EDGE 19 — May 30, 1997


Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman

1. He confuses 1 and 2 the 200 IQ.
3. Wears his hat to deny his head.

6. Is self-conscious option enough?
8. All of his publicity improves with xerography. Does that have anything to do with evolution?
78. Numbers don't count ?
95. Epitaph: kicking the shit out of physical phenomena.


"Organs of Computation"
Steven Pinker - Arnold Trehub - Steven Quartz

(5,751 words)

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman

On Saturday, May 24, I received the following email message from the Swiss art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist:

"Dear John,

I just got a very sad message that James Lee Byars died yesterday in Cairo. Very sick he spent the last 2 ,3 months of his life near the pharaohs.


Hans Ulrich."

On a visit to New York, Hans Ulrich had noticed that my office walls are covered with the framed works of art by James Lee, which, in each case, are pieces he mailed to me or stuffed under my door. Inevitably they were constructed out of exotic papers he had found in Chinatown and on which he either wrote in a his highly stylized script or microprinted lists of questions in a type size so tiny as to be unreadable to the naked eye.

James Lee, who defined the sophisticated edge of that world of ideas had been my neighbor, closest friend, and a collaborator of sorts. He had spent a number of years in Japan and had a decided zen-like epistemology in which there was no distinction between art and life. As one of us used to say (I sometimes get confused here): "what comes before performance?" In his case, the performance was an exercise in the interrogative. James Lee liked questions.

In The First Reader, Gertrude Stein wrote about how Johnny measured Jimmy and how Jimmy measured Johnny until the characters became meaningless and what remained was the act of measurement. She was the first writer who made integral to her work the idea of an indeterminate and discontinuous universe. Words represented neither character nor activity: they were "not imitations either of sounds or colors or emotions." Language was an intellectual re-creation. Through an emphasis on such stylistic devices as repetition she used language to deny meaning and representational concerns. As she pointed out, she would "write as if the fact of writing something were continually becoming true and completing itself, not as if it were leading to something." A rose is a rose is a rose. And a universe is a universe is a universe.

It was in this spirit that James Lee (Jimmy) and I (Johnny) began an intense dialogue around 1970 that sprang, in part from his interest in my early book, By the Late John Brockman (1969) and my fascination with his notion of "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, and Wittgenstein," which, by the end of our collaboration, had become "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Frankenstein." We walked in Central Park nearly every day; we talked incessantly; we had dinners; we wore his plural clothing; we had fistfights; we asked each other the questions we were asking ourselves; we sought to write what he called "the perfect book." He liked "sentences that go 100 ways at once. You can't tell where the subject is, you can't tell what the subject is."

James Lee inspired the idea that led to the Reality Club, and is responsible for the motto of the club. He believed that to arrive at an axiology of societal knowledge it was pure folly to go to a Widener Library and read 6 million volumes of books. (In this regard he kept only four books at a time in a box in his minimally furnished room, replacing books as he read them.) This led to his creation of the World Question Center in which he planned to gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world together in a room, lock them behind closed doors, and have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves. The expected result, in theory, was to be a synthesis of all thought. But between idea and execution are many pitfalls. James Lee identified his 100 most brilliant minds (a few of them have graced the pages of this Site), called each of them, and asked what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him.

It took nearly two years of starting and finishing each others sentences, but we did write the book. Dozens of notebooks, hundreds of handwritten pages, were reduced to 100 sentences, one to a page. I publish it here for the first time.

— JB

p.s. A week after receiving news of James Lee's death, I went to my farm and found the following message on the answering machine time-stamped May 16. "Johnny, Jimmy — send ten thou right away for "The Perfect Book." Wire money to Byars, American Express, Cairo. Johnny, I'm dying in a hotel room in Egypt. Five hundred a day to eat through a tube. Johnny, this is it. Send the money. Call your publisher. Jimmy. Cairo. Click."

James Lee Byars

(The New York Times, May 24, 1997:) "BYARS-James Lee, internationally renowned artist whose work concentrated on minimal hermetic forms, reduction towards essence and absence, and an acute sense of the ephemeral, died on Thursday, May 23, 1997, at the Anglo-American hospital in Cairo, Egypt. He was 65 years old."

Mr. Byars By Mr. Brockman

l. He confuses l and 2 the 200 I.Q. .

2. He likes sentences that go 100 ways at once. You can't tell where the subject is, you can't tell what the subject is.

3. Wears his hat to deny his head.

4. He wants it written so that at the end of the book you can't imitate, can't possibly think of anything he's done. Written so each sentence has in all its parts an openness.

