Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Loose Language Muddles Minds

I have an email subscription to "Science in the News Weekly" sponsored by Sigma Xi in the vain hope of keeping up with current developments and saw the following snippet:

"Meanwhile, the Economist reported on work at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where a researcher proposes to recreate a living organism inside a computer. His goal is to simulate a tiny nematode called Caenorhabditis elegans, probably the best understood animal in biology, and learn what triggers its pluripotent stem cells to differentiate into various cell types."

You can read the whole (short) article by following the link below:


However, the phrase that pushed my hot button was " a researcher proposes to recreate a living organism inside a computer." And while the following sentence mitigates that image somewhat, the actual article in the Economist further perpetuates the myth that it is possible to create life within the computer itself:

David Harel of the Weizmann Institute in Israel ... proposes to recreate living organisms inside a computer."

And so it seems to me that even intellectually respectable organizations such as the Economist and Sigma Xi can fall prey to muddy thinking. A computer simulation of a process is not the process itself just as the pictures in Playboy are not really flesh and blood human beings. As John Searle has pointed out in his essay, "Is the Brain's Mind a Computer Program?" (short answer: NO!!! To see whole article link to:


Searle points out that if you write a computer program that simulates the digestion process in a human being that is not the same as eating and digesting a pizza. (duh...)

In any case, confusing the map with the territory or math symbols with reality seems to be both a human triumph and failing.



Stu Denenberg said...

I realize that's it's almost impolite to comment on ones' post (especially before anyone else does) but I want to test out if this comment will appear on my RSS feed as well as the email notification that I've signed up for.

On the other hand, the quote below is a better ending to my post I think.


"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ira Glickstein said...


Thanks for opening another Topic area on the TVPClub Blog.

"Artficial Life," along with "Artificial Intelligence" is a research area of great interest to me (as well as my PhD Advisor, Howard Pattee).

I'm a flip-flopper on the issue, having originally been on the side that believed a computer could actually be intelligent, at the human level, in the full meaning of those words (human and intelligent), and, by extension, that a computer with sensors and actuators could be alive.

When I first heard about John Searle's "Chinese Room" thought experiment, I dismissed it. Now I accept it!

Where am at now?

Well, someone whose name I don't recall right now made the following analogy:

- You can order a pizza in many different ways: a) By phone, b) by FAX, c) by smoke signals, etc, etc. That is because *ordering* a pizza is INFORMATION PROCESSING.

- However, delivering the pizza is a different matter. You would not be satisfied if the pizza shop FAXed you a picture of a pizza! "Delivering" a pizza is a PHYSICAL PROCESS.

That analogy focusses the question well. Is intelligence more like information processing or more like a physical process? When a computer does addition, is it *really* doing math? (I would say yes?) When a computer figures out your income tax and takes the best legal deductions and so on, is it really acting as an expert tax preparer (assuming it does as well as the average human tax professional)? Again, that seems to call for a yes answer.

On the other hand, if a computer was built to evaluate wine (or any other food), and it did a chemical analysis and smell test and so on, and its analysis was as good as a competent food scientist, could you say the computer "enjoyed" the food? I would say no.

These kinds of thought experiments are useful in focusing on questions like you raised in your posting.

Is it possible we are all simply software objects in a great simulation of life in the computer of some superior being? Do we simply exist in "the Mind of God?"

In Thornton Wilder's famous play, "Our Town," the following dialog occurs [emphasis added]

"I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said, Jane Crofut, the Crofut Farm, Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; The Universe; the mind of God - that’s what it said on the envelope. And the postman brought it just the same."

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

I received this Comment from Howard Pattee:


Stu has put his foot not just in muddy waters but in quicksand.

The big controversy in AL studies is how "real" is artificial life living in a silicon-based computer environment. Nobody claims life in the environment of a computer is the same as carbon-based life in earth environment. However, some computer types like Chris Langton claim it is a form of real life if it has all the "essential" properties that allows open-ended evolution by heritable variation and natural selection within the computer environment. http://surf.de.uu.net/zooland/

Following von Neumann's famous work on self-reproducing automata capable of open-ended evolution I have pointed out how tricky it is to satisfy von Neumann's conditions. http://www.paradoxtechnologies.org/pdfs/Pattee1995.pdf (Don't bother reading all of this technical paper unless you want to cure insomnia.)

The literature in AL is now so extensive that I have ceased to follow it. In my view, computers are not rich enough an environment because they don't actually construct their own hardware (like cells construct their own proteins).

The AL subfield of "situated robotics" adapting and learning by artificial neural nets is the most interesting.

I recommend reading Rodney Brook's interview: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/brooks/brooks_p1.html


Stu Denenberg said...

Howard is right about the quicksand metaphor and even tho' the Zen masters say that, "the best way to clear up muddy water is to leave it alone", that won't keep me from responding to this very interesting topic.

