Category: Biology

Update: Phil of Bio

The University of Guelph has a Philosophy of Biology course and it was everything I was hoping it would be. Jointly taught by Dr. Stefan Linquist and Dr. Ryan Gregory, our focus on arguments surrounding epigenetics led many to agree there isn’t really a lot of new information. The book Extended heredity: a new understanding of inheritance and evolution turned out to be hilariously contradictory, as many of the concepts it presented can be easily explained by existing biological theories. I had an opportunity to receive feedback on ideas I have about Chalmers’ “bridging principles” and how biological processes produce subjective feelings. As I suspected, an incredible amount of work needs to be done to get these ideas together, but I have a direction now. The project is being placed on the back burner though and so is my attempt to work on consciousness at school. I’m not too worried, I’ll get to it later.

For now, I’m going to work on an argument for an upcoming need to reconsider our conception of robots and our relationships with them, particularly as they begin to resemble subjects rather than objects. There is a growing demand for robotic solutions within the realm of healthcare, suggesting certain functionality must be incorporated to achieve particular outcomes. Information processing related to social cues and contexts such as emotional expression will be important to uphold patient dignity and foster well-being. Investigating Kismet‘s architecture suggests cognition and emotion operate in tandem to orient agents toward goals and methods for obtaining them. The result of this functional setup, however, is it requires humans to treat Kismet like a biological organism, implying a weak sense of subjectivity. I’m also interested in considering objections to the subjectivity argument and reasons why our relationships with robots will remain relatively unchanged.

My original post on the philosophy of biology cited the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is authored Paul Griffiths. I learned earlier this term that Dr. Linquist studied under Dr. Griffiths, a fact that should not be surprising but is still quite exciting.

I’m looking forward to working on this project and the outcome of the feedback and learning, but I am going to get knocked down many levels over the next six months or so. I mean, that’s why I am here.

Works Cited

Bonduriansky, Russell, and Troy Day. Extended heredity: a new understanding of inheritance and evolution. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Programming Emotions

Last summer, I was introduced to the world of hobby robotics and began building an obstacle-avoidance bot as a way to learn the basics. Once classes started last September, all projects were set aside until I graduated, allowing me to focus on school. Now that I have free time, I’ve been thinking about what kind of robot to build next. It will probably still have wheels and an ultrasonic sensor, but I want it to behave based on its internal environment as well as its external environment. Not only will it detect objects in its path, but it will also move about based on its mood or current emotional state. For example, if it were to be afraid of loud noises, it would go to “hide” against a nearby object. This specific functionality would require the robot have a microphone to detect sounds, and is something I have been thinking of adding. Otherwise, the only input the robot has is object-detection, and producing or calculating emotions based on the frequency of things in its path is kind of boring. I have also been interested in operationalizing, codifying, and programming emotions for quite a while now, and this project would be a great place to start.

One helpful theory I came across is the Three-Factor Theory (3FT) developed by Mehrabian and Russell in 1974 (Russell and Mehrabian 274). It describes emotions as ranging through a three-dimensional space consisting of values for pleasure, arousal, and dominance. For example, a state of anger is associated with -.68 for pleasure, +.22 for arousal, and +.10 for dominance (Russell and Mehrabian 277). After mulling on these averages for a second, I feel these are fairly reflective of general human nature, but let’s not forget these values are dependent on personality and contextual factors too. However, the notion of ‘dominance’ doesn’t feel quite right, and I wonder if a better paradigm could take its place. Personally, the idea of being dominant or submissive is quite similar to the approach/avoidance dichotomy used in areas of biology and psychology. ‘Dominance’ is inherently tied to social situations, and a broader theory of emotion must account for non-social circumstances as well. The compelling argument from the approach/avoidance model centers around hedonism, motivation, and goal acquisition; if a stimulus is pleasurable or beneficial, individuals are motivated to seek it out, while undesirable or dangerous stimuli are avoided in order to protect oneself (Elliot 171). Furthermore, this also works well with the Appraisal Theory of emotion, as it argues that affective states indicate an individual’s needs or goals (Scherer 638). Therefore, I will be using a value range based on approach/avoidance rather than dominance. While human emotions tend to involve much more than a simple judgement about a situation, the Appraisal Theory should suffice for a basic robot. One last modification I would like to make in my version of the 3FT is changing ‘pleasure’ to ‘valence’. This is merely to reflect the style of language used in current psychological literature, where positive values are associated with pleasure and negative values are associated with displeasure. I also like this because robots don’t feel pleasure (yet?) but they are capable of responding based on “good” and “bad” types of stimuli. ‘Arousal’ is perfectly fine as it is, as it reflects how energetic or excited the individual is. For example, being startled results in high arousal due to the relationship between the amygdala, hypothalamus, and other local and distal regions in the body, which typically prepare the individual to run or fight (Pinel 453-454).

