CULTURE

Organs Of Computation

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Introduction
By John Brockman

One of the central metaphors of the third culture is computation. The computer does computation and the mind does computation. To understand what makes birds fly, you may look at airplanes, because there are principles of flight and aerodynamics that apply to anything that flies. That is how the idea of computation figures into the new ways in which scientists are thinking about complicated systems.

At first, people who wanted to be scientific about the mind tried to treat it by looking for fundamentals, as in physics. We had waves of so-called mathematical psychology, and before that psychologists were trying to find a simple building block-an "atom"-with which to reconstruct the mind. That approach did not work. It turns out that minds, which are brains, are extremely complicated artifacts of natural selection, and as such they have many emergent properties that can best be understood from an engineering point of view.

We are also discovering that the world itself is very "kludgey"; it is made up of curious Rube Goldberg mechanisms that do cute tricks. This does not sit well with those who want science to be crystalline and precise, like Newton's pure mathematics. The idea that nature might be composed of Rube Goldberg machines is deeply offensive to people who have a strong esthetic drive-those who say that science must be beautiful, that it must be pure, that everything should be symmetrical and deducible from first principles. That esthetic has been a great motivating force in science, since Plato.

Counteracting it is the esthetic that says the beauties of nature come from the interaction of mind-boggling complexities, and that it is complexity essentially most of the way down. The computational perspective-machines made out of machines made out of machines-is on the ascendant.

The experimental psychologist Steven Pinker is a unifier, someone who ties a lot of big ideas together. He has studied visual cognition and language acquisition in the laboratory, and was one of the first to develop computational models of how children learn the words and grammar of their first language. He has merged Chomskyan ideas about an innate language faculty with the Darwinian theory of adaptation and natural selection. Pinker also wrote one of the most influential critiques of neural-network models of the mind. His 1994 book The Language Instinct discussed all aspects of language in a unified, Darwinian framework, and in a new book he tries to do the same for the rest of the mind, explaining "what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life." One of the central metaphors of the third culture is computation. The computer does computation and the mind does computation. To understand what makes birds fly, you may look at airplanes, because there are principles of flight and aerodynamics that apply to anything that flies. That is how the idea of computation figures into the new ways in which scientists are thinking about complicated systems.

At first, people who wanted to be scientific about the mind tried to treat it by looking for fundamentals, as in physics. We had waves of so-called mathematical psychology, and before that psychologists were trying to find a simple building block-an "atom"-with which to reconstruct the mind. That approach did not work. It turns out that minds, which are brains, are extremely complicated artifacts of natural selection, and as such they have many emergent properties that can best be understood from an engineering point of view.

We are also discovering that the world itself is very "kludgey"; it is made up of curious Rube Goldberg mechanisms that do cute tricks. This does not sit well with those who want science to be crystalline and precise, like Newton's pure mathematics. The idea that nature might be composed of Rube Goldberg machines is deeply offensive to people who have a strong esthetic drive-those who say that science must be beautiful, that it must be pure, that everything should be symmetrical and deducible from first principles. That esthetic has been a great motivating force in science, since Plato.

Counteracting it is the esthetic that says the beauties of nature come from the interaction of mind-boggling complexities, and that it is complexity essentially most of the way down. The computational perspective-machines made out of machines made out of machines-is on the ascendant.

The experimental psychologist Steven Pinker is a unifier, someone who ties a lot of big ideas together. He has studied visual cognition and language acquisition in the laboratory, and was one of the first to develop computational models of how children learn the words and grammar of their first language. He has merged Chomskyan ideas about an innate language faculty with the Darwinian theory of adaptation and natural selection. Pinker also wrote one of the most influential critiques of neural-network models of the mind. His 1994 book The Language Instinct discussed all aspects of language in a unified, Darwinian framework, and in a new book he tries to do the same for the rest of the mind, explaining "what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life."

-JB

THE REALITY CLUB: Steven Mithen, Steven Quartz, Nicholas Humphrey, Patricia S. Churchland, Sandra Blakeslee, Steven Pinker, Nicholas Humphrey, Richard Potts


 

SCIENCE, DELUSION, AND THE APPETITE FOR WONDER

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Introduction by John Brockman 
 
The universe is changing in time, and it has evolved from something simpler to something more complex. That is the lesson to be learned from recent advances in evolutionary theory; the emergence of order has colored biology since Darwin and twentieth-century cosmology alike. 
 