I have a small quibble with the statement: "In my view, computers are not rich enough an environment because they don't actually construct their own hardware (like cells construct their own proteins)." Computers have been used since the late sixties to design new computer circuits and while I'm not sure about the amount of "free will" they were given in this process, if they were learning as they did so (where learning is defined as "changing behavior based on feedback or experience") then one could argue they can construct their own hardware.

Part of the muddiness is, I think, due to our changing definition of 'intelligence'--- it's rather a moving target because as soon as a machine can do something that only humans could previously only do, we change the definition to exclude that functionality. For example, 50-100 years ago it was considered a mark of intelligence to be able to add up long columns of numbers correctly; once the adding machine came into common use, that skill no longer counts towards demonstrating intelligence.


PS: I particularly enjoyed Ira's reference to "the Mind of God".

joel said...

There's an anecdote from the work of William James the 19th century philosopher, that underscores this problem. He left the campfire while his friends sat around talking. When he returned they were fiercely debating the following paradox.

A squirrel is on the trunk of a tree. A bear wants to trap the squirrel and tries to get 'round him by shifting around the tree. However, every time the bear moves, the squirrel shifts behind the trunk so that he's always peeking out at the bear. Question: Does the bear ever get 'round the squirrel? Half the group at the campfire said yes, when the bear goes 360 degrees around the squirrel, he's gotten 'round the squirrel. The other half says no, as long as the squirrel keeps rotating with the bear.

James' point is that we often disagree , because of a difference in our understanding of a word. In the case of the debate over artificial intelligence, too often it's about a differnet on the understanding of words like intelligence, knowledge and understanding. With respect -Joel

Stu Denenberg said...

And Joel's comment reminds me of the old joke about the drunk (alchohollically challenged?) gent who was seen wandering round and round a giant marble column outside a government building. His shoulders sag as he stops and blurts out, " S'no use, I'm trapped --- I'll never get out!"



Ira Glickstein said...


That's the first time I've heard about the bear and squirrel paradox!

- From the point of view of the bear (with the bear as the fixed point of reference), both the tree and the squirrel are rotating around him.

- From the point of view of the squirrel, it is the tree and the bear that are rotating around her.

- From the point of view of the tree, the squirrel and the bear are rotating around it.

- From the point of view of a nearby observer, the bear and squirrel are rotating around the tree AND, since the bear's "orbit" around the tree is larger than the squirrel's "orbit", the bear is also circling around the squirrel.

It is all relative, as Einstein taught us. There is no absolute "truth" accessible to us humans.

On the other hand, unlike some philosophers, I do believe there is some absolute truth that exists but may never be accessible to any individual human.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Test Comment.

I disconnected this Blog from "FeedBurner" and want to see if this gets through on the RSS Google Gadget I have been using. (Prior to connecting this Blog to "FeedBurner" both Topics and Comments were appearing on the Google RSS Gadget. Afterwards, Comments were not getting through.)

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

From Stu

I hope this link comes thru ok...it's an article on consciousness that I think members might enjoy...


Ira Glickstein said...

From Ira, Re Loose Language

Thanks Stu for the link! (See below for how you could make a link clickable like this: NY Times in a Comment.)

(Notice how, when you roll your cursor over the NY Times in hypertext, the entire URL appears at the left bottom of your browser screen.)


As the old song claims:

"Say, it's only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea ...

"Yes, it's only a canvas sky
Hanging over a muslin tree ...

"It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be

"But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me."

Perhaps we're all "brains in vats" and all our senses are fed in to our neurons from a giant simulation computer? Perhaps we're each in a "Truman Show"? Perhaps everyone we meet is an actor and we are the only "real" person in some clever "reality show"? Could be, but how would we ever know?

Perhaps everyone but you and I are zombies? Perhaps the concept of "qualia" is of some practical use?

BUT, WHY would anyone set up such a simulation or zombie world? Despite the possibilities, I prefer to accept that there is a real world, despite the obvious limitations we humans have in perceiving it clearly.

A wise person said "Believe *nothing* you hear second hand and only *half* of what you see in person!"


Say the link URL is http://tvpclub.blogspot.com and you want to make it clickable like this: TVPClub Blog.

Here is the HTML code to use:

<A HREF="http://tvpclub.blogspot.com"> TVPClub Blog</A>

HTML Code description:
1) ALL HTML code elements exist between a left caret and a right caret.
2) The first part is <A HREF="http://tvpclub.blogspot.com">
3) The stuff between the quote marks is the URL you want to point the clicker to.
4) After the second quote mark, there is a right caret to separate the URL from the hypertext to be displayed.
5) Then, put the text you want displayed in hypertext. In this case it is: TVPClub Blog.
6) Close the A HTML code with </A> (A left caret followed by /A and a right caret.)

Ira Glickstein