Minds, Others

Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science, recently published a book on consciousness and intelligence entitled Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. The work stands out to me, initially, because it is accessible to non-philosophers. I will not claim it reaches out to broad audiences of all stripes. Its initial chapters chronicle human understandings of the origins of life, decked out in biological and geological vernacular finery. If, say, you read the book in spurts and you forget how to verbalize cnidarians (after a lovely parenthetical guide to its pronunciation a few pages earlier), you might get stuck for a few seconds/minutes as you attempt to sound it out while seeming rather odd to anyone else in the room as you trip over a double consonant to begin the word.

I have, clearly, just laid bare my own shortcomings when it comes to knowledge of such periods as the Ediacaran, and Cambrian. Nevertheless, Godfrey-Smith’s text tempts me to continue reading because his subjects are so distinct from me and so fascinating: creatures of the sea like jellyfish, octopuses, and squid. Though I have no serious diving experience like Godfrey-Smith, I can easily imagine myself on the sea floor outside the hovel of an intrepid octopus as it (she, he?) extends a tentacle my way. The author adroitly ushers the reader under the waves with him. On these excursions, we encounter creatures with qualities at once foreign–tentacles with suckers–and familiar–curious as kittens.

Near the end of the second chapter, Godfrey-Smith casually announces: “From this point on, the mind evolved around other minds,” as if he were reminding a snorkeling novice that, once in the water, it’s wise to put on the mask to see. His claim does not refer to apes or land-based creatures–these are minds we might first imagine, yet the ones we imagine are hundreds of millions of years after this point. Instead, he refers to animals of the Cambrian period that dwell in the sea–where, we imagine, all life began on this planet. Up to this point in the text, our author has journeyed into the distant, distant past of our planet. He has hypothesized about the earliest ancestors of all life, and, crucially, attempted to delineate the rough origins of predation. Predators matter because, until their emergence, peaceful coexistence might likely have dominated. After their emergence, life had to adapt to other life in unprecedented ways.

Imagining a time when minds began being affected by other minds caused me to jump to thoughts our own era. All around us are machines and programs that adapt to humans and other animals. We have created artificial intelligence, and now we must learn to adapt to them. They, of course, are programmed (and are programming themselves, increasingly) to adapt to us, but we ignore the other half of the equation at our own peril. Not noticing how bots influence stock trading, which videos you watch in your feed, what stories are presented to you online (and, thus, what stories exist for you), and how you commute/travel might make you unable to adapt to them properly. We are in a feedback loop with them. They ‘know’ it: they track us, entice us to click on images/videos/stories, and generally seek to engage us. Do we know it? If so, what ought we do about it?

Importantly, we humans have no code for how to adapt properly to machines, bots, programs, and artificial intelligences. If Godfrey-Smith’s text goes as I think it might (only 3 chapters in as of today), I am hoping he comes back to a tantalizing line from chapter 1: octopuses might be the closest we ever come to alien intelligence. Because octopuses seem to exhibit the kind of intelligence a dog might have, they represent sources of unparalleled quality for imagining an extra-terrestrial creature might be (following Nagel’s notion that “there is something it is like to be an X”). If by alien Godfrey-Smith means exotic, or incongruous, then his thesis is both striking and timely.

We humans stand at a precipice (edges, geologically speaking, can last hundreds or thousands of years, so that hopefully deflates any hyperbolic tones of this sentence). On the other side is an existence thoroughly saturated with other minds, other intelligences. We ought to construct some malleable, tentative guidelines for how to engage these intelligences. If you have recently, or are currently, raising children in the U.S., you likely struggle with how to handle the content available to the kiddos, how to regulate their intake. Of course, they learn from watching us (so do our machines? octopuses?), so I hope we are also struggling with the exact same questions. No lasting rules will emerge anytime soon because the situation is fluid; nevertheless, without consciously considering how we want to be with these new intelligences, we will fall back on old habits and instincts that do not serve on the other side of that precipice.

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Ends of Undergraduate Research

To what ends ought undergraduate research at our college of health sciences aim? Our students should certainly learn research methods, research practices, styles of reasoning, research ethics, and means of publishing/communicating their findings. Though many students will not become research scientists themselves, they ought to have experience with the methods, practices, pitfalls, biases, publicity, and promotion of rigorous inquiry. In their future roles as professional health practitioners, they must parse the evidence, findings, and recommendations of researchers—in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Thus, experience as a quasi-independent researcher, however rudimentary, offers students an opportunity to understand the perspectives of professional researchers in significant ways.

Measurable outcomes of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) include laboratory reports, posters, oral presentations, audio-visual presentations, papers, and critical analyses of the explicit and implicit paradigms—including procedures—that provide the foundation for professional work in the particular fields of study that they investigate. CUREs provide students with formative education on and practice with investigate techniques and evaluative methods that foster the kinds of problem-solving and critical thinking skills that students will need as undergraduates and beyond.

Should students choose a profession in the health sciences, CUREs will expose them to the abductive reasoning strategies that health professionals use in their daily practice. From medical diagnoses to evaluation of treatment plans, health practitioners must reason from an incomplete set of observations and processes to the likeliest possible explanation(s). Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) permit students to explore topics in greater depth than they would through typical introductory science courses and labs. CUREs require students to engage research questions more independently than they might in a typical undergraduate laboratory environment because students will have a role in designing the study. Working directly with faculty to learn research methods and theory will enable students to devise appropriate questions that their research will address. Further, they will collect the data, evaluate the information, and communicate the results through papers, posters, and interactive talks.

