Monday, December 8, 2008

Creative Chaos

[from Joel] My wife got me to read what purported to be a funny piece from the BBC. It's a mildly amusing piece about self-imposed sloppy work environments. Being a slob myself, I appreciate the humor, but the author goes on a bit too long about it. It's entitled The brilliance of creative chaos or
"Are we able to think clearly when surrounded by mess because chaos is inherent in all our minds, even those of the great writers and thinkers", by Clive James.
< http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7768021.stm >

I think that there's an interesting philosophical point buried in the piece:

Perhaps it's trying to remind me that the best equipped pontificator is the one who is aware of his own propensities towards chaos. Unable to organise his own breakfast, he will be less ready to condemn officials who can't organise an efficient system for sending out student grants, or collecting private information onto a CD-ROM that won't be left on a train. But, even the most self-aware pontificator is still likely to expect too much of the world. Rarely will he be sufficiently amazed that society functions at all, considering some of the human material it has to work with.
My philosophical point is this. Plato wrote about an idealized state in The Republic and a more practical one in The Laws. Aristotle analyzed various constitutions. And so the trend continued through Cicero, Aurelius, Augustine, Locke, Marx, Hayek, etc. In the end, every proposal is drowned in the chaos of real world events. Nothing works out the way the philosophers suppose. Should we take our cue from Voltaire's Candide and simply cultivate our small garden while surrounded by chaos and forces beyond our control? Is stoicism the path for a philosopher of the real world?

With respect -Joel

16 comments:

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel for starting a new Topic that is a bit of a departure for us.

I love Voltaire's Candide and was somewhat let down by the ending and the cop-out of "tend to your gardens".

The real message of Candide comes from my favorite character, Master Pangloss! HE IS RIGHT AFTER ALL.

From Candide Chapter 1:

"Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, ...

"'It is demonstrable,' said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.'"


As a strict determinist and a panthiest, this is the ONLY posssible world, so, by definition it is the BEST. Other worlds might be conceived that are better for me or you or the CEO of GM, but those worlds do not exist now and never will. THIS world exists right now.

Yes, tend to your gardens but also venture out into the wonderful world. As Max Ehrmann wrote in Desiderata:

You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Just a day after your "Creative Chaos" Topic the answer came to me from the current issue of The Economist.

A psychological experiment at a university in the Netherlands showed that disorder increased the percentage of people who committed anti-social acts such as littering, trespassing and stealing.

It appears that a self-imposed disordered workspace may have the same affect on creative people, pushing them to commit anti-social acts such as thinking unconventional thoughts and coming up with inventions that upset the established order. Put the same person in an immaculate office and their creativity may be inhibited.

Perhaps that is why Joel and I and the author of the story Joel linked to are self-described slobs. Indeed, as a young engineer I was once called to the extraordinarily neat office of a high-level manager and I felt totally out of place.

I am at home with piles of magazines and books and electronic gadgets, perhaps unconsciously enhancing my creativity. And the mess can come in handy. A letter to the editor in the current issue of The Economist noted a report of the Netherlands experiment that had appeared in the Nov 22 issue. I just reached over to my pile of partially read periodicals and BANG - there it was!

Here are the details:

1) Experimenters cleaned up and painted an alley frequently used to park bicycles. They posted a large "No Graffiti" sign and then put single-page flyers on the parked bikes. When bike owners came to get their bikes they had the choice of discarding the flyers or pocketing them (there was no trash can). 33% either tossed the flyers or put them on another bike.

The experimenters then sprayed some rough graffiti on the walls of the alley. Littering increased to 69%

2) Another test involved trespassing. They put up signs saying "No Tresspassing" and "Don't Lock Your Bike to the Fence". When they locked some bikes to the fence, some 82% of the people trespassed.

When the same bikes were parked nearby but not locked to the fence, only 27% took the shortcut.

3) A third experiment involved a mailbox with an envelope sticking out with a €5($6) note visible through the address window. When the mailbox and surrounding area was clean, 87% left the envelope or pushed it into the box and only 13% stole it.

