Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What Would (or Should) You Do With Administrator Access to Your Mind (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by
Henry Shevlin

'Dial 888,' Rick said as the set warmed. 'The desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it.

'I don't feel like dialling anything at all now,' Iran said.

'Then dial 3,' he said.

'I can't dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don't want to dial, I don't want to dial that most of all, because then I will want to dial, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine.’

(PHILIP K. DICK, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)


We don’t have direct control over most our beliefs and attitudes, let alone most of our drives and desires. No matter how much money was offered as an incentive, for example, I couldn’t will myself to believe in fairies by this evening. Similarly, figuring out how to rid ourselves of our involuntary prejudices and biases is tricky (see here for an attempt), and changing our basic drives (such as our sexual orientation) is almost certainly impossible.

That’s not to say that we have zero control over any of these things. If I wanted to increase the likelihood of having religious beliefs, for example, I might decide to start hanging out with religious people, or attending services. But it’s a messy and indirect path to acquiring new beliefs and values.

Imagine, then, how useful it would be if we had some kind of more direct ability to control our minds. In thinking about this possibility, a useful analogy comes from the idea of Administrator access on a computer. What if – perhaps for just a few hours a month – you could delve into your beliefs, your values, and your drives, and reconfigure them to your heart’s content, before ‘logging back in’ as your (now modified) self?

Some immediately tempting applications of this possibility are fairly clear. For one, we’d perhaps want to eliminate or tone down our most egregious cognitive biases: confirmation bias, post-purchase rationalization, the sunk cost fallacy, and so on. Similarly, we might want to rid ourselves of implicit prejudices that we may have against groups or individuals. Prejudiced against elderly people? Just go into Settings Menu and adjust your slider to correct it. Irrationally resentful of a colleague who accidentally slighted you? A quick fix to remove the relevant emotion and you’re sorted.

Another attractive application might be to bring our immediate desires into line with our higher-order desires. Crave cigarettes and wish you didn’t? Tamp down the relevant first-order desire and you’re sorted. Wish you had the motivation to run in the mornings? Then ramp up the slider for “desire to go jogging”. We might even want to give ourselves some helpful false beliefs or ‘constructive myths’. Disheartened by the fact that you as an individual can do little to prevent climate change? Maybe a false belief that you can be a powerful agent for change will help you do good.

Finally, we come to the most controversial stuff, like values, drives, and memories. Take values first. Imagine that you find yourself trapped in a small town where you’re ostracised for your deviant political beliefs. One easy option might be to simply tweak your values to come into line with your community. Or imagine if you could adjust things like your sexual drives and orientation. Certainly, some people might feel relief at ridding themselves of certain kinks or fetishes that they found oppressive, while others might enjoy experimenting with recalibrating their sexuality. But we could also find that people were pressured or tempted to adjust their sexuality to bring it into line with the bigoted social expectations of their community, and it’s hard not to find that a morally troubling idea. Finally, imagine if we could wipe away unpleasant memories at will – the bad relationships, social gaffes, and painful insults could be gone in a moment. What could possibly go wrong with that?

As much as I like the idea of tweaking my mind, I feel uncomfortable about lot of these possibilities. First, at the risk of sounding cliched, it seems like the gains of personal growth are often as much in the journey as the destination. So, take someone who learns to become more patient with others’ failings. Along the way, she’s probably going to pick up a bunch of other important realizations – of her own fallibility, perhaps, or of the distress she’s caused in the past by dismissing people. Skipping straight to the outcome threatens to cheat her, and us, of something valuable. Similarly, sometimes along the road of personal change, we realize that we’ve been aiming for the wrong thing. Someone who desperately wants to fit in with their peer group, for example, might slowly and painfully realize that they don’t like their peers as much as they thought. Skipping out the journey, then, not only robs us of potential goods we might find along the way, but also of the capacity to change our mind about where we’re going.

There might also be some kinds of extrinsic goods that would be lost if we could all tweak our minds so effortlessly. Take the example of someone who wishes he could fit in with his more conservative community. Even though he might relish not having values that are different from those around him, by holding onto them, he could be providing encouragement and cover for other political deviants in his town. In much the same way, diversity of opinion, outlook, and motivation may be valuable for the community at large, despite not always being pleasant for those in the minority. This can be true even if the majority perspective in the community is in the right: dissenters can helpfully force the dominant voices to articulate and justify their views.