5. Lines that are too easy can't attract complexity: have to write for subtle people, not for the world.

6. Is self-conscious option enough?

7. Like a dream, like a vision, like a bubble, like a shadow, like dew, like lightning was his 8th name.

8. All of his publicity improves with xerography. Does that have anything to do with evolution?

9. The book: artifice. Show them your notes.

10. All questions consist of establishing the notion of asking followed by a nominative?

11. Black, brown, white, yellow and red, please. If you'll say it twice you'll like it.

12. At first sight do you perceive the full potential of a circumstance?

13. The Chinese make books to go on their sleeves. We don't make sleeves like that.

14. Between the brain and the cerebellum.

15. Imagine, you had an experience.

16. He can't remember it before he pays attention to it.

17. Thank God for the names of the body.

18. He was an out-patient at the insect hospital at Amedidad .

19. People pay twice for describing.

20. He exercises in his morning bath by thinking about walking.

21. Buy my head for life, think of you only, won't think of anything else.

22. His product's fame.

23. Speaking and writing styles are always the same. Nobody can write, nobody can talk.

24. Dismiss yourself.

25. The great personal hallucination: he.

26. I comma the complete history of the world?

27. He wants sentences that are descriptive yet transitive: imagine something that isn't.

28. Don't get any closer than fifth or sixth say.

29. Is there an imaginary question ?

30. He married 12 women by mail and lived with them hypothetically.

31. The sentence, being strong, on both sides being equivocal.

32. The world is so fantastic why make up?

33. He's the poet laureate of the United States. (Poet is a comfort word and he has no intention of its meaning.

34. Which questions have disappeared?

35. To accomplish the extraordinary, you must seek extraordinary people. That's a question.

36. He's my new paradigm

37. Quote 10% of this book and they'll call you a genius. Quote 50% and they won't want to talk to you.

38. What the hell's 100 years?

39. He collected a million minutes of attention.

40. When blindfolded he always returns to his point of origin because his right step is bigger.

41. I'll have to think about it; I just thought about it.

42. He showed the nine month memory of a policeman.

43. Every line in this book is 100% true.

44. Ho ho ho ho is the universal laugh generator. It's the same in all languages.

45. If he can't say it he doesn't know it. If he can say it, it doesn't matter.

46. Suddenly he's a collar, a necktie, and a lapel?

47. It's funny to be news?

48. Put your hypotheses in general language, not intellectual language.

49. Paper bullets of the brain.

50. His tongue's insured for $50,000.

51. Shut your mouth dame, or with this paper I shall stop it.

52. He knows what I know that nobody knows and you can't find out and there's no point in describing what you don't know.

53. Who can talk of one anymore.

54. He whistled e=mc2 all year long.

55. Just to name things.

56. He's the incorrigible pronoun problem.

57. Plural clothing: not at all facetious because people really will look like this or maybe people do look like this in other places. Maybe they do have their heads connected or maybe they do all come out of a single structure and maybe this is a simulation situation. Anyway, it's funny.

58. I can repeat the question but am I bright enough to ask it?

59. He's not difficult, he's just not interested in you or your ideas.

60. What was an animal ?

61. Mathematics ha-ha.

62. This question is capable of questioning itself ?

63. His head weighs 25 lbs.

64. The idea of her life shall sweetly creep into his study of imagination.

65. Success is when you tell him something he doesn't know.

66. Exalt idea.

67. What questions are you asking yourself ?

68. The brightest of all angels. His first words to God: "Give me a world to run."

69. He built and mass-produced the mechanically operated gyp proof whorehouse.

70. Meditate the putrifying corpse.

71. He earned his fictitious doctorate degree by asking for all hypotheses in simple English from all different disciplines that gave it to him in advance of the procedure.

72. He can't read a book about anything.

73. Do all possibilities exist in any?

74. He's trying to hold on to his body, his life: it's a horrible experience.

75. It must be an answer of the most monstrous size — that must fill all demands.

76. If you can't say it, better believe you don't know it. That's the guise of easy mystics.

77. If you ask for something that doesn't exist you deserve it on the intelligence of the request.

78. Numbers don't count?

79. He's the person they pretend doesn't exist.

80. From fairest creatures we desire increase.

81. He still has a notion of possession.

82. For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.

83. He's so in love with the cosmos that he has to pretend anger.

84. A single line can be a complete autobiography.

85. Words pay no debts (if you're so smart why aren't you rich?).

86. He's making his fame by saying "He's right."

87. He sat in a pink silk airplane and invited teachers and students in to speculate about pretend.

88. The question becomes the argument becomes very complexing because people demand explanation.

89. Knowledge always complete.

90. He "sees" words as they are spoken (never having learned how to think).

91. Think yourself away?

92. He displayed and edited 3 people as public information.

93. The earth at least?

94. Have we eaten of the insane root?

95. Epitaph: kicking the shit out of physical phenomena.

96. The only thing left for him is the unreal.

97. Men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.

98. As many lies as will lie in this sheet of paper.

99. The extraordinary god at the japanese shrine deals with all forgotten material.

100. But these are only words.

—James Lee Byars & John Brockman

(Copyright © 1971, 1997, 2004. All rights reserved.)


