Keith Stanovich - Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

November 30, 2007

Keith Stanovich holds the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto. His research areas include the psychology of reasoning and rationality and the psychology of reading, which explores what happens in the brain and to the brain through the process of reading. Recently, he was named one of the 25 most productive educational psychologists. His many books include How to Think Straight about Psychology, Who Is Rational?: Studies of Individual Differences in Reasoning, and The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin.
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Stanovich talks about his book The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in an Age of Darwin, which is about “Universal Darwinism” and its implications for widely and deeply held beliefs such as God, free-will, and the concept of the self. He explores the gene’s eye view of life and also memes as self-replicating units of cuture, and how these selfish replicators use humans as vehicles for their own purposes, even as they might not be in the best interest of humans. He shows some ways that we may overcome, or rebel, against these forces to construct meaning from our existence.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:

Related Episodes

Philip Kitcher - Living with Darwin
July 13, 2007

Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

I found this podcast particularly interesting.

I’ve been aware of memes for years, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the implications of the idea.

The suggestion that genes and memes can explain so much about the human situation - and can clarify our confusions over concepts like the soul, the sense of an ‘I’ at the core of personal experience etc. - is fascinating.

Universal Darwinism.

What a powerful concept!

Posted on Dec 04, 2007 at 1:03am by JohnMR Comment #1

02-05-08 The Robot’s Rebellion

Contemporary thinking about how human beings work has certainly spawned a lot of machine books. In addition to Stanovich’s Robots, we have Susan Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine,” which Stanovich cites, and Marvin Minsky’s “The Emotion Machine,” which he does not, which is really too bad—I think his book might have been improved by the influence.

The signal difference between Stanovich and Minsky is that Stanovich proposes “rational self-determination,” as “what is really singular about humans.”(p. 275) In contrast, Minsky suggests that what makes us singular is that, “whenever our usual ways to think fail we can start to think about our thoughts themselves—and if this “reflective thinking” shows where we went wrong, that can help us to invent new and more powerful ways to think.”(p. 1) There is a world of difference in these two approaches to how our brains work, and Minsky’s has many advantages.

Despite his denial of the existence of any “Promethean Controller” in the brain, in Stanovich’s discussions of different orders of desires—first, second, etc.—there is the unstated assumption that these various desires are all encompassed in the same person. From Minsky’s view, the activation of these different desires would indicate that a different sub-personality was operating: “...the sub-personality that is now in control may activate a set of views and goals for you, which, for the moment, you may believe to be the views and goals of the “genuine” You.”(p. 307)

Minsky’s approach is more in keeping with my own experience of the limitations of consciousness—and I suspect this is widely true. It explains how Stanovich’s example of Ruth, the vegetarian/environmentalist, can have “...convenience foods in her refrigerator that are environmentally unsound and that violate her vegetarianism.”(p. 241) Ruth’s values as a vegetarian are only conscious in certain environments, and the grocery store is not one of them. Vegetarianism is part of a sub-personality, and the buyer and eater of convenience foods is part of another—both are not active in, or at least not in control of, her brain at the same time. If the “vegetarian Ruth” wants to control the “convenience Ruth” in the grocery store, she might try making a grocery list while she is in control, and reinforcing her domination of shopping behavior by writing “vegetarian” on the back of her reaching hand.

Stanovich mentions the similar strategy of “pre-commitment” in the interview, in which the dieter empties the refrigerator while the glutton is in abeyance, hoping to promote dieting behavior as the dominant mode when the glutton emerges (although he doesn’t put it in those terms).

Minsky’s approach avoids the Promethium Controller undertones in Stanovich’s vehicle-against-replicator scenario, and reflects what all of us could vouch for if we paid attention: that each environment we find ourselves in activates values and desires that the brain has found relevant to that environment; and as facets of the environment change, or as “Critic” neural subsystems are activated by failures of the current “Way to Think,” the brain switches to a different Way to Think, using different resources to improve performance.

