NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #149 August 28, 2003 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- A Publication of The Nature Institute Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/ You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk in submission to its inevitabilities? NetFuture is a voice for responsibility. It depends on the generosity of those who support its goals. To make a contribution, click here. CONTENTS --------- Quotes and Provocations Who Needs Media Regulation? Commerce as Storytelling From HAL to Kismet: Your Evolution Dollars at Work Further commentary on Rodney Brooks' Flesh and Machines The Surprising New Language of Mechanism Are mainstream scientists getting religion? DEPARTMENTS About this newsletter ========================================================================== QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS Who Needs Media Regulation? --------------------------- The current proposals for media deregulation are provoking widespread criticism to the effect that we already have too much concentration in the media industry, and deregulation will only make it worse. As I heard someone say on public radio a half hour ago, "We need more voices out there, not fewer". Perhaps so. And perhaps deregulation will lead to greater concentration. But even if this is true, the objection is hopelessly one-sided. We do not lack voices in the world. There are billions of them. What many of them lack is someone listening. A voice failing to attract listeners cannot be much of a public voice. If in fact there are few prominent voices in a largely open society such as ours, it is substantially because most of us are willing to listen to few voices, or to few different kinds of voices. We prefer People magazine to Time, and Time to the Economist -- and all of these to, say, NetFuture. (Just kidding. In any case, you are the one audience for which that statement is certainly false.) No re-jiggering of regulations will suddenly alter these preferences. I won't deny that there's an unhealthy concentration of interests in the media business. But this fact is inseparable from another one: there is an unhealthy concentration of shallow interests in the general public. I don't see how we can begin to make progress against the social problems we face without first accepting the kind of double-sidedness evident in this particular issue. It is intrinsic to the organic character of modern society that virtually every problem needs to be recognized not only at some focus we can point to "out there", but also at a focus "in here", in ourselves. To deal only with the "in here" is pietism; to deal only with the "out there" is projection. What we really need is lively attention to the dynamic interplay between "in here" and "out there". (This happens to be the same challenge we face in our efforts to understand the physical world, as discussed in this issue's concluding feature article. Our social problems and our misunderstandings in science have the same root in our habits of thought.) Related article: "Are Corporations to Blame?" in NF #143: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Apr0103_143.html Commerce as Storytelling ------------------------ There's a nice little essay by Rebecca Solnit in the July/August issue of Orion. Titled "The Silence of the Lambswool Cardigans", it begins with this: There was a time not so long ago when everything was recognizable not just as a cup or a coat, but as a cup made by so-and-so out of clay from this bank on the local river or woven by the guy in that house out of wool from the sheep visible on the hills. Then, objects were not purely material, mere commodities, but signs of processes, human and natural, pieces of a story, and the story as well as the stuff sustained life. It's as though every object spoke -- some of them must have sung out -- in a language everyone could hear, a language that surrounded every object in an aura of its history. But then, Somewhere in the Industrial Age, objects shut up because their creation had become so remote and intricate a process that it was no longer readily knowable. Or they were silenced, because the pleasures of abundance that all the cheap goods offered were only available if those goods were mute about the scarcity and loss that lay behind their creation. Modern advertising -- notably for Nike -- constitutes an aggressive attempt to displace the meaning of the commodity from its makers, as though you enter into relationship with very tall athletes rather than, say, very thin Vietnamese teenagers when you buy their shoes. It is a stretch to think about Mexican prison labor while contemplating Victoria's Secret lavender lace boycut panties. All this will, by many, be dismissed as a pining for the romantic "olden days", which were probably never quite as we imagine them. But rejecting romanticized images of the past (if that is indeed what is needed) does not require us to found our own society upon systematic falsehood. After all, commercial objects are not really mute. Everything we create really does speak in one way or another. The only question is whether we prefer to hear its tale or else drown out the truth with a cheap fantasy. As for how we might nudge ourselves toward the truth, Solnit cites activist Carrie Dann to the effect that "everyone