Metacognition, and comments on yesterday’s post.

Dear GH and All,

I have a question on nomenclature. When I use the word metacognition I simply mean the activity of reflecting on my own thought, perhaps questioning some of my own thought processes. When you guys use that term is there more to it than that? Does it imply the use of some learned introspective technique, for example?

Just thinking out loud here… The thing is that most “metacognition” is nonconscious. (??) Various schemes or action plans to solve a given reproductive problem compete in the CNS and, in the end, the one with the highest expected fitness payoff wins. (Do you think that such cost – benefit analyses qualify as metacognition?) The animal, human or not, then waits for the most opportune time (already specified in the action plan itself) and executes the requisite behaviors. Of course, if there is much lag time while waiting for that opportune moment, the plan may always be revised if new pertinent data arrive. Moreover, tons of data may stream in during execution. The plan may then be revised on the fly, and when we do that well we may experience “flow.”

An aside: one of the most satisfying things about watching an animal operate in nature is that after a while you begin to notice the behavioral correlates of their own struggles. The moments of indecision when, unconsciously, they are comparing action plans, usually ones entailing very high stakes. It is one of the observations that is most powerful in evoking empathy and even compassion for creatures like spiders. They struggle, pretty much as I do, but they can never ask why… They are always so determined to do well, to get it right, but they cannot even begin to conceive of the ultimate goal they are pursuing. Never can they have an inkling of how they they are being mastered, moment to moment. It is beautiful (a finely tuned, exquisite CAS in action) and heartbreaking at the same time.

Back to the main theme: Humans seem to have some conscious metacognition going on. Why do certain patterns of thought become the subject of conscious review? Who or what is in control of that?

In my view, this conscious metacognition is one more part of our “adaptively subjective dreamworld.” Like any other content of consciousness, it becomes conscious through the action of nonconscious mental mechanisms. Even metacognition that feels quite effortful may just be the individual (i.e., the whole embodied mind) weaving socially efficacious, fitness-enhancing stories about how we think to tell our social partners. Real intrapsychic vigilance, which given our situation would have to include a discipline of “remaining in question,” even while acting, would take this into account.

To get out of our prison cell we probably have to develop skills for digging down into the vast seas of unconscious metacognition, which is another way of referring to the process of hacking into our personal Matrix. This requires somehow stepping on through the streams of uploaded metacognition fed to us by the regulatory mechanisms I was going on about yesterday.

One more comment about my writing process yesterday. GW, when I read what you wrote it evoked thoughts about the human condition and how to approach our situation. This is something I am frequently called upon to do with people who are very naive about evolutionary hypotheses concerning the most basic workings of mind. What I wrote was to them, not you. I don’t think I was thinking about YOU much at all once I got into the writing. But I can see how it would seem that my writings were some kind of reflection of my model of how you see things. I don’t think they really were, and I apologize for the impression that was created that I was addressing some cheaply dreamt up caricature of your own views. — PJW

Homo deus: Our valuation of power over truth.

Power Valued Over Truth by Humans?

“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”

The view you express above, GH, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.

Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.

Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.

Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.

Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).

An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.

My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process under poor management, mostly my own. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.

A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.

A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther.  But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.

Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — PJW


Memetics Discussion

Dear All,
Is our next meeting regular BMCAI meetup June 4th? Also, note that I have Cc’ed four of my most recent students on the chance that they might be interested in trying out our group.
I’m happy to be open-minded (part of me is, anyway) and discuss memes and memeplexes, and maybe have my perspectives upgraded. But, I’ve been dealing with the meme-thing since Dawkins came up with it in the selfish gene. It has pretty much gone nowhere within professional evolutionary psychology. Some initial excitement mostly fueled by Dawkin’s articulate charisma. But for the longest time now, very few peer-reviewed papers, very few talks at professional meetings. Even Dawkins seems to downplay the idea now. Maybe a bit embarrassed. Try to get a job specializing in memetics. You’ll probably end up as a priest in a dying religion, or in advertising. Not in academia. Of course, that is not necessarily the ultimate measure of the value of an idea. But there are other ways to mitigate the hold of the meme-concept on certain people.
Remark: I think that the main reason the vague idea of memes still fascinates some folks is that it triggers “religiosity instincts.” Ones that predispose all of us to magical thinking.
Anyway, the biggest problem is that memes are very crappy replicators compared to genes; hell, we cannot even get solid agreement on what a meme is!
Body-brain-mind systems should evolve to take memes (or not!) and be defended against having their memosphere “infected”  by that meme in its pristine primordial form (i.e., the form in which it originally was received). Specifically, every BBM system should take on the meme in a way that is maximally adaptive for that particular gene “survival machine.” For example, we know that taught morals, even if you have a skilled shaman, are very malleable in relation to an individual’s nonconsciously chosen optimal reproductive strategy, as makes perfect sense.
This is why when discussing any moderately complex idea, it is difficult to come to a common understanding. Even to develop a common language. And, even if you think you have done so, that notion is just hypothetical. A matter of faith. A “shared meme” really is evoking very different very different, and highly contingent responses in any collection of people. (Religious professional’s job, traditionally, is to use all possible tricks to minimize those differences, to make as sure as possible that everyone’s BIOS chip has the same code – a big job, thus the complexity of religion.) We cannot even get together on the bloodly “Golden Rule,” can we? Nope — I’m opening today’s New York Times. Looks like even within small regions, “infection” with the Golden Rule still has not occurred, not even within small groups.
Further, there is individually adaptive drift in people’s understanding of any given meme or memeplex. This is one reason why religious teachings have to be given, skillfully, over and over again. It is also why in the context of religion and most other ideological systems “honest signals” of commitment, quality, and need constantly have to be refreshed, renewed (religion helps us get those socially essential job done with high effectiveness and efficiency – one reason it is so popular). Having a somewhat unified understanding of your group’s moral code is critical for the operation of complex contractual reciprocity, pan-culturally the basic human way of life. If you cannot demonstrate that you do, you are less popular, shunned, or just killed. But we can always pretend a bit, risky but potentially profitable in fitness terms.
We could talk a bit about a “learning instinct” (Is it really one? Yes and No.) that, in the context of my evolution of religiosity and human coalitional psychology class, I call “cognitive system zero,” in contrast to CS’s 1 &2. It makes us maximally open to at least medium fidelity recording of meme’s. I also refer to this system and its cognitive-emotional effects as “the mystery instinct,” “the rationality switch,” (too often flipped to the off position in our troubled society), and “mystery mode.” I think we have evolved a cognitive mode, adaptive to the individual and their group (and so back again to the individual; eschew genetic group selection), that makes us maximally receptive to having certain kinds of memes burnt into our BIOS (i.e., not our normal relatively flexible memory systems) using very special procedures, often religious in nature at least for the last 300K+ years, with unusually intra- and inter-individual good fidelity.
The ubiquity, complexity, and nature of religion, IMO, is a testament to the nearly impossible job of getting people to adopt even modestly fitness-relevant memes in a uniform manner. But, thank God for that BIOS chip in my computer, right? Without it, my fancy laptop would be a brick. We would be bricks too, socioeconomically, if we did not have a relatively decent in-group tuned BIOS.
I had fun writing this. But I should be working on grading my students’ journals!


— Paul


Genetic editing, neuroprostheses, and the very high risk of becoming zombies.

Note: edited and augmented 1 April 2018.

… or at least zombiesque.

First, I still do not hear anybody talking about genetic editing or neuro-electronic strategies for making us compassionate, prosocial, and biophilic enough to render us a sustainable species. At least this is arguably necessary, i.e., to take the maintenance and future construction of the relevent aspects our brain circuitry out of the hands of natural selection. See my previous entries.

Pondering what is coming down the pike in connection with revolutionary advances in genetic editing and neuroprostheses…

Right now: Other people are naturally evolved to hack into my unconscious and influence me. But, I have pretty well matched evolved defenses against maladaptive manipulation, and nonconsciously controlled circuitry that renders me more or less susceptible to adaptive manipulation. My nonconscious is good at looking out for my interests, at least (actually JUST) in ways that make me a good gene replicator.