When the area was littered, 27% stole the envelope.

BOTTOM LINE: I don't agree with the author that chaos around us promotes clear thinking. Rather, a chaotic environment releases our anti-social instincts and leads us to challenge authority and question established "truths" - in other words, act creatively!

Ira Glickstein

Steve Ruberg said...

A comment at the bottom of the BBC article posted by Joel, "Chaos is a creative force - order is a maintaining force." Having a desire for creativity, I really like this statement and the article because it justifies my messy workspace!

The Netherlands experiment provided by Ira was a very interesting counter to this. When the surroundings were more disorderly, people were more likely to steal the 5 pound note. This goes along with what I have heard about lowering crime by repairing windows
http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/crime/safehood.htm.

Ira summarized this well, " a chaotic environment releases our anti-social instincts and leads us to challenge authority and question established "truths" - in other words, act creatively!" Well ... act creatively only if you already have learned a certain level of orderliness. Like not stealing from your neighbor or spray painting the walls of his home or apartment building. We encourage our children to be creative but we don't want them to be vandals. When we drive through a highly organized neighborhood it looks bland and boring. When I walk through the woods it does not look planned but it is HIGHLY organized and very pleasing to some internal sense of order that results in peace.

So, in a city what amount of order is needed to again to permit the chaos of creativity? How can a forest appear to be so full of creativity and beauty but be so organized?

Howard Pattee said...

I recall that chaos in the brain was an theory of Walter Freeman backed up by animal brain experiments. I never really understood his model.

Ira Glickstein said...

Great question Steve: "So, in a city what amount of order is needed to again to permit the chaos of creativity? How can a forest appear to be so full of creativity and beauty but be so organized?"

One of my favorite profs, a colleague of Howard's, was the late Walter Lowen who taught the insight that great creative art and music was a certain mixture of order and chaos. A canvas of a single color or of a repeated shape, or music of a single tone or repeated sequence would not be beautiful. Neither would a canvas of chaotic colors and shapes or music of a cacophony of sounds. Great art requires basic order with a touch of creative chaos.

The beauty of the flowers and fauna of the forest is a result, we believe, of evolution and natural selection. That also requires a basic repetitive order spiced up by some creative chaos.

Three things are needed:
1) Inheritability of characteristics, provided by DNA that is copied in a highly precise manner.
2) Variability of physical characteristics, provided by crossover and mutations such that characteristics of offspring differ a bit from their parents.
3) Differential Survival and Reproduction that, on average, favors offspring with characteristics that "fit" better in the current environment.

Order is preserved by having multiple copies of the most important genes, such as those that code for things like bones and blood. These designs have been pretty much optimized over the billion and a half years of multi-celled animals. If one gene happens to get mutated, the spare, non-mutated genes will generally prevail.

Other characteristics are coded for by multiple genes "randomly" mixed and matched (crossover) from mother and father. This preserves basic order but creates offspring a bit taller or shorter, thicker or thinner, and so on. Finally, mutations break totally new ground. Most are not beneficial, but the few that are are the creative chaos that drives evolution.

The same is true of memes. Civilization survives due to the conservation of basic order. Every society has certain "truths" that are indoctrinated in the young and enshrined in laws and holy books. When societies interact, either in war or trade or immigration, there is crossover of these "truths" that makes the resultant medley stricter or more tolerant, more or less xenophobic, etc. Finally, revolutions break totally new ground. Most are not beneficial, but the few that are are the creative chaos that drives civilization.

It is the C-Minds who strive to conserve basic order and the L-Minds who push the revolutionary limits. Each of us is L- or C-Minded in different areas. For example, I am an L-Mind when it comes to new technology and a C-Mind on social issues. Some L-Minds who push for revolutionary social change are C-Minds when it comes to privacy and industry. Indeed, some are dogmatically opposed to technology and globalization.

Beautiful art and healthy forests and great societies require a fine mixture of order and disorder, but mostly order!

