a blog about things that I've been thinking hard about

Bootstrapping the Mind

13 July, 2005
loading your brain with a worldview

Your worldview is what tells you the relationships between causes and delayed effects.

Pre-learned instincts and learning from experience cannot give you a sophisticated worldview.

To interpret experience effectively, you have to a priori have a worldview.

The only efficient method for acquiring such a worldview is uncritical listening.


Brain-Loading Mechanisms

How many ways are there to put information into your brain?

The main possibilities that I am aware of are these:

Reliability and Efficiency

Two basic criteria for judging the relative merits of these different methods of loading information into your brain are reliability and efficiency. Consider each of the methods listed above:


Any system which is designed to acquire information must contain in its design information about how to acquire information. This leads to the bootstrap problem, i.e., how do you import that information into the system in the first place? The term "bootstrap" is used particularly in the computer industry, where it is applied to the question of how to load a program into a computer.

The basic answer to this question is that a program must be loaded into the computer's memory using a program-loading program.

But how did the program-loading program get there? In modern computers the program-loading program is part of the operating system, which is loaded into the computer at startup time from a boot disk. There has to be some program which knows how to load the operating system from the boot disk, and this program is normally found in the BIOS, which is a fixed read-only memory built into the computer. The problem of knowing how to load this program is solved by designing into the CPU an initial instruction pointer value, which tells the CPU to start executing the program found at that point in memory when the power is turned on.

Of course the BIOS program was written, compiled and tested on some other computer, and we could attempt to trace the history of where that program came from and which program on some other earlier computer loaded it, and so on.

Somewhere very early in the history of computers, very simple bootstrap programs were hand-wired into computers, supplemented by data which was entered using simple data-loading switches.

Analysis of program-loading programs reveals dependency relationships between programs and the other programs that load them. We can look for similar dependencies in the four information importing methods given above for the human brain:

The Uncritical Listening Hypothesis

The above analysis suggests a hypothesis about human information "bootstrap": that the human brain has a tendency and an ability to accept spoken information uncritically, under at least some circumstances.

This hypothesis seems somewhat counter-intuitive, given our everyday experience that we do not readily accept spoken information which our own critical faculties warn us is unreliable or unconvincing. But there are certain aspects of human experience which are compatible with it:

Each of these phenomena is traditionally accepted as resulting from a weakness of the mind – an inability to rationally distinguish truth from falsehood. But once we realise the necessity of an efficient "bootstrap" process for loading an informed worldview into the human brain, we should not be surprised to discover that there are situations where a person uncritically accepts the "truth" of whatever they are told, because such uncritical acceptance is a basic part of the brain's growth and development.

In general we would expect uncritical listening to occur mainly in early childhood, where a child can receive information from their parents, who can perhaps be trusted to have their own child's interest at heart.

However, common experience is that even young children do not believe everything that their parents tell them, or do everything that their parents tell them to do (far from it in many cases), which suggests that there may be special triggers which cause children to lower their barriers to acceptance of new information, and uncritical acceptance only occurs in situations where these triggers occur.

For example, one trigger might depend on observation (by the child) that the behaviour and body language of a parent are consistent with that parent not having any hidden agenda behind the content of their current speech. This trigger and other triggers may continue to have some effect even into adulthood, but perhaps only in situations where the benefits of quickly acquiring information about how you are supposed to think – whether that information is true or false – exceed the risks and costs of being manipulated.

Uncritical Listening and Human Evolution

The development of uncritical listening may have played a major role in human evolution, and may, for example, be one of the major factors to distinguish "modern" humans from close relatives such as the Neanderthals.

The rapid spread of new ideas within tribal societies by means of uncritical listening would have enabled the rapid reproduction and mutation of culture, in that a random change in worldview of one person might be rapidly propagated to other members of a tribe. Of course many such mutations would be negative, but in the long run the benefits of positive mutations out-weigh the costs of the negative mutations. The cultures of peoples that changed too conservatively would end up being "left behind", and they would become extinct due to being less competitive, suffering from less access to resources needed for survival, and also suffering extermination by more efficient methods of warfare and tribal genocide.

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