To summarize, the three factors I will be using are valence, arousal, and approach/avoidance. As much as I would love to find a term to replace ‘approach/avoidance’, for the sake of a nice acronym, I have yet to find one which encapsulates the true nature of the phenomenon. Anyway, this modified 3FT seems to be a good start for developing emotional states in a simple robot, especially if it only receives a narrow range of sensory input and does not perform any other sophisticated behaviours. While this robot will possess internal states, it won’t be able to reflect upon them nor have any degree of control over them. Heck, I won’t even be using any type of AI algorithms in this version. So if anyone is spooked by a robot who feels, just know that it won’t be able to take over the world.

Works Cited

Elliot, Andrew J. “Approach and avoidance motivation and achievement goals.” Educational psychologist 34.3 (1999): 169-189.

Pinel, John PJ. Biopsychology. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Russell, James A., and Albert Mehrabian. “Evidence for a three-factor theory of emotions.” Journal of research in Personality 11.3 (1977): 273-294.

Scherer, Klaus R. “Appraisal theory.” Handbook of cognition and emotion (1999): 637-663.

An Appeal to Philosophy of Biology

Subdivisions within the of philosophy of science have many handy conceptual tools to offer those studying philosophy of mind. For example, the philosophy of biology is able to provide insight on how the theory of evolution contributed to the development of the brain and its functions, why consciousness feels the way it does, and how humans became so intelligent and rational (Griffiths 2017). Questions within biology and other sciences are slowly answered as scientists gather evidence and connect it with other knowledge. A philosopher may ask similar questions (Griffiths 2017, section 8) but these are likely to differ in contexts such as scope or level of abstraction. Appealing to evidence provides good epistemic reason to form a belief (typically and/or ideally) and may provide compelling answers for anyone who feels inclined to follow this style of thinking¹.

This is indeed a bold claim, but I am eager to demonstrate its effectiveness. Consciousness can be explained in slightly metaphysical, somewhat psychological, and mostly biological² terms, and it’s time we check out the evidence. Once a rough sketch of how the mind supervenes on the brain has been sufficiently outlined, we can create tests to answer further or lingering questions. If we work at collecting all sorts of information about the brain, body, and environment, organizing questions and findings in strategic ways, we can create an empirical account for the mind.

Topics to be discussed for an empirical account of consciousness include:

  • Anthropology and human history
  • Biology and its sub-fields
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Culture and social life
  • Developmental psychology; environmental influences, neural plasticity
  • Evolution; development of the nervous system
  • Linguistics; role of language on the brain
  • Neuroscience
  • Philosophy of mind; historical to current
  • Technology; mechanical, information

This is only the beginning however, so I am sure there will be more. I did not include metaphysics and epistemology in that list because they’re kind of implied. If you think there is something I’m missing, either from the list or from something related to the post, feel free to email me.

For those of you who like foreshadowing or hints, check out Ontic Structural Realism, related to philosophy of science.

Notes:

  1. I say this with little or no fervor; there are people who agree and those who do not. Epistemology is beautifully dense and compelling, and I understand there are many sides and critiques.
  2. In a reductionist sense, where biological terms and concepts can be explained via chemistry, which can be explained via physics, etc. Moreover, this list of sources for evidence is not comprehensive.

Works Cited

Griffiths, Paul, “Philosophy of Biology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/biology-philosophy/>.