Sunday, February 27, 2011

Questions About Different Definitions Of Simulation

I recently finished Sherry Turkle's analysis of the introduction of simulative technology at MIT in Simulation And Its Discontents. I feel frustrated by the book.

I guess the biggest issue that I'm struggling with right now is that I am dealing with two different uses of the word simulation that have vastly different connotations. The first use of the word simulation, which I am more comfortable with, comes from simulation theory of mind. The way that Turkle uses the word, however, comes from the use of simulative software that allows architects, chemists, and physicists to simulate things they would previously do by hand (like drawing blue prints, constructing models of molecules, or running physical experiments).

In simulation theory of mind the term simulation connotes a form of empathy, a mental simulation or replication of another person's emotions. It is supposed to connote a positive thing, a genuine connection with people, an understanding of someone's thoughts or feelings. Alvin Goldman, the author of Simulating Minds, believes that simulation is the way that people understand one another's mental states, he believes that simulation is how we mindread.

So by that way of thinking simulation is a very positive thing that is about people understanding and empathizing with one another.

The form of simulation described by Turkle, on the other hand, has some negative connotations. She believes that when scientist's rely too heavily on simulative technology can lead to a disconnect from reality. That scientist's take their computer simulations to be reality and that they are actually moving further from the observation of reality. So for Turkle simulation is not something that brings us closer to a reality, but something that distorts our perspective on the real world and makes us mistake computer models to be reality. It is much more akin to Baudrillard's discussion in Simulacra & Simulation than Goldman's discussion in Simulating Minds.

S0 I have a problem to overcome here. I am very much swayed by simulation theory and find it an exciting idea. But what Turkle describes sounds much more like what I identify as theory-theory of mind, in which people understand one another by using tacit psychological theories to make inferences about people's thoughts and actions. Goldman describes something called theory-driven simulation, in which a mental simulation is guided more along the lines of theory than actual empathy. It would be a more generalized thing, rather than a particularized thing.

When I read Marco Iacoboni's Mirroring People he was very critical of Goldman and the whole conversation going on under the idea of simulation theory. He thought the language of simulation sounded impersonal and didn't do justice to the level of empathy and compassion involved in mirror neurons and mental relations.

In any case, I'm going to cut this short because this laptop is running low on batteries. But the issue is that the term simulation has multiple connotations and doesn't communicate much precisely. It has this connotation from the sciences of a depersonalized or detached way of engaging with reality. But in the theory of mind literature it has a connotation of empathy and mental understanding.

I need to properly parse the different connotations of the term simulation, or I need to find a new way of talking about the same thing. Because I think what the term simulation in theory of mind is trying to signify is very important. I need to figure out how to navigate the stickiness of the word simulation.

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