Friday, August 30, 2013

Yay!! I'm not the only one with a Reverand Bayes problem

Bob Berwick is planning to write something erudite about Bayes in a forthcoming post. I cannot do this, for obvious reasons. But I can throw oil on the fires. The following is my reaction to a paper that Ewan suggested that I read the critiques of. I doubt that his advice had the intended consequence. But, as Yogi Berra observed, it’s always hard to accurately predict how things will turn out, especially in the future. So here goes.

In an effort to calm my disquiet about Bayes and his contemporary acolytes, Ewan was kind enough to suggest that I read the comments to this B&BS (is it just me, or does the acronym suggest something about the contents?) target article.  Of course, being a supremely complaisant personality, I immediately did as bid, trolling through the commentaries and even reading the main piece and the response of the authors to the critics’ remarks so that I could appreciate the subtleties of the various parries and thrusts.  Before moving forward, I would love to thank Ewan for this tip.  The paper is a lark, the comments are terrific and, all in all, it’s just the kind of heated debate that warms my cold cynical heart.  Let me provide some of my personal highlights. But, please, read this for yourself. It’s a page-turner, and though I cannot endorse their views due to my incompetence, I would be lying if I denied being comforted by their misgivings. It’s always nice to know you are not alone in the intellectual universe (see here).

The main point that the authors Jones and Love (J&L) make is that, as practiced, there’s not much to current Bayesian analyses, though they are hopeful that this is repairable (in contrast to many of the commentators who believe them to be overly sanguine e.g. see Glymour’s comments. BTW, no fool he!). Indeed, so far as I can tell, they suggest that this is not a surprise for Bayes as such is little more than a pretty simple weighted voting scheme to determine which among a set of given alternatives best fits the data (see L&J’s 3).  There is some brouhaha over this characterization by the law firm of Chater, Goodman, Griffiths, Kemp, Oaksford and Tenebaum (they charge well over $1000 per probable hour I hear), but J&L stick to their guns and characterization (see p. 219) claiming that the sophisticated procedures that Chater et. al. advert to “introduces little added complexity” once the mathematical fog is cleared (219).

So, their view is that Bayesianism per se is pretty weak stuff. Let me explain what I take them to mean. J&L note (section 3 again) that there are two parts to any Bayesian model, the voting/counting scheme and the structure of the hypothesis space. The latter provides the alternatives voted on and a weighting of the votes (some alternatives are given head starts). Now, Bayes’ Rule (BR) is a specification of how votes should be allocated as data comes in.  The hypothesis space is where the real heavy lifting is done. In effect, in J&L’s view (and they are by no means the most extreme voices here as the comment sections show) BR, and modern souped up versions thereof, add very little of explanatory significance to the mix. If so, J&L observe, then most of the psychological interest of Bayesian models resides in the structure of the assumed hypotheses spaces, i.e. whatever interesting results emerge from a Bayesian model, stem not from the counting scheme but the structure of the hypothesis space.  That’s where the empirical meat lies:

All a Bayesian model does is determine which of the patterns or classes of patterns it is endowed with is most consistent with the data it is given. Thus, there is no explanation of where those patterns (i.e. hypotheses) come from. (220)

This is what I meant by saying that, in J&L’s view, Bayes, in and of itself, amounts to little more than the view that “people use past experience to decide what to do or expect in the future” (217). In and of itself Bayes does not specify or bound the class of possible or plausible hypothesis spaces and so in and of itself it fails to make much of a contribution to our understanding of mental life. Rather, in and of itself, Bayesian precepts are anodyne: who doesn’t think that experience matters to our mental life?