In Darwin's day, the exact manner of the inheritance of characteristics was not known; Darwin himself believed that certain characteristics were acquired by an organism as a result of environmental change and could be passed to the organism's offspring, an idea popularized by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. In 1900, the work done by Mendel some fifty years earlier was brought to light, and the gene, though its exact nature was unknown at the time, became a player in "the modern synthesis" of Mendel and Darwin. This synthesis, which reconciled genetics per se with Darwin's vision of natural selection, was carried out in the early 1930s by R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright, and augmented a few years later by the work of the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, the biologist Ernst Mayr, and the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who expanded on this neo-Darwinian paradigm. Nevertheless, there is still discord in the ranks of evolutionary biologists. The principal debates are concerned with the mechanism of speciation; whether natural selection operates at the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, or all three; and also with the relative importance of other factors, such as natural catastrophes. 
 
Richard Dawkins is firmly in the Darwinist camp. "It rapidly became clear to me," he says, "that the most imaginative way of looking at evolution, and the most inspiring way of teaching it, was to say that it's all about the genes. It's the genes that, for their own good, are manipulating the bodies they ride about in. The individual organism is a survival machine for its genes."
 
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene (1976, 2d ed. 1989), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), and Climbing Mount Improbable (1996). He is a gifted writer, who is known for his popularization of Darwinian ideas as well as for original thinking on evolutionary theory. He has invented telling metaphors that illuminate the Darwinian debate: His book The Selfish Gene argues that genes—molecules of DNA—are the fundamental units of natural selection, the "replicators." Organisms, including ourselves, are "vehicles," the packaging for "replicators." The success or failure of replicators is based on their ability to build successful vehicles. There is a complementarity in the relationship: vehicles propagate their replicators, not themselves; replicators make vehicles. In The Extended Phenotype, he goes beyond the body to the family, the social group, the architecture, the environment that animals create, and sees these as part of the phenotype—the embodiment of the genes. He also takes a Darwinian view of culture, exemplified in his invention of the "meme," the unit of cultural inheritance; memes are essentially ideas, and they, too, are operated on by natural selection.
 
Richard Dawkins enjoys the high regard of his peers both for his writing and his thinking. Sir John Maddox, editor emeritus of Nature, notes that "Climbing Mount Improbable has the grandeur of Darwin's Origin of the Species, but that's not surprising—it covers the same ground. Nobody can look at this book and then put it down unread—and nobody who reads it can fail to understand what Darwin is all about." According to Danny Hillis, "notions like selfish genes, memes, and extended phenotype are powerful and exciting. They make me think differently. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time arguing against people who have overinterpreted these ideas. They're too easily misunderstood as explaining more than they do. So you see, this Dawkins is a dangerous guy. Like Marx. Or Darwin."
 
In his role as the Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University, Dawkins regularly talks to the public regarding his views on the wonders of science. Several weeks ago, on November 12th, 1996, he delievered the Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1 Television in England, entitled "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder." The complete text appears below.- 
 
 
 
"Implications of Natural Selection and The Laws of Physics" — Lee Smolin

 

Chapter 2 "THE PATTERN OF LIFE'S HISTORY"

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Stuart Kauffman: Steve is extremely bright, inventive. He thoroughly understands paleontology; he thoroughly understands evolutionary biology. He has performed an enormous service in getting people to think about punctuated equilibrium, because you see the process of stasis/sudden change, which is a puzzle. It's the cessation of change for long periods of time. Since you always have mutations, why don't things continue changing? You either have to say that the particular form is highly adapted, optimal, and exists in a stable environment, or you have to be very puzzled. Steve has been enormously important in that sense.

__________

STEPHEN JAY GOULD is an evolutionary biologist, a paleontologist, and a snail geneticist; professor of zoology at Harvard University; MacArthur Fellow; author of, among others, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), The Mismeasure of Man (1981), The Flamingo's Smile (1985), Wonderful Life (1989), Bully for Brontosaurus (1992), Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996), and Full House (1996).

Stephen Jay Gould's Edge Bio Page

Chapter 4 "BIOLOGY IS JUST A DANCE"

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Francisco Varela: Brian should be described as a theoretical biologist. He was introduced into biology from early days, but more recently he has had a structuralist perspective, reaching for fundamental patterns on some expression of life. In that sense, he has come in with a new message, into a biology that's more or less fixated on components and molecules.

__________

BRIAN GOODWIN is a biologist; professor of biology at the Open University, outside London; author of How the Leopard Changed Its Spots (1994).

