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Antwörter mit Paul Verschure

12. Oktober 2016

When was the last time you convinced somebody of something?

I think I just convinced you about the importance of naturalizing linguistics. Or maybe as Plato would say, to know is to recollect. So maybe I just helped you to recollect something you already knew.

But that is not necessarily how I convince people; I can also give a logical argument. Usually I have a very strong opinion about things around me. This is often the difference between an amateur and a professional – can you really unpack an opinion and present it to anyone in a logical and structured way? An amateur just gives an opinion and when that opinion starts to come into conflict with the environment, you start to back it up in a more emotional way or you start to use any of the Schopenhauer tricks to destroy the debate. I think the challenge in convincing people is to bring to consciousness all the specific steps and assumptions behind an opinion and to use that to convince somebody.

Opinions only have value if you can translate them into a change in the universe, and for that you have to be able to unpack them, give it logical structure and also to take it as a challenge for yourself. What are my assumptions behind this opinion? It is hard to bring that to the foreground. That makes the difference between someone who can be convincing and somebody who has an opinion and makes noise.

What do you believe in that almost nobody else believes in?

Of course I cannot answer that because I just don’t know what other people believe in. So on logical grounds that is an unanswerable question. But if you ask me what are my beliefs that are relatively unique compared to what the people in my environment believe in, there are quite a number of things. That is what all science is based on, because science is always about looking in this abyss of knowledge. When you make a first step across the abyss hoping that you can stay afloat on the basis of an idea, an opinion, an intuition, that will be a unique kind of opinion or intuition because otherwise you won’t survive as a scientist. So everything we do here in the lab are unique views on how mind and brain operate and how we can translate those understandings into a real world-impact in the clinic, in education or in collective memory and cultural heritage and so on.

To give an example: I think it is really important that science must be tuned in much more to societal needs. Right now science is a lot like an agreement among peers, as long as your peers are happy with your views, then suddenly, apparently we are doing science and that is not good enough. Science must prove to be effective in the world.

Take linguistics: as long as the teaching of languages in primary and secondary education or secondary language education is as nonsensically bad as it is today, the field of linguistics has no reason to exist as you would argue because it has no impact. People have to face this contradiction: how can we claim that we have an understanding about language while not being able to help kids to learn it better or more rapidly? Kids are suffering right now in school because they are put through this wringer of grammar-oriented teaching of language. It is torture, and it is not working and apparently that is considered normal and while we are feeding billions of euros or dollars in linguistic departments. I think that is an unacceptable discrepancy. This is not only true for linguistics, I am just tickling you with that. It is true for my field as well. You cannot claim to have a theory about the brain and not be effective in the clinic. It is ridiculous. We are not doing great. Society is greatly doubting what science is doing and rightly so, because science has failed on many fronts, has overpromised on many fronts. Try to talk to siri – it is a disaster. But there are real problems in the world. We have kids that are not learning well, who cannot learn, who drop out of school. We have elderly people who are cognitively degrading, we don’t know what to do with them, we have people who are psychotic, who have other pathological deficits. We don’t know what to do with them. We are losing our identity here in Europe, we don’t know how to react. There is a huge amount of real problems in the world, where science should have an answer and it doesn’t. I think this is really something we’ve got to change and unfortunately I am among a very tiny minority with that belief. But this is where science will go, I am sure about it.

How did you spend your first five minutes this morning?

I read the newspaper and drank coffee.

What question would you like to ask in an interview like this? And how would you respond to it?

Well, did you listen to my podcasts and how I end them? I always ask people what is their law and what is their prediction. But for the purpose of this interview I would ask you: What are you really looking for? What is your real obsessive interest? Is it you? Is it linguistics? Is it the world? Is it your woodworker friend?

[Since according to Paul the roles of interviewer and interviewee in this chat are arbitrary, he decides to just change them. We agree that I will answer first and then he will]

Maria: I think I want to know what makes people change their beliefs. I want the world to change for something better and I think the first step is to think about what is your opinion about stuff. It doesn’t have to be one specific thing. It can be politics, society, art – it can be anything, and then decide whether you are happy with that or not. Then talk to other people to come to a conclusion through discourse to know what you really want and what you want the world to be. The next step would be to do something in that direction. So I think that is why I do this stuff.