This view is, needless to say, heartily contested. Or so it appears on the surface. So Chater et. al. assert that:

By adopting appropriate representations of a problem in terms of random variables and probabilistic dependencies between them, probability theory and its decision theoretic extensions offer a unifying framework for understanding all aspects of cognition that can be properly understood as inference under uncertainty: perception, learning, reasoning, language comprehension and production, social cognition, action planning, and motor control, as well as innumerable real world tasks that require the integration of these capacities. (194)

Wow! Seems really opposed to J&L, right?  Well maybe not. Note the first seven words of the quote that I have conveniently highlighted. Take the right representation of the problem add a dash of BR and out pops all of human psychology.  Hmm. Is this antithetical to J&L’s claims?  Not until we factor out how much of the explanation in these domains comes from the “appropriate representations” and how much from the probability add on.  Nobody (or at least nobody I know) has any problem adding probabilities to mentalist theories, at least not in principle (one always wants to see the payoff). However, if we were to ask where the hard work comes in, J&L argue that it’s in choosing the right hypothesis space and not in probabilizing up a given such space.  Or this is the way it looks to J&L and many many many, if not most, of the other commentators.

Let me mote one more thing before ending. J&L also pick up on something that bothered me in my earlier post. They observe more than a passing resemblance between modern Bayesians and earlier Behaviorism (see their section 4).  They assert that in many cases, the hypotheses that populate Bayesian spaces “are not psychological constructs …but instead reflect characteristics of the environment. The set of hypotheses, together with their prior probabilities, constitute a description of the environment by specifying the likelihood of all possible patterns of empirical observations (e.g. sense data)” (175). J&L go further and claim that in many cases, modern Bayesians are mainly interested in just covering the observed behavior, no matter how it is done. Glymour dubs this “Osiander’s Psychology,” the aim being to “provide a calculus consistent with the observations” and nothing more.  At any rate, it appears that there is a general perception out there that in practice Bayesians have looked to “environmental regularities” rather than “accounts of how information is represented and manipulated in the head” as the correct bases of optimal inference.

Chater et. al. object to this characterization and allow “mental states over which such [Bayesian] computations exist…” (195).  This need not invalidate J&L’s main point however.  The problem with Behaviorism was not merely that it eschewed mental states, but that it endorsed a radical form of associationism. Behaviorism is the natural end point of radical associationism for the view postulates that mental structures largely reflect the properties of environmental regularities. If this is correct, then it is not clear what adding mental representations buys you. Why not go directly from regularities in the environment to regularities in behavior and skip the isomorphic middle man. 

It is worth noting that Chater et. al. seem to endorse a rough vision of this environmentalist project, at least in the domains of vision and language. As they note “Bayesian approaches to vision essentially involve careful analysis of the structure of the visual environment” and “in the context of language acquisition” Bayesians have focused on “how learning depends on the details of the “linguistic environment,” which determines the linguistic structures to be acquired” (195).

Not much talk here of structured hypothesis spaces for vision or language, no mention of Ullman-like Rigidity Principles or principles of UG. Just a nod towards structured environments and how they drive mental processing. Nothing prevents Bayesians from including these, but there seems to be a predisposition to focus on environmental influences.  Why?  Well, if you believe that the overarching “framework” question is how data (i.e. environmental input) moves you around a hypothesis space, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to downplay the role of the structure of that space and highlight how input (environmental input) moves you around it. Indeed, a strong environmentalism will be attractive to you if you believe this. Why? Well, given this assumption then mental structures are just reflections of environmental regularities and, if so, the name of the psychological game will focus on explaining how data is processed to identify these regularities.  No need to worry about the structure of hypothesis spaces for they are simple reflections of environmental regularities, i.e. regularities in the data.

Of course, this is not a logically necessary move. Nothing in Bayes requires that one downplay the importance of hypothesis spaces, but one can see, without too much effort, why these views will live comfortably together. And it seems that Chater et. al., the leading Young Bayesians, have no trouble seeing the utility of structured environments to the Bayesian project. Need I add that this is the source for the expressed unease in my previous post on Bayes (here).

