironically, this is as much due to reading The Social Animal as it is due to working my way through Heidegger’s Being and Time. This time, I promise to be short(er).

If you’ve read the last few Modicums, you’ll know that I’m increasingly of the mindset that the lower brain is the key to being human, and not the higher, conscious brain. And you’ll know that I view the lower brain has an extremely powerful Bayesian Estimator. That lower brain is free from language and the voice of the inner mind, and thus consciousness as we know it given our Cartesian world view. Finally, you’ll also know that I think of the inner voice and its stream of consciousness as a leftover farce that has taken over the show. This is a bit hard to swallow, so step through all those previous Modicums to catch up.

So that begs the question, if the Bayesian Estimator is what received much of the new brain cells during the homo genus evolutionary explosion, then perhaps the stream of consciousness portion of the mind may have already been there – and thus, other animals have it too. And thus further, the child-like question arises: Do Dogs Think? (And yes, this incredible photo was taken by Emerson!)


We laugh the question off, because in our anthropocentric world view, we just can’t imagine thinking with out language. But dig a little deeper on this and you realize some of the fallacies in this.

First, language is definitely not unique to humans. Research into song birds show they have both meanings and structure, including grammatical ordering. The complexity and vocabulary of prairie dogs’ language will leave you shocked – at least it did me. I won’t bore you with many other examples.

So even if you presuppose that consciousness thought requires language, these examples show that animals do associate language elements with states of mind. A songbird’s stream of consciousness may very well consist of an inner voice singing a stream of songs. It is a fun thought experiment – one which we humans owe to the rest of the animal kingdom to spend a minute or two imagining.


Now, stick with me on this section… The Psychologist Jerome Gibson in 1979 proposed the Affordance Theory that says all items that one can perceive is an affordance whether it be obstacle or opportunity.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.— Gibson (1979, p. 127)[3]

There is potential for a lot of philosophical babble here, so just to simplify lets jump straight to an analogy:

Imagine a squirrel in the backyard. When he sees a tree, he does not see a living creature that he ponders whether or not has its own consciousness. Rather, he sees an item in his environment that affords him an escape path if being pursue, and an item that affords him the opportunity to collect nuts, provide shelter, is a safer path to the next tree. If he sees a dog, he sees an obstacle to overcome, namely the obstacle of being chomped on.

The point is, when you immerse yourself into this view of the world in which everything is an affordance, offering opportunity or obstacle, it is easy to make the jump that you can mentally have a stream of consciousness that is not language dependent.

Yeah – next thought experiment: Picture yourself in that backyard, where everything is an affordance – an obstacle or an opportunity. It’s not hard to imagine a stream of consciousness moving from one affordance to the next. The grass. The bird feeder. The rain. The mid day hunger. The language becomes the language of affordances, possibly just being an internal pictorial language.

Just because this language may lack abstractness (although, I would argue that the abstract state of hunger is quite likely a very real source of vocabulary for most animals), it is not hard to imagine a stream of consciousness being based exclusively in this form of a language. You don’t need the word “tree” to know a tree, or think about a tree.

And when that bear was glissading down snow drifts for fun, I dare you to suggest that his decision to do it again and again was strictly instinctual. In the world of affordances, it was an opportunity to have fun. Scroll back to that photo from Emerson and look at the eyes, and then tell me that it is just anthropomorphism that shows thought and consideration in those eyes.

Ultimately, human’s stream of consciousness is no different. Sure we can rat hole into the abstract occasionally (an arguably it is very rare that we get beyond the depth of animals to where we rat hole). But that rat holing isn’t necessarily a significant means for separating us from animals cognitively. Rather, it is our ability to construct highly detailed, multi-step and predictive potential consequences to potential actions that distinguish our intelligence (i.e. the Bayesian Estimator). That quality is what built cities, took us to the moon, and defined society – not language or intellectual discourse. Take again the example of Antonio deMazzio‘s patients that had brain damage impacting their subconcious mind incapable of assessing long term impact of their actions.

Cognitive Psychology

OK – with those two viewpoints, I am going to take it is as proof that it is possible from a stream of consciousness to exist without the complexity of human language.

So, here I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that consciousness may be a small part of the brain, and as such, perhaps it is more widespread in the animal kingdom than it is ever given credit.

And then, this week I read this amazing side comment in David Brooks’ The Social Animal:

We tend to think of Level 1 [GP: aka subconscious] as the early part of the brain, which we share with the animals, and Level 2 [GP: aka conscious] as the evolutionary recent part of the brain that distinguishes us as human. But back in 1963, Ulric Neisser made the intriguing suggestion that it might be the sophistication of our unconscious processes that makes us human”

David Brooks, The Social Animal

Bingo! That is exactly what I was pondering. He goes on to quote Neisser directly (Neisser incidentally is often referred to as the father of Cognitive Psychology).

It is worth noting that, anatomically, the human cerebrum appears to be the sort of diffuse system in which multiple processes would be at home. In this respect it differs from the nervous system of lower animals. Our hypothesis leads us to the radical suggestion that the critical difference between the thinking of humans and of lower animals lies not in the existence of consciousness but in the capacity for complex processes outside of it.

Ulric Neisser, The Multiplicity of Thought

Boy, he could not have made my point better, and in 1963 no the less!

So now what?

So if you give stream of consciousness to other animals, what dominoes fall? Well, that proto-human state that we usually reserve for reverence to Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees quickly extends to much of the animal kingdom. It creates all sorts of squeamish ethical issues, as we so readily discount ethics due to the lack of “true” consciousness in animals.

Which begs the question (and here Heidegger comes a’knocking), if animals have a consciousness, are they beings? Daseins? The description of affordances is directly linked to Heidegger’s In-der-Welt-sein). If they are beings, do they have rights? Yup, all those Ethical Philosophical questions that I abhor and will not rat hole into. You see, I like my steaks.