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

The link Howard provides to the work of Walter Freeman is pretty spare: "Walter J. Freeman (born January 30, 1927, Washington DC) is an American biologist, theoretical neuroscientist and philosopher who has conducted pioneering research in how brains generate meaning. His main body of research has been on the perception of rabbits using electroencephalography. Based on a theoretical framework that includes chaos theory, he has developed a fundamental premise is that the currency of brains is primarily meaning and only secondarily information. This contrasts with the symbolic representations emphasized by neural network theories."

A bit more is provided here, but it is highly technical. There are more links on that web page I did not follow that may contain some accessible information.

Freeman appears to be working on the design of artificial neural networks that attempt to capture, in an electronic circuit, something like the operation of the brain. His work appears to be in the subsymbolic, connectionist arena that is opposed to the main line of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that utilizes symbolic representations in programmed general-purpose (GP) computers.

I have been on both sides of this issue. When I first met Howard I was a crazy AI advocate who thought a programmed computer that performed tasks normally done by an intelligent human really understood that it was doing. Over a period of years, Howard, in his gentle, non-demanding way, chipped away at my AI foundations to the point that I flipped to the other side.

I still believe that AI in GP computers can replace intelligent humans in many tasks. The evidence is all around us. However, when they do so, I no longer believe they "understand" what they are doing - all the "understanding" is in the brains of the humans who programmed the machines and the human users served by the machines.

Indeed, I wrote a chapter in a 1992 book and my (Howard-inspired) views were denegrated as follows: "Ira Glickstein has a skeptical article pushing the 'subsymbolic, connectionist' line -- perhaps good as a representative article from that misguided (;-) camp."

In short, I would like to believe that it is possible for a machine made of silicon and copper to really be intelligent and understand like a human does, but only if the basic components are, like neurons, the result of an extended period of evolutionary development. The evolutionary process for development of these artificial neuronal networks would have to embody Inheritability, Variation, and Differential Survival and Reproduction, as described in my previous Comment, and would thus embody a touch of chaos.

The fact that artificial neural networks are now generally simulated by symbolic programs that run on GP computers complicates this argument. Would an electronic neural network really be intelligent while the same process, simulated in a GP computer and yielding the exact same results would not? OY!

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira asks a key controversial question among AI experts: “Would an electronic neural network [something like a brain] really be intelligent while the same process, simulated in a GP computer and yielding the exact same results would not?”

This is essentially a Turing Test type question. The problem is defining the “test.” If you understand the “test” or “yielding exactly the same results” to mean “indistinguishable behavior of all possible types under all conceivable circumstances” then you are essentially saying, just by definition, that if one is intelligent then the other is also.

The empirically testable question of importance for survival is which computer gets an adequate answer first. Real-time behavior of a concurrent distributed network is not accomplished temporally the same way as a memory-stored discrete-timed programmed computer. (Of course this will depend on the details of how they are programmed and how fast the hardware works.) For example, because of its parallel inputs and concurrent processing, a network can generally recognize images or spatial patterns faster than a GP-type computer, while a computer can do logic and arithmetic much faster.

In any case, brains don’t operate much like an artificial neural net. They are much better at learning than current artificial neural networks, but not nearly as fast or accurate as a computer at formal logic and arithmetic.

I don’t think “intelligence” is as important for survival as humans like to think. Survival first requires real-time pattern recognition and sensorimotor control. In this respect, none of our artificial networks or computers comes even close to spider, insect, or bird brains in size, reliability, control skills, or memory and energy efficiency.

Joel said...

Ira said: I love Voltaire's Candide and was somewhat let down by the ending and the cop-out of "tend to your gardens". The real message of Candide comes from my favorite character, Master Pangloss! HE IS RIGHT AFTER ALL.