Let me reitterate one more point and then stop.  There is no reason to think that the practice that J&L describe, even if it is accurate, is endemic to Bayesian modeling. It is not. Clearly, it is possible to choose hypothesis spaces that are more psychologically grounded and then investigate the properties of Bayesian models that incorporate these.  However, if the more critical of the commentators are correct (see Glymour, Rehder, Anderson a.o.) then the real problem lies with the fact that Bayesians have hyped their contributions by confusing a useful tool with a theory, and a pretty simple tool at that.  Here are two quotes expressing this:

Rehder [i.e. in his comment, NH] goes as far as to suggest viewing the Bayesian framework as a programming language, in which Bayes’ rule is universal but fairly trivial, and all of the explanatory power lies in the assumed goals and hypotheses. (218)

…that all viable approaches ultimately reduce to Bayesian methods does not imply that Byesian inference encompasses their explanatory contribution. Such an argument is akin to concluding that, because the dynamics of all macroscopic physical systems can be modeled using Newton’s calculus, or because all cognitive models can be programmed in Python, calculus or python constitutes a complete and correct theory of cognition. (217)

So, in conclusion: go read the paper, the commentaries and the replies. It’s loads of fun.  At the very least it comforts me to know that there is a large swath of people out there (some of them prodigiously smart) that have problems not dissimilar to mine with the old Reverend’s modern day followers.  I suspect that were the revolutionary swagger toned down and replaced with the observation that Bayes provides one possibly useful way for exploring how to incorporate probabilities into the mental sciences, nobody would bat an eye.  I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t. All that we would ask is what one should always ask: what does doing this buy us?

Monday, August 26, 2013


It seems that I hit some button that changed the view of the blog. I have no idea what I did or how to fix it. As this doesn't bother me much, I will either find a way to revert to "spare" easily or will leave things as they are. Sorry for the new (accidental) look.

Got Culture?

In the last chapter of Dehaene’s Reading the Brain he speculates about one of the really big human questions: whence culture? The books big thesis, concentrating on reading and writing as vehicles for cultural transmission, is the Neuronal Recycling Thesis (NRT). The idea is simple; culture supervenes on neuronal mechanisms that arose to serve other ends. Think exaptation as applied to culture.  Thus, reading and writing are underpinned by proto letters, which themselves live on ecologically natural patterns useful for object recognition.  So too, the hope goes, for the rest of what we think of as culture. However, as Dehaene quickly notes, if this is the source, and “we share most, if not all of these processors [i.e. recycled structures NH] with other primates, why are we the only species to have generated immense and well-developed cultures” (loc 4999). Dehaene has little patience for those who fail to see a qualitative difference between human cultural achievements and those of our ape cousins.

…the scarcity of animal cultures and the paucity of their contents stand in sharp contrast to the immense list of cultural traditions that even the smallest human groups develop spontaneously. (loc 4999)

Dehaene specifically points to the absence of “graphic invention” in primates as “not due to any trivial visual or motor limitation” or to a lack of interest in drawing, apparently (loc 5020). He puts the problem nicely:

If cultural invention stems from the recycling of brain mechanisms that humans share with other primates, the immense discrepancy between the cultural skills of human beings and chimpanzees needs to be explained. (loc 5020)

He also surveys several putative answers, and finds them wanting. His remarks on Tomasello (loc 5046-5067) seem to me quite correct, noting that though Tomasello’s mind reading account might explain how culture might spread and its achievements retained cross generationally:[1]

…it says little…about the initial spark that triggers cultural invention. No doubt the human species is particularly gifted at spreading culture – but it is also the only species to create culture in the first place. (loc 5067, his emphasis)

So what’s Dehaene’s proposal?

My own view is that another singular change was needed - the capacity to arrive at new combinations of ideas and the elaboration of a conscious mental synthesis (loc 5067).

This is quite a mouthful, and so far as I can see, what Dehaene means by this is that our frontal lobe got bigger and that this provided a “”neuronal workspace” whose main function is to assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge” (loc 5089).

I don’t find this particularly enlightening. It’s neuro-speak for something happened, relevant somethings always involving the brain (wouldn’t it be refreshing if every once in a while the kidney, liver or heart were implicated!). In other words, the brain got bigger and we got culture. Hmm. This might be a bit unfair. Dehaene does say more.

