MICHAEL PAYTON: Awesome. Good to be here.
THEO: Thanks for joining us. So, we wanted to just begin by talking a little bit about you, getting to know who you are. In the next episode we’re going to talk about how the debate occurred, how it came to be. [Inaudible] asking you a little bit about yourself. So, what’s your background? Who are you?
MICHAEL: *laughter* Well, my academic background is largely in cognitive science, which is the interplay between philosophy, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. It’s a really burgeoning field; we have a lot of very talented people coming into this area of study. So, I kind of grew up in that area. As far as being a debater, I really got into that through debating in high school and then on to university where I found – despite how much I was terrified to debate – I was actually a very nervous debater – I eventually got quite good at it. I went to school in Toronto at York University. That particular time period as a debater was really, really great. The University of Toronto and York University both had excellent debating teams who were often, or I should say routinely in the top teams in North America and in the world. So, it was a great time to learn how to argue. We were always, constantly being challenged with different ideas from people who could present them extremely well. We also got into debating with law students. There’s Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Toronto’s law school. And Ph.D. Students from University of Toronto and York University also would routinely debate undergraduates. So, even as someone who was just starting my undergraduate, I was routinely debating people who were much more talented, much more knowledgeable than me. And so that’s really how learned to argue and learned to, sort of, love academic and intellectual life.
THEO: Let’s talk a little bit about cognitive science. Give us an example of an insight that comes to us from the cognitive sciences.
MICHAEL: There’s really many great ones. The one I think I point to most – there’s a lot of really interesting ones – but the main ones are a debate around what’s called the “new synthesis” in cognitive science. Anyone who’s watching this – I’m assuming most people would be atheists or agnostics or whatever, or at least believe in evolution – but you’d be interested to know a very famous cognitive scientist, Jerry Fodor has very recently written a book called What Darwin Got Wrong, and it’s an attack on this new synthesis idea. The new synthesis really is a combination of three ideas, those being radical innateness – that being the idea that many of the ideas and systems and processes of thoughts are actually inborn into the organism, a sort of ready-made; we’re designed to pick up information in a certain way. There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that. This is an attack on the idea of a blank slate that we get from enlightenment philosophy – the idea that we basically learn everything from outside of ourselves, we learn it through experience. Most cognitive scientists that work in the new synthesis reject this idea and think our learning mechanisms are largely biological and they’re largely inherited. The second part of this new synthesis is massive modularity, which is the idea that the mind isn’t one single learning mechanism or one single thought mechanism or something weird like that. We actually have very separate and very specific cognitive capacities that sometimes aren’t even related to each other. They’ve tested this through neuroscience and through cognitive psychology as well. Sometimes there’s even massive gaps in our understanding – between information that would seem to be related. For example, in my area of moral psychology, we’ve recently found out that people with a kind of damage done to the emotional receptors to their brains – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, specifically – when we ask them a certain set of moral questions, they basically turn into utilitarians completely. They have no regard for rights; they have no regard for things like rightness or wrongness of lying. They only care about numbers and getting – like, how many people we can save or how much happiness can we generate, which is a very interesting type of discovery. The third part of the synthesis after innateness and modularity comes with the idea of adaptationalist or neo-Darwinian principles. The idea is that the mind, like any other organ in the body, is largely evolved that we can study cognitive faculties with a particular attention paid to the way that they were evolved and to the functional mechanisms in an evolutionary history. This has routinely been a stopping point for many psychologists; many don’t regard what’s termed sociobiology or evolutionary psychology very highly. So it’s actually a very contentious position, but in the last, I’d say, 20 years it’s become far more widely accepted, largely because of the work of people like Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker – taking these ideas and making them accessible to psychologists and giving psychologists an understanding of mental mechanisms and mental modules through this understanding of adaptationalist, Darwinian principles. So those are some insights, some really interesting points of contention and debate within cognitive science, but the things we just spoke about actually influence quite a lot of our understanding. For instance, they influence how we think about learning mechanisms; they influence how we view science – what counts as good evidence, or bad evidence. There’s even problems like the classic free will debate or the classic rationalists versus empiricists debates. So, largely the way I view cognitive science is sort of a trail blazer moving into classic philosophical problems with modern, scientific techniques and giving us unique and interesting answers because of those techniques.
ADAM KEEYNEY: Why cognitive science?