Joel responds: There have been many papers written about the meaning of this final sentence. I can understand Ira's interpretation, since he's a fan of Dr. Pangloss. On the other hand, Voltaire was not a fan of Pangloss. His entire book is devoted to mocking the Panglosses of the world; those philosophers who believe they know it all despite the imponderable complexities of the world. A few paragraphs before the end Voltaire says;

"It was altogether natural to imagine, that after undergoing so many disasters, Candide, married to his mistress and living with the philosopher Pangloss, the philosopher Martin, the prudent Cacambo, and the old woman, having besides brought home so many diamonds from the country of the ancient Incas, would lead the most agreeable life in the world. But he had been so robbed by the Jews, that he had nothing left but his little farm; his wife, every day growing more and more ugly, became headstrong and insupportable; the old woman was infirm, and more ill-natured yet than Cunegund. Cacambo, who worked in the garden, and carried the produce of it to sell in Constantinople, was above his labor, and cursed his fate. Pangloss despaired of making a figure in any of the German universities. And as to Martin, he was firmly persuaded that a person is equally ill-situated everywhere. He took things with patience.

Candide, Martin, and Pangloss disputed sometimes about metaphysics and morality. Boats were often seen passing under the windows of the farm laden with effendis, bashaws, and cadis, that were going into banishment to Lemnos, Mytilene and Erzerum. And other cadis, bashaws, and effendis were seen coming back to succeed the place of the exiles, and were driven out in their turns. They saw several heads curiously stuck upon poles, and carried as presents to the Sublime Porte. Such sights gave occasion to frequent dissertations; and when no disputes were in progress, the irksomeness was so excessive that the old woman ventured one day to tell them:

"I would be glad to know which is worst, to be ravished a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fe, to be dissected, to be chained to an oar in a galley; and, in short, to experience all the miseries through which every one of us hath passed, or to remain here doing nothing?"

This, said Candide, is a grand question.

This discourse gave birth to new reflections, and Martin especially concluded that man was born to live in the convulsions of disquiet, or in the lethargy of idleness. Though Candide did not absolutely agree to this, yet he did not determine anything on that head. Pangloss avowed that he had undergone dreadful sufferings; but having once maintained that everything went on as well as possible, he still maintained it, and at the same time believed nothing of it."

Voltaire was a practical man with a knack for making money and developing resources. He appears to be saying that metaphysics is nothing more than an entertainment to fill empty hours. I agree with that for the most part. Pangloss appears to have given up the belief in the best of all possible worlds, while still mouthing the principles to anyone who will listen. With respect -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Despite the dreadful sufferings and sad ending of Candide, as quoted by Joel, Master Pangloss maintained his belief that this is the best of all possible worlds.

It is Voltaire who claims Pangloss believed nothing of it.

Why not ask Pangloss himself? I did and here is his answer:

I’m Dr. Pangloss – the Main Character in Candide – Great piece of fiction by the vicious French rapscallion Voltaire (Francois Marie-Arouet -1694-1778)

Voltaire was a great writer – and a greater LIAR! Great liars succeed by telling the truth,
mostly. They lie by leaving some details out, distorting others, and, every so often, inserting a tiny bit of falsehood.

Voltaire wrote
Candide to poke fun at my philosophy which he caricatured as “This is the best of all possible worlds”. He also intended to ruin the reputation of the great German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1715).

Voltaire was a proponent of the so-called “Enlightenment”. He was an extreme rationalist, opposed to Christianity and rejecting all things irrational.

Both Voltaire and Leibnitz are dead – so why am I here addressing you? Well, ordinary mortals must die, but great
literary characters, like me, can live forever.

I (Ira) don't know if I could maintain my Panglossian philosophy had I suffered the torments Voltaire fictionally imposes upon Candide and Pangloss and their associates. My life has, so far, been mostly wonderful and exciting and rewarding.

However, absent an omnipotent and all seeing God who is interested in each of us as individuals (which neither Joel nor I can believe in) we are at the mercy of the "General Organizing Device" (GOD) that is the Process of Natural Selection and Evolution.

That Process guarantees that, on the average, those organisms and ideas that best fit the ever-changing environment will survive and reproduce. Those who are unfit, and some who are fit but happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, will suffer great torments in the service of the only GOD we can believe in.