who buys gold jewelry should have the associated spent ore delivered to their house. At Nevada's mining rates, that would mean a hundred tons of toxic tailings for every one-ounce ring or chain you buy". A good point. I do wonder, though, at the rather-too-absolute moral judgment implicit in such a statement. Each of us is unavoidably implicated in the practices of the larger society, and we would have to kill ourselves in order to avoid all taint. I don't think I could say to the artisan who feels compelled to work with gold, "You categorically should not do so". Even the activist must sometimes employ products of the unhealthy system she is working to change. In any case, Solnit sees farmer's markets as true meeting places where objects tell worthy stories. And even at the mall she is cheered by "the ways people are learning to read the silent histories of objects and choosing the objects that still sing". There is in all this, I think, a suggestion for understanding the historical necessities pressing upon us. In all respects (and not just commercially) things have been losing their plain, given speech. But this in itself is not bad. It leads to deeper creative responsibility on our part. Today we find ourselves called not only to discover, but also to help determine, what nature itself says -- not arbitrarily, but by learning to sing our own melody above the world's deeper harmonies. Related articles: "Cheap Food at Any Cost" in NF #143: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Apr0103_143.html "Branding the Branders: Turnabout Is Fair Play" in NF #120: http://www.netfuture.org/2001/Apr2401_120.html "The World Trade Organization: Economics as Technology" in NF #106: http://www.netfuture.org/2000/May0900_106.html SLT Goto table of contents ========================================================================== FROM HAL TO KISMET: YOUR EVOLUTION DOLLARS AT WORK Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) In Flesh and Machines Rodney Brooks writes that January 12, 1992, marked "the most important imaginary event in my life". On that day in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", the HAL 9000 computer was given life. Of course, HAL turns out to be a murdering psychopath, but for me there was little to regret in that. Much more importantly HAL was an artificial intelligence that could interact with people as one of them .... HAL was a being. HAL was alive. Brooks, who directs the prestigious Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, goes on to speak of his protégée, Cynthia Breazeal: On May 9, 2000, Cynthia delivered on the promise of HAL. She defended her MIT Ph.D. thesis about a robot named Kismet, which uses vision and speech as its main input, carries on conversations with people, and is modeled on a developing infant. Though not quite the centered, reliable personality that was portrayed by HAL, Kismet is the world's first robot that is truly sociable, that can interact with people on an equal basis, and which people accept as a humanoid creature .... People, at least for a while, treat Kismet as another being. Kismet is alive. Or may as well be. People treat it that way. The Human Response ------------------ All this occurs in a chapter entitled "It's 2001 Already" -- which may rouse your curiosity about Kismet's abilities. The robot's "body" is nothing but a "head" mounted on a mobile platform. Its dominant feature consists of two realistic, naked eyeballs, which are accompanied by rough indications of ears, eyebrows, and mouth. These are all moved by small motors. Kismet (who has been featured in virtually all the major journalistic venues) is widely advertised as a sociable robot. Brooks tells us that it gets "lonely" or "bored" due to a set of "internal drives that over time get larger and larger unless they are satiated". These drives are essentially counters that tabulate, in relation to time, the number of interactions the robot has with moving things, or things with saturated colors ("toys"), or things with skin colors ("people"). Kismet also has a "mood", which can be affected by the pitch variations in the voices of people who address it. Brooks speaks of the automaton as being "aroused", "surprised", and "happy" or "unhappy" -- the emotional state in each case being another name for a numerical parameter calculated from the various environmental signals the robot's detectors are tuned for. Despite Brooks' easy references to conversation, Kismet is not designed to reckon with the cognitive structure of speech, and its own speech consists of nonsense syllables, pitch-varied to suggest emotion. So the typical scenario has Kismet patrolling a hallway, detecting motion (probably a person), and approaching the moving object. Its detectors, software, and motors are designed to enable it to make appropriate eye contact and to engage in emotionally suggestive, if otherwise vacuous, conversation. First encounters with Kismet tend to be marked by surprise (genuine, at least on the human side), which leads to all sorts of interesting and peculiar human-robot interaction. This, in turn, seems to provide the developers with great satisfaction; if people respond to Kismet in some way as to a sentient creature, then Kismet must somehow be a sentient creature -- "not quite" HAL, as Brooks modestly allows, but apparently close enough for