"Organs of Computation"
Steven Pinker - Arnold Trehub - Steven Quartz

From: Steven Pinker
Submitted: 5.29.97

Steven Quartz, commenting on my interview "Organs of Computation," argues that recent research on brain development rehabilitates Piaget and casts doubt on innate specializations of the brain. That's the San Diego spin these days, but it's far from "the standard model in developmental cognitive neuroscience." Many cognitive neuroscientists interpret brain development differently, and the book Rethinking Innateness is an opinionated polemic, not an emerging consensus.

Quartz writes, "A liver will never become a heart, no matter how sophisticated the transplant. On the other hand, cortical areas are capable of assuming each other's role. Indeed, children who lose the language dominant left hemisphere nonetheless typically become normal language users, provided the insult was early enough. So, where are these organs? Does the brain somehow redundantly represent universal grammar everywhere in the brain? The brain's plasticity coupled with the basic science of developmental neurobiology suggest that the organ metaphor no longer plays a useful role as an item of scientific explanation."

Plasticity after hemispherectomy is a red herring — we're bilaterally symmetrical organisms, and the asymmetry of language is imposed on top of that and highly variable even in the normal range (e.g., in left-handers and many women). But even if we look at plasticity within a hemisphere, the organ analogy is not far off. As with the heart and liver, a mature brain area does not take over an arbitrary function of any other brain areas (despite the common friend-of-a friend exaggerations of the kinds plasticity that have been demonstrated). Immature brain areas are more plastic, but then of course if you go back far enough in development there is embryonic tissue that can differentiate either into heart or liver cells, too.

The point is that the brain and all the other organs have to differentiate in development from a ball of identical cells. Body parts take on their particular form as cells respond to cues in their neighborhood (chemical gradients, mechanical forces, molecular triggers, etc.) that unlock different parts of the genetic program. Similarly, the families of neurons that will form the different mental organs, all descendants of a homogeneous stretch of embryonic tissue, are surely opportunistic as the brain assembles itself, seizing any available information to differentiate from one another. The coordinates in the skull may be one trigger for differentiation, but the pattern of input firings from connected neurons may be another. (Quartz himself notes that there is "activity-dependent gene expression, which acts on regulatory genes.") Indeed, it precisely because the brain is destined to be a set of organs of computation that one would expect it to exploit the capacity of neural tissue to process information as it assembles itself. The plasticity has been described as some kind of "learning," but much of it goes on in the pitch-black womb, before sensory receptors have even formed, so it's better interpreted as part of differentiation and development.

Quartz acknowledges that "the brain is richly constrained. These include mechanisms, such as certain receptor types, and also initial cortical circuitry, conduction velocities, subcortical organization, learning rates, and hierarchical development. But nowhere do any of these entail that domain-specific knowledge of cognitive skills is somehow embedded in the cortex." Actually, according to the computational theory of mind, it is precisely in microscopic details of circuitry, organization, conduction, and so on, that knowledge and skills must reside. What else could they be? If there can be innate circuitry and organization, there can be innate knowledge and skills — the two are simply descriptions of the same thing at different levels of analysis. As for the question of where organs of computation ultimately come from, the answer is that they were shaped by natural selection and other evolutionary processes.

STEVEN PINKER is professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development, Learnability and Cognition, The Language Instinct, and the forthcoming How the Mind Works (Norton).

From: Arnold Trehub
Submitted: 5.30.97

If we put aside the question of whether it is fitting to say that the brain contains innate "organs of computation", it seems that Pinker and Quartz might agree that there are at least some minimal innate computational mechanisms which enable the neonate brain to begin the process of developing/constructing a mind. The crucial question is what are these minimal innate mechanisms and how do they work. I can think of no more important question, because it probes the foundation (and perhaps the limitations) of all human knowledge.

Steven Quartz says "I think the brain is richly constrained. These include mechanisms, such as certain receptor types, and also initial cortical circuitry, conduction velocities, subcortical organization, learning rates, and hierarchical development. But nowhere do any of these entail that domain-specific knowledge of cognitive skills is somehow embedded in the cortex." [emphasis added]. While I cannot disagree with Quartz's interest in the developmental plasticity of the brain, I must disagree with his last statement above.