The difference in emphasis on emotions between the two authors is dramatic, since Stanovich only gives the subject one sentence and a footnote, compared to Minsky’s making it a central concept. Stanovich does talk about “gut instincts,”(p. 142) which might be stretched to accommodate emotions, but cautions that relying on them may be turning your behavior over to TASS, which may or may not be consistent with vehicular goals—its a gamble. In many cases, however, attempts at rational decision-making are often concluded with what might be classified as “gut instincts.” As Damasio pointed out in “Descartes’ Error,” the inherent difficulties in rational decision-making suggest that our brains use “somatic markers,”(p. 173) gut feelings, in weighting the possible outcomes of “rational decision-making,” without which we would be forever mired in endless calculations.

Stanovich has a hypothetical “Jim” struggling with a rationally insoluble choice, and in the end, suggests that it is the struggle that counts, not whether we can resolve all our inconsistencies.(p. 237) And yet, I suggest that Jim would have made some kind of choice, as all of us do, and lacking a coherent rationale, would have gone with his “gut feeling.”

I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t think about what behaviors might be “good for us,” and to consider the origins of our motivations. I frequently find my brain switching to self-reflective mode to ask, “Where did that impulse come from? Genes? Memes? Who planted that one?” Stanovich’s book gives us many useful tools to aid in answering such questions, and is well worth reading. I only wish he had read Minsky’s before he wrote his.

Susan Blackmore offers an alternative mode of rebellion against memes in “The Meme Machine,” which she calls “meme-weeding.”(p. 242) I have benefitted tremendously in pursuing it, and consider it an indispensable option. I have gone on too long already, but given that anyone who mentions “meme” cites her, you should definitely read her book if you haven’t.

Posted on Feb 05, 2008 at 5:06pm by normbear Comment #2

Nice post Normbear.  The Stanovich interview made me curious about Harry Frankfurt, so I looked him up, and while his examples concerning 1st and 2nd order desires, and how they determine free will and consequently, responsibility, seem very fascinating to me, it did provoke some questions that I wonder if someone more capable in philosophy could answer.  I found an example of Frankfurt’s “counterexamples” on Wiki (

“Frankfurt’s cases involve agents who are intuitively responsible for their behavior even though they lack the freedom to act otherwise. Here is a typical case:

Donald is a Democrat and is likely to vote Democratic. In fact, he will not vote Democratic only in one particular circumstance: if he thinks about the prospects of immediate American defeat in Iraq just prior to voting. Ms. White, a representative of the Democratic Party, wants to make sure that Donald votes Democratic, so she secretly plants a device in Donald’s head that, if activated, will force him to vote Democratic. Not wishing to reveal her presence unnecessarily, Ms. White will activate the device only if Donald thinks about the Iraq war prior to voting. As things happen, Donald doesn’t think about the Democrats’ promise to ensure defeat in Iraq prior to voting, Ms. White thus sees no reason to activate his device, and Donald votes Democratic on his own accord. Apparently, Donald is responsible for voting Democratic despite the fact that, due to Ms. White’s device, Donald lacks freedom to do otherwise.

If Frankfurt is right in suggesting both that Donald is morally responsible for voting Democratic and that he is not free to do otherwise, then this suggests that moral responsibility, in general, doesn’t require the freedom to do otherwise. (I.e. PAP is false.) Thus, even if causal determinism is true and even if determinism removes everyone’s freedom to do otherwise, there is no reason to doubt that people may be morally responsible for their behavior.”

This seemed solid to me at first, but then something started to bug me, namely: since he didn’t have the opportunity to think about the prospects of immediate American defeat in Iraq just prior to voting, wasn’t the causal effect of determinism already eviscerated beforehand?  Wouldn’t it be required of him to have that thought, then reject it (regardless of Ms. White), to properly represent deterministic causality?  Otherwise, there is no actual deterministic influence to make this compatibalism…  Perhaps I am wrong here.  Any comments?

Posted on Jun 16, 2008 at 1:19am by Gatogreensleeves Comment #3