Some thoughts on communication style, self-knowledge, and fear

A few days ago, Shelly, S, and I had dinner together at a Thai restaurant, where the conversation turned to Turing computability, representing data in n-dimensional space, constructing an experiment from within a virtual reality environment like the Matrix that could determine whether or not the environment was a virtual reality, and other light dinnertime fare.
During the conversation, Shelly made the observation that you’re more likely to hear things like “Turing computable” at any given time in our house than you are to hear words like “cheese” or “toilet paper.”

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t. According to some members of the former group, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think, and speak, in terms of abstract ideas and concepts, and who use abstract language and metaphor in their communication, and those who think in terms of concrete concepts, and have difficulty grasping and understanding abstract communication.

Now, I’ve dated people who have difficulty with abstract ideas and concepts. One thing I’ve learned is that I do better in relationships with people who can think abstractly. Another thing I’ve learned is that people who lack the ability to think abstractly often lack the tools of introspection and inner contemplation which would allow them to understand themselves. This lack of introspection carries a high price tag–bot for themselves and for those around them.

Dr. Roger Penrose is fond of handwaving. He got a lot of newspaper inches a while ago by proposing that artificial intelligence is impossible on the grounds that consciousness, intelligence, and self-awareness are quantum effects. He even wrote a book on the subject. This book is 480 pages long, but in case you haven’t time to read it, it can be summed up this way:

“I really, really, really, really, really don’t want consciousness to be possible in a computer. Thinking that a computer could be as smart as a person makes me very, very uncomfortable, and makes me feel less special. So here’s a lot of handwaving about how impossible it is. Look! It’s impossible! Quantum mechanics! Quantum mechanics! Of course, I’m not a neurobiologist, but I’ll throw in a bunch of really scientific-sounding language and a whole lot of math in the hopes that you don’t notice the fact that I’m not actually proposing any REASON why quantum mechanics should be necessary for thought, nor proposing any mechanism by which quantum effects occur within the brain, nor even describing any way whatsoever that quantum mechanics might affect the functioning of a neuron. But did I mention I really, really don’t WANT artificial intelligence to be possible?”

Dr. Penrose, whose degree is in pure mathematics as opposed to, say, cognition, neuroscience, or quantum mechanics, has a history of this sort of thinking. In 1989, he gave an interview in Scientific American in which he rejected quantum string theory because “It’s just not the way I’d expect the answer to be.” Now, string theory may or may not be correct, and it may or may not have value, but to reject it because it’s “not how I’d expect the answer to be” is bad science–and on top of that, it’s stupid. Albert Einstein made the same mistake when he rejected quantum mechanics for religious reasons; as a result, he spent the last fifteen years of his life as a living monument, contributing nothing to physics because his religious beliefs would not let him accept the truth.

People make this same mistake all the time. I’ve known many people who have difficulty with introspection who end up believing things about themselves which are manifestly and obviously (to those around them, anyway) untrue, because they are unwilling or unable to examine their beliefs about themselves and unwilling to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth.

For example, I know people who insist that they are rational and logical, and who express a disdain for “mere emotion.” Not surprisingly, many of these people are the most emotional people I’ve ever met, and some of them live lives completely ruled by their emotions. Wihtout the capacity for abstract thought, and the capacity for introspection which seems to rely on it, they simply don’t NOTICE–or perhaps, don’t acknowledge–the almost entirely irrational and emotional ways they make their decisions. No introspection means an enormous blind spot to the most basic truths about yourself; no capacity for abstract thinking seems, for some reason, to mean no introspection. At least, I have yet to encounter anyone who lacks the ability to think abstractly yet who still has good introspective skills.

People put a lot of effort into their insecurities and into their discomforts. Introspection is sometims uncomfortable, because it may bring one face-to-face with some truths which are as uncomfortable as the notion of artificial intelligence is to Dr. Penrose. But avoiding the truth out of fear of discomfort works outwardly as well as inwardly. Dr. penrose is made uncomfortable by the notion of a machine with the cognitive ability of a person; closer to home (and more ploddingly pedestrian), many people fear hearing the truth about their partner’s sexual history, say, because of the same discomforts. A person who fears and avoids discomfort is unlikely ever to reach the truth about anything–himself, his partner, the world around him. The more pedestrian forms of avoidance aren’t as interesting as Penrose’s 480 pages of handwaving, but their effects are more immediate.

Last night, I had a conversation with datan0de. It went something like this:

ME: “You’re the reason I’m going to crush the world in my iron fist.”
datan0de: “Do you mean literally or figuratively? Are you actually going to crush the world in an enormous fist made out of iron?”
ME: “Of course I mean that literally! It’s more satisfying, don’t you think?”
datan0de: “Depends on where you’re standing.”

datan0de seems equally comfortable in the realm of the abstract (demonstrating that the set of real numbers is an uncountable infinity, for example) or the concrete (talking about how fast an actual fist made out of iron that’s three-quarters the mass of the Earth would take to rust). That’s quite a trick; I can talk to someone who thinks only in concrete terms–an eighteen-year relationship with a person who can’t think abstractly taught me that skill–but I’m happier talking in abstract terms, because it’s closer to how I conceptualize the universe. Shelly’s even more extreme in that regard.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere. People who don’t think of themselves and the world around them in abstract ways seem, at least in my experience, to be more uncomfortable by the truth, and to resist more strongly the idea that introspection is a tool which has value. I’m not sure why introspection and abstract thought are coupled, though it certainly seems to be the case. In any event, the less likely someone is to confront some part of his or her personality unflinchingly, the more likely that person is to become angry at the suggestion that he should. Suggest to someone who’s jealous or insecure in his relationship that he should examine the causes of those insecurities, with an eye toward overcoming them, and you’re likely to meet quite a hostile response. Point out to someone who believes herself to be rational and analytical that she is making profound, life-shaping decisions solely on the basis of an emotional response, and you’ll really end up in the shit. In a weird, snake-eating-its-tail kind of way, this response, and the avoidance of discomfort that produces it, itself is seen as a beneficial and positive thing–suggest to someone that there is value in exploring things which are ucomfortable and the very fact that theey are uncomfortable is itself held up as proof that they have no value.

Penrose avoids his discomfort by writing hundreds of pages of vigorous handwaving; other peope avoid their discomfort by insisting that they are something they are not, or avoiding intimacy and the knowledge of a partner’s past that comes with it. But avoiding uncomfortable things is not the same thing as mastering those things. Smetimes, life is uncomfortable; sometimes, the truth is uncomfortable. In the end, however, living in a world where the truth is acknowledged is superior to building a life out of avoiding the truth.