It appears that Quartz is denying that there are any innate representations of domain-specific knowledge in the human brain. It seems to me that studies of infant perception tend to refute such a claim. For example, infants as young as 4-5 months evidence knowledge of (1) object permanence, (2) the essential properties of 3-D space, and (3) size constancy (a given object viewed at varying distance is perceived as having the same intrinsic size despite substantial changes in its projected retinal size). If it is claimed that the brain mechanisms which account for these very early manifestations of world knowledge are not genetically determined but, instead, depend upon post-natal experience of the detailed structure of the visual world, then it must be explained how the sensory experience of a 4-month-old infant is able to generate such competent mechanisms. While normal sensory stimulation may be essential for the general post-natal development and maintenance of innate visual-cognitive mechanisms, this does not imply that the basic structure of such mechanisms is established through interaction with the particulars of the visual environment. Like all biological structures, innate cognitive mechanisms depend on the sustenance of an appropriate proximal environment for their proper development. Manipulations such as temporarily blocking light input to one eye in a developing neonate, or selectively blocking neuronal input to particular functional regions of the brain may result in some reorganization of cortical structure and activity, but such findings do not entail that the design of basic cognitive brain mechanisms is determined by post-natal experience. Of course, this argument does not deny that some innate brain mechanisms/systems undergo progressive restructuring and elaboration in interaction with a complex environment. But it is precisely because we possess particular kinds of innate neuronal mechanisms that the adaptive restructuring and elaboration needed for effective human cognition is possible.

To return to the question posed at the beginning of this post, my own work suggests that there are two basic kinds of neuronal mechanisms with which we are genetically endowed and which work synergistically in interaction with the world to compose the mind. I call these minimal bootstrap mechanisms the synaptic matrix and the retinoid. (For a detailed model of their structure and dynamics, see The Cognitive Brain . In brief, my claim is that retinoids and synaptic matrices are innately organized into brain systems which can do such things as (1) represent objects in 3-D space, (2) represent oneself with respect to other objects in 3-D space, (3) selectively represent salient sensory patterns by neuronal tokens in long-term memory (category learning), (4) detect stimulus novelty, (5) evoke previously learned patterns in the absence of sensory stimulation (imagination), (6) decompose and recombine previously learned patterns to create novel neuronal representations (creative imagination), (7) perform simple logical inference. These are just a few of the cognitive tasks modeled and simulated in The Cognitive Brain . There is no question that we routinely perform similar and much more demanding cognitive tasks. The challenge for those who deny that there are innate domain-specific cognitive mechanisms is to show how competent cognitive mechanisms can be generated without them.-

ARNOLD TREHUB is adjunct professor of psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1972 and the author of The Cognitive Brain, MIT Press, 1991.

From: Steven Quartz
Submitted: 6.3.97

"If there can be innate circuitry and organization, there can be innate knowledge and skills - the two are simply descriptions of the same thing at different levels of analysis." - Steven Pinker

Pinker suggests that my list of constraints on the developing brain amount to innate knowledge, thereby reducing whatever genuine differences there might be between the positions. No differences-no problems. Well, not quite. I posited "initial cortical circuitry," not "innate circuitry." Although it might seem like splitting hairs, it is a key difference, one that when fleshed out reveals why Pinker's position is far removed from mainstream developmental neurobiology.

First, initial cortical circuitry (for sake of argument let's say the state of brain circuits at birth) can, and does, constrain without encoding domain-specific knowledge (as I consider below). Second, Pinker's theory of language as an instinct isn't just about whether the initial state provides constraints on development. It is a much more robust claim about how the mature state emerges. Pinker tries to minimize this difference by suggesting that much of development takes place prenatally, leaving little work for the postnatal period; he states:

"The plasticity has been described as some kind of "learning," but much of it goes on in the pitch-black womb, before sensory receptors have even formed, so it's better interpreted as part of differentiation and development."

This isn't the case for human brain development. Indeed, what makes human brain development so interesting is how slow and extensive its development is as it moves away from the sensory periphery. The real difference between these theories, then, concerns the processes underlying the generation of mature cortical organization, much of which operates postnatally.

Twenty or so years ago it was commonplace to encounter quotes like the following:

Linguistic information is innate in humans if and only if it is represented in the gene code (Fodor, Bever, & Garrett, 1974, p.450).