Just as "it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" it is better to have lived a life of great success and great privation, as did Candide and Pangloss and their associates, than never to have lived at all.

Had they simply "tended to their gardens" and not had the wonderful adventures invented by Voltaire, as do most of the population of the Earth, they would have passed on with no one to remember them, like so many cows and pigs.

That is why Pangloss and I maintain that while this is not the best imaginable world for each of us as invdividuals, it is the best of all possible worlds.

Do you agree it would not be possible for the world to be best for each and every individual creature living in it?

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard mentions the "Turing Test" that I once thought was the gold standard for determining intelligence. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Turing Test assumes a computer or robot is intelligent if it can fool a competent observer into thinking it is a human.

I no longer accept the Turing Test as definitive because I believe intelligence requires more than just giving proper responses, but actually demands a reasonable level of understanding.

We used to have human researchers at work who would do literature searches. They were highly literate and intelligent humans who understood what I was looking for and some of the technology behind it. Today, Google does their job infinitely better and faster and less expensively. Yet, I do not believe the Google search algorithms understand anything. All the intelligence belongs to the software engineers who programmed it and the human users who interpret the results.

The same is true of route planning. The AAA used to have intelligent humans who made TripTix maps for members, plotting out routes for long-distance auto journeys. No more! For a few hundred bucks I have a GPS map that plots routes in real time and modifies them if I diverge from the planned route. These devices are faster, cheaper, and far better than TripTix ever were. Yet, I do not believe my GPS Map understands anything about routes or car travel.

On the other hand, I have not yet given up on the possibility some silicon and copper (electronic) organism will eventually really understand. Given a process something like Evolution and Natural Selection, over an extended period of time, I believe self-reproducing machines could actually become intelligent and understand at a level comparable to humans.

The proof? Well, we humans are electro-chemical machines and we have done so. Only a protoplasm bigot would deny the possibility a machine not made of complex carbo-hydrates and hydro-carbons could duplicate our feat.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Spinoza ends the Ethics with a kind of Panglossian view with caveats. It is like saying that we must happily make the best world possible.

Spinoza says, “But human power is very limited and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes. So we do not have an absolute power to adapt things outside us to our use. Nevertheless, we shall bear calmly those things which happen to us contrary to what the principle of our advantage demands, if we are conscious that we have done our duty, that the power we have could not have extended itself to the point where we could have avoided those things, and that we are part of the whole of Nature, whose order we follow. If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us that is defined by understanding, that is, the better part of us, will be entirely satisfied by this, and will strive to persevere in that satisfaction. For insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is necessary, nor absolutely be satisfied with anything except what is true. Hence, insofar as we understand these things rightly, the striving of the better part of us agrees with the order of the whole of Nature.” [The Ethics IV, Of Human Bondage, XXXII (II/276)]

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard for the Spinoza quote in support of the Panglossian view (with caveats).

Voltaire over-simplifies and caricatures Pangloss in Candide but he is such a great writer that, despite his efforts the contrary, the TRUTH comes out!

Panglossian ideas go back at least to Roman Stoicism and Epictetus' famous Enchiridion (The Manual - ca. 135).

Paraphrasing Epictetus: We will go on well in this world if we do not demand things happen as we wish, but rather that they happen as they do happen. We are actors in a great drama. It is not up to us to choose our part, but to act well the part we are assigned by the Author of the drama [GOD]. As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in this world. The essence of piety towards the gods is to form right opinions concerning them, as governing the Universe justly and well.

Epictetus quotes Euripides: “I follow cheerfully, and did I not; wicked and wretched I must follow still; whoever yields properly to Fate is deemed wise among men and knows the laws of Heaven.”

Lest you think these opinions are the refuge of pacifists and cowards, Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740-1786) carried The Enchiridion with him into all of his battles. (I was introduced to Epictetus as an undergrad in 1958 and have carried a copy of the Enchiridion on all travels since then.)

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

I'll have to read the Enchiridion.

