Recently, between a daughter burbling about the chemical transferability of learning and a character (in my new novel) pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning.
As a layperson, I’ve thought of learning mainly in terms of younger learning – generational transfer of social convention and disciplinary knowledge, which, in environments that adequately balance boundaries and freedom, and nourishment and stress, develop capacity for higher-order connections, analogy, abstraction, and “extra-order” creativity – and adult learning which uses and further develops the higher-order capacities. All of this presumes that learning is a humanistic and social process. Of course, our physiology allows this learning, but, until recently, I didn’t seriously consider the possibility that learning might be, fundamentally, a physiological and/or logical process. Today, however, with explorations of the chemical transferability of learning, increasing understanding of the structure and activity of the brain, and the development of sophisticated algorithms for pattern recognition and unsupervised learning by machines, I, along with many others, am fascinated by, and curious about, the chemical and mechanical nature of learning.
Snap! Palpably, truly, my brain shut a mental trap around the word “curiosity.” Aha. Where would curiosity figure in the chemical transfer of learning? Can artificially intelligent curiosity match human curiosity? What is the relationship of curiosity to learning and intelligence? So far explorations of the chemical transfer of learning are restricted to conditioned learning, so the question of curiosity is very far from arising. But I think we can ask about curiosity in machine learning.
Curiosity in mammals includes both instrumental, problem-solving, motivated curiosity and (pleasurably) idle curiosity. Both kinds can lead to learning. The first sounds amenable to algorithmic machine learning. The second, pleasurably idle curiosity, sounds fundamentally inconsistent with algorithmic processes, but certainly one could code a machine to simulate idle curiosity. One could have an “idle” curiosity algorithm, with a cosmetic repertoire of pleasure indicators, linked to a mechanical random number generator, and one could code for recording and learning from the effects of the random, if not truly idle, curiosity. I think it could look pretty good and the machine might even derive quantitatively and qualitatively better learning than I do from my idle curiosity.
So where would that leave me? At the limit, the machine cannot have idle curiosity. That does leave me (and you) with a fertile question: what then can the machine never have in terms of learning? (I think one could have a strongly analogous line of inquiry about self-consciousness. Perhaps in a future post. Or in a guest post?)
Note: In this note, I use “learning” and “intelligence” to denote mainly mental activity (descriptive, analytical, creative, etc.). I am not looking in any primary way at “muscle memory,” emotional intelligence, etc., though, clearly, all of these greatly affect any person’s overall capacity and process of learning and “intelligence.” I also do not look at a crucial form of curiosity among mammals in general, but, most strikingly, among humans – relational curiosity.
Related content: a fascinating article on gender and AI/Robots.
In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty tries to find an economic driver of structural inequality that might be amenable to policy control; he finds that capital income contributes strikingly to increasing inequality and that, potentially though not easily, its effects can be reduced by tax policy. Most discussions of his book focus on his academic work of data gathering, analysis, and theory-building.
A second intention gets less attention. This is the intention to engage directly in public discourse: not simply informing public discourse, nor simply a written form of public speaking, but seeing himself and his work as direct participants in a marketplace that includes ordinary, not-scholarly, not-official people and, presumably, their language and ideas. “Social scientists, like all intellectuals and all citizens, ought to participate in public debate…. It is illusory, I believe, to think that the scholar and the citizen live in separate moral universes, the former concerned with means and the latter with ends.” For me, the charm and importance of his work, well beyond the competence of his (and his team’s) data-gathering, analysis, and theory-building, derives from this engagement, unabashedly personal, with a systemic moral universe that includes the scholar and the citizen.
I started reading Piketty’s Capital around the same time that I read the transcript of Marilynne Robinson’s conversation with Barack Obama, and immediately promised myself that I would write this post, because Robinson and Obama’s conversation has the same quality of ranging outside the lines of conventional or official categories. In a back-and-forth that comfortably meanders from careful phrases to sentences that try to capture a truth so intensely they immediately reveal their own limits, then on to rambling words strung together thinking-out-loud, Robinson and Obama discuss the importance and meaning of Christianity in Robinson’s life and writing, the language and role of Christianity in contemporary politics, the gap between ordinary decency and mean-spirited politics, and race in the US, among other things. It’s not that such discussions are unusual or that the content is extraordinary; what is remarkable is the ease with which Robinson and Obama make the ordinary* commute with intellectual, author, President, in a public conversation.