government (or MIT) work. We are led back, then, to Brooks' observation that "Kismet is alive. Or may as well be. People treat it that way". This, as nearly as I can tell, is just about the entire substance of his argument that robots are living creatures. He periodically acknowledges that his own robots currently lack certain creaturely capacities, but, hell, people sure seem to regard them as alive, so what's the difference? How Do You Simulate Life? ------------------------- At one point Brooks seems about to launch an inquiry into the reality of the matter. "It is all very well for a robot to simulate having emotions", he writes, And it is fairly easy to accept that the people building the robots have included models of emotions. And it seems that some of today's robots and toys appear to have emotions. However, I think most people would say that our robots do not really have emotions. Brooks' response to this line of thought is to draw on a cliché of artificial-intelligence literature: he compares airplanes with birds. Although planes do not fly in the manner of birds -- they neither flap their wings nor burn sugar in muscle tissue -- we do not denigrate their performance as a mere simulation of flying. They really do fly. So Brooks wonders, "Is our question about our robots having real emotions rather than just simulating having emotions the same sort of question as to whether both animals and airplanes fly?" He seems reluctant to state his answer directly, but his argument throughout Flesh and Machines makes it clear that he equates "life- like" with "alive", even if that means, rather mysteriously, "alive in a different way". In speaking of Genghis, a primitive, insect-like robot, he tells us that the software and power supply transform a "lifeless collection of metal, wire, and electronics" into an "artificial creature": It had a wasplike personality: mindless determination. But it had a personality. It chased and scrambled according to its will, not to the whim of a human controller. It acted like a creature, and to me and others who saw it, it felt like a creature. It was an artificial creature. "If it feels like one, it must be one" seems to be how the argument goes. Not much interest in distinctions here. Nor much timidity. "Kismet is not HAL", Brooks concedes, "but HAL [who could 'never be your friend'] was not Kismet either. Kismet gets at the essence of humanity and provides that in a way that ordinary people can interact with it". The essence of humanity? Brooks lives in a world of excruciating and embarrassing naïveté -- a world where a child's doll programmed to say it is hungry somehow has genuine "wants" and "desires", and where a robotic insect programmed to follow sources of infrared can be said to be hunting "prey". And if any unwelcome doubts should arise, they can be dispelled by all those humans who react to the robots as if they harbored intelligence and feelings. Missing Authors --------------- Brooks could have risen above this naïveté had he been willing to reckon with the obvious distinction between artifact and artificer. Yes, his robots harbor intelligence, and yes, people respond to this intelligence -- just as they respond to the intelligence in a printed text or in the voice output of a radio loudspeaker. In each of these cases we would be crazy to ignore the meaning we are confronted with. After all, just as a vast amount of cultural and individual expression lies behind the development of the alphabet and the printing of the text on the page, so also a great deal of analysis and calculation lies behind the formulation of the computational rules governing Kismet's actions. To ignore Kismet would be to ignore all this coherently formulated human intention. We could not dismiss what humans have invested in Kismet without dehumanizing ourselves. The problem we face with robots is that the text and voice have now been placed in intimate relation with moving machinery that roughly mimicks the human body. And whereas the authors behind the words of book and radio can easily be imagined as historically existent persons despite being less concrete and more remote than face-to-face conversants, this is not the case with the robot. Here the authors have contrived a manner of generating their speech involving numerous layers of mediating logic behind which it is difficult to identify any particular speaker. What, then, can we respond to, if not the active, gesticulating thing in front of us -- even if the response is only one of annoyance? The speakers have vanished completely from sight, and yet here we are back in an apparently face-to-face relationship! -- a relationship with something that clearly is a bearer of intelligence. Far easier to assign the intelligence solely to the machine than to seek out the tortured pathway from the true speakers to the speech we are witnessing. This, incidentally, captures on a small scale the problem we face in relating to the dictates of society as a whole. Who is the speaker behind this or that bureaucratic imperative? It is often almost impossible to say, so we are content to grumble about a personalized "System" that begins to take on a machine-like face. And the System is personal, inasmuch as intentional human activity lies behind all its manifestations, even if this activity has been reduced according to our own mechanizing