Finally, we could run into serious unexpected consequences – maybe getting rid of the availability heuristic would turn out to drastically slow down my reasoning, for example, or perhaps making myself more prosocial could backfire on me if I live in an antisocial community. Still more catastrophic consequences might involve deviant paths to fulfilment of desires. If (in Administrator mode) I give myself an overriding desire to be “fitter than the average person in my town”, for example, I might (as a normal user) go on to decide that the fastest way to achieve that goal is to kill all the healthy people in my community! More prosaically, it’s also easy to imagine people being tempted to reconfigure their difficult-to-achieve desires (like becoming rich and famous) and instead replacing them with stuff that’s easy to achieve (collecting paperclips, say, or counting blades of grass). Perhaps they would be well advised to do so, but this is philosophically controversial to say the least!

While Administrator Access to our own minds is of course just science fiction for now, I think it’s a useful tool for probing our intuitions about well-being, rationality, and personal change. It could also potentially guide us in situations where do have more powerful ways of influencing the development of minds. This may be a big deal in the development of future forms of artificial intelligence, for example, but something similar arguably applies even when we’re deciding how to raise our children (should we encourage them to believe in Santa Claus?).

For my part, I doubt I could resist making a few tweaks to myself (maybe I’d finally get to make good use of that gym membership). But I’d do so carefully... and likely with a sense of trepidation and unease.

[image source]


Shannon_M_Hayes said...

'figuring out how to rid ourselves of our involuntary prejudices and biases is tricky, and changing our basic drives is almost certainly impossible.'...

Then, when do we want change (now or later) could be a question...
...Later-presupposes we might know what change is needed (that's tricky business);
...Now-acknowledges change in the form of captivated energy like involuntary prejudices, biases and basic drives on going in our lives...

...If these forms, in ourselves, can be allowed to exist, to see, they could be a perpetual source of energy in a forever changing world...

howard b said...

So It's tricky to change how we're programmed, but it's possible to change the hardware, through neuroplasticity. isn't it? Like London cabbies and their hippocampi? or stroke victims?
How does that factor in?

Callan S. said...

How do you change yourself to your hearts content when it is your very heart that you are changing?

It ends up a feedback loop, like a microphone close to the speaker it feeds to - a change to the heart makes that heart then make other changes to the heart that then makes the heart make other changes to the heart. Changes which, to the first heart, might seem utterly horrendous! But to the third iteration of the heart, it matches its desires entirely! Or perhaps it takes a few more iterations to get there. But the feedback screech is coming. Karaoke in Hell, I like to call it. And yet perhaps it seems unbelievable to people that they would be changing such a fundament of themselves that they could ever, at one iteration of the heart, consider what another latter iteration of the heart does as horrific? "I'd change, but I wouldn't, like, change! Not like that! I'd still be the same person!"

Right now we have curving arcs of character development for change - we grow out and turn, perhaps. Modifications are not a turn, they are a reset and a sideways move, re originating the growth process from a different point entirely. It probes at a type of death we just don't have evolutionary experience with. Except perhaps for creatures of mythology, like the zombie, vampire or werewolf. Creatures human, yet moved sideways from the human.

Unknown said...

Great way to pose what I think is a terrifyingly pressing question. The fractionate and heuristic structure of human cognition is geared to getting along with other humans possessing roughly the same fractionate and heuristic structure. As soon as you start 'personalizing' your own systems you start removing yourself from human social ecology in profound and unpredictable ways. Taking the individual empowerment point of view, the way transhumanists are wont, for instance, tends to cover this over.

The real question to pose here, I think, isn't what happens if I were to start tweaking this or that, but rather what happens if we all start tweaking this or that? For me, the obvious answer is anarchy. The fact that social cognition is heuristic is the fact that it relies on a common neurophysiological background. Kick this shared background away, and you kick away social cognition. I got a piece in MSP on this called "Crash Space," but it's also a basis of a novel of mine, Neuropath, where I call it the 'semantic apocalypse.'