He notes that the primate cortex, in contrast to ours, is largely modular, with “its own specific inputs, internal structure, and outputs.” Our prefrontal cortex in contrast “emit and receive much more diverse cortical signals” and so “tend to be less specialized.” In addition, the our brains are less “modular” and have greater “bandwidth.” This works to prevent “the division of data and allows out behavior to be guided by any combination of information from past or present experience.” (loc 5089)

Broken down to its essentials, Dehaene is here identifying the demodularization of thought as the key ingredient to the emergence of culture. As he notes (loc 5168), in this he agrees with Liz Spelke (and others) who has argued that the general ability to integrate information across modules is what spices up our thinking beyond what we find in other primates.  Interestingly for my purposes here, Spelke ties this capacity for cross module integration to the development of linguistic facility (see here).

This assumption, that language is a necessary condition for the emergence of the kind of culture we see in humans is consistent with the hypothesis Minimalists have been assuming (following people like Tatersall (here)) that the anthropological “big bang,” which occurred in the last 25-50,000 years, piggy backed on the emergence of FL in the last 50-100,000 years. Moreover, it’s language as module buster that gets the whole amazing culture show on the road.

But what features of language make it a module buster?  What allows grammar to “assemble and recombine” otherwise modular information? What’s the secret linguistic sauce?

Sadly, neither Dehaene nor Spelke say.  Which is too bad as me and my lunch buddies (thx Paul, Bill) have discussed this question off and on for several years now, without a lot to show for it. However, let me try to suggest a key characteristic that we (aka I) believe is implicated. The key is syntax!

The idea is that FL provides a general-purpose syntax for combining information trapped within modules.  Syntax is key here, for I am assuming (almost certainly wrongly, so feel free to jump in at any point) what makes information modular is some feature of the module internal representations that make it difficult for them to “combine” with extra-modular information. I say syntax for once information trapped within a module can combine with information in another module it appears that, more often than not, the combination can be interpreted. Thus, it’s not that the combination of modularly segregated concepts is semantically undigestible, rather the problem seems to be getting the concepts to talk to one another in the first place, and, I take this to mean, to syntactically combine. So module busting will amount of figuring out how to treat otherwise distinct expressions in the same way. We need some kind of abstract feature that, when attached to an arbitrary expression, allows it to combine with any other expression from any other module.  What we need, in effect, is, what Chomsky called, an “edge-feature,”  (EF) a thingamajig that allows expressions to freely combine.

Now, if you are like me, you will not find this proposal a big step forward for it seems to more name a solution than provide one. After all, what can EFs be such that they possess such powers?  I am not sure, but I am pretty confident that whatever this power is it’s purely syntactic. It is an intrinsic property of lexical atoms and it is an inherited property of congeries of such (i.e. outputs of Merge).  I have suggested (here) that EFs are, in fact, labels, which function to close Merge in the domain of the lexical items (LIs). In the same place I proposed that labeling is the distinctively linguistic operation, which in concert with other cognitively recycled operations, allowed for the emergence of FL.

How might labels do this?  Good question. An answer will require addressing a more basic question: what are labels?  We know what they must do: they must license the combination both of lexical atoms and complexes of such.  Atomic LIs are labels.  Complexes of LIs are labeled in virtue of containing atomic ones. The $64,000 question (doesn’t sound like much of a prize anymore, does it?) is how to characterize this.  Stay tuned.

So, culture supervenes on language and language is the recycling of more primitive cognitive operations spiced with a bit of labeling. Need I say that this is a very “personal” (read “extremely idiosyncratic and not currently fashionable”) view?  Current MP accounts are very label-phobic.  However, the question Dehaene raises is a good one, especially for theories like MP that presuppose lots of cognitive recycling.[2]  It’s not one whose detailed answer is anywhere on the horizon. But like all good questions, I suspect that it will have lots of staying power and will provide lots of opportunities for fun conversations.

[1] It’s good to see that Tomasello is capable of begging the interesting question regardless of where he puts his efforts.
[2] See discussion in the comments I had with Jan Koster about this my previous post (here).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Mirror mirror in the Brain

There's been a lot of discussion concerning Mirror Neurons (MN) in both the professional literature and the popular press. They are represented as just what the neuro-scientist ordered to exlain learning, empathy, other minds, whatever. Greg Hickok is in the process of finishing a book on this timely topic, and, unless the final product ends up saying the opposite of what I read (very unlikely), MN enthusiasts will be in for a rough time.  At the very least the cognitive benefits MNs are supposed to endow have been massively oversold, if he is correct.  I encourage you to get the book when it finally comes out. The title, Greg tells me, is "The Myth of Mirror Neurons: the real neuroscience of communication and cognition." To whet your appetite for the full course meal, Greg has allowed me to cross list some of his better posts from Talking Brains. So here's an hors d'oeuvre: here, here, here, here, and here. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Future of Journals?