tendencies. In other words, society itself is unsurprisingly assuming the character of our technology. None of this, however, excuses our failure to make obvious distinctions in principle. Yes, every human creation is invested with intelligence in one form or another, and it would be pathological for us to ignore this fact in our reactions. But it is also pathological to fail to recognize the asymetrical relation between artifact and artificer. (This was the primary point of "Intelligence and Its Artifacts" in NF #148, which was actually begun as a response to Brooks' book.) For all our difficulty in identifying the authors behind a computer's output, we can hardly say that no authoring has gone on, or that the distinction between the authors and the product of their authoring has somehow been nullified. Difficulty in tracing authorship does not by a single degree elevate a printed page to the status of author in its own right. If Brooks wants to argue that Kismet, once spoken by its creators, was somehow transformed from speech into speaker, he needs to make the argument. Instead he simply ignores the distinction in all its obviousness. Let me put it this way: if Brooks acknowledges a difference in kind between the intelligence of an author and that of a printed page, or between the intelligence of an engineer and that of a doorbell circuit, then he owes us an elucidation of how this distinction plays out in his robots. If there is something intrinsic to the idea of complexity or the idea of moving parts that negates or overcomes the distinction -- something that transforms text into author, designed mechanism into designer -- then we need to know what this something is. What is the principle of the transformation? Learning from Kismet -------------------- In an interview with a New York Times reporter (June 10, 2003), Kismet's creator, Cynthia Breazeal, remarks that "human babies learn because adults treat them as social creatures who can learn". Her hope for Kismet was that "if I built an expressive robot that responded to people, they might treat it in a similar way to babies and the robot would learn from that". The Times reporter then asked the obvious question: "Did your robot Kismet ever learn much from people?" This was Breazeal's answer: From an engineering standpoint, Kismet got more sophisticated. As we continued to add more abilities to the robot, it could interact with people in richer ways. And so, we learned a lot about how you could design a robot that communicated and responded to nonlinguistic cues; we learned how critical it got for more than language in an interaction -- body language, gaze, physical responses, facial expressions. But I think we learned mostly about people from Kismet. Until it, and another robot built here at MIT, Cog, most robotics had little to do with people. Kismet's big triumph was that he was able to communicate a kind of emotion and sociability that humans did indeed respond to, in kind. The robot and the humans were in a kind of partnership for learning. I'm glad Kismet taught Breazeal and her engineering colleagues that bodily expression plays an important role in human communication. But as for the issue at hand: her answer tells us nothing about any actual "partnership for learning". With an all too characteristic slippage between points of view, she answers a question about Kismet's learning by citing only the engineers' learning. This would be all to the good if she could keep the two perspectives distinct and get clear about them. But the whole enterprise depends upon confusion. And so Breazeal concludes the interview by mentioning that she is now working on a new robot, Leonardo. But Kismet, who has been retired to the MIT museum, "isn't gone; it's just now taking the next step in its own evolution through Leonardo". But what does this mean, "its own evolution"? Presumably Kismet is sitting on a shelf in the museum, or else moving about and pestering visitors. The one thing it's not busy doing is evolving. That is the engineers' task. Apparently, the grotesque illogic of saying that Kismet is evolving is a small matter for someone who has already managed to convince herself that a handful of numerical parameters are signifiers of emotion. It seems to me profoundly significant that so many people today can routinely characterize the engine rather than the engineer, the design rather than the designer, the speech rather than the speaker, as the subject of evolution. Here is a refusal to face ourselves as creative spirits or as anything more than machines, followed by a projection of our missing selves onto our machines. Such a refusal and projection can only lead, not to the evolution of machines, but to the end of our own evolution. Related articles: "Flesh and Machines: The Mere Assertions of Rodney Brooks" in NF #146: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Jun2403_146.html "Intelligence and Its Artifacts" in NF #148: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Aug0503_148.html See also the articles listed under "Artificial intelligence" in the NetFuture topical index: http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html Goto table of contents ========================================================================== THE SURPRISING NEW LANGUAGE OF MECHANISM Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) One