In looking at old science, I’m often amused or amazed by the crazy things we believed about the world, and specifically by our lack of insight into connections, relationships, and systems. Then, I read about modern brain science, and I have a lot more sympathy for former us.
1. “The trolley and the psychopath,” TLWOT, March 2015
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A trolley carrying five school children is headed for a cliff. You happen to be standing at the switch, and you could save their lives by diverting the trolley to another track. But there he is – an innocent fat man, picking daisies on that second track, oblivious to the rolling thunder (potentially) hurtling his way. Divert the trolley, and you save the kids and kill a person. Do nothing, and you have killed no one but five children are dead. Which is the greater moral good?
This kind of thought experiment is known as a sacrificial dilemma, and it’s useful for teaching college freshmen about moral philosophy.
What you maybe shouldn’t do is ask a guy on the street to answer these questions in an fMRI machine, and then use his answers to draw grand conclusions about the neurophysiological correlates of moral reasoning. But that’s exactly what some neuroscientists are doing. The trouble is, their growing body of research is built on a philosophical house of cards: sacrificial dilemmas are turning out to be exactly the opposite of what we thought they were.
2. “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?,” Guardian, January 2015
Chalmers knows how wildly improbable his ideas can seem, and takes this in his stride: at philosophy conferences, he is fond of clambering on stage to sing The Zombie Blues, a lament about the miseries of having no consciousness. (“I act like you act / I do what you do / But I don’t know / What it’s like to be you.”) “The conceit is: wouldn’t it be a drag to be a zombie? Consciousness is what makes life worth living, and I don’t even have that: I’ve got the zombie blues.” The song has improved since its debut more than a decade ago, when he used to try to hold a tune. “Now I’ve realised it sounds better if you just shout,” he said.
3. “Thinking in Silicon,” MIT Technology Review, February 2014
A new breed of computer chips that operate more like the brain may be about to narrow the gulf between artificial and natural computation—between circuits that crunch through logical operations at blistering speed and a mechanism honed by evolution to process and act on sensory input from the real world. Advances in neuroscience and chip technology have made it practical to build devices that, on a small scale at least, process data the way a mammalian brain does. These “neuromorphic” chips may be the missing piece of many promising but unfinished projects in artificial intelligence, such as cars that drive themselves reliably in all conditions, and smartphones that act as competent conversational assistants.