|39500. Thu Dec 15, 2005 7:23 am
|This is the longest shortest thread ever! And just to make matters worse:
Man Can Repeat But He Cannot Understand
There is a particular piece of human arrogance that begins “What sets us apart from the animals is…” and usually covers such a variety of traits such as the ability to dream (except for dogs), the ability to use tools (except for primates and crows), the ability to fashion tools (except for those crows again), and so on1. The point here is that as soon as we stake any claim to exclusivity over a particular aspect of the human experience, some animal comes along and proves us wrong. Perhaps this is in part Nature’s intent, that she listens closely to, say, how we classify animals and just when we’ve got it all down pat, invents a duck billed platypus and a seahorse, just to annoy the scientists and make biology teachers’ lives all the harder. One of the defining features of humanity seemed to remain safely ours, though; the complexities of our language.
True enough, experiments have been made that suggest that animals have some kind of language ability, but with varying degrees of success and varying degrees of validity. The hitherto most promising experiments involved teaching sign language to gorillas, but the dispute over whether the gorillas are entering into conversation with their balder friends or just mimicking them has never been satisfactorily resolved. Less inspiring experiments include the underwater keyboard created for dolphins which lead to them, in true Douglas Adams fashion, working out how to ask for fish before realising that that was pretty much all they needed to know. If the scientists were hoping for queries about the repeat fees for Flipper they were sadly mistaken.
But lately there has come another “if I could talk to the animals” experiment, the N’Kisi Project, featuring an Amazon Grey parrot reared by New York artist Aimee Morgana. Said parrot allegedly has a vocabulary nearing 950 words, is capable of using them in context, and grappling with grammar. Morgana has taught N’Kisi to speak as one would a child, and spends most of the day in conversation with the bird. An encounter with primatologist Jane Goodall elicited the response “Got a chimp?”2 simply because Morgana had shown the parrot a picture of Goodall cradling an ape in the wild.
According to Morgana “N’Kisi says what he wants when he wants.” Which is all well and good but throws up certain questions. Morgana is interested in discovering a parrot’s eye view on the world at large but how possible is this when the parrot is speaking a human language. A case in point is N’Kisi’s use of the word “pretty”. How do we know, when the bird uses the word, that it is talking of something that fulfils the requirement of a human aesthetic or a parrot aesthetic? Just as translation from one human language to another can create huge shifts in tone and meaning, so too can the translation of human and parrot concepts through the medium of spoken English. One could argue, of course, that that is true of any language using organism, regardless of its species, but it can’t be too pessimistic to assume the divide between human and bird is an extreme one. The dilemma is reminiscent of Thomas Nagle’s question “What is it like to be a bat?” with which he emphasises the differences between subjectivity and objectivity – we can assess aspects of bat-hood, we can examine the way their minds work, but we can’t adopt the bat’s eye perspective. So too are we unable to gain N’Kisi’s perspective by teaching it English. We can perhaps get a closer approximation of it but language will remain a limited medium in the end.
We also take it on board that simply because the parrot can apparently hold a conversation, it is genuinely conscious, or at least conscious of the meaning behind the conversation, but even this can remain questionable, albeit in a much more subtle way. Joining the long line of thought experiments that were intended to disprove something only to give foundation instead for proof, there is The Chinese Room3. John Searle presents the notion of a man in a room with a big manual. Every so often, posted into the room is a sheet with some squiggles on. The man breaks down the squiggles using the manual and from the particular squiggles makes other squiggles on another piece of paper which he then posts out of the room. Searle goes on to claim that the incoming squiggles are in fact Chinese questions and outgoing squiggles are the Chinese answers, but (and here, thinks Searle, is the clincher) the man in the room doesn’t know Chinese! Searle believed this disproved the ability for a mechanical system to be conscious, but his critics immediately turned around and said that although the man doesn’t know Chinese the system itself does4. In discussing N’Kisi I think it would be useful to modify Searle’s Chinese Room example slightly. What if the man in the room has learnt, by rote, the contents of the manual? He would still have no greater or lesser understanding of Chinese (endnote 4 allowing) but he would, to the outside world, appear to have a solid grasp of the written language. This, I suspect, is the status of N’Kisi, that he has learnt the sounds, and that certain sounds, when connected, get certain responses, and that from the outside world this might not be noticeable in the slightest. But, I hear you ask, you’ve just said that in The Chinese Room the system itself knows Chinese even if the man inside the room doesn’t. Where does that leave N’Kisi? Well this is the troubling end of the conceit, because suddenly the boundary between the man and the system breaks down completely, as does the boundary between the parrot and the parrot’s speech. It is as if we have given N’Kisi a complex shell in which to sit that can offer the world meaningful interactions, despite the fact that the bird at the controls hasn’t a clue what’s going on.5
The story of N’Kisi takes an odd twist though, because Morgana goes on to suggest that the lil bird is psychic. In a story that varies depending on the source in one particular detail, Morgana heard N’Kisi react to something she was reading in a magazine despite the fact that the bird was across the room.6 Experiments followed, with the bird reacting significantly to pictures Morgana was seeing in an adjoining room, despite the experiment being double-blind. The experiment even had to discount certain “hits” because although they seemed relevant to the photo, the predefined keywords were not covered. Rather than discuss the likelihood of this being a hoax7 lets look at exactly what we mean by telepathy.