Inquiry into the historical, sociological, and philosophical underpinnings of the specific disciplines/fields that students will investigate will, additionally, serve manifold functions. First, such scrutiny will disabuse students of the notion that current scientific and technological practices and aims develop deterministically and teleologically: many such advancements occur despite the separate, even contradictory, goals of those practitioners actually doing the work.

When students are alive to the open-endedness of inquiry, they are unfettered by constraints that Whig historiography—the style often portrayed in scientific textbooks—engenders: scientific ‘progress’ is inevitable; science is self-correcting; there exists a uniform, cumulative path from previous theories to present perspectives. Instead, students ought to learn that unanticipated answers are not necessarily ‘wrong.’ They will, first-hand, appreciate that even work that fails to yield further funding, marketable technologies, novel approaches, and/or published results (acclaim) can be considered beneficial and useful. Descriptors like ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are social constructions that accrue to investigations deemed worthy by specific actors—institutions, funding agencies, governments, societies (academic and lay), and politicians. Terms like ‘success’ and ‘failure’ have limited applications when one inquires to improve understanding, aptitude, and appreciation.

Second, students will appreciate that instrumental ends should not be considered the only valuable products of investigation. When students inquire to comprehend a topic/process in greater detail, they acquire a more robust conception of their object(s) of study. When, in the course of investigation, students hone their skills of observation and improve their dexterity in manipulating equipment/apparatuses, they prepare themselves for future work in evidence-based inquiry. Observation and experiment, hallmarks of most scientific methods, become habits that students will refine as they themselves develop. Students will not be evaluated on whether or not they produce the quality of work that professionals in the field might. Therefore, professors should be stoking the students’ creative and critical tendencies and aptitudes while introducing them to academic investigation, writing, and presentation styles.

Third, students will note that exemplary thinkers and practitioners critically examine, and revise, their core assumptions and perspectives. Through readings in the history and philosophy of science, students will learn the significance of contexts and background assumptions to scientific practice and technological development. How one approaches a problem/issue, including which techniques and methods are chosen, partly determines the outcome of experiments. Data, results, and findings do not ‘speak for themselves’—they form a piece of the scientist’s perspective that must be explained and defended. Through CUREs, students will demonstrate, for themselves, their peers, and future students, that even valid methods and results require critical interpretation and evaluation.

Provocation for a series of Undergraduate Research-based Courses

Advances in biology and chemistry now permit us to redefine our understanding of the human form. Soon, individuals will be able to construct, alter, and augment their bodies/minds in ways previously unimagined.

Like many technological developments of the last century, products and procedures that are initially seen as optional quickly become compulsory. Consider a mother-to-be eschewing an ultrasound. Imagine an education where you opt of email, online learning platforms like Canvas, or even, gasp, internet access. Technologies that initially aim to make our lives easier, more efficient, and safer often completely remake our lives; we must adapt to them.

Now, as lines between therapy and augmentation blur—look no further than CRISPR gene editing, or cognitive enhancement drugs (Ritalin for the non-ADHD)—we have the opportunity to turn bodies and minds into canvases on which to tinker. The ‘human as social construct’ paradigm will replace the outmoded notion of the ‘human as an expression of biological imperatives.’ We will fit ourselves with bioengineered parts that enable us to express personal preferences and whims. We will ingest targeted drug delivery systems that perform upkeep on our insides. Each incremental jump in neuroscience enables an opportunity to manipulate our brains, even our emotions, in barely imaginable ways. Terms like cyborg will lose significance: we will call ourselves human though humans from the last century might not recognize us as such.

In the coming decades, the glacial pace of evolutionary change will tire us to the point that we dare to remake our environment—the organic and inorganic materials all around us—as thoroughly as we will transform ourselves. Rather than change our energy consumption habits, for instance, we will simply exploit our environment in ways that match our caprices: we will warm global temperatures until we must bootstrap a solution to change it—or us. Technology producers do not teach us to be critical and reflective; they teach us to express our wants in ever-easier, one-way communication, like petulant whelps starved of attention.

To deliver on promises of personalized medicine, we will adopt materialist perspectives that, pace Renee Descartes’s dualism, dissolve the mind-body divide. We will conceive of the mind as mere physical ‘stuff’ that awaits manipulation like playdough in plastic cups: we are creators; we are divine builders. Embracing diversity will manifest in meddling with our physical forms and cognitive abilities. Scientific investigations and engineering projects demonstrate that, from quarks to quasars, human imagination leads to creation and exploration.

You might consider the above a dystopian fantasy. Or, you might find promise in a world that offers more malleability than the current iteration. No matter your position, you will find an outlet in this course. You will explore the philosophical (ontological, epistemological, and moral) implications of developing technologies. Historically-minded students will have the opportunity to parse the ideas, practices, people, and institutions that have permitted us to view nature so cavalierly. The social and political ramifications of emerging technologies demand scrutiny; you will learn to offer such analyses. As health science practitioners, you will modify biological and artificial systems. In this class, you will learn how and why we have arrived at a time that allows you to do so.

As bioethicist Allan Buchanan (2011) notes, “Biomedical science is producing new knowledge at an astounding rate—knowledge that will enable us, if we choose, to transform ourselves. Biomedical enhancements can make us smarter, have better memories, be stronger and quicker, have more stamina, live much longer, be more resistant to disease and to the frailties of aging, and enjoy richer emotional lives” (p. 4). The questions, then, involve what we will do with ourselves, as well as how we will live, work, and play, once some of us undergo such transformations.