Brian Goodwin's Edge Bio Page


Chapter 9 "INFORMATION IS SURPRISES"

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Marvin Minsky: Roger Schank has pioneered many important ideas about how knowledge might be represented in the human mind. In the early 1970s, he developed a concept of semantics that he called "conceptual dependency," which plays an important role in my book The Society of Mind. He's also developed other paradigms, involving representing knowledge in various types of networks, scripts, and storylike forms.??

__________

ROGER SCHANK is a computer scientist and cognitive psychologist; director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences, at Northwestern University; John Evans Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and professor of psychology and of education and social policy; author of fourteen books on creativity, learning, and artificial intelligence, including The Creative Attitude: Learning to Ask and Answer the Right Questions, with Peter Childers (1988), Dynamic Memory (1982), Tell Me A Story (1990), and The Connoisseur's Guide to the Mind (1991).

Roger Schank's Edge Bio Page

Chapter 10 "INTUITION PUMPS"

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Marvin Minsky: Dan Dennett is our best current philosopher. He is the next Bertrand Russell. Unlike traditional philosophers, Dan is a student of neuroscience, linguistics, artificial intelligence, computer science, and psychology. He's redefining and reforming the role of the philosopher. Of course, Dan doesn't understand my society-of-mind theory, but nobody's perfect.

__________

Hardcover [ May, 2013 ]
Daniel C. Dennett
 

DANIEL C. DENNETT is a philosopher; director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor at Tufts University; author of Content and Consciousness (1969), Brainstorms (1978), (with Douglas R. Hofstadter) The Mind's I (1981), Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), and Kinds of Minds (1996). 

Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio Page

Introduction

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THE THIRD CULTURE

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of their work. Second, while many eminent scientists, notably Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, also wrote books for a general audience, their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the reigning journals and magazines.

In a second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.

The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies — that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves.

The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called "science" has today become "public culture." Stewart Brand writes that "Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn't change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly." We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change. Science has thus become a big story.

Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others. There is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other European scientists and was further fueled by the post-Sputnik boom in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture.

—John Brockman
   1991

 


Who are the third-culture intellectuals? The list includes the individuals featured in this book, whose work and ideas give meaning to the term: the physicists Paul Davies, J. Doyne Farmer, Murray Gell-Mann, Alan Guth, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees, and Lee Smolin; the evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins, Niles Eldredge, Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones, and George C. Williams; the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett; the biologists Brian Goodwin, Stuart Kauffman, Lynn Margulis, and Francisco J. Varela; the computer scientists W. Daniel Hillis, Christopher G. Langton, Marvin Minsky, and Roger Schank; the psychologists Nicholas Humphrey and Steven Pinker.

During the past three years, I have had ongoing one-on-one discussions with the above mentioned scientists about their own work and the work of other scientists included in the book. The result is not an anthology, nor is it an overview. I see it as an oral history of a dynamical emergent system, a celebration of the ideas of third-culture thinkers who are defining the interesting and important questions of our times. Here they are communicating their thoughts to the public and to one another. It is an exhibition of this new community of intellectuals in action.

The selection of scientists included in this book is, obviously, far from comprehensive. Many important contributors to the third culture, including social, behavioral, and anthropological scientists, are not here. In addition, the contributions of science journalists — many of whom are distinguished writers and notable thinkers — must also be recognized; their books have provided the public with a wider understanding and greater appreciation of the work and ideas identified with the third culture.

Some of the scientists in the book I work with professionally: they are clients of my literary agency; others are not. (Indeed, the great percentage of scientists I represent are not included here.) The selection is serendipitous, and has to do with my personal scientific interests as well as with the availability of the scientists themselves. The ideas presented are speculative; they represent the frontiers of knowledge in the areas of evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, and physics. Some of the fundamental questions posed are: Where did the universe come from? Where did life come from? Where did the mind come from? Emerging out of the third culture is a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it, and it is the intellectuals with these new ideas and images — those scientists doing things and writing their own books — who drive our times.

I have taken the editorial license to create a written narrative from my tapes, but although the participants have read, and in some cases edited, the transcriptions of their spoken words, there is no intention that the following chapters in any way represent their writing. For that, read their own books. I have also made the assumption that the views of scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Martin Rees on natural selection and cosmology are of more interest to readers than my own ideas on such subjects. I have thus written myself (and my questions) out of the text. Finally, remarks made about other scientists and their work are general in nature and were not made as responses to the text.


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First published in The Los Angeles Times, 1991. Introduction to The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995) . Copyright © 1995 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.

 

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