of the significant symptoms of our era is a certain consistent slippage of language -- a slippage that testifies to great confusion while also hinting at the possibility for a vital shift in our thinking. Here I will set down only a brief, suggestive sketch of the matter. Self-Replication. To begin with, consider the term, "self-replication". DNA, we are repeatedly told, is self-replicating. But it is not. Anyone can confirm this with about five seconds of reflection. As Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin remarks, DNA "is manufactured out of small molecular bits and pieces by an elaborate cell machinery, made up of proteins": If DNA is put in the presence of all the pieces that will be assembled into new DNA, but without the protein machinery, nothing happens. What actually happens is that the already present DNA is copied by the cellular machinery so that the new DNA strands are replicas of the old ones. The process is analogous to the production of copies of a document by an office copying machine, a process that would never be described as "self-replication". That is, we would never place a page of text on the copying machine and claim it is replicating itself. Yet that is exactly what we hear all the time of DNA. In reality, even the copy-machine metaphor has its limits. Lewontin reminds us that any copying machine that was as prone to "mistakes" as the DNA copying process would soon be discarded. (You will also find "self-replication" bandied about crazily in discussions of nanotechnology. But that deserves a separate discussion.) Information. Look next at "information". This now turns up everywhere, including the names of entirely new disciplines such as bio-informatics. Yet there is almost nothing but obscurity in this usage. The word "information" receives its aura of authority from the technical theory of communication, but the information of this theory has nothing to do with meaning or anything we normally think of as informative. In fact, random noise possesses the highest possible amount of information, according to the theory. This technical sense of the word is not what people usually have in mind when they import "information" into their scientific theories. In the dominant usage, "information" derives its apparent explanatory force from the fact that it suggests meaning -- the kind of meaning we normally think of as contained in text and messages. And so we hear about the genetic "text" and "messenger" RNA. Yet the absurdities of this usage have become notorious. In science historian Lily Kay's summary, the human genome turns out to be "an authorless book of life written in a speechless DNA language". It is impossible to specify the meaning of its supposed messages in conventionally acceptable scientific terms. This is hardly surprising since the very idea that the world possesses meaning has long been anathema within science. To use the word "information" in connection with genetics is to employ explanatory weaponry that the prevailing science cannot begin to justify -- rather as parents will sometimes answer a child's query about this or that by saying "God made it". How does this or that protein arise? "Because a gene contains the information for it" -- although in fact all the workings and all the wisdom of the organism as a whole (which this explanation neatly co-opts) are required for the synthesis of the protein. The appeal to information is a cheap substitute for understanding; it allows the scientist to project whatever will eventually become the true understanding (based on a qualitative grasp of the whole organism) onto a set of imagined mechanisms that are grossly inadequate to bear the burden assigned to them. This "saves" the mechanistic way of thinking. Self-Organization. Then there is "self-organization", a favorite term of complexity theorists. The world exhibits patterns of order in continual transformation, and "self-organization" is commonly applied to particular processes of transformation in order to explain whatever newly arises. It adds to the traditional notion of order the further idea that there is some sort of self organizing itself. This self is assigned the character of a machine. Of course, for all the machines we actually know, a designer, separate from the machine, is required to assemble, organize, and coordinate its parts. The term "self-organization" allows us to project this designer, ever so vaguely, into the machine itself. I say "vaguely" because the mechanical self said to be responsible for the organizing is never properly identified or described. In his book on Complexity, Mitchell Waldrop describes "self-organization" this way: In every case groups of agents seeking mutual accommodation and self- consistency somehow manage to transcend themselves, acquiring collective properties such as life, thought, and purpose that they might never have possessed individually. Unfortunately, the main burden of explanation here is vested in that casually spoken "somehow" -- things somehow manage to transcend themselves. In the same book Waldrop characterizes self-organization as "matter's incessant attempts to organize itself into ever more complex structures, even in the face of the incessant forces of dissolution described by the second law of thermodynamics". But we are never told how matter, which is supposedly