Telepathy studies seem to have come a long way over the last few years. Another successful series of experiments, by Guy Lyon Playfair8, involved twins, one of whom is rigged to a polygraph machine in order to read levels of stress, and the other, whilst in a separate room, is subjected to such tortures as trial by hand in icy water, and trial by trick exploding pen. Consistently the former responds to the latter’s discomfort. But is this telepathy? The problem is almost semantic, so in the interests of clarity I shall restate the question in apparently flippant terms, ergo “Is it Sapphire and Steel telepathy?” The answer, based on the evidence both here and in the N’Kisi project is a resounding “no.” This is not to say that something strange and wonderful isn’t really happening, just that the nature of the communication (if it can even be called that) doesn’t tally up with the notion of one person sending thoughts to the other. Instead what appears to be taking place is that one person is responding to the other’s stimulus, not thinking his or her thoughts, but experiencing their experiences.
Playfair, although not making this distinction, does edge towards what might be going on when he talks of quantum entanglement, wherein a particular kind of particle is effectively split in two. One particle is set off via optical fibre to a significant distance and given the quantum equivalent of an exploding pen. When the pen is opened both particles react (albeit in opposite ways). This technology has been used to shift a laser beam a foot through space, the first act of teleportation, although it too doesn’t really live up to the promises made by telefantasy. It would appear that something if not identical to this quantum entanglement then at least very similar is happening with Playfair’s twins and Morgana and N’Kisi.
That tangent now explored, where does it leave the consciousness of the Amazon Grey? If anything it seems more illusory than before. If it is true that N’Kisi’s apparent consciousness is as a result of Morgana’s teaching, and that the two are entangled then despite Morgana’s claim that N’Kisi is his own bird, he in fact comes more and more to resemble a projection of Morgana’s consciousness, rather than a consciousness in his own right. It is as if the experiment has provided a very literal working of Daniel Dennett’s concept, that things attain consciousness through the moral concern applied to it by other conscious entities. What at once appears to be both a strange loop and a cop-out as big as that adopted by the “mysterians” who conclude that consciousness cannot be understood by itself, could in fact turn out to have a genuine physical grounding.9
And before I am accused of picking on the parrots, nearly any argument applicable to N’Kisi can also be applied to us complacent humans. What is so troubling about the adapted Chinese Room experiment is the notion of two very separate entities, one of which is established in very concrete terms and the other existing almost entirely in abstract, and the fact that what we consider as ourselves may in fact be either, neither or both. Searle’s manual is nothing more than a comfort blanket, as useful in defusing concerns about who we are (or even whether we are) as the duvet is in keeping the axe murderer at bay. If that seems a sad and frightening conclusion, then cast it from your minds, whether N’Kisi is conscious or not, whether Morgana is a hoaxster or not (and I genuinely doubt she is), of one thing I feel I can be certain; the parrot couldn’t give two hoots.
1 Which does beg the question, why do we feel the need to set ourselves apart from the animals in the first place. It’s pretty straight forward isn’t it? I mean, we’ve split the atom, we’ve landed on the moon and we’ve made toilet paper with George W Bush’s face on it. No amount of coat-hanger bending on the part of the crows is going to get them into space, is it?
2 Polly Wants A Dictionary, Eleanor O’Hanlon BBC Wildlife February 2004
3 The most famous example is Schroedinger’s Cat – an experiment designed to show how ridiculous a notion quantum indeterminacy was but resulting in QI being taken up as a valid concept. The cat is now not only in an unfixed state of living and dying, but also the mascot of an entire branch of science it was actually hired to discredit.
4 Thought experiments can be dangerous to your world view! Were such a Chinese Room to exist it would have to be much more complicated than Searle suggests, would need to be in touch with the world in many ways, would ultimately come to require the kind of high brain functions that would lead to sentience, meaning as a thought experiment it may prove fruitless in proving anything, unless it concedes that the mechanical processes involved are no different to the mechanical process of, say, a neuron firing. Another example from the bumper book of consciousness is Saul Kripke’s zombies; beings identical to us down to the molecule but for the fact that they aren’t sentient. This was a key idea for dualists for some time, but falls down in a fundamental way – just because we can imagine such a thing, doesn’t mean we can construct it, any more than we can construct Escher’s impossible waterfall. Those like Douglas Hofstadter who advocate epiphenomenalism, that consciousness emerges, spontaneous and unbidden, from complex arrangements of simple processes, believe that were you to copy someone down to the molecule then that person would be just as sentient as the original; the two notions are indivisible.
5 See how daringly I attempt to unify dualism and epiphenomenalism!
6 The detail in question was exactly what she was looking at. BBC Wildlife states it was a photo of “a vivid purple car” eliciting the response from the parrot “oh, look at the pretty purple.” Other sources online state that it was a picture in a contact magazine and that N’Kisi said in response “oh, look at the pretty naked lady”. However, I feel this has more to do with the editorial policy of BBC Wildlife than any impropriety on Morgana’s part. A psychic parrot’s one thing, but a telepathic lesbian?
7 Bastion of all that is unholy SICOPS claims the experimenter, Rupert Sheldrake is a dubious character, but rather than comment on the experiment at hand, instead sought to dismiss his earlier work involving dogs knowing when their owners are coming home. If I were to cast a sceptic’s eye I would wonder why all American press on the same project and the same experiments date from two years ago, but it is only making the news over here now.
8 See Fortean Times June 2003.
9 Anyone familiar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy might also notice some strange similarities between his Dust and the notion of projected consciousness.