MICHAEL: Sorry? Why cognitive science?
ADAM: Yeah. There’s too many things a young boy could want to become. Why a cognitive scientist?
MICHAEL: Actually, it’s kind of interesting. My first year at university I was in a public policy and administration degree, and my basic goal of getting that degree was to get a job. Just get a job and get something that you’re happy with that pays a good wage or whatever. But I found myself taking, quite by accident, a psychology class; I had one space left in my schedule that wasn’t filled, and so I knew there was psychology at the time in the time space that I had in my calendar. And I said, “Okay, well, I’ll do this course, but after this no more psychology, no more philosophy, none of this garbage. I’m just going to focus on getting a job and learning how to be an administrator. So I started to take this psychology class, and as I was taking it, I found myself routinely ignoring my economics textbooks and administration textbooks and political science textbooks. Instead, I would focus all of my energy on psychology; I’d read it every day. I was way ahead in readings every week. I also sort of fell in love with philosophy while going to my university’s bookstore. It had a gigantic philosophy section – much larger than I’d experienced in any public bookstore. That really motivated me to start reading some of these philosophical works and getting interested that way. There’s a really great series called – they just call it “Introducing” a particular philosopher. And most of them are half-cartoons. Oscar Zarate is an animator who does most of these kinds of pictures and really makes the ideas accessible. So, when I was about 17 going to university and learning about these concepts, it made it a lot easier that there were these books that made it engaging, very interesting and really enjoyable. I found myself over and over – I’d read one of these “Introducing” books, about one every week or sometimes one every day, and spend all of my money that I’d saved up for going out on philosophy books. After that I realized that since my interest is largely in psychology, largely in philosophy that I should be focusing on that. So, I decided to ditch the administration degree and go into cognitive science where I was encouraged to think philosophically and allowed to do the really interesting neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and cognitive psychology aspects that I wouldn’t have been able to study if I were just doing it as a hobby. And in the end I’m really glad I chose to go that way, because now I find the work I’m doing – I get a lot more out of it. It’s a lot more interesting, even though it pays a lot less than I would have been making as an administrator in a government job. And sometimes even quite boring work – we don’t get the idea that science work is -and it is- quite boring sometimes – but then I always look back at what it is that I’m actually doing and how, kind of cool it is. And that’s given a lot of meaning to me. There was one time recently – actually just a couple of summers ago – when I was passing out surveys for one of my experiments and there was a fairly young person – I think they were about teenager, they were clearly in high school – and we were doing this moral psychology test. Part of it was that I had to explain my experiment and what I hoped to get out of it; and while I was giving this person the experiment, they kind of just rolled their eyes and didn’t really understand any of it. But once I explained what I was doing and what we were trying to get out of it, it was really nice actually. They kind of looked at me and just said, “That’s really cool” *laughter*. That was nice. That was motivation to keep going and to keep trying to do this type of work, because it is difficult. And it is sometimes quite hard.
JAMES IMAN: Michael, I’m curious to come back to this discussion of innate function versus blank slate. The only faculty I have any sort of exposure to this sort of innate functioning is language and Chomsky’s whole idea of an innate grammatical function. I don’t know what the current state of that is among cognitive scientists, but I know that they’ve linked certain centers of the brain to linguistic functions. And in the one or two cases of feral children they’ve been able to do studies on, they found – in children that don’t grow up around language – that these areas of the brain that are responsible for linguistic functioning sort of degrade in their ability to function. So, while a feral child – I can’t remember how it was described – something like a feral child will be able to sort of pretend to talk; they can have a certain amount of vocabulary and have a rough understanding of syntax, but basically they just become parrots at that point – they don’t have much of an understanding. So, language is the only one that I’m very familiar with – this postulate of an idea of an innate function. What are some others that are currently being researched in cognitive science?