So, why am I writing this post? Because I was invigorated by Piketty’s, Robinson’s and Obama’s smudging beyond the boundaries of expertise and the lines of disciplinary language. I loved their engagement beyond the professionalization of their, and our, lives. In his book and in their conversation, these three people – Piketty, Robinson, and Obama – bring intellect into direct contact with ordinary life, in the public sphere. I hear their words bringing to the fore, in a wonderful way, an obvious but usually subdued understanding: that all people – social and political beings, whether “intellectual” or not – have equal stake in the moral universe that human society necessarily is.
* here a noun
Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama chat on Sept 14, 2014
Part II of Robinson and Obama Chat
We don’t have what Narcissus wrote, even if only in his mind, so we are left with mocking his self-absorption.
As a writer, I am narcissistic, necessarily so; perhaps this is true about all artists. I’m writing this post because, in making my shift from clandestine writer to “I am a writer,” I unwittingly swept away the cover my brave secrecy provided for my narcissism. So I’m getting used to bald, bold, narcissism, though a mild shame and disorientation continue since, before “I am a writer,” I was a dialogue practitioner for many years. I am still a dialogue practitioner, but that’s the muted role now, as I veil and bound the practicality and radical non-narcissism of a good dialogue practitioner’s action-in-the-world.
The narcissism of writing was not a conscious choice for me, there was no scheduled moment of “time to look at my face, my self.” Rather, I became aware of this self-regard in grand moments of seeing the world: through myself, in myself, and, of course, myself in the world. These are divine, Bhagvad Gita-esque moments, Whitman-esque moments. Depending on the writer, these moments may or may not have tints of self-consciousness, may or may not have magnificent bursts of megalomania, may or may not implode into despair at the banality and limitations of human being.
I’ve come to realize that, as writers, we look into a mirror; and we ourselves are a mirror. We don’t just look at our, and others’, best features, from the best angles, in the best light, but we look at that greying hair on a granular mole in the shadow of a nostril, and write about that. The beauty, from the best angles, yes, but also the mole.
This then is my movement – perhaps an oscillation more than a one-directional plunge – from the radical non-narcissism of the dialogue practitioner to the living narcissism, at best the wholeness, the mole-y, whole-y narcissism of a writer.
I did not pay attention to Bernie Sanders much until the first Democratic debate on October 13, 2015. Watching him and listening to him at the debate I grew to like and respect him very, very much, and I understood why so many people love and support him. But I don’t think he should be President.
I want his voice to remain as clear and unambiguous as it is today. I want his message, which is fundamentally a moral message that unapologetically seeks equal access to wellbeing (or, as I would put it, equal access to beauty), to remain undiluted. As President, his voice would have, HAVE, to be ambiguous; and his message, of necessity, would be diluted.
In our country today, the person who is President must be a politician who mixes strategy, glad-handing, compromise, power, and moral authority – the last as often kneaded by the first four as not. And s/he must be a competent CEO. Sanders may have the ability to configure himself for strategy, glad-handing, compromise, power, and management, but I don’t believe he has the personality, nor will he have the conditions (legislature; sufficient popular support), to retain the clarity of the moral message of his campaign and transform it into real legislation. That said, I want him to hold our politicians’ feet to the fire. I want him to continue to rouse our youth to hold their politicians accountable, particularly our Democratic politicians as they get elected.
There are other issues. I think Sanders is less knowledgeable about world politics and economics than Clinton. Despite our country’s fascination with exceptionalism, it is now gravely, indeed crazily, important for the US Head of State to be fully aware of and nimbly curious about our increasingly obviously one world. Sanders rightly focuses on a limited message – the gross and growing inequality in our country and the outrageous political power of an appallingly wealthy minority. I want him, his supporters, and others to continue hammering out this message.
But I want a President who combines comfort with the underground of politics with connections to and a ear for the moral voices that call for equal access to beauty.
Is Hillary Clinton that person? I think she could be, if she allows herself to be, if she is supported and encouraged to be that leader. I think she has the capacity for it. But she is a topic for a different blog post.
Mrinalini, one of two primary characters in my novel Variations, is an educated Bengali woman of the late nineteenth century.
