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19 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Yet another homunculus theory of the 'mind', 6 Mar. 2013
This review is from: How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (Hardcover)
Purchasers of this book would do well to read Colin McGinn's review in the New York Review of Books; here is part of it:

"There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil's book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language. Kurzweil writes: 'The firing of the axon is that pattern recognizer shouting the name of the pattern: "Hey guys, I just saw the written word 'apple.'"' Again:

"'If, for example, we are reading from left to right and have already seen and recognized the letters "A," "P," "P," and "L," the "APPLE" recognizer will predict that it is likely to see an "E" in the next position. It will send a signal down to the "E" recognizer saying, in effect, "Please be aware that there is a high likelihood that you will see your 'E' pattern very soon, so be on the lookout for it." The "E" recognizer then adjusts its threshold such that it is more likely to recognize an "E."'

"Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don't say things or predict things or see things -- though it is perhaps as if they do. People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines. Such anthropomorphic descriptions of cortical activity must ultimately be replaced by literal descriptions of electric charge and chemical transmission (though they may be harmless for expository purposes). Still, they are not scientifically acceptable as they stand.

"But the problem bites deeper than that, for two reasons. First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind, properly so-called, than one really is. If neural clumps can be characterized in psychological terms, then it looks as if we are in the right conceptual ballpark when trying to explain genuine mental phenomena -- such as the recognition of words and faces by perceiving conscious subjects. But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain. An army of homunculi all recognizing patterns, talking to each other, and having expectations might provide a foundation for whole-person pattern recognition; but electrochemical interactions across cell membranes are a far cry from actually consciously seeing something as the letter 'A.' How do we get from pure chemistry to full-blown psychology?

"And the second point is that even talk of 'pattern recognition' by neurons is already far too homunculus-like for comfort: people (and animals) recognize patterns -- neurons don't. Neurons simply emit electrical impulses when caused to do so by impinging stimuli; they don't recognize anything in the literal sense. Recognizing is a conscious mental act. Neither do neurons read or understand -- though they may be said to simulate these mental acts.

"Here I must say something briefly about the standard language that neuroscience has come to assume in the last fifty or so years (the subject deserves extended treatment -- McGinn ignores the fact that Bennett and Hacker have already done this (see the reference below); RL). Even in sober neuroscience textbooks we are routinely told that bits of the brain 'process information,' 'send signals,' and 'receive messages' -- as if this were as uncontroversial as electrical and chemical processes occurring in the brain. We need to scrutinize such talk with care. Why exactly is it thought that the brain can be described in these ways? It is a collection of biological cells like any bodily organ, much like the liver or the heart, which are not apt to be described in informational terms. It can hardly be claimed that we have observed information transmission in the brain, as we have observed certain chemicals; this is a purely theoretical description of what is going on. So what is the basis for the theory?

"The answer must surely be that the brain is causally connected to the mind and the mind contains and processes information. That is, a conscious subject has knowledge, memory, perception, and the power of reason -- I have various kinds of information at my disposal. No doubt I have this information because of activity in my brain, but it doesn't follow that my brain also has such information, still less microscopic bits of it. Why do we say that telephone lines convey information? Not because they are intrinsically informational, but because conscious subjects are at either end of them, exchanging information in the ordinary sense. Without the conscious subjects and their informational states, wires and neurons would not warrant being described in informational terms.

"The mistake is to suppose that wires and neurons are homunculi that somehow mimic human subjects in their information-processing powers; instead they are simply the causal background to genuinely informational transactions. The brain considered in itself, independently of the mind, does not process information or send signals or receive messages, any more than the heart does; people do, and the brain is the underlying mechanism that enables them to do so. It is simply false to say that one neuron literally 'sends a signal' to another; what it does is engage in certain chemical and electrical activities that are causally connected to genuine informational activities.

"Contemporary brain science is thus rife with unwarranted homunculus talk, presented as if it were sober established science. We have discovered that nerve fibres transmit electricity. We have not, in the same way, discovered that they transmit information. We have simply postulated this conclusion by falsely modelling neurons on persons. To put the point a little more formally: states of neurons do not have propositional content in the way states of mind have propositional content. The belief that London is rainy intrinsically and literally contains the propositional content that London is rainy, but no state of neurons contains that content in that way -- as opposed to metaphorically or derivatively (this kind of point has been forcibly urged by John Searle for a long time).

"And there is theoretical danger in such loose talk, because it fosters the illusion that we understand how the brain can give rise to the mind. One of the central attributes of mind is information (propositional content) and there is a difficult question about how informational states can come to exist in physical organisms. We are deluded if we think we can make progress on this question by attributing informational states to the brain. To be sure, if the brain were to process information, in the full-blooded sense, then it would be apt for producing states like belief; but it is simply not literally true that it processes information. We are accordingly left wondering how electrochemical activity can give rise to genuine informational states like knowledge, memory, and perception. As so often, surreptitious homunculus talk generates an illusion of theoretical understanding."

