Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ideas Constrained by Biology

I've been reading "What's Your Dangerous Idea" (Brockman, 2007). It's
a book full of ideas from today's leading thinkers about ideas they
have that might have dangerous repercussions for society if true
and/or accepted. It's pretty interesting.

One of the ideas I came across (Trehub, 2007) is this: since all
concepts and thoughts are in brains, then our very ideas are limited
by biology. What an interesting idea!

On the one hand, this sounds incorrect. Or true but irrelevant. Our
brains are in a sense general-purpose machines, capabale of creating
new symbols and combining symbols in an infinite number of
ways. Saying that our thoughts are limited to biology is like saying
that a computer screen is limited in the kinds of pictures it can
produce. Well yeah, but it's not a limiting factor.

But on the other hand, we are limited in certain
ways. Certainly we can only imagine ideas up to a certain level of
complexity. The proof for the four-color problem was solved with the
help of computers and no human has ever checked it completely. We know
the theorem proved is true but we really don't know why (Strogatz,
2007). It's safe to say that the proof is beyond human
understanding. If this is not a limit of our biology, then what is it
a limit of?

The incredibly fascinating and hopeful book by Ray Kurzweil (Kurzweil,
2005) offers a possible solution to this in our future. According to
Kurzweil, by 2040 our minds and brains will be unrecognizably enhanced by
information technology, allowing us to understand things current
humans are completely incapable of imagining. Further, we are creating
AIs that will be able to undersand things for us.

If you doubt this, reflect on our understanding of the solution to the
four color problem.


Brockman, J. (Ed.) (2007) What's Your Dangerous Idea?. Harper

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is near: When humans transcend
biology. New York: Viking.

Strogatz, S. (2007). The end of insight. In
Brockman, J. (Ed.) What's Your Dangerous Idea?. Harper
Perennial. pp130--131.

Trehub, A. (2007). Modern science is a product of biology. In
Brockman, J. (Ed.) What's Your Dangerous Idea?. Harper
Perennial. p234.

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