Paul: That is good: it is really important that we focus on improving the universe. We have to change the universe to make it better, including our society and science can help us in that. So now you have a benchmark and you can also measure whether you are getting closer to this goal or not. So that means when you wake up tomorrow the first five minutes of conscious awareness in the morning can be dedicated to saying, how did yesterday – which is today now – get me closer to that goal of making a better world?

I do believe, that science means an objective source of understanding, of knowledge, that we don’t interfere based on opinions but based on knowledge. That is a big difference. Right now, we too often interfere on the basis of opinions guided by television celebrities and politicians. There is a lot of knowledge in the world that is not really used or exploited in that direction, so yes, I am definitely looking into being relevant in that sense. I want to change the universe and I want to improve the human condition in any way I can, but I want to do that on the basis of knowledge.

You could say my obsession is really how we map the theory we have to the real world. I have a theory about the brain which we started 20 years ago. I am very consistently mapping that theory to different domains of societal relevance. Advance the theory and then keep on pushing it into those applications very systematically.

We are doing it here in the lab. That is the difference and I will give you an example: The thing where we are hard at work is why I am going to Germany tomorrow to talk to the people at the Bergen-Belsen memorial. There we now have a number of technologies deployed for the last years that focus on how we conserve and present the history of the holocaust and Nazi crimes. European identity is very much anchored in that history and we are losing that history because the living memories, the witnesses are slowly disappearing and we have no good replacements for that, so we have to rethink how to conserve that history. We want to do that in the locations themselves so we have built lots of technologies for them. It is an extremely popular educational program, it is completely booked out for the next year, and all classes want to go there. They really have a meaningful experience on sight dealing with the history they should learn. It just took 70 years before people did that and unfortunately it had to be us. So yes, we are working very hard to be relevant and to be relevant on the basis of science not opinions.

This also means that we have to be humble about what we can apply. We have to be able to say, look this is just an intuition, an opinion. I cannot be sure this will work. Very often people don’t say that. In other cases I can say I am applying this principle; I have people for instance walk around physically on the sight of a former concentration camp because science tells us this is a way to boost memory. That is why I am doing it, so now I know why I am having my intervention. It is not some artistic intuition, something that sounds good or my peers find really relevant. There is real science behind it, which means third person verifiable observation. So this is where we have to go. We have to change the universe on the basis of real, grounded knowledge. Opinions in that sense are often a big distractor and lead to problems. And this is also I think the big challenge in the humanities. The humanities are dealing with all the really important issues in this world, as far as I am concerned, but the scientific grounding is still one of our big challenges and this is really where we want to go. We must be able to establish closer links between humanities and science, that is what is needed right now.

So be relevant. Change the universe.

If you lost your friends, your family, your job and all the things that define your identity, what would remain of you?

My memory and my ambitions. That is an easy one because my ambitions to change the universe won’t change with that. Correct? I will always be driven by that and I have my memory. Of course you will have to cope with loss which is hard. But if we just ignore that emotional part, my identity and objective do not depend on my environment. They are mine; that is my identity. I am not dependent, I am not some leech who has to suck his identity out of his environment. That is a very naïve idea about identity. I mean you can define it like this, but it will be a very week parasitic kind of identity and that is not how I look upon it. I don’t depend on my environment for my identity. Of course you can start to speculate about how you would be different if your environment would have been different as you grow up and so on.


What are you afraid of?

Jellyfish. I do a lot of open water swimming and the one thing that really worries me are jellyfish. I really don’t like them at all. They are really interesting though, because they are intentional in the sense that they have goals, they move around, swim around. You might hit them; that is annoying, they are like this mobile plants. They have very simple brains and you cannot guess those intentions because they don’t have the surface features we are used to. They are these amorphous intentional agents. It is very difficult for us to process and I don’t know anyone who would be like, “Oh jellyfish, great!” From nearby they are sort of difficult to handle. If you have the big white ones, they are strong swimmers, they go fast.

What else would I fear? Not so many things, I think. Many things I just lost, that you can compensate and overcome. Of course you have fears for your families, for your children, these kinds of things. But for just myself as me, I think jellyfish would top the scale.


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