Monthly Archives: May 2012

Software Patches for the Brain

Buried in the middle of Richard Carrier’s essay, Goal Theory vs. Desire Utilitarianism, are two paragraphs that stopped me cold.

This strange, flawed phenomenology of mammalian desire-computation results in the fact that we often have two sets of desires: our actual desires, and our present desires. And they don’t always align. What we happen to want at any given moment (to sleep in, for example) is not what we really want most (such as, to get to work on time and keep our job, so we can get paid and meet all our other desires with the resulting income).

A straightforward, correctly designed computer would never have this problem. Its present desires would always be its actual desires. But we aren’t designed that well. So we need a technology, kind of like a software patch, that fixes our broken computation routines, and makes us run correctly. One of those technologies is morality. (Others, by the way, are logic, science, and mathematics, which we also invented (1), and use to correct various other errors of computation in our badly designed brains.)

Logic is a software patch? I never thought of it that way, but he has a point.

Our brains are what a computer scientist would call neural networks. That is, they take a plethora of inputs, process them in a way that is messy and completely mysterious, and come up with “answers” that may not be optimal, but have proven reliable enough to get on with 99% of the time.

Continuing the computer-science metaphor, we can say that our default process is intuitive and lazy. Shortcuts like “This just feels like the right thing to do” or “This is just how I was taught” usually carry the day. We find comfort in tradition and readily succumb to prejudice.

It has taken millennia, but our faulty brains have started to realize their own shortcomings. As Carrier suggests, we have invented software patches.

Savvy computer users know that if they fail to apply the latest patches to their operating systems, they risk being invaded by viruses. The human equivalent is infection by memes – scraps of cultural material that are good at replicating themselves, but are not necessarily sound.

Unfortunately, patching our brains is not as easy as patching a computer. There are no automatic updates. We must work at it. Richard Carrier writes elsewhere,

Philosophy means “the love of wisdom.” … Many a non-expert is a true philosopher. But after two thousand and five hundred years of trial, error inquiry and debate, we now know there is a certain sequence this pursuit should follow. …

It should be … obvious that if you don’t employ a sound method routinely and vigorously, then your entire belief system will be unsteady and imperfect.

…the “pursuit of wisdom” is the very activity of studying language, logic, and method, and of employing these tools to construct a comprehensive and intelligible — and ultimately useful — view of yourself and the world. …

Philosophy is therefore no idle pastime, but a serious business, fundamental to our lives. It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, scripture with the whole world of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well-investigated and well-proved, rather than what is merely asserted or well-liked. … Above all, she commits herself to the constant study of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. (2)

(1) I would say we discovered, rather than invented, logic and math, but whatever.
(2) Sense and Goodness without God, pages 23-26.