Stanovich: The Robot’s Rebellion: The Sphex Within You

I want to emphasize the dangers of the type of unreflective cognition emphasized in this chapter – that TASS (because of its older evolutionary origins and its autonomy and ballistic (unreflexive and unmonitored nature) should not be the brain system we automatically identify with (“go with your gut”) in cases where it conflicts with analytic processing.  That would be identifying with what, following philosopher Daniel Dennett, I will call the sphexish part of the brain.

To illustrate how we naturally seem to value reflective mentality over Darwinian reflexive mentality, Dennett, in a 1984 book on free will, asks us to consider our response to the description of the behavior of the digger wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus.  The female Sphex does a host of amazing things in preparation for the laying and hatching of her eggs.  First she digs a burrow.  Then she flies off looking for a cricket.  When she finds a suitable one she stings it in a way that paralyzes it but does not kill it.  She brings the cricket back to the burrow and sets it just outside at the threshold of the burrow.  Then she goes inside to make sure things are safe and in proper order inside the burrow.   If they are, she then goes back outside and drags in the paralyzed cricket.  She then lays her eggs inside the burrow, seals it up, and flies away.  When the eggs hatch, the wasp grubs feed off the paralyzed cricket which has not decayed because it was paralyzed rather than killed.

All of this seems to be a rather complex and impressive performance put on by the Sphex – a real exercise of animal intelligence.  It seems so, that is, until we learn that experimental study has revealed that virtually every step of the wasp’s behavior was choreographed by rigid and inflexible preprogrammed responses to specific stimuli in the Sphex environment.  Consider, for example, the wasp’s pattern of putting the paralyzed cricket on the threshold of the burrow, checking the burrow, and then dragging the cricket inside.  Scientists have uncovered the unreflective rigidity of this set of behaviors by moving the cricket a few inches away from the threshold while the wasp is inside checking the burrow.  When she comes out, the wasp will not now drag the cricket in.  Instead, she will take the cricket to the threshold and go in again to check the burrow.  If the cricket is again moved an inch or so away from the threshold, the Sphex will again not drag the cricket inside, but will once more drag it to the threshold and for the third time go in to inspect the burrow.  Indeed, in one experiment where the investigators persisted, the wasp checked the burrow forty times and still not drag the cricket straight in.  The Darwinian fixed patterns of action dictated a certain sequence of behaviors triggered by a particular set of stimuli, and any deviation from this was not tolerated.

In cases like the Sphex it is unnerving for us to first observe all of the artful and complex behavior of the creature – so seemingly intelligent – and then to have revealed by the experiment just described how mechanically determined it actually all was.  Dennett refers to “that spooky sense one often gets when observing or learning about insects and other lower animals: all that bustling activity but there’s nobody home!” (1984, 13).  Quoting cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (1982), Dennett proposes that we call this unnerving property sphexishness.  He points out that observing the simple, rigid routines that underpin the complexity of the surface behavior of simple creatures spawns in us a worrying thought: “What makes you sure you’re not sphexish – at least a little bit?”

Dual-process models of cognition such as those listed in table 2.1 and discussed in this chapter all propose, in one way or another, that in fact we all are a little bit sphexish.  In fact, many of these theories, in emphasizing the pervasiveness of TASS and the rarity and difficulty of analytic processing, are in effect proposing that our default mode of processing is sphexish.
(Stanovitch, Robot’s Rebellion, page 74-75)

[Note: start here to learn more.]


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