But first I have to answer Ira's statement: “Only a protoplasm bigot would deny the possibility a machine not made of complex carbo-hydrates and hydro-carbons could duplicate our feat.” [bigot: a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from their own.]

I hope Ira doesn’t think I’m intolerant if I just disagree by saying that only a person ignorant of the amazing properties of protoplasm would suggest that something other than protoplasm could duplicate all of the feats of protoplasm.

Such a person might also make other logically impenetrable statements like. “Only a face-centered diamond bigot would deny the possibility that a crystal not made of carbon could duplicate all the properties of face-centered diamonds.”

One of protoplasm’s many integrated properties is the networks of enzymes that speed up highly coordinated specific reactions by factors as high at 10 to the 12th or 14th power. That is what keeps us competitively speedy enough in all our activities to eat and reproduce rather than be eaten and become extinct.

My point is, if there were two “different” substances that exactly duplicated each others properties and behaviors, why would you call them different?

Ira Glickstein said...

Epictetus' Enchiridion is an easy read at http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html.

Of course I agree with Howard that if two substances exactly duplicate all properties and behaviors they cannot be different and therefore must be the same substance. On the other hand, it is possible for different substances to have properties and behaviors that are in the same range or at a comparable level.

My only claim was the possibility a non-protoplasm entity could be intelligent and really understand at the human level. I did not claim it would be exactly like a human brain or that its thoughts and actions would exactly match those of a human. For example, if it was electrically-powered it might be more concerned with the price of batteries than the cost of beef and vegetables!

Since you brought up diamonds, let me note that a cubic zirconia (CZ) is a different substance from a diamond, and therefore does not duplicate all of it's properties, it is, nevertheless, a gemstone competitor when it comes to appearance and usefulnesss as jewelery. Indeed, CZ is in the same range of refractive index (2.15–2.18 compared to 2.42 for diamonds). It has a higher dispersion (0.058–0.066 exceeding 0.044 for diamonds). Thus, one could say CZ has visual atractiveness properties that are in the range of natural diamonds.

Synthetic diamonds are the same material as natural diamonds but are artificial in that they are manufactured. That illustrates there may be two routes to the same end, one natural and the other human-made.

Right now on Earth the only entities that are in the range of human intelligence and understanding are flesh and blood (protoplasm) humans. How do you know there are not entities of comparable intelligence and understanding on one of the zillions of planets in the Universe that are not protoplasm? What makes you certain that thinking can only be accomplished by protoplasm?

Certainly, when a computer does mathematical calculations, they are really mathematics, or when a computer plays chess at the human level it is really playing chess.

It is true that properties like hardness and light refraction depend upon specific physical characteristics, but what makes you so sure that thinking and intelligence and understanding are dependent upon specific physical characteristics?

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

We are having a wild blizzard at the moment with 35 mph gusts, but we still have power, so I’ll answer Ira’s post.

Ira wants to know, “what makes you so sure that thinking and intelligence and understanding are dependent upon specific physical characteristics?” Since I used to think like Ira that thought was non-physical, this is a good question. This has been a controversial question for over 2000 years. Of course I agree with Ira that one could imagine, but only vaguely, other kinds of thinking with some other kinds of life based on other kinds of matter.

On the other hand, I prefer being more realistic. I think life as it has evolved for 4 billion years on Earth is probably quite unique just because of its physical characteristics and the physical characteristics of the many environments it has survived. I don’t see how our concept of “understanding” and “thinking” could escape this physical evolutionary history, because our brains cannot escape this history.

I also have the evidence of 50 years of AI research. Early AI workers, like Alan Newell, believed like Ira that thought is a disembodied process that could have an equivalent behavior produced in another physical form. Early Artificial Life workers, like Chris Langton, also thought the same way. But even with great effort it turned out that this view has produced only very limited results. Artificial neural nets appeared at first to do better at pattern recognition and learning, but simulating even the simplest insect behavior was beyond reach.