Seventy or so years after Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit was published, she lives in Lucknow with her husband’s family, which is part of a growing “middle class” in British India, an Indian version of the educated bourgeoisie of Europe, holding a similar range of conservative-liberal values, a range that is self-contradictory from some perspectives, and politically fertile from others. As an educated woman – a wife and mother – who grew to be literate in three languages (Bengali, English, and Urdu), she is simultaneously audience for the knowledge activity of men around her and the (supposedly) malleable object of their knowledge and activity.
For Hegel, she, as a woman, can achieve at best the limited consciousness of Herrschaft (or “masterdom,” to use Howard Kainz’s word); as an Indian, she is a murky figure, dreamily between fantastic pasts and colonial presents. Most interestingly, however, as a character, a woman and an Indian of her time, she works through consciousness of self and other, in tandem with her futuristic doppelgänger Pakhi (the other primary character in Variations), to arrive at recognized existence-for-(it)self through art-in-material-living. In the dialectic, the “slave” is the necessary fabulation for the consciousness of “masterdom,” (or, in the case of real masters and slaves, the worker necessary to support and define the independent status of the master). But the potential triumph of the “slave” (in this case Mrinalini’s consciousness at work) is that the slave’s consciousness need have no dependence on the independence of the master, more vulgarly no illusions about the master, and indeed often doesn’t, and so structurally can achieve transformative survival of its own supersession, while the master’s consciousness is structurally stuck.
Added comment from a reader:
"Your reference to Hegel is appropriate since the crucial passage in the Phenomenology treats the dialectic of Herrschaft and Knechtshaft as a fundamental stage in the emergence of self-consciousness, and the arising of self-consciousness is what Mrinalini experiences. There is of course much more texture to Hegel's dense discussion of this moment than can be included in one paragraph of a blog post, but you aren't writing a technical article anyway. So the appeal to Hegel fits the case, and his analysis gives you a good tool for exploring Mrinalini and her situation.
The one passage in the post that gave me pause was the phrase "the slave’s consciousness need have no dependence on the independence of the master". I would caution you to be careful there, because, for Hegel, the independence of the master is a necessary condition for the slave's emergent self-consciousness. The master represents a perpetual threat of death for the slave. And it is this threat (which the slave experiences and the master doesn't), in combination with the slave's direct engagement with the material world in meeting the demands of the master (something that the slave's intervention prevents the master from experiencing), that creates conditions for the slave to become self aware (again there are more fine-grained details here but I'm trying to hit just the essential points!). In short, the slave is confronted by another independent self-consciousness in a way that the master never can be, and that confrontation is the matrix for the slave's developing self-consciousness. In that sense, the slave's consciousness is in part an outcome of the encounter with the master's independence. This mutual dependence between the two positions is a reason why the dance between the two is a "dialectic”!”
-- Walter Wright
How many generations fill you as you read these words, in this moment?
If you are about twenty-five, have you heard stories from a grandparent about her or his grandparent? That would give you five generations.
If you are about seventy, did you hear stories from your grandparents about their grandparents; and do you have grandchildren whom you talk to? That gives you a whopping seven generations.
Of course, you can be filled with generations through unrelated people, and that happens all the time, mostly without conscious thought.
If (when?) you are alive to this constant filling, I wonder if you feel the expansive exhilaration I do, a kind of “skydiving,” dizzying knowing seeing being in time-words-images.
Interestingly, I never sense a symmetrical process of depletion, though generational matter juxtaposed with other generational matter does seem to blur, shift, bank up, and ebb.
In 1997, I was asked, “Would you want to live in a country where the only people who have guns are the military and the police?” by an extraordinarily accomplished and politically centrist Indian-American lawyer who had grown up in Texas. I did not respond right away because I was sure it was a trick question. And then I stuttered. I couldn’t even argue because the question seemed to come from a completely unfamiliar world of knowledge and being. I remember my eyes goggling in my head while I tried to get a grip mentally.
Today, my eyes don’t goggle, though depending on my interlocutor, they may inquire, glare, or roll upwards. Today I am more practiced; more prepared to construct reedy arguments with statistics and political talking points; more patient.
Until there is one more avoidable mass shooting. And then, simply-if-tritely, I’m like Dylan: How many times…?