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Human Mental Characteristics

Here are some human mental characteristics that affect what abilities might be innate.

evolved from animals
The human was not designed from scratch. All our capabilities are elaborations of those present in in animals. Daniel Dennett [Den78] discusses this in the article ``Can a Computer Feel Pain''. Human pain is a far more complex phenomenon than an inventor would design or a philosopher intuit by introspection. As Dennett describes, kinds of pain are associated with levels of organization, e.g. some are in the structures we share with reptiles.9

distributed mechanisms
We are descended from animals that mostly have separate neural mechanisms controlling separate aspects of their lives. We have these separate mechanisms too but are more capable than animals of observing their state and integrating their effects.

central decision making
A mobile animal can go in only one direction at a time. Therefore, animals above a certain level, including all vertebrates, have central mechanisms for making certain decisions. Very likely sponges don't need a central mechanism.

little short term memory
Compared to computers, humans have very little short term memory. In writing a computer program it is difficult to restrict oneself to a short term memory of items.

Human performance is limited by how slowly we process information. If we could process it faster we could do better, and people who think faster than others have advantages. For this reason we need to perceive states of motion and not merely snapshots. Computer programs often work with snapshots, but even they suffer from slowness when they don't represent states of motion directly.

incompleteness of appearance
When a person looks at a scene, only part of the information available seems to go all the way in. There is the blind spot, but there is more incompleteness than that. What seems subjectively to be a complete picture really isn't. The picture has to be smoothed over in such a way that a detailed look at a part of it sees no inconsistency. While the phenomenon is most obvious for vision, it surely exists for the other senses as well.

memories of appearance
I suppose this opinion will be controversial among psychologists and neurophysiologists, but I state it anyway. What humans remember about the appearance of an object are attached to their more stable memories of its physical structure and maybe even to memories of its function. For example, my pocket knife is in my pocket, and I remember what blades it has. If required to draw it from memory, I would consult this memory of its structure and draw that. Only a small part of the information used would be visual memories. Physical structure is more stable than appearance.

Humans and animals are curious about the world. Just how curiosity is focussed isn't obvious.

supposed to do
It is often asserted that children learn what to do in situations by being rewarded. The innate mechanism may be more powerful than that.

Children and adults have a concept that in a particular kind of situation there are actions ``that one is supposed to do''. One learns what one is supposed to do and does it without reinforcement of the specific kind of response. Example: I told several people, ``See you later,'' and an 18 month old baby whom I was not specifically addressing said, ``Bye-bye''. Children who try to learn what they are supposed to do in a situation and do it will survive better than those who need to learn responses by reinforcement. The race was reinforced--or maybe it was our mammalian ancestors.

The characteristics of human senses are an accidental consequence of our evolution and our individual development. A blind person lives in the same world of objects as a sighted person. It is just that sighted persons have an advantage in learning about them. A person with an infra-red detecting pit in his forehead like a pit viper (or some computer terminals) would have a further advantage in distinguishing people, warm-blooded animals and stoves. A person with a bat-like sonar might ``see'' internal surfaces of itself and other people.

This is not the best of all possible worlds--only a pretty good one.

It would be interesting to look more closely at how human mental characteristics differ from those of animals.

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John McCarthy