Definition Machine

Procrastinating again, I have been reading “Mind as Software of the Brain” by Ned Block (available here). Here’s a fun passage:

Defining a word is something we can do in our armchair, by consulting our linguistic intuitions about hypothetical cases, or, bypassing this process, by simply stipulating a meaning for a word. Defining (or explicating) the thing is an activity that involves empirical investigation into the nature of something in the world.

One can’t really argue with that. Block uses the example to point out that the Turing test examines intelligence in the first sense (whether an observer would call a machine intelligent) and not in the second sense (whether an investigator would find a machine to be intelligent); and he sets up the rest of his argument nicely with this simple distinction.

I bring up the example – and not the argument – because I want to take it on a tangent. Let’s say we build a machine that actually is intelligent. Would it define an item “j” intuitively or through an investigation?

The definition machine which defines “j” intuitively might match “j” against a list of known items to find the corresponding definition; where there is no match, the machine adds “j” to the list and provides a new definition (perhaps in terms of the other definitions). The definition machine which defines “j” following an investigation of the item may describe its concrete properties, its uses, and its material composition; the machine decides which features rank most prominent and pegs the definition of “j” to those features.

Interestingly, it’s hard to think of these as two separate machines – in part because our own minds utilize both processes – but examples of each exist. A search engine such as Google might represent an intuitive definition machine (Google simply finds things and puts them in a list, ready for near-instant reordering), and the Mars rover might represent an investigative definition machine (the rovers plot their own course across the Martian landscape while analyzing soil, sending results back to Earth). Now, imagine you put Google search algorithms on the Mars rovers: you might end up with an artificially intelligent definition machine. It won’t be able to do much besides make known certain facts about its environment, but it will do this extremely well.

This is a fun, slightly sci-fi topic that I think I’d like to return to.

“Inductive Parenting”

Another interesting tidbit from Tomasello, Why We Cooperate:

adults who assume that children are not naturally helpful and cooperative and attempt to make them so through external reinforcements and punishments do not create children who internalize social norms and use them to regulate their own behavior. Much research has shown that so-called inductive parenting – in which adults communicate with children about the effects of their actions on others and about the rationality of cooperative social action – is the most effective parenting style to encourage internalization of societal norms and values. Such inductive parenting works best because it correctly assumes a child is already disposed to make the cooperative choice when the effects of her actions on others and on group functioning are made clear to her. Children are altruistic by nature, and this is a predisposition that (because children are also naturally selfish) adults attempt to nurture.

Tomasello means that, given the innate human impulse to help, to inform, and to share, children grow into socially responsible adults when they build empathetic views onto others’ behavior and rationalize natural cooperative impulses. The combination of empathy and rationalization seem to solidify the (apparently) biologically predetermined behaviors into socially sanctioned norms (supported via an arbitrary system of rewards and of punishments). Counterfactually, a child who somehow fails to develop empathy for others or who irrationally interprets biological impulses will find himself at odds with societal expectations.

It would seem to me that empathy is more important than rationalization. Indeed, there exist many social norms which, when we think about them, don’t make a whole lot of sense. But if someone lacks empathy, they have a particularly troubling deficiency. We tend to call such rare people sociopaths – they can reason their way into and out of behavioral patterns, however, they don’t care how their behaviors effect others since they have no mechanism for caring about such things.

Let’s end on a happy note! Parents: teach your kids to think about how others feel when various things happen, and teach them the reasons why we do things the way we do. Someday, your kids will thank you for your wonderful parenting!

“Why We Cooperate”

An excerpt from Why We Cooperate (MIT Press, 2009) by Michael Tomasello:

First, humans actively teach one another things, and they do not reserve their lessons for kin. Teaching is a form of altruism, founded on a motive to help, in which individuals donate information to others for their use…

Second, humans also have a tendency to imitate other in the group simply in order to be like them, that is, to conform (perhaps as an indicator of group identity). Moreover, they sometimes even invoke cooperatively agreed-upon social norms of conformity on others in the group, and their appeals to conformity are backed by various potential punishments or sanctions for those who resist. To our knowledge, no other primates collectively create and enforce group norms of conformity. Both teaching and norms of conformity contribute to cumulative culture by conserving innovations in the group until some further innovation comes along.

I’ve always been an avid reader of Tomasello, and his latest book shines among the best works of comparative anthropology. But what I’ve loved most about Tomasello are his forays into social philosophy, as seen in the quotation above.

Here’s just one way to think about Tomasello’s framework for Why We Cooperate: how does Tomasello’s enumeration of two separate processes for cultural production alter your thoughts concerning education? I think there’s a tendency amongst educators – especially English teachers – to believe in certain kinds of teaching as a means to certain brands of conformity. For instance, I often hear opponents to standardized testing say, “if we create the expectation for a set of ‘correct’ answers to literary questions, then we will end up with hopelessly automated cultural awareness.”

But that argument relies on a continuity between teaching and imitating, something refuted, at least in part, by Tomasello’s research. We end up with a conflagration of processes, when in fact we  might understand cultural production better if we separate, in our minds, learning from conforming. We might achieve this separation by stipulating that (1) learning involves only information transfers, and (2) conforming includes behavioral imitations alongside a variety of implicit and explicit beliefs or judgements concerning the imitated behaviors.


“Ergon” translates from ancient Greek to modern English as “function,” “task,” or sometimes “work.” Older editions of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – the treatise that made the word famous – translate “ergon” as “end.” I use the word to talk about the “purpose” of some activity or custom. A thousand students of ancient Greek may get upset over my usage; but I use the word “ergon” simply to express that, when we do something, we do so with purposiveness.

So here’s the rub: when we scroll across the Internet, read a few articles, look at a few pictures, and comment occasionally, what purpose do we fulfill? Must we fulfill some purpose? Might we? In what way(s) may we benefit if our surfing surfs towards some ergon? In what way(s) may we lose if we surf unguided?