Monday, September 30, 2013

Language is a Window into Human Nature

I just read The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. When I finished it I was disappointed. I had heard so much about Pinker (this is the first book of his I’ve read), and I felt like I had learned very little about human nature. But as I reflected on it over the next few days, my opinion radically changed. I kept bumping into things that were illuminated by the insights in this book.

For example, I read an article about how robots are being programmed to follow some of the basic modes of human thought so they interface with humans better, and these basic modes are exactly what Pinker outlined.

The basic message of the book is that there are deep structures in our brains, evolved over countless millennia, which allow us to make sense of our sensory experience. These are very similar to the “categories of understanding” described by Immanuel Kant 225 years ago. Pinker lists space, time, substance, object, causation, force, possession, and goal as the basic concepts that form the scaffolding that constructs our mental model of the world.  

These models are very useful for helping us to navigate the physical world, but science has discovered that our evolved models don’t accurately match reality. Pinker writes, “They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic.” In other words, the basic concepts box us in; they restrict how we can think about reality. This is why quantum physics is so hard to comprehend, and also why it is so difficult to put spiritual experiences into words.

Causation is one of the basic concepts, and it forms a big part of our worldview. We attribute causation whenever we see an action by an autonomous actor. Scientists have done studies where shapes move on a computer screen. If, for example, a yellow triangle moves towards a red circle and stops just when it touches the circle, and then the circle starts moving, subjects overwhelmingly say, “the triangle caused the circle to move.” There’s been research with shapes on computer screens in which the movements are so involved that the subjects start telling stories about the shapes as if they are living creatures, even imbuing them with emotions.

We are hard-wired to attribute motivation to a living object. Imagine being an early hominid on the savannahs of Africa and seeing a large animal moving towards you. You would assume that that animal has a reason for moving in your direction. But when you crossed a river and saw a large mass of water moving towards you, you wouldn’t think there was any motivation behind the water’s force. This is because of the fundamental category difference between a living creature with agency and a substance (water) that has force but no agency. Any hominid that confused this difference, who thought the same way about the moving animal as the moving water—there is no motivation driving the action—would likely be dead very fast. [Although in the past people did attribute agency to non-living objects and substances, they thought they were imbued with spirits...]

This brings me back to the robots. From “How Robots Can Trick You Into Loving Them”: A new field of research, called Human-Robot Interaction,

has arisen to study the factors that make robots work well with humans, and how humans view their robotic counterparts.
H.R.I. researchers have discovered some rather surprising things: a robot’s behavior can have a bigger impact on its relationship with humans than its design; many of the rules that govern human relationships apply equally well to human-robot relations; and people will read emotions and motivations into a robot’s behavior that far exceed the robot’s capabilities….
When a robot moves on its own, it exploits a fundamental social instinct that all humans have: the ability to separate things into objects (like rocks and trees) and agents (like a bug or another person).
The distinction runs deeper than knowing something is capable of movement. “Nobody questions the motivations of a rock rolling down a hill,” says Brian Scassellati, director of Yale’s social robotics lab. Agents, on the other hand, have internal states that we speculate about. The ability to distinguish between agents and objects is the basis for another important human skill that scientists call “cognitive empathy” (or “theory of mind,” depending on whom you ask): the ability to predict what other beings are thinking, and what they want, by watching how they move.
“We make these assumptions very quickly and naturally,” Scassellati says. “And it’s not new, or even limited to the world of robotics. Look at animation. They know the rules, too. A sack of flour can look sad or angry. It’s all about how it moves.”
We’re hard-wired, in other words, to attribute states of mind to fellow beings — even dumb robots, provided they at least appear autonomous.
A consequence of this causation-hard-wiring is the belief in free will. I don’t believe we have free will, and I’ve wondered why the controversy over this issue has been so long-lasting. Pinker describes how the English word for the future and for what someone intends to do is the same: will. This will happen, and I will do it. Pinker concludes, 
It’s as if the language is affirming the ethos that people have the power to make their own futures. You might be wondering if this is a product of some go-getter attitude, can-do spirit, or Protestant work ethic imbued in Anglo culture. Not so: in languages from disparate cultures all over the world, future tense markers evolve out of verbs for volition or verbs for motion, just as they did in English.
One more interesting observation from the book: in many languages, including English, “to be well off is to possess something”:
Prospering-as-owning can be seen in many idioms with the verb have. We talk about having good fortune, having it made, having a good time, having a ball, having it all, having your teeth fixed, having someone for dinner, having someone (sexually), and having someone where you want him…Being well off is like having something; knowing something is like having it…

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