Uncomputable Insight

May 11, 2009

My Turing Test post turned out more interesting than I expected. Playing iGod was fun, and just that; but Steve’s link to a musical Turing Test really surprised me. Looks like speech is more quintessentially human than music … this is a challenge to those who see Mozart as a higher art form than Metal. Bach may be easier to fake than Beatle’s lyrics.

Meanwhile I finally finished “The Emperor’s New Mind”. As various folk said, here and privately, although its a fantastic overview of various parts of science, the “consciousness as quantum gravity” line does not end up being convincing. However .. the basic idea that human minds do something uncomputable is intriguing. Its closely linked to an issue that bugs me about mysticism, and especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

There are some aspects of Zen/Tao that fit well with the scientific outlook. Mysticism is not misty and vague, but rigorously insistent on the physical world, as opposed to the mental constructs we mistake for the world. (Including the fairy tales the West calls “religion”.) A classic Zen lesson is to hold up a book and ask the pupil what it is. “A book” says the pupil. “No” says the Master, “book is a noise.”. He plants it firmly in the pupil’s hand. “This is what this is”.

Anyway, what Zen and Science have in common is the belief that there is a real concrete world, and that there is a route to knowledge of the world. In both cases we carefully observe the physical world. But beyond this the (official) methods of Science and Zen diverge. In Science the route to truth is a kind of loop around guessing, testing, and refining, together with eternal scepticism. In Zen, there is first a kind of Brechtian alienation, to shock the mind out of false assumptions; but this goes with a belief that once you do that deconstruction, you already know the answer. You meditate on the flower until “The Flower” fades from your mind and your eyes see … the real flower.

Hopefully you get the link back to Penrose. Zen says that you can know the truth all-at-once, that the mind can do this. Science ..or at least textbook scientific philosophy – says you can’t. But of course many scientists also place great stock on insight, intuition, creativity etc. And push a little harder and scientists split into positivists (its meaningless to ask about essential truth; you can only know what works) and Platonists (we may be wrong at any stage, but our aim is to describe reality).

Can we know the world, or is our knowledge ever provisional ?