Darryl McAdams sends me this link from the American Statistical Society. It discusses a possible rather attractive alternative to the traditional academic publishing regime. In particular, it explores how the suppleness of the blog format might be used to enhance dissemination of novel results and improve the quality of discussion by encouraging useful critical commentary.  The contrast between Jane 2.0 and her unfortunate 1.0 avatar is striking.  The latter is disadvantaged in myriad ways: she is cut off from interesting peer commentary, has to wait an excessively long time for reviews, is limited to submission to one journal at a time and only gets her work widely read if published. Jane 2.0 is far better off in virtually every respect. A further benefit of 2.0 is that it re-empowers the community that does most of the work: the research community that reviews the papers and which cares about the work (as opposed to the publishing houses that are mainly interested in turning a profit). I think that open source journals are where academic publishing is (and should be) heading. Jane 2.0 seems like an attractive alternative to what we have now. I say this knowing full well that the utopian vision 2.0 describes will surely engender problems of its own.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reading Brains

In November, Stan Dehaene is coming to Maryland to give the annual Baggett Lectures on language and cognition. To “prepare” myself, I have just finished reading his last book, Reading in the Brain, which I can highly recommend. It appears that our friends in cog-neuro have begun to understand the underlying mechanisms behind our ability to read, tracing it to a confluence of capacities lodged, not surprisingly, in the visual system and FL. The reading trick, again not a surprise, is to figure out how to link morphemes to graphemes (I’m talking about alphabetic reading systems here) and this problem turns out to piggy back on some rather deep facts about the mechanisms that the visual system uses to interpret the physical environment and how different alphabets express the relevant morphemes in a language.  It seems that letters like ‘T’ and ‘F,’ ‘K,’ ‘Y,’ and ‘L’ are “proto-letters” and they exploit capacities central in parsing a visual scene:

The shape T, for example, is extremely frequent in natural scenes. Whenever one object masks another, their contours always form a T-junction. Thus neurons that act as “T-detectors” could help determine which object is on front of which.

Other characteristic configurations, like the shapes of a Y and an F are found at places where several objects of an object meet…All of these fragments of shapes belong to what is known as “non-accidental properties” of visual scenes because they are unlikely to occur accidentally in the absence of any object…(loc 2138 e-book version).

These “natural” shapes find their way into many alphabetic systems thereby allowing the capacities of the visual system to be recycled to undergird the capacity to read.[1]

The second leg of the reading capacity lies in tying graphemes to morphemes. This turns out to be rather difficult.  I was surprised to find out (remember, I come from a philosophy department so I know virtually no phonology and, come to think of it, very little else) that the emerging consensus opinion concerning dyslexia is that stems from “an anomaly in the phonological processing of speech sounds” (loc 3779). It seems that the majority of dyslexic kids have trouble processing phonemes in general (i.e. independent of reading) and that’s why they have trouble matching graphemes (letters) to morphemes in reading.  In other words, it seems that dyslexia is largely a speech processing problem (loc 3801).  Dehaene calls this is a “revolutionary idea,” one that seems “barely credible,” but he argues that the evidence points to dyslexics having a problem with “phonemic awareness” and hence have trouble with the necessary phoneme-grapheme mapping mastery of which is required for fluent reading (loc 3801).

Interesting to me was the information that dyslexia appears to be far less apparent in some cultures than in others. For example, it seems that “dyslexia is hardly ever diagnosed in Italy” (loc 3876), whereas it is a pretty common syndrome in French and English reading cultures. Could dyslexia be nothing more than a cultural “disease”?  Seems unlikely.  And indeed, it is not so.

Rather, the biological propensity is rather stable across readers of different languages but the practical reading problem becomes acute only in cases where “writing systems [are] so opaque that they put a major stress on the brain linking vision to language” (loc 3898).