mindless, manages to "attempt" anything at all on behalf of its own "self". Evolution. And, again, we have "evolution". We routinely hear of the transition from one generation of technology to the next as an evolution of the technology. But in this case there is no subject for the verb "to evolve", no entity with the continuity that would enable it to do the evolving. One machine does not condense itself into a seed for the next, but rather is simply replaced by another one. What evolves is the design and productive capacity of the engineers. You might think that engineers would be capable of recognizing when their use of a key verb lacks a coherent subject, but this rarely seems to be the case. Technology as such -- technology as a kind of reified and personified abstraction -- appears to be what people have in mind when they speak about the evolution of machines. But abstractions do not evolve, even if our thinking about them does. Of Mechanisms and Designers --------------------------- It's odd how, in a culture that manages the most amazing feats of precision when organizing the intricate logic of a million transistors on a sliver of silicon, we routinely tolerate vagueness and gross contradiction in the decisive terms of our understanding. But there is another way to look at the matter. I think we can recognize a certain consistency in the various slippages of meaning cited above. In each case there is a projection of life and mentality onto a supposedly mechanistic process. "Self-replication", of course, suggests a living, reproducing organism. "Information", in its common usage, pertains to what is communicated between minds. "Self-organization", on its face, invokes the idea of a self. "Evolution" derives its main force from theories about the growth and development of organisms. There are other terms I could have cited as well -- for example, "emergence", "system", "pattern", and "meme". In all such cases, whether obviously or subtly, there is an increasing tendency to ascribe life and thought to the stuff of the world. But this ascription occurs in the context of mechanistic assumptions amounting to a denial of life and thought. That is why the contradictions we have observed are inevitable. The mechanistic view is borne of our experience with machines and, as I mentioned, every machine we have ever known requires an external designer. Unwilling (with good reason) to accept such a designer for nature, but still committed to the machine model, the mechanistic thinker ends up trying in one way or another, and against his own better judgment, to smuggle a designer into the machinery without having to acknowledge it. This is what we have seen with the various terms discussed above. It all makes for a horrible muddle. Incidentally, those committed, for religious reasons, to theories of "intelligent design" find themselves in the same muddle. This reflects the degree to which the mainstream religions have bought into the mechanistic assumption that the world is a machine. And this in turn is intimately related to the fact that these religions have heavily tilted toward divine transcendence at the expense of immanence. So instead of being projected into the machinery, the creationists' Designer stands wholly outside the world, perhaps occasionally tinkering with it as with a machine -- which is to say, perhaps occasionally throwing a wrench into the works -- but otherwise not manifesting in or through the world. There can be nothing living and organic about such a vacated, tinkerable creation. The problem is with the machine model as such, and it hardly matters whether we try to conceal the designer in the mechanism itself or instead remove him so far beyond the creation as to be irrelevant. Since the world is much more a living organism than a designed machine, every attempt to introduce a machine-designer -- whether hidden in the workings of the machine or hidden in the infinite beyond -- is disruptive to our understanding of the world's meaningful unity. Taking the New Language Seriously --------------------------------- So what are we to make of the strange willingness of mechanistic thinkers today (in essential harmony with their creationist opponents) to invoke the terminology of life and mind in their attempt to understand a mechanically conceived world -- terminology that several decades ago would have been decried as vitalist or religious or mystical? Personally, I believe it is a hugely important development, probably marking a great divide in the history of science and civilization. Never again will it be possible to speak about the world except in the language of intelligence, meaning, life, thought. The historical aberration whereby science sought to apprehend the world in non-living terms is coming to an end. There is wonderful positive potential in all this. At least there is if we can take the ideas of information and self-organization with the seriousness they deserve rather than incongruously marrying them to mechanistic models. Then we may be led to a genuine conviction that the world's phenomena are informed, that intelligent and productive powers of organization really do lie at the heart of these phenomena, and that if we look deeply enough into them, we will discover subjects capable of evolving. In other words, we may be led in our own highly developed, critical, and