The rest can be accessed here:
[...]
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Mar 2013 00:19:00 GMT
an says:
Excellent review, thank you for drawing our attention to it!

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Mar 2013 13:05:51 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Mar 2013 13:06:31 GMT
Thanks, the rest of the review can in fact be found here:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/mar/21/homunculism/

Posted on 25 Mar 2013 17:11:13 GMT
Last edited by the author on 25 Mar 2013 17:28:37 GMT
drh says:
Thanks for drawing my attention to this use of metaphorical language in this book (& indeed throughout this whole area generally) - without an adequate theory of its connection to the physical sub-stratum (explained in terms appropriate to it), such language is always scientifically dangerous. Compare gas-physics, where the use of 'pressure' & 'temperature' & other human-scale language-terms has now been successfully justified by the theory of statistical behaviour of the gas-molecules at the micro-physics stratum below. Likewise, it *may* (at some stage in the future) become sustainable to use such homuncular language about brains & neurons, but neuroscience is nowhere near supporting that yet, & we therefore ought to be careful. In particular, we definitely should not be trying to explain the lower-strata effects by simply importing the higher-strata words & thought-patterns - that's in the exact reverse direction of what's needed.

I wonder how long it will be before someone 'explains' moral decisions via reference to the morality of nerve-cells ? Or that 'I shalt not kill' is because some neurons don't like murder (possibly because of the religious comitments of some of their axons) ?

Posted on 11 Feb 2014 12:27:07 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Feb 2014 17:33:32 GMT
Fluff says:
Colin McGinn's extremely negative view of a book that has been positively received by very many people should perhaps be read whilst bearing in mind that McGinn is a philosopher and Ray Kurzweil is a scientist.

That is not in any way a criticism of philosophy or philosophers, nor am I saying that McGinn's philosophical viewpoints are wrong or valueless (nor am I saying I buy Kurzweil's views). I am merely making the point that the two have very different areas of expertise. While Colin McGinn may be the right person to critique a significant work on philosophy, I am not sure that he is quite so well placed to critique a book of AI-oriented prediction, which is the work of one of the world's leading proponents of the field. (For example, from McGinn's review, it can be seen that he clearly has a very personal definition of patterns that is very different to the way most engineers, computer scientists or neuroscientists think of them. Kurzweil and McGinn are speaking different languages.)

Kurzweil, as many know, has some fairly wacky and random ideas. His books have been criticised for over-promising on technology (and its benefits) and over-egging the strength of his own arguments. It is perhaps also reasonable to point out specifically that there are topics in this book - and this is a common criticism of it - that he unfortunately appears to be presenting as part of his personal theory. Many of these are just his "re-representations" of understanding and techniques that already exist and are used today in all sorts of scientific fields today. This is a real shame IMHO as highlighting this would give his predictions more grounding and more credibility.

Regardless of such criticisms, Kurzweil's background, experience, knowledge and active involvement over 40 years in this highly technical area, clearly make him a much more likely candidate to provide successful predictions on AI related topics than Colin McGinn. I have no doubt which out of these two, my money would be riding on.

For those who are unaware, Kurzweil was recruited by Larry Page in 2012 to be Google's Director of Engineering - where he has a role to bring to reality the sort of stuff he writes about. Anyone in any doubt about Google's commitment/beliefs about this should look at the companies they have purchased over the last 12 months. We all have our different opinions on Google, but they aren't in the habit of recruiting deluded fantasists to their key positions.

Should anyone be interested in an alternative (and in my opinion more "scientifically grounded") philosophical perspective to McGinn's, it would be worth looking at the work of the Australian philosopher David Chalmers. Aside from his books and publications, there is an interesting video on YouTube ("Simulation and the singularity").

Last but not least, McGinn's outspoken or caustic reviews of other's works have been the subject of criticism themselves. Here (assuming Amazon does not delete the link) is an interesting, educational and very well presented response regarding McGinn's review of Kurzweil's book http://ronmurp.net/2013/03/06/colin-mcginn-hopeless/ Should the link be deleted you can find it by googling: "Colin McGinn - Hopeless"

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jun 2014 07:21:17 BDT
Last edited by the author on 9 Jun 2014 07:28:49 BDT
Even scientists have to use language, and if they use it in the loose way that McGinn highlights, then his criticisms of Kurzeil's book are valid: the latter's ideas in fact imply we all have 'little men' in our heads who do all our thinking and perceiving for us. But this is no solution to the nature of thought or perception since the very same questions must apply to these 'little men'. What allows them to think and perceive? It can't be even more microscopic 'little men', or we'd have an infinite regress. Of course, McGinn's solution that in the end this is an intractable 'mystery' is no help at all. The solution is, of course, to dissolve this spurious problem, along the lines suggested by Wittgenstein over sixty years ago.