These kinds of claims were a long way from specifying any kind of neural mechanisms. One of my frustrations with much of the evolutionary psychology literature is that it does not go beyond this level of generality. Pinker's writing, however, goes beyond these generalities to be very explicit about what he's proposing; for example, he states:

"grammar genes would be stretches of DNA that code for proteins, or trigger the transcription of proteins, in certain times and places in the brain, that guide, attract, or glue neurons into networks that, in combination with the synaptic tuning that takes place during learning, are necessary to compute the solution to some grammatical problem (Pinker, THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, 1994, p.322)."

This is innate circuitry-specified by genes that determine the pattern of cortical circuitry. We could imagine different sets of genes, each the product of natural selection, to encode the circuitry of each innate mental organ. In neurobiology, the closest advocate of such a position was Roger Sperry, whose chemoaffinity hypothesis once dominated developmental neurobiology. Actually, it is surprising that Chomsky never made reference to Sperry's theory. Sperry himself believed he had reduced developmental psychology to developmental biology, much as Chomsky argued would happen (i.e., that linguistics is ultimately a branch of biology).

I'm not sure how much work Pinker wants synaptic tuning to do. The traditional answer is not much. In fact, the hallmark of the tradition his position belongs to is that mature cortical structure unfolds through intrinsic maturational programs (grammar genes for language), in which the environment's role is exhausted by a simple "triggering" event. The environment is reduced to this role in part because it is too impoverished informationally to do any more.

The trouble is, Sperry's theory hasn't been viable for 25 years, and there are no contemporary neurobiological theories that could implement the sorts of developmental claims he and other evolutionary psychologists make. It is possible that Pinker will think I am creating a straw man, but I don't see any other candidate neural theories (though I'd be more than interested in hearing some candidates). There was a time when some hand-waving could be performed, citing how primitive our knowledge of developmental neurobiology is, but the rapid advancements of the field preclude this recourse.

What is so striking about contemporary developmental neurobiology (which was always thought to reduce to intrinsic programs) is how interactionist it is. This is the real and fundamental difference between nativist positions such as Pinker's and constructivist ones. The environment is not reduced to a minor role, but instead fundamentally shapes the developing cortex well into the second decade of life and indeed remains as lifespan plasticity. Among its defenders: Dale Purves, Larry Katz, Carla Shatz, Dennis O'Leary, Ed Callaway, and also selectionists: Edelman and Changeux. For this reason, I said that interactionist views are becoming the standard model in the field.

In his earlier work (a Cognition review of learning theory and some comments on Borer) Pinker speaks of the possibility that development is nonstationary, meaning that the mature brain organization (what used to be called the functional architecture) unfolds through interaction with the environment. Such a possibility was taken to be a major impediment to theory construction, and so was ruled out by methodological prescription, a principle Pinker called the continuity hypothesis. While this made developmental theory more tractable, it omitted what is most interesting about development-that the mature brain organization develops as a function of learning, becoming a qualitatively more powerful learning structure over time through its interaction with the world.

Such a possibility left an explanatory void-there was no vocabulary to describe this sort of developmental change. Learnability was stuck in inductive paradigms that were wholly inadequate to describe it. With the rise of computational neurobiology and theories of self-organization, however, a new vocabulary emerged, one that could begin to capture the richness of this interaction. This interaction is a form of learning, what Terry Sejnowski and I call constructive learning because it is a learning by building the brain. This is what makes the learning properties of developing cortex so intriguing, a type of learning that is much stronger than the learning straight-jacket traditional accounts shackled on the developing cortex.

In some ways this new perspective is even more radically different than what I intimated before. From its perspective, it is no longer even very interesting to be concerned about what must be innate. The old either/or dichotomies of rationalism/empiricism no longer generate the right questions. Arnold Trehub's interesting post was right concerning the need to understand how the initial state constrains development. And I think we are more or less in general agreement. But I would suggest that the generation of initial cortical circuitry does not reflect innate encodings of domain-specific knowledge. Instead, it constrains through more general properties, including a limited connectivity, that even in the human visual system is only rudimentary at birth. Because these constraints are not domain-specific, the developing cortex has a high degree of equipotentiality, a representational flexibility that is much better documented than Pinker's suggestion that they are friend-of-a-friend exaggerations.

From this perspective, the role of natural selection is also very different. But that's another story.

STEVEN R. QUARTZ, a fellow of the Sloan Center for Theoretical Neurobiology at the Salk Institute, has also been a member of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory since 1988. He has advised the National Science Foundation on computational neurobiology-the use of parallel simulations to study development of the brain. Dr. Quartz is the coauthor (with Terrence Sejnowski) of THE INTELLIGENT BRAIN: SHATTERING THE MYTH OF FIXED IQ WITH THE MIND'S NEWEST SCIENCE (forthcoming).

Copyright ©1997 by Edge Foundation, Inc.


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