DNA 2.0

In my heart, travelling beyond the solar system is our future generation’s manifest destiny. I hope that with every generation, we see it as not only our destiny but our obligation to expand beyond the confines of our own solar system.

And I hope that we never lose sight of this end goal for not just the human race, but for the end goal of life itself. I see it as more than just a destiny, but an obligation we owe to the universe for the creation of DNA in the first place.

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Thoughts That Won’t Go Away

Honestly, I thought I was done with tearing down scaffolding with last week’s post. It isn’t really that much fun to undermine core beliefs of how you view the world and yourself, and admittedly it’s pretty boring to read about it for others. Ha, maybe I should describe it as a wrecking ball, as that is much more fun to watch and honestly, that’s kind of what it feels like too.

For the past week, I’ve been making a concerted effort to rid myself of some unwanted thought patterns that keep popping into my head – do a bit of rewiring that is. One pattern is a reaction to challenging situations, another is a time consuming habit of mine that I just simply… well, want to take a wrecking ball too.

And once the wrecking ball came out, I began to naturally question, am I defined by my thoughts? and if not by thoughts, then by what? In the end, I have part two of last week’s Modicum.

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The Empty Driver’s Seat

It’s New Years (oh, Happy New Year and New Decade, sort of) and thus I’ve been a bit delinquent on sustained thought in lieu of friends, family, libations and well, skiing. So for this week’s Modicum (or as my eldest daughter calls it, “Adult Homework“), I thought I’d do a quick revisit of two passing comments in previous Modicums that touch upon an idea that is growing in my mind, threatening a flood. Or rather, perhaps the analogy is better suited to a sinkhole than an overflowing spring.

The passing comment was added humorously to the Modicum The Premise of a Big Goal – in which I owned up to having a driver seat view of the death spiral of suburban frenetic mundanity. Driver seat of course to own up to the fact that it was of my own making.

The quick quip has stuck with me for a while – which is always a sign that the lower, more intelligent brain is working away on something but is keeping the child of our conscious mind in the dark.

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Normalizing Danger

So I am standing there, at the top of a 36 foot tall extension ladder reaching over the roofline above the third story of my home. Yeah, modicum of thought be damned, for there are quite mundane gutters to be cleaned.

Sure, as I was climbing up the ladder, I jiggled each foot to ensure a solid and secure perch. The ladder swayed slightly, and the concrete ground took successive notches of increasing steps to smallness in my view downwards. The growing danger in each step was clear and an evident threat.

But here at the top, my arms stretch out over the roof line, and those gutters and shingles aren’t moving a bit. From my new view over the gutters, I am presented with a stable and consistent view, including all that mossy gunk that’s accumulated in the gutters.

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I Feel, Therefore I am Not

First to set some context, I have been in exploring for the better part of the past year three large influencing mindsets on the subject of rational reasoning versus emotional intuition, and subconscious versus conscious thought. These mindsets are exemplified by their source readings:

  1. David BrooksThe Social Animal, which argues that the emotional mind is far more essential and active in the day to day (see also The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail by Jonathan Haidt)
  2. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality (aka HPMOR), which emphasizes the need for focused purely-rational reasoning, performed using Bayesian principles to arrive at rational thought, overcoming the limitations of the irrational mind.
  3. Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking Fast And Slow –  Which argues that the brain’s desire for consistency (e.g. Caldiani‘s Consistency in Influence) overwhelms emotion and undermines the argument that the brain is even biologically capable of rational thought in the first place. In this bucket, I also throw in the incredible Phantoms in the Brain by Ramachandran – who got at these issues from a neuroscientific perspective 20 years ago.
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Bubble Markers

My Friday-The-13th modicum this week is on finance – specifically, how to profit from the stock buy back obsession in corporate America.

Financial bubbles by definition occur when rational processes break down, and runaway irrationality takes hold. You’d think we’d get better at this stuff as society ages and technology improves, but we aren’t. We just wrap the irrationality with layers and layers of complexity that just better hides it from a rational thought. Credit default swaps anyone?

It’s a fascinating concept, the idea of the mind wrapping irrational action with layers of complexity to hide its chaoticness. It’s like the lengthy stories patients with phantom limbs go through to justify why they are not able to manipulate the world with their rationally missing limb. Economic bubbles are a groupthink version of this.

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Get Out the Ark Again

Preface: This week I finish out the trilogy of posts pondering the nature of intelligence and evolution. You already know that I am pondering that intelligence is an aberration and not the apex of evolution. But what if we went one step further and posit that evolution is anti-intelligence, and not just vice versa? And I promise falsely that it will be the last lengthy one for a while.

I always laugh when someone asks the question “What is the meaning of life?” The answer is easy.

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Missing Life’s End Game

I continue this week with part two of the questions for evidence of runaway intelligence. Last week I was focused on why runaway intelligence happened – particularly, why didn’t it happen for hundreds of millions of years. This week I ponder more on why we do not see more evidence of it elsewhere.

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Runaway Intelligence Spark

Going back to world of science this week and the next, I’ve been revisiting what are the two biggest mysteries in life to me (drawing a bit on the previous modicum on Drake’s Equation).

  1. Why did human-level intelligence take so long to evolve?
  2. Why do we not see evidence of runaway intelligence in the visible universe?

The reason why I like these two questions are they are pretty fundamental questions on life in existence. But at the same time, they are logical questions that should have some fairly defensible scientific solutions to resolve them – but are heretofore unanswered. We should and hopefully one day will know the answers – unlike so many other bold why questions just a step further from these two that will ultimately be unanswerable. As such, they are the biggest low hanging fruit out there for science to pursue – if I had nine lives, this would be two of those lives.

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