Check out Bennett and Hacker's, 'Philosophical Foundations Of Neuroscience' (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003) for more details.

[The first of the above is a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience, the second an eminent philosopher.]

By the way, Chalmers, whom you mention, makes all the mistakes that Bennett and Hacker highlight in their book.

Posted on 19 Nov 2014 07:02:02 GMT
Am says:
Did you think the book deserved one star? One? Seems like an over-exaggeration at the very least.

Ray Kurzweil, as with every person capable of reading this book, knows very well that neurons don't talk or operate in any way that resembles such a form of communication. He also knows the risks of semantic apoplexy by philosophy of mind adherents who have been shut out by the practical and real-world work of scientists for decades. It's called an _analogy_ - intelligent people should be able to understand this. Spitting the dummy and voting the entire work one star more than rather gives the game away that such reviewers are enjoying their own pet rages first and overlaying thought and consideration not at all... very, *very* silly...

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Nov 2014 16:13:04 GMT
Last edited by the author on 19 Nov 2014 16:14:12 GMT
And yet we read the following from the review I posted:

"There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil's book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language. Kurzweil writes: 'The firing of the axon is that pattern recognizer shouting the name of the pattern: "Hey guys, I just saw the written word 'apple.'"' Again:

"'If, for example, we are reading from left to right and have already seen and recognized the letters "A," "P," "P," and "L," the "APPLE" recognizer will predict that it is likely to see an "E" in the next position. It will send a signal down to the "E" recognizer saying, in effect, "Please be aware that there is a high likelihood that you will see your 'E' pattern very soon, so be on the lookout for it." The "E" recognizer then adjusts its threshold such that it is more likely to recognize an "E."'

"Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don't say things or predict things or see things -- though it is perhaps as if they do. People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines. Such anthropomorphic descriptions of cortical activity must ultimately be replaced by literal descriptions of electric charge and chemical transmission (though they may be harmless for expository purposes). Still, they are not scientifically acceptable as they stand.

"But the problem bites deeper than that, for two reasons. First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind, properly so-called, than one really is. If neural clumps can be characterized in psychological terms, then it looks as if we are in the right conceptual ballpark when trying to explain genuine mental phenomena -- such as the recognition of words and faces by perceiving conscious subjects. But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain. An army of homunculi all recognizing patterns, talking to each other, and having expectations might provide a foundation for whole-person pattern recognition; but electrochemical interactions across cell membranes are a far cry from actually consciously seeing something as the letter 'A.' How do we get from pure chemistry to full-blown psychology?"

You say this is an 'analogy'; but what is being 'analogised' here? In what way is the 'communication' between neurons 'analogically' like the communication between human beings? In what 'analogical sense' do neurons 'recognise' anything? Is it in any way like the way that you recognise your relatives, or a friend? If not, where is the analogy? You are silent on this.

Edit the homunculus talk out of books like this, and they have nothing to tell us. Leave it in, and they mislead their readers as much as they do their authors.

The sloppy use of language found in much of neuroscience and artificial intelligence research should indeed be called out by us 'philosophers of mind', which is what I, for one, will continue to do.

I recommend you check these out:

Bennett, M., and Hacker, P. (2003), 'Philosophical Foundations Of Neuroscience' (Blackwell).

Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience

Bennett, M., and Hacker, P. (2008), History Of Cognitive Neuroscience (Blackwell).

History of Cognitive Neuroscie

Written by a professor of neuroscience and a distinguished Wittgenstein scholar.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Apr 2015 10:28:01 BDT
I think it's pretty clear that Kurzweil isn't saying that there "are" voices or homunculi shouting these messages out, more that he's using the idea as a metaphor to allow us to think about messaging systems as a whole. At no point does he actually fall into the 'homunculus fallacy' (as described and debunked by such great writers as Dennett and Deacon, so critiques relying on this particular use of language are essentially empty.

Remember, the homunculus fallacy only applies when someone says that there actually is a 'black box' mind that's mediating and assessing inputs and thoughts, not when they're using metaphorical language to put forward simpler image. In a similar manner, in evolutionary biology, genes don't "want to" get into the next generation - they don't have a mind or any system capable of want. But it's a useful way to think about the situation from their "viewpoint", instead of from the viewpoint of the animal or the species. We know, of course, that this apparent "want" is only our familiar view (as we're mind-oriented beings) of a process whereby genes that benefit their host's reproductive success will naturally find themselves in the next generation. As long as the reader knows this - and I believe Kurzweil's prose makes this pretty clear for readers of general intelligence - then it's safe to use what at first glance might seem homunculus-based reasoning, but which is actually only, at worst, an unwise choice of writing style. It doesn't detract from, or nullify, his main argument at all.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Apr 2015 16:01:23 BDT
I disagree, I don't think it is "pretty clear" at all.