Disembodied “thinking” by itself is no longer popular except for artificial games like chess. Today most AI and AL modelers accept the fact that all brains evolved first for sensorimotor controls. Even pure mathematics has been shown to be dependent on abstraction and metaphors of the physical world [e.g., Lackoff and Nunez, Where Mathematics Comes From]. Consequently, AI and AL research has shifted toward “situated robotics” and learning networks that begin with sensorimotor coupling to a real physical environment.

Cognitive philosophers and psychologists have also recognized that there is no such thing as “pure thought” that is not evolved and abstracted from physical interactions. When Einstein was asked how he arrived at his theories he said his thinking was “of a visual and muscular type” (i.e., sensorimotor type). The math came later with great difficulty. Andy Clark’s Being There is all about how thought cannot be separated from physical sensations and actions.

The main source of our earlier AI deception about “pure thought” is the computer, which is a universal embodiment of purely formal symbol manipulation. Also, in this computer culture, formal proofs tended to replace common sense. A famous example is the simple Universal Turing Machine that can be proved to be “equivalent” to any supercomputer with enough memory. This can be misinterpreted to mean that with enough toilet paper (as tape) and paperclips (as markers) you can compute as well as with your laptop.

“Pure thought” is an illusion. I like Andy Clarks Law: Everything leaks: “There are no clear-cut level distinctions in nature. Neural software bleeds into neural firmware, neural firmware bleeds into neural hardware, psychology bleeds into biology and biology bleeds into physics. Body bleeds into mind and mind bleeds into world. Philosophy bleeds into science and science bleeds back. The idea of levels is a useful fiction, great for hygienic text-book writing and quick answers that defend our local turf but seldom advance scientific understanding.”

Ira Glickstein said...

Sorry about your blizzard in MA - we've also got a cold wave down here in FL, it may go below 40 F overnight.

I abandoned the idea that thought was non-physical over a decade ago, mostly due to your influence, Howard.

Understanding and insightful intelligence, I believe, requires more than simply making appropriate responses to external stimulai. When a programmed computer does a competent job of planning routes or playing chess or doing tasks traditionally performed by intelligent humans, that (contrary to Turing's Test) is not proof it is thinking or has insightful understanding at a human level.

I agree with Howard that "life as it has evolved for 4 billion years on Earth is probably quite unique just because of its physical characteristics and the physical characteristics of the many environments it has survived."

Any entities that are really alive and thinking insightfully must have physical characteristics and a long-term history of evolution and survival in some physical environment. Up to this point I believe Howard and I are on the same page.

Where we differ, I believe, is that I am more open to the possibilty that thought and insightful intelligence may be rooted in a physical substrate different from protoplasm - perhaps even something as different as silicon and copper.

As I wrote back in the mid-nineties in a book chapter entitled "Will Computers Really THINK in the 21st Century":

"An important paradigm shift, from serial, symbolic computation to massively parallel, subsymbolic computation will characterize computing in the 21st century. This new connectionist paradigm will prove to have both practical and theoretical consequences.

"The practical consequences, which we will see early in the 21st century, will include much greater fexibility, as well as a geometrical increase in speed and power as we learn to program (or, more likely, set them up to self-organize). Personal computers will give way to ever-present mental co-processors, at first worn like portable radios or TVs, but later surgically implanted in our bodies like heart pacemakers. While not capable of general intelligent actions on their own, these aptly named THINKmans (Asimov) will prove invaluable in automating tasks we find boring or dangerous, helping us visualize complex information, and immediately connecting us to the mental processes of other humans to solve difficult problems.

"The theoretical consequences, which may include the ability of copper and silicon machines to exhibit human-like general intelligence, will take much longer to achieve, and may not occur in the 21st century, despite our best efforts. After much effort, and considerable success in ever expanding but still limited domains of knowledge, we may decide on an alternative approach to designing and engineering AI entities capable of insightful thought.

"We will let a large number of self-replicating robots loose on some uninhabited planet, and plan to come back in a few billion years, expecting to discover (if their decendants still exist) what copper and silicon entities, capable of real insightful intelligence, actually look like!"


Ira Glickstein