Do Computational Mind Theorists Commit Descartes’ Error?

Neuroscientist Damasio’s “Strange Order” book aligns with behavioral economics

Posted Jun 03, 2018

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons

In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994), Antonio Damasio famously argued that Rene Descartes had helped to sustain an error in the western view of the mind by asserting the mind’s complete separability from the body. Contrary to Descartes, Damasio provided neurological evidence that, when shorn of feelings or of cognitive access to them, the more rational sub-systems of our brains are often incapable of making decisions. To Damasio, not only does the mind not exist on an entirely different plain than that of biochemistry and the brain, but also the bodily processes that give rise to the mind are ones that depend on having a body. The “brain in a vat” of Descartes’ famous thought experiment would lack the experiential textures and tones (“somatic markers,” in Damasio’s term) from which human beings fashion their thoughts.

In Damasio’s latest book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, he further develops these ideas, connecting with some of the broadest philosophical and scientific issues about the evolution of humanity and the nature of consciousness. I found especially striking his criticism of those who take computational approaches to the mind so far as to argue that we’ll soon be able to upload all that is essential about ourselves to the digital cloud, thereby achieving immortality. Consciousness, Damasio argues, is probably too multidimensional and complex to be captured by a binary information stream.

By pure accident, I happened to read the relevant passages in Strange Order only days after the appearance of an April 2018 series of Dilbert comic strips in which the Dogbert character has become the entrepreneurial mastermind of “Dogbert’s cryogenic investment firm” and tells a prospective client “We’ll freeze your brain for 200 years and then transplant it into a 3-D printed body. By then, your investments will be worth a fortune.” Later in this series of strips, Dogbert is seen dumping brains into a river, is arrested, and then gets off on a reduced charge. “I argued that my clients were already dead” he explains to Dilbert. “The judge reduced the charge to aggressive littering.”

While Damasio might find these strips pretty tasteless (yes, I like to imagine my intellectual heroes to be a notch or two above my own more pedestrian standards), his argument that those who believe you can live on in digital form are probably mistaken seems to align well with Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ implicit view of people who would enter a laboratory in good health in order to have their brains frozen and stored “until the singularity arrives.” If this works, you’ll end up rich, is the entrepreneur’s message, but in the meantime, the first step of the process requires that I kill you.

What does this have to do with behavioral economics? Surprisingly, perhaps, a lot!  Economics took just as problematic a turn away from the holistic depiction of humans that characterizes its usually agreed founder, Adam Smith, as western thought took when it followed Decartes. The turn from holism, in the case of economics, took place when those promoting the discipline as a pure science decided in the late 19th century to construct their theoretical models on the premise of human actors assumed to be strictly rational and selfish decision makers. This kind of economics accorded well with the assumptions also made by early game theorists like John von Neumann, the precocious mathematician whom some also credit with helping to kick off the computational view of the brain. In his 2014 book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, economics Nobel laureate Richard Thaler calls the dramatis personae of economic theory “econs” and contrasts them with their real world counterparts, “humans.” Behavioral economics is nothing other than an approach to understanding human economic decision-making which treats humans, rather than econs, as the relevant actors.

The dominant school of economic thought spent much of the 20th Century building abstract models of the interactions among firms and consumers based on empirically implausible assumptions, as if the discipline had succeeded in creating a perfect mathematical representation of the economy and only needed to work out more of its implications by strictly deductive methods, without need of checking in on the real humans outside of the academy. Only when many of the models were shown to be lacking in unique predictions—that is, to be compatible with almost any behavior, hence lacking power to explain the specificity of actual trends and behaviors—or when models were found to be incompatible with growing sets of observations, did increasing numbers of economic theorists begin to take an interest in learning from observation, using methods including those of laboratory experiment.

The “strange order” in Damasio’s book title is a reference to the idea that the human mind is a manifestation of an evolutionary process that began with the simplest of organisms more than three and a half billion years ago. In Damasio’s view, the impulse of even the simplest unicellular organism to protect its living status—homeostasis—gave rise to mechanisms by which such life forms could sense their surroundings, including other organisms, and likewise gave rise to methods of determining when organism-to-organism encounters represented dangers to be fled or shielded from, versus opportunities to engulf and ingest the other, versus opportunities for cooperation. Much of the book is concerned with conceptualizing the set of steps through which simple sensing transitioned (over the course of evolution) to possessing specialized sense organs, then to having conscious experience of what is sensed, and ultimately to having a sense of self and a consciousness of one’s consciousness and self. This order is strange, among other reasons, because many extremely primitive organisms have ways of responding to their environments as if conscious and goal directed, which makes it necessary to question our senses of being masters of our actions, as opposed to “explainers-in-chief” that construct narratives about why we’re doing what we’re doing for our own and others’ consumption. However, this reference to the view entertained by Michael Gazzaniga and others should not be misunderstood as implying that Damasio is a deprecator of the heights that human consciousness can reach.  His decidedly appreciative and humanistic view of our condition should be sufficient to disarm worries about reductionism on the parts of sufficiently open-minded humanistic readers. I would call Strange Order a work of Consilience between the sciences and the humanities in much the sense used by E. O. Wilson in his book of that title.

The proper appreciation of biological evolution and of the gene-culture co-evolution that played so large a part in the emergence of our species has also been among the most powerful forces for reshaping economics and the other social sciences. The changes now ongoing have the potential to increase our fields’ abilities to help us to understand ourselves, to avoid harming, and potentially to help improve the societies we inhabit. Works like Strange Order should be on the reading lists, at least the non-technical summer vacation reading lists, of every budding behavioral economist and psychologist.