scientific fashion to rediscover what the ancients already knew: we live in an ensouled world. This will require us to take the abused language of the engineer and scientist with all seriousness, redeeming it by restoring it to its full dignity. Which means, not just taking advantage of the assumption that the world is alive and full of meaning where this is a convenient way to cover our ignorance, but also reckoning with the assumption -- understanding how it could really be so, and what pathological thought habits of the past several hundred years have until now put the truth out of sight. One place to begin looking for the pathology would be in the seventeenth- century decision within science to ignore qualities. This was to ignore precisely that expressiveness through which life and consciousness are revealed in the world. Secondly, we should look at the established practice of doing science while systematically ignoring the one who is doing the doing -- the observer who is observing, the experimenter who is experimenting, the theorizer who is theorizing. This was arbitrarily to remove all genuine intention, acting, and becoming from our world picture. Both these stances -- which amount, first, to discarding the entire world, and then to discarding ourselves -- startlingly violated the spirit of science. This spirit demands that we close our eyes to nothing, least of all to the foundational prerequisites for the things we do bother to observe and theorize about. It is no great wonder that the thinking, perceiving, and acting selves we ignored should have fallen out of our picture of the world, leaving unsightly holes and forcing us into contradiction when we use such terms as "self-organization" and "information". Staying Clear of Metaphysics ---------------------------- The problem is that the overwhelming inertia of institutional science weighs in favor of preserving the commitment to mechanism, with all its difficulties. We can be quite sure what we will encounter along this path. The practitioners and theoreticians of mechanism will more and more employ the language of life and mind in order to be true to what they discover in the world. But in order to save their beloved mechanisms, they will blind themselves to the reality -- the immediately experienceable reality -- of their own lives and minds. They will then say (and once the blindness sets in, no one will be able to refute them), "We conceive our own thinking to be a thoughtless, mechanical activity essentially devoid of conceiving". But there is something to be said for the instincts of the mechanistic scientists even here. They do not want to acknowledge the reality of mind and thinking because it raises the specter of a mysterious "other realm" unrelated to the familiar world as they have conceived it. This avoidance of metaphysics in science is healthy. But what their own new language is telling them is that they have not conceived the world soundly, and that mentality is not a mysterious and separate realm. Their only reason for thinking otherwise is that they have for so long accepted the Cartesian split. Invest your life in sketching a world in terms of the non-mental half of the Cartesian dichotomy, and you will naturally find that what you have sketched is alien to mentality. But why were we forced to accept the split in the first place? To move forward, we first need to take a long step backward so as to refuse the Great Cleavage before it can swallow up all coherent thought about the world. Then we may begin to discover that, far from being alien to the world, mind and thought are the very matrix out of which it crystallizes -- and that (as the new language of science is nudging us to realize) not even the most adamantine elements of this world are wholly other than the informing, productive, organizing matrix from which they arose (or descended). Some day before long we will come to wonder how we could ever have taken the thinking through which we know the world -- through which it declares itself to us -- and relegated it to some distant "meta" realm. But before that day comes we will first have to notice the world's thinking in the one place where we have most direct access to it, which is in ourselves. This is much more a meditational task than a scientific one in the usual sense of "science". This, of course, could just as well be the opening as the conclusion of a long essay. But at least it indicates the direction in which I believe we can salvage the otherwise hopelessly misleading language of life and meaning that is progressively infiltrating the mechanistic sciences. Related articles: "When the Mind Dogmatizes about Itself" in NF #148: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Aug0503_148.html "Are Machines Living Things?" in NF #133. A dialogue with Kevin Kelly: http://www.netfuture.org/2002/Jun2502_133.html Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached. NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html . Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web: http://netfuture.org/ To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture: http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html. Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #149 :: August 28, 2003 Goto table of contents This issue of NetFuture: http://www.netfuture.org/2003/Aug2803_149.html.