How this was demonstrated was rather neat.  A research group in Milan (headed by Eraldo Paulesu) scoured Italy for reading impaired individuals who superficially did not seem particularly impaired. However, careful testing showed they were; in particular, “when compared to normal Italian readers, their scores were as deviant as those of groups of French and English dyslexics as compared to control subjects in their respective countries” (loc 3898). In other words, the absolute impairment Italian dyslexics suffer from is less than that afflicting English or French dyslexics though the relative impairment is the same. Conclusion: there is no underlying difference between these populations despite their very different behaviors. I love these kinds of discoveries, ones that penetrate beneath the surface glare to unpack common features of the underlying mechanisms.[2]

Let me end this post noting one more thing that caught my syntactician’s eye. Chapter 7 is a long discussion of symmetry effects in reading. Dehaene reports on “mirror reading” (where (young) readers/writers “spontaneously confuse left and right”). He attributes this to a basic structural feature of the brain, viz. It encodes a symmetry principle “deeply buried in the structure of our cortex” wherein “[o]ur visual brain assumes that nature is not concerned with left and right…” (loc 4228).

It should be obvious why I found this interesting. The Minimalist Program (MP) has taken the position that grammars care exclusively about hierarchical dependencies, treating left/right linear order as a late addition that arises when hierarchical grammatical structures are sent to the S&M system for articulation.  It is curious do find out that the disregard for left/right order is a design feature of certain parts of the nervous system. Specifically, Dehaene recounts the following accepted wisdom: the visual system has two main networks, a ventral what system, which functions to “recognize and label objects,” and a dorsal how system that does things (executes actions) with the objects so identified. Distinguishing left from right, Dehaene notes, likely arises from the dorsal how system and symmetry is a core feature of the ventral what system.

This dorsal/ventral cut has also made an appearance in the cog-neuro of language. Hickok and Poeppel have relatively recently distinguished a ventral and a dorsal pathway for language, the former mapping sound onto meaning and the latter mapping sound onto articulators (see here).  My impressionistic self would love to speculate that FL’s disregard for left/right information is related to its living in a part of the brain that is blind to this kind of information (i.e. maybe the part of FL that maps syntax to meaning (to CI) lives in the ventral stream!).  This comports with the basic MP conceit that FL exploits (in part) structures from extant brainware used for other (non-linguistic) cognitive tasks. So, if the FL mapping to “meaning” lives in the symmetrical (ventral) part of the brain (where high level “object recognition” also resides) then the fact that this mapping ignores left/right information (see here) is what we might expect (is this tenous enough for you?). We might also expect linear (left/right) info to be prominent in the dorsal stream, the part of the brain, which maps representations onto articulatory based representations.

Now, all of this is VERY stream of consciousness and as you all know I am far from being competent to do anything more than ramble here (but hey, what’s a blog for!).  However, it is neat to have discovered that some parts of the brain, as a matter of fundamental organization (one view: symmetry is “inherent in the geometry of our interhemispheric conncections” (loc 4444)), ignore left/right info and that some parts of the language system, the ones mapping to meaning, appear to live in this general neighborhood.

There’s lots more in the book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I will blog one more post in the near future on another topic that Dehaene takes up in the penultimate chapter. But for now, if you have a couple of days of pleasure reading you are looking to fill, reading about reading is a good way to idle away the hours.

[1] Recycling is the star idea in this book. The term is self-explanatory: cognitive circuits that typically serve one function can be repurposed to serve other ends, an idea congenial to modern day minimalists.
[2] Dave Kush’s analysis of island violations in Swedish has a similar structure. He noted that the relative unacceptability of island violations was similar in Swedish and English (i.e. the same sentence enjoyed the same relative standing in the two languages), despite the fact that what is deemed ok or ? by speakers of Swedish is considered * by speakers of English. Like Paulesu, Kush has argued that the same mechanisms are at work wrt islands in both grammars despite these absolute differences in acceptability ratings. Of course, why this latter difference exists is well worth exploring (and Kush does) but the important common point is that these easily noticeable differences often mask deeper important commonalities.