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The Theater Model in More Detail

Baars’s theater model involves a system of nonconscious, information-processing agents: performers, operators, and audience members. Performers have stage permission and include the outer senses, such as when you see an apple and it is put in the limelight. If you visualize the apple, it is put there by your imagination. Ideas can also be put onstage, such as when you think abstract thoughts, e.g., “2 + 2 = 4.” As in a real theater, there are operators, such as stage lighting technicians and directors, that govern who goes onstage and when. If I suddenly hear a dog barking, operators grant stage access to the output from audio-processing modules. I don’t have to think about it; the operators take care of it. In Baars’s model, our conscious life is driven by competition between modules that are granted stage access by operators. Every theater needs an audience and, in Baars’s theater, this is a set of modules. So, for example, if you read this sentence, you understand the words through a lexical module, which looks them up. There is also an interpretation module, which recognizes things onstage. Much cognition depends on what Baars calls automatisms. For instance, words are read as words and not as sequences of letters. There is also a motivation module that relates what is onstage to goals, preferences, and emotions. The operators, performers, and audience members in the above diagram are all unconscious modules that govern your conscious experiences through interaction with the stage of consciousness. It is tempting to think of the stage as being located somewhere in the brain, much as Descartes thought that the soul hooked up to the brain at the pineal gland, and Baars considers that:

Rene Descartes thought consciousness might be located in the tiny pineal gland. Descartes was looking for just one dimensionless point where the singular soul might connect with the brain. (Baars 1997, p. 299)

But he disagrees:

There is no single point in the brain where “it all comes together.” (Baars 1997, p. 299)

Moreover, he does not think that any post-1950s theater model comes with the assumption of single-point brain convergence of conscious processing:

Certainly none of the cognitive theatre models that have been proposed since the 1950s suffer from these defects. (Baars 1997, p. 301)

After this, he appeals to the fact that we don’t have any other alternative to theater models:

As it happens, all of our unified models of mental functioning today are theatre metaphors; it is essentially all we have. (Baars 1997, p. 301)

Baars then claims that the work done on theater models by AI researchers Newell, Simon, and Anderson has been thorough and done by devoted and remarkable individuals:

Cognitive architectures developed by Alan Newell, Herbert A. Simon, John R. Anderson and others resemble theatres. All are equipped with working memories that are limited in capacity. All involve “active” elements, much like the conscious elements of working memory, though without using the word “consciousness.” And all have large sets of unconscious mechanisms, whether they are called productions, long-term memory, or procedural memory (Newell 1990; Anderson 1983). These theories have been developed over the last 40 years based on a vast range of evidence, from studies of chess players to arithmetic problem-solving, mental rotation of visual images to action skills. A remarkable group of distinguished scientists have devoted careers to these integrative conceptions of human cognition. (Baars 1997, p. 301)

Baars’s confidence in his theater model of consciousness comes from trust in AI. Perhaps it is true that, from the perspective of AI, there is no need for a place where “it all comes together” in the brain and consciousness happens. But in such models or in Baars’s version, is there even a need for a brain? The research that Baars admires was based on the assumption that the brain was not necessary for understanding the mind and intelligence. It was based on computer functionalism and AI, not biology.

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