MICHAEL: One of the biggest ones has always been memory, actually. Before cognitive psychology there was a trend called behaviorism, which really understood things in terms of classical conditioning – this sort of A Clockwork Orange type of like – if I punish you or reward you, that can modify your behavior in a particular direction. One of the founding documents of cognitive science really comes out of “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”. And that showed that our memories can store just about 7 items. For instance, random number strings, but they sort of drop off after 9. We can’t remember them as well as we’d like to. The other thing is that we found that once we started testing people past the number 9 that they’d remember in a way that’s not really predicted by behaviorist psychology. The behaviorist would say that – say if our number string is just 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, they’d think that once you get the number 1 that would sort of generate the idea of the number 2 in your head, and then you’d say, “Okay, ‘2’”. And once that was generated, you’d get 3 and then 4 and then 5. But what we found was that that’s not really true. Once we got people to start memorizing strings of, like, 20, they’d correctly group together certain pieces of information, but it wasn’t like a string. It’s not like you remembered the first 10 and started having trouble. It was – actually you’d remember a string of about 3 or 4 in chunks and then have numbers in between that were wrong. That really showed us that there was something more going on than simply being taught and being motivated through an experiential process. Another one that’s been hotly contested over the last few years since Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds has been the idea of innate morality. Now, this is an idea that’s not really that new. You can find it in David Hume, and the suggestion is even brought about in Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that there’s something fundamentally biological about our moral understanding. But Hauser has really taken this idea a lot farther and even made explicit the analogy to the linguistic program that your describing with Chomsky. He says that just in the same way that we have an innate language faculty we also have an innate moral faculty. He uses a lot of the same justifications and separations that Chomsky uses. For instance, Chomsky has a competence / performance distinction. This is the difference between being able to understand a language, ‘being said’, and being able to ‘say’ a language. Hauser also has the separation between judgments and justification. So, although we can judge certain things as being morally wrong, we might not be able to justify the rules that we’re employing in order to make that judgment. And this has been largely debated over the last few years, and that’s probably – if you’re asking me about innateness – that’s another one that’s very hotly contested and very much on the radar of most cognitive psychologists now.
JAMES: Has the discovery of mirror neurons directed the morality debate at all?
MICHAEL: Not really, actually. The mirror neuron’s we’ve known about since, like, the 1970s. Most of the interesting work I’ve seen come out of that has been in primate studies, because the primates have pretty close homologies of the prefrontal cortex as we do. They employ that, for instance, for learning. For instance, chimpanzees can watch a video of the way to break into a safe to get food or bananas or whatever they’re feeding the chimps at that point. The mirror neurons are actually the analogues to the – the mirror neurons are being activated when the chimpanzees watch these videos. So that’s really where that’s coming out of. Mirror neurons are also being studied in what’s called “mirror-touch synesthesia”, which is this very interesting case where people who are mirror-touch synesthetes will watch a video, for instance, of someone being poked with a pen, and they’ll actually feel the sensation of being poked themselves. And it’s actually believed by some researchers that up to about 13 – between 13 and 30% of people might actually have a form of this synesthesia. That’s why certain people get much more queasy when they watch violent films or have trouble watching people get injured. Now, there’s also interesting stuff going on with exactly which types of injuries – of touches motivate that area of the brain. For instance, they found that one picture of someone running and breaking their leg as they run – almost 40% of people would say that they’d feel a tingling in their leg. But for other ones, for instance, there’s one of someone being gored by a bull; almost no one had felt a sensation of being gored. So, there’s a very interesting – and this goes back to the modularity debate; there’s actually a lot going on with exactly what types of images and what types of stimulus will cause that type of reaction. And that’s usually the job of cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists.
JAMES: Just to discuss a little bit more, I’ve seen a lecture by the cognitive scientist or neurologist [V.S.] Ramachandran. He discusses how mirror neurons, he feels, were key in our development of civilization. I was just curious if there has been any work in any possible relationship in mirror neurons and the development of a sense of empathy. Or convolution of the two.
MICHAEL: Well actually, the topic is taken up in relation to primate studies, like Frans de Waal wrote the book Primates and Philosophers fairly recently. He also gives this idea of empathy as a generating an important part of our moral understanding and our moral cognitive faculties. I’m unaware right now exactly how that is being tested in Ramachandran’s lab. To my understanding, he usually does more sensation and perception types of experiments. In my thinking though, Ramachandran’s hypothesis is missing some pieces of what I would consider important parts of moral understanding. For instance, I mentioned the people with the lesioning of the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex; these people who turn into utilitarians. So it doesn’t appear as though our moral cognition is only motivated by empathy. There seems to be actually, quite a lot of other cognitive factors that are at play here. For instance, we have pieces of data which-again-show us that there’s more going on than simply empathy. And actually, that would take us into my dissertation topic which has absolutely nothing to do with empathy, but demonstrates a very interesting part of moral psychology that I think is worth noting.