Once again, I repeat Kurzweil's actual words (referenced by the reviewer I quoted):

"There is another glaring problem with Kurzweil's book: the relentless and unapologetic use of homunculus language. Kurzweil writes: 'The firing of the axon is that pattern recognizer shouting the name of the pattern: "Hey guys, I just saw the written word 'apple.'"' Again:

"'If, for example, we are reading from left to right and have already seen and recognized the letters "A," "P," "P," and "L," the "APPLE" recognizer will predict that it is likely to see an "E" in the next position. It will send a signal down to the "E" recognizer saying, in effect, "Please be aware that there is a high likelihood that you will see your 'E' pattern very soon, so be on the lookout for it." The "E" recognizer then adjusts its threshold such that it is more likely to recognize an "E."'

If these are merely 'metaphors' what is their cash value (to use William James's happy phrase); that is, what content do they have? If someone says a man is a 'pig', we would normally understand him/her to be telling us that the man in question had appalling table manners, is slovenly, unhygienic, or treats women very badly. So, what is the cash value of these alleged 'metaphors'? I claim they have none -- or none that do not imply another level of inappropriate metaphors that likewise have no cash value, or which do not imply we all have an homunculus in our heads which does all our perceiving, thinking and reasoning for us.

As Colin McGinn pointed out:

"Presumably (I am not entirely sure) Kurzweil would agree that such descriptions cannot be taken literally: individual neurons don't say things or predict things or see things -- though it is perhaps as if they do. People say and predict and see, not little bunches of neurons, still less bits of machines. Such anthropomorphic descriptions of cortical activity must ultimately be replaced by literal descriptions of electric charge and chemical transmission (though they may be harmless for expository purposes). Still, they are not scientifically acceptable as they stand.

"But the problem bites deeper than that, for two reasons. First, homunculus talk can give rise to the illusion that one is nearer to accounting for the mind, properly so-called, than one really is. If neural clumps can be characterized in psychological terms, then it looks as if we are in the right conceptual ballpark when trying to explain genuine mental phenomena -- such as the recognition of words and faces by perceiving conscious subjects. But if we strip our theoretical language of psychological content, restricting ourselves to the physics and chemistry of cells, we are far from accounting for the mental phenomena we wish to explain. An army of homunculi all recognizing patterns, talking to each other, and having expectations might provide a foundation for whole-person pattern recognition; but electrochemical interactions across cell membranes are a far cry from actually consciously seeing something as the letter 'A.' How do we get from pure chemistry to full-blown psychology?"

You say:

"In a similar manner, in evolutionary biology, genes don't "want to" get into the next generation - they don't have a mind or any system capable of want. But it's a useful way to think about the situation from their "viewpoint", instead of from the viewpoint of the animal or the species."

And yet, science is shot-through with inappropriate metaphors, which, when given a 'cash value' (if they can be given one), imply nature is controlled by some mind. This is a faint echo of obsolete and obscure theological ideas concerning the causal nexus of the world, supposedly under the control of a 'deity'. When spelt out in detail, they suggest that we have no idea why anything at all happens in nature, save we anthropomorphise it.

To that end, I challenge you to tell me what 'benefit' (yet another inappropriate metaphor) there is to an organism if its genes are carried forward to another generation? How does it 'benefit', say, a fruit fly, if its genes are passed on?

So, this isn't even a good metaphor. Neither are Kurzweil's.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Apr 2015 16:41:49 BDT
I don't understand the 'cash value' concept, I'm afraid.

The use of a metaphor doesn't "imply" anything about the actual going on. Metaphors and analogies use a mapping technique: a novel process or system is placed alongside a familiar one, and the dynamics of the former system become clearer based on the understanding of the latter one. That does not imply that anything that's going on in the familiar process is *actually* happening in the novel one whose dynamics we are trying to illustrate.

Organisms don't benefit at all from their genes' successes or failures, as I'm sure you know. They all die - every single one. That is completely beside the point, though. The point I was making with the genetic analogy is that we can view the dynamics of the natural selection of genes in the same way that we can view the dynamics of an agent that 'wants' to be copied. But in no way implies that a gene really does 'want' anything - to misinterpret a straight analogy in this way is a mistake. Of course authors can go some way towards making this clear, and Kurzweil, in the reviewer's opinion, may not have gone far enough, but mere editorial sloppiness doesn't necessarily undermine the actual reasoning behind what Kurzweil is saying. He doesn't actually think there are homunculi - just read the rest of his argument and you'll see he's very familiar with neuroscientific principles - it just looks as if this is what he's saying.

To repeat: his style may be somewhat suspect, but the semantic content is not fallacious for the reasons the reviewer has actually given.
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