Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ego and Intelligence

Jeff Hawkins' On Intelligence lays out a fascinating theory of how the brain works. He presents a new synthesis of elements of congnition that he argues have been under-estimated to date: time-dependence, hierarchy, memory and prediction.

The main drawback is that this is very much a first-person narrative; on page 87, for example, the word "I" appears no fewer than ten times. An exception, perhaps? Let's try page 169: "I", "me" and "my" appear eight times.

The ideas are laid out very well, and the reader is eased into neuroscience with clever analogies and metaphors. There are thought-provoking passages on why AI and neural nets failed, on the likely nature of intelligent machines, and on the uses to which they could be put. He led me to stimulating speculations -- what greater compliment for a thought-provoking book? -- like possible explanations for the diversity of personality traits among individuals all endowed with essentially the same cognitive apparatus.

The prose is very readable, thanks largely I assume to the efforts of the co-author, science writer Sandra Blakeslee. The price paid for the collaboration, though, is that the writing doesn't have much character. In contrast, Malcolm Gladwell writes just as well, but one feels that you end up knowing him a little and would like to spend more time with him discussing his ideas.

As a scientist manqué I found Hawkins' lack of rigor faintly annoying. While he makes a good case, the phrases "it's true that" and "I firmly believe that" seem to be equivalent to him. This is a popular book written before the papers are published, rather than after; as far as I could tell (eg from the publications listed at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, f(o)unded by Hawkins) he has no peer-reviewed publications. This book seems to be more interested in establishing a claim in the public mind than advancing science, though its popularity among the digerati is likely to spur the professional scientists on, in spite of themselves.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Goldstein on Gödel

Rebecca Goldstein's Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel is a wonderful "life and work".

She successfully communicates both the context and essence of Gödel's contribution, and his opacity and paranoia. Goldstein provides a lucid outline of logical positivism; for the first time, I grasped the philosophical point of this movement, and it's relationship to Platonism. I began to get a handle on Wittgenstein, and, amazingly, I felt I understood the rudiments of the predicate calculus, the difference between truth and proof, and even the sketch of Godel's proof.

Goldstein also conjures up Gödel as an individual, and turns the fragments and glimpses of this very private man into a metaphor for his personality. One gets a sense of a how a few caring colleagues looked after him, in spite of his rebuffs and hypochondria. While a very different man, Gödel's eccentricity and circle of caring colleagues reminded me of another strnage mathematician evoked Paul Hoffman's fascinating book: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers : The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth.

The book is fluently written, and I'm tempted to explore her novels. The explanations of abstruse mathematics are well handled, and she skillfully evokes the many peripheral personalities. The only jarring notes are a handful of gratuituous trips to the thesaurus.

This life of Gödel reminded me fondly of a book I read and loved more than a decade ago: John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: A Dual Biography by Stephen J. Heims(Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1980). Sadly, it seems to be out of print; I found it at my local university library, and I look forward to reading it again.

Meaning: the lack of a knack

In the previous entry I referred to my fruitless, but not yet hopeless, search for meaning. On reflection, it may be hopeless; I may just not have the temperament for it.

According to tests like Seligman's Signature Strengths, my self-image is built around even-handedness and humility. I strongly value open-mindedness, good judgement, and modesty. One might expect that this kind of person would not have strong opinions, would be willing to entertain that any number of contradictory possibilities might be equally good, and wouldn't believe that they have any privileged insight into, say, what's worth doing and what isn't.

This would make it hard to experience meaning, given the Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of it as "importance, or significance". Both these terms suggest a relative judgment; something can be important or significant only relative to other, less important, things. Someone who is even-handed will find it difficult to experience one thing as much more significant than another. A leaning towards modesty makes it even harder, since there is a reluctance to believe that any judgment that is arrived at is important compared to that of other people.

Now, I cheated a bit. Another meaning of "meaning" is "worthwhile quality, or purpose"(Compact Oxford English Dictionary) . In that case, the search for meaning is a search for purpose, not the search for importance. And yet... "worthwhile" implies a value judgement, and a purpose entails selecting one direction over another. Humble open-mindedness isn't going to help much here, either.

If it's correct that some temperaments militate against finding meaning in life, then others must enhance it. Seligman, for example, lists one of 24 signature strengths as "Spirtuality, Sense of Purpose, Faith, Religiousness". At the risk of tautology, one might guess that people who have a strong sense of the Other will find meaning, since to them it is obvious that there's a greater reality beyond themselves that provides a compass, and a way to discern between alternatives. Other personality types that are likely to find meaning easily are those who are courageous (taking strong stands in face of opposition suggests the self-confidence required to discern one thing as more important than another), and those showing leadership (since leadership presupposes a sense of direction, which presumes the ability to feel a strong bias for one course of action over another).


The postmodernists say (said? are there still any out there?) that there's meaning in random jusxtaposition. Let's hope:

I've known for a long time that as men get older, their hair stops growing out their head and start coming out their ears and noses. I'm learning to live with it. But what I wasn't expecting were the bushy eyebrows. Long, straight, hard hairs that come out akimbo. Omigod, please, I don't want to become Dennis Healy! What does one do with them? Pulling one out seems like cutting off the Hydra's heads; two grow back in its place.

I dreamt the other night of Bill Gates doing stand-up. He was pretty darn good. He was enjoying himself, and the audience was with him. He ended his set with some hilarious impersonations of a few Microsoft VPs - that nobody in the audience got.

I saw a stage adaptation of Chaim Potok's Chosen last night. It is a coming-of-age story about people discovering what gives meaning to their lives, and then devoting themselves to it. I am still searching for meaning after all these years. I tell myself that I shouldn't expect to find it. If it weren't essentially impossible to find meaning, why would there be so much literature - and religion - about it? One could say the same thing about love. Which gives me hope: I didn't imagine I'd ever experience true love until the day I did.

Cheskin have done a wonderful piece about the meaning of color around the world. I first saw it just around the time when the 76 gas company started confusing me. I've always been fond of the orange livery of their filling stations, and I started seeing the orange as more and more red; was I beginning to lose my sense of color? And then one day I saw a tanker truck in the old orange delivering fuel to a station decked out in red. Side by side, orange and red; there could be no doubt. It must be a rather pathetic attempt to wrap themselves in the flag. In these days of patriotism, the board must have decided, red and blue was better than orange. What a pity. Red is already so overused, especially in the gas market (Conoco, Texaco), that it has no distinguishing meaning any more. I'll treasure my little orange 76 car antenna bobble even more now.

Before and after:

I copied out this quote from Thomas Merton's "The Love of Solitude, IV" ages ago:
A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to
live and begins to live.

(A longer excerpt here.)

Two epigrams:

If I can think of it, someone else is probably already doing it.

The least trustworthy person in the world is my future self.