My thinking is that Ramaschandran is a very insightful, very brilliant psychologist, and rightly is one of the most respected people in the field. And I think even if I were to come up with a thousand new discoveries in psychology, I wouldn’t quite get to the point where Ramaschandran is. I don’t say that with false modesty. He is extremely important. However, when it comes to these types of hypotheses about, like: ‘how did we generate society?’, ‘how did we come to adapt as a species?’, it’s difficult to see exactly what would count as evidence for that hypothesis. There’s so many different factors that are at play there, and I really doubt if we could actually realistically come up with any sort of experimental proof that would be satisfactory. That being said, if there could be any experiment done, it would probably be done by Ramachandran, because he is -*chuckes*- if there’s anyone that can do it, it’s likely him.
JAMES: Since you mentioned it, unless it’s top secret, what is your dissertation?
MICHAEL: No, it’s already in the works for publication, so I can let the cat out of the bag now. Basically, the topic I started out with was working on Mark Hauser’s idea of universal moral grammar. The summer before working on this, about 2007, I had spent the summer with Mark Hauser and Fiery Cushman in their lab working on some moral psychology problems. And I really got a chance to understand what the background of those ideas of what were and understand what they felt were the important issues. So, I actually started out with the question of ‘What counts as a moral statement?’, which is actually-the more I think about it-the more important that really is. Like, what is the difference between a type of action which is considered moral or immoral and one that isn’t moral or immoral at all? And there are a few factors that are at work there. The one I focused on; I started with this very big project idea and then narrowing down and narrowing down to a very particular part. I ended up with the ideas of intention and if you commit an action that you’re unaware of the consequences of, and something bad happens like someone dies, then are you still to blame for that? And out of that, basically my actual dissertation was, proved the contention of what one psychologist at Harvard (Fiery Cushman), he had thought about intentionality; it disproved what I thought was going on, but that’s fine because sometimes in science you get it wrong. But the interesting piece after that was, I had written an appendix where I had discussed the possibility that the way I had actually framed this experiment also tested something else: not just intention, but also moral distance. And once I had handed in my paper, my thesis advisers had said, “Okay, this is good. We’re sorry your experiment didn’t go well. It happens all the time. You’re still an undergraduate, don’t worry about that”…and then they flipped to the appendix. And they said, “THIS is VERY important. You should have written the entire thing on just that issue.” And the issue itself was on moral distance. So I think its actually still on the website. I can provide the link if anyone wishes to see a slide show on the topic. But basically, the problem is that we tested a way in which there was an actor and a victim; someone who could control the events-the actor-and someone who would have been harmed by those events. And we actually found that the farther away the actor was from the death of the victim, the less responsible this actor was found. So the example we gave was the trolley experiment. It was: Jane operates a trolley, and her job is to move the train coming down the track if there’s anyone that’s sitting on the track. So Gary is sitting on the track and he is about to get run over. Jane doesn’t do anything and she has a full view of the tracks, and Gary gets run over. Is she morally responsible for what happened? And many people said yes. Okay. Now, lets put Jane underground, so she doesn’t have a full view of the tracks, but there’s a video camera that is on the tracks, and she can see Gary. Well, we found in that instance the result lowered. And then we tried it again underground, and a radio transmission comes on from someone else who’s on the ground and can see Gary is on the track, and she doesn’t throw the switch to move the train. Gary gets run over, and we see again that it comes down a little bit more. We also had one where it was just a flashing light that warned you that there was someone on the track, and that went down even more. And finally, in the case where Jane had no access to the information on the ground, not surprisingly, almost no one found her blame-worthy or responsible. So that was testing actually a few things. Joshua Green has also done this sort of work on the idea that moral distance is important, but he relates it to emotions. We related it more to separation from the event, and also the imagery – the sort of mental representations – that people have of the outcome of their actions. And we found that as that representation got less and less clear, that people found Jane less and less responsible. So, practically speaking, that actually does have a lot of influence on the way businesses operate. Now, if we’d actually designed something like a train station, we’d want one where people can see the ground for themselves, rather than just having the flashing lights going. But it also shows something very important about the relationship between theory of mind or mental representation and our moral cognition. So, just to bring it back to Ramachandran, the mirror neurons would be important in that, but in so far as we understand that dying is not as good as not dying, there is also the entire spectrum of other cognitive faculties that are being involved in moral psychology that have really nothing to do with empathy or feeling bad for someone who gets run over by a train. It has a lot more to do with that sort of mode of representation.