But, also right now, just minimally foreshadowing what is coming in the next few decades: What poisons are in this piece of “wild-caught” salmon? What is my computer security software really doing? What really is happening with my social media data? What’s in this software or firmware update? How am I already being manipulated in powerful, evolutionarily novel ways just through my computer and internet usage that my current, evolved psychological defenses cannot fully deal with?

Soon: What really is in this memory-enhancing chip going into my head? What is really in this genetic editing cocktail that is supposed to just decrease my genetic or epigenetic risk factors for hundreds of diseases? We’ll never know for sure, before or after its done to us.

Whatever changes the corporations or governments make in us, however we are hacked biologically and electronically, however our concerns and preferences are tweaked or radically changed, we won’t even be aware of it. Or we’ll like it. Love it. That will be part of the hack, obviously.

And nobody, not even the most rich and powerful will be immune. Everyone will be bio-electronically hacked, including any appointed “regulatory personnel.” (They’ll be the first targets!) We’ll all unwittingly just be things, helplessly and often gleefully sucked into the larger internet-of-things. Hell, eventually, we can even be hacked by a little chip added to an artificial limb. Genetic editing cocktails can be put in our fish oil pill, our flu vaccine, our soup or wine.

Soon, everyone will be augmented, diminished, and otherwise altered. In combination. There will be no defenses. How will that play out? It seems unavoidable to me, given existing deep human nature. Its going to be an enormous train wreck.

Maybe some people will avoid it all, for some time, by becoming highly disciplined, ascetic, contemplative hermits, very far from population centers, very hidden, using traditional, cultural, completely “organic” means of self-study, continuing the possible struggle to gain some freedom from our natural, evolved slavery to nonconscious neural regulatory system. Short of that? Everyone else will be more or less happy zombies.

— Paul (for now?)

Added 1 April 2018:

A reader asks:  “But wouldn’t any genetic editing for the so-called biophilia, etc., be susceptible to same?”

Answer: Yes, it would.

But, at least it would be a more limited and exclusively genetic-editing or epigenetic engineering enterprise, aiming for relatively subtle, potentially adequate changes in people’s attitudes. So, possibly subject to successful, extreme multi-layered regulation. Plus, this gene editing goal has the unique justification going for it that it probably is our species’ only hope for survival. The only way of making it through our technological adolescence. It’s actually required. My living to be 115 years old, or beyond, is not.

I reject electronic neural prostheses except for very limited medical use (such as those paralyzed in accidents, those suffering abnormal memory loss in old age). These electronic neuroprotheses will be much easier to use for precise and extreme manipulation of recipients than genetic-editing, I predict. Since few people would receive these, no opportunity for governments and corporations to create ideological, military, or various slave armies.

New realization (for me): Even if a corporation generates widespread trust by installing “clean” neuro-enhancing chips in people’s body-minds, aren’t we going to want those chips to be capable of non-invasive upgrades via the web? Like never-ending computer program updates of today, and firmware updates?

At the right time and place, when many “users” (recipients) are out there, imagine what kind of stuff could be included in an update. Or a “fake” update originating outside the “ethical, well-regulated” company that supplied and services the chips. — PJW


Sustainable Human Upgrades

The comments below were posted on 29 June 2017 to the discussion section associated with a TED talk by Gregory Stock entitled, “To Upgrade Is Human.”

I’m an evolutionary psychologist – I study human nature from a modern Darwinian perspective. I also have broad experience in behavioral ecology, with a background in field work entailing decades of watching natural selection in action. Overall, I study the kinds of minds, including human minds, that natural selection creates. The reason to point this out is that it leads to a perspective on what a truly upgraded human would be like, or at least should be, and when you get down to it actually MUST be like. So, I agree 100% with G. Stock that the biotech future he talks about, in which we begin to take charge of our species’ evolution, is inevitable. But what always is lacking from these talks is exactly what one would expect given that they are formulated by well-meaning but naturally-selected human minds: competitive, anthropocentric, and ruthlessly contingent, parochial, and selfish in our expression of altruism and compassion. It is a fatal omission. I’ll come right out with it. Our first priority should be intensive global research enabling us to use fast-emerging genetic-editing technologies to grab the evolution of our pan-cultural, pan-ethnic, species-typical mind/brain out of the future-blind amoral hands of natural selection. To survive, and to save the planet, we must implement a program of intentional evolution that puts enhancement of our capacities for prosociality, biophilia, and compassion first. These are the enhancements that will make our species sustainable. This is the keystone upgrade we need to create a socioecological context in which all humans have a healthy place and a happier social context to live their longer, healthier, sexier, brainier lives, in communion with other species. As the speaker so rightly says, mistakes will be made. The biggest mistake, however, will be to ignore this necessity or turn away in fear. Or worse, to passively place our psychological future into the hands of exploitative regimes and profit-obsessed corporations.

