All posts by william d

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.

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.

Real Illusion: Virtual Twins and Control

A student recently pointed me to a, perhaps unintentionally, provocative article from The Economist. The notion of ‘virtual twins’ used by GE reminded me of the kind of biological ideology identified by Richard Lewontin in Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. My student sent me an excerpt from the article for he thought the topic would interest me. He was right.

The excerpt intrigued me enough to seek out its parent paper. I appreciate The Economist for its forthright purpose: advice in making/managing money and assessment, from an economic standpoint (at times thinly veiled as politics, social science, etc.), of that same advice.

With that in mind, I see how the ‘virtual twin’ model can be pitched as a way to improve products (i.e., sell more of them). Though a discussion of ‘who made who’ can be reserved for another time, it is instructive to note how business drives social concerns, in this case health care, and political agendas, in this same case a kind of authoritarianism.

Were every person to have her own ‘virtual twin,’ the decisions we make (eat that carrot now, later, or not; visit/move to ____ city/country; run versus hike versus bike versus watch t.v.) could, conceivably, be ‘tested’ before we make them. The logic of biological ideology tells us that the genome determines much about the life of an organism. Thus, we could imagine a future time where many (‘all’ stretches the bounds of even this hypothetical) decisions are run through simulations that each person consults. Further, based on the kinds of decisions the person makes, she could be held accountable for her actions if the simulation predicted an outcome that adversely affects her health (read: if she does something that will cost money for health practitioners to diagnose, cure, treat, etc.).

Of course, most biologists are not themselves so overtly deterministic or sanguine about the information to be gained from gene sequencing, as Dr. Meyer’s lecture regarding gene editing techniques made clear. Prediction, lacking all necessary information on permutations and the ‘rules’ that govern interactions, is a fancy term for educated guessing. My above scenario is, clearly, a guess. What such guesses reveal, however, are the things we want.

We want an understanding of which investment pays the most dividends (financial, salutary, etc.). We read The Economist and get our genomes sequenced, then, for similar reasons. We take the advice offered as it fits our own perspectives, ignoring what we will because, sometimes, we do not like the predicted outcome or it goes against other interests that we have. To say that a virtual windmill and an actual windmill are similar is a metaphor, just as the claim that the human body is like a machine is a metaphor.

Virtual twins, like the proverbial broken clock (bad metaphor), prove correct some of the time. We ignore the discrepancies, however, between the model and reality at our own peril. Moreover, because large companies, like health practitioners, are considered trusted sources of information in their relevant domains of expertise, their advice has the potential to impact many people who have no idea about the inner working of the decision processes of the individuals involved. People desire explanation of things beyond their control (lightning, disease, sporting contests), and our models, perhaps, give us the illusion of control.

Virtual twins, to conclude this long-winded and digressive reply, provide the illusion of control. What, then, are the financial, social, ethical, and political costs of such models on lay persons, governments, health insurers, and businesses? I’m guessing there is a model for that question.

Security and Autonomous Systems

Users of autonomous systems, or just about anyone using a computer (desktop, laptop, tablet, handheld), can easily comprehend the importance of keeping their devices secure. What, exactly, that security will entail, of course, depends on the device and its ability and requirements to communicate with other machines and systems.

For makers and users of increasingly automated vehicles–like cars–keeping malicious programs and people away from the controls of the vehicle should be more important than any aesthetic choices and equal to environmental concerns. Users must be aware that people and programs could break into the operating systems of their vehicles and make them perform in unanticipated and negative ways, and makers of the vehicles/software must constantly work to keep such intrusions as limited as possible.

That the software of such vehicles are vulnerable to outside programs seems an unintended but unavoidable consequence of the technology itself. Just as markets, elections, and choices in general (by marketing, for instance) can be rigged, so can technology. A drug like piracetam, for instance, has specific targets when prescribed by a physician. Since the drug can be purchased without a prescription, however, its ‘off-label’ uses are vast and hard to trace specifically. To me, the piracetam and autonomous vehicle have a few things in common, and one is the importance for the consumer of investigating what she is purchasing and the risks involved for herself and others.

For more on this topic, see the case of someone trying to raise awareness about this issue:


Power Belongs to Programmers

The following is inspired by a lovely article found here.


CRISPR-Cas9 gives choices and options to people. It allows for a sense of control. We want to imagine that we have control over our lives, our bodies, our habits, our proclivities, and goals. But tools like CRISPR are made by powerful elites and only give the illusion of empowerment when really we are still dependent on the companies, the programmers, making the tools—the software and hardware. We fall under the spell of control, of supposed choice, seduced by own our wants and wishes, not by the tools themselves. These tools have their ethos, to be certain: use me to become better, to fulfill your hopes and dreams. Yet the dreams are pre-programmed: they, like the tools, are given to us like preset buttons on a radio—you may choose from the limited options (AM/FM stations) only. Herbert Marcuse labeled this one-dimensionality. Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov recognize the one-dimensionality masquerading as openness, freedom, independence. The problem, for Marcuse, Lanier, and Morozov, and philosophy of technology in general, is gaining the attention of the masses, to encourage them to self-reflect when the digital and economic and political environments continue to bombard them with so many demands that seem so necessary, so time-dependent. We should not be surprised that we go for the quick fix—CRISPR—and trust that the science will catch up and solve the unintended consequences our quick fixes usher along. The proactionary imperative glorifies the just-in-time mentality, a faith that is well-founded. After all, have technological advances not improved our lives? Have they not made food procurement simple, shelter ample, and luxury as close as our screens?


Advertisers and app designers are better schooled in the psychology that underpins our wants and motivates than most of us. They play on these right under our noses.

Counter-intuitively, the ‘right’ design or ethos will also be a bully. It will push people to see the world and themselves in what Heidegger might call the ‘right relation to technology.’ The right relation is worth seeking, but it will not be one size fits all and that means we all must put effort into finding it. We must fiddle with our behaviors until we come to a posthuman view that promotes symbiosis. I do not claim this is the natural, true, or only perspective. It should be the preferred perspective, though.


How do we learn to pay attention? To see our technologies as extensions of ourselves, not solutions in themselves. We do not need a new philosophy of technology. We need a philosophy of technology that engages broader audiences, that promotes self-reflection, and that exposes the seducers. We must listen to the mantra of Marcuse. We must accept our dependence on each other, on our communities—and that includes our machines—as opposed to some supposed freedom that we are told lies just a click away, an edit away, a hack away.


In education, we make learning a game—an app to download—but unlike games, the penalty for failure impacts our future selves. We mortgage our future for quick fixes because it is easier than trying hard—I am not immune. The siren song of the technology companies and advertisers tell us when we’re happy because their employees study us more than we reflect on ourselves, like slot machines that we play on our phones. We are, per Postman (1985), amusing ourselves to death. The game is tilted toward the producers (Tristan Harris) and our economy runs on the same operating system. The operating system becomes a metaphor for control. Who controls the message, the menu, the reward, has the power. We are just players. And we are all in.