ADAM: Have we talked at all about what exactly a mirror neuron is? I don’t know if everyone listening knows what that is yet.
MICHAEL: Mirror neurons are neurons that are found in the prefrontal cortex. Usually, the way they’re found is through their activation during viewing someone else. Like, if I’m sitting here watching Theo drink a cup of coffee, I will have mirror neurons go off that sort of replicate the act right there. I also, in my mind’s eye have a similar type of thing going on where I’ll understand that that type of movement and it will function when those mirror neurons only seem to go off when someone else is exhibiting a behavior that I can know and understand.
THEO: Let’s shift a little bit towards the topic of debate. I guess that’s were we’re leading is how this debate took place. So, you told us you became involved in the debate in high school and then through college. What was the greatest debate that you were ever a part of? I’d love that story.
MICHAEL: Actually, I’d say if it was the greatest debate I was ever involved in, it would have been a debate I had about a year before going up against Dr. Craig. I was part of the Freethinkers, Skeptics & Atheists group at York University. And one of my friend-I guess is a friend now-is a very vehemently Catholic, part of the philosophy program at York, came up to our tabling session where we basically just had a table set up; we were giving out pamphlets, giving out information, had books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on display. And he basically ran over to our table and said, “You’re wrong! You’re wrong about everything!” *Chuckles* So he wanted to start a debate with us. And it was about a month in the works, but it ended up being The Campus For Christ at York versus the Freethinkers, Skeptics & Atheists. So, we were all students, my partners were my friend Emily, who was (I think) only in her second year at this point, my younger brother Jonathan and myself, versus Mark – the guy who came up to us – and two other people who were very heavily involved in church work in that area. And it was, I think more than anything else, a very fun debate. We had basically a packed auditorium of about 500 people, and we had each taken, kind of three debates, one on each of the proofs of God’s existence. Those being: First cause, design and finally the one I took, which was Descartes’ trademark argument, which is the idea that we have this idea of infinity and since there is nothing in our experience which is infinite, then it had to of been put there by an infinite being. And so, that one was the most fun because we were all friends with each other, we were all at about the same skill level and it was billed very well as the “Atheist Group vs The Christian Group” on campus. And so it was not hard at all to get people interested in coming out to the debate and having a good time. I think everybody left there with actually a better understanding of some of the issues. We had a bit of joking around, making fun of each other, but it was always in good fun. I actually even ended up crossing the floor and hugging one of my opponents at the end of it. It was really great. It was a very Canadian style of debate, where we argue with each other but at the end of the day we’re still very much being polite to each other, trying to understand the issues and not just destroying each other.
THEO: That’s in sharp contrast to the American style of debate where the point of winning is not actually winning, its to humiliate the other person as badly as possible. And you could still lose! *Laughs*
MICHAEL: *Laughs* YES! Well, there is that sort of that element to it. There is I think a sort of difference between debate in cultures with regards to these types of things, in Toronto especially. All of Canada is not as religiously divided as the United States can be. Especially in Toronto, its very multi-cultural. We have people from all over the world, and have all types of religious persuasions. So we don’t I think take it as seriously. It’s not something that’s as much of a divisive issue. For instance, most of the political parties in Canada are not even really sure what their religious beliefs are, and I don’t really care. Whereas religion in American elections tends to be a very important issue to people, but up here I suppose we don’t take it as seriously. I’m not sure why that is. But I think it’s nice. It’s nice that I can have friends who are Creationists, friends who are fundamentalist Christians, and talk to them just as my friends without thinking that they’re stupid or that they deserve to be ridiculed.
THEO: It’s like some sort of Utopian vision.
MICHAEL: Well, we all have our problems too.
THEO: Anyway, Michael, thank you so much for coming on to Tuesday Afternoon, talking to us a little bit. We’re going to take the next couple of episodes and talk about how this debate took place. We’re going to walk through the debate as closely as we can and talk about some of the issues that came up. So, we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be an exciting, exciting couple of episodes here. So thanks, and I’ll just wrap it up and say, this is Tuesday Afternoon.
Transcript courtesy of Jonah Schwartz and Errol Jones