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The Muse In The Machine (review)

The Muse In The Machine, Computers and Creative Thought; David Gelernter, 1994, Fourth Estate, London, ISBN 1-85702-083-9


David Gelernter is an old time computer science and AI maven. He was one of the Unabomber's victims, losing a hand if I recall correctly. This book is his musings on the possibilities of AI. It is a startling and refreshing change from the usual sort of book on the subject.

The usual sort of book will have chapters on such things as chess programs, pattern recognition programs, emergence and chaos in finite automata, and such like. There may be references to meatware and a castigation of Searle and Dreyfus. It will end in a haze of blurred optimism about what will be achieved in the future.

The brain as computer and the mind as software is one of the dominant paradigms in cognitive science. Gelernter opines that this is a dreadful mistake, that cog-sci and AI are busily haring off after the wrong rabbit.

The AI/cog-sci/neurophysiology approach has problem solving, abstract reasoning, and game-tree searches on one end and automata connectionism on the other hand. There is little room in this programme for poetry, for dreams, for nightmares, and spirituality. Gelernter believes that approaches to how the mind and thought work that do not take these characteristically human thought processes into account are unsound.

Gelernter proposes a general model of thought as a cognitive spectrum with abstract thought at one end and the dream at the other end. It is a spectrum - the position of thought within the spectrum is governed by the degree of focus which governs how memories are retrieved. In highly focussed thought details are abstracted away; in unfocussed thought memories are retrieved along chains of affective emotional connections. His approach is convincingly argued; whether it is sound or a gloss over insubstance is another matter.

Still it is refreshing to see an AI maven discuss Keats, Coleridge, and Shelley and even Jayne's Bicameral Mind. Paticularly unusual in a book devoted to the mind in the machine is the chapter discussing the following passage from Exodus:

It happened on the road, at an overnight stopping place, that the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Tsipporah took a flint, cut off her son's foreskin and touched it to his feet; she said "You are my bloody bridegroom!" And he withdrew from him. That was when she said "bloody bridegroom" with respect to circumcision.

(Exodus 4:24-4:26, translation from the Hebrew by Gelernter.)

Fans of "literary theory" might enjoy the following footnote:

"Conventional" in the historical sense of attempting to get at the truth of the text. Nowadays, no doubt, only deconstructionist criticism truly deserves to be called conventional. I've mentioned Midrash in this chapter, and perhaps I can make the sense of the term clearer by venturing a Midrashic observation. Midrashic commentary often begins with a provocative question about language. For example: why do scholars refer to this famous modern school as "deconstructionism"? It proceeds to explain the question, as follows. After all, English has a perfectly good way to refer to the opposite of construction - not deconstruction, just destruction. And that is what this critical approach ought properly to be called: thus "have you read that thought provoking piece of destructive criticism?" "The English department has just hired an exciting up-and-coming young destroyer (trained at Yale!)," and so on. The Midrashic comment must close by showing why the usage at issue is appropriate after all. Thus - ah, but the term "deconstruction" comes to teach us that using simple words where complicated ones will do is contrary to the spirit of this great scholarly endeavor. That's what Midrash is like. Clear?

I'm not sure whether it is clear what Midrash is like but David's opinion of deconstruction and modern literary theory is quite clear.

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