Compassion and Evolutionary Psychology

Almost certainly without intending to do so, yet more so than any intentional or unintentional guru in history, Charles Darwin set the stage for humanity to attain a level of self-understanding that truly could be pan-culturally transformative. To come to this point took a little over 100 years of digestion of Darwinism, aided by key theoretical advances from several other exceptional Darwinians who together, beginning in the 1960’s, significantly extended Darwin’s original theory (e.g., Bill Hamilton, George Williams, Richard Alexander, Robert Trivers, George Price, Maynard Smith).

But now, perhaps in the very nick of time, we have a sufficient body of impartial, scientifically grounded insights into human intrapsychic design that may, if truly learned by members of a growing human community, may serve to alter our mental functioning enough to bring about the level of revolution in human capacities for compassion needed to make Homo sapiens a sustainable species. Really a new, hyper-auto-domesticated, Hominin species.

Practices and even teachings from many of the world’s ancient wisdom traditions may help with this vital intrapsychic transformation. They my even be necessary – I leave that question open. But, I believe, and I think everyone feeling interested in nurturing significant advances of compassion (activist prosociality and biophilia) should conspire to seriously set forth the proposition that modern evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, modern evolutionary behavioral ecology in general, must become the main basis for self-understanding in the modern age, superseding all former sources of self-understanding as an informing, objectifying influence*, if the human experiment is to continue much longer, and indeed perhaps the whole unspeakably astonishing experiment of life on Earth is to flourish.

“Unless we all live our lives in the torment of contradictions, we are not human.”  Anonymous

Real self-knowledge exposes our conscious minds to normally cryptic patterns of thought and behavior that are troubling, sometime very troubling, for anyone with an intact conscience. Can humankind culturally evolve to use the evolutionarily novel and burgeoning “insight-power” of modern Darwinism as an unprecedented basis for establishing and expanding communities seriously capable of living in this way — communities thus capable of collaborating to lead our species into a viable, worthwhile future?

Dr. Paul J. Watson – 16 April 2017

“Materialist Spirituality”

I have ventured to make a number of comments associated with the following TED talk, which I rated “beautiful” and “unconvincing.”

Here is one of my comments:

As an evolutionary psychologist and scientific materialist with nontrivial experience in “spiritual practice” over the decades, since my mid-teens (I’m now 59), which I appreciate more than I can say, I still use the word spirituality quite frequently. But for me, spiritual practice has come to entail intrapsychic exercises and verifiable self-knowledge (i.e., via application of objectifying influences from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience) that can reshape our nervous systems to function not quite as they were designed to by natural selection. To be brief, for me, where the rubber hits the road vis-a’-vis human spiritual potential is to build intrapsychic “muscles” allowing us occasionally arrange to have greater freedom to know, feel, and sense more in a given moment than our inborn, physical, naturally-selected intrapsychic regulatory mechanisms would allow by default. Richer less regulated conscious experiences – more objective ones. We have, I’m convinced, an unknown potential to process any impression more thoroughly than is wholly “natural” for us. I think only humans can undertake this great spiritual struggle, which occurs completely on a physical level, but which is still potentially “miraculously” transformative.

When we bring in immaterial ideas and language, and we assume that immaterial forces are operative, then there are no limits as to the assumptions we can make about what’s really going on. It feels really good, but it allows imagination to run wild. I think that this hinders and short-circuits the real work I allude to above.

Kind regards, PJW