Saturday, September 13, 2008

‘The Kluge’ by a Kluge

Gary Marcus has an intriguing new book out called ‘Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind’. Due to a stiff but well deserved rebuke from my better half who insists that I read my current stack of books before going out and buying any more - I haven’t been able to read it yet. However, in the best tradition of the blogosphere, I am going to review it anyway.

The premise of the book, that the human brain cobbled together by evolution is a clumsy and haphazard mess with multiple defects, seems to contain a grain of truth but also to be inherently self-refuting. In particular Marcus singles out the brain’s capacity for memory, which, by comparison with that of a computer, is unreliable and prone to mistakes. This is undeniable. By way of illustration, as a rather bloodthirsty young lad I took it upon myself to spend hour after hour in my bedroom trying to memorise the dates of wars and battles in British history. I was so successful at this that to this day I am able to recall the exact date of events like D-Day the 1918 armistice and the battle of Agincourt. This has come at a considerable price in evolutionary terms, namely that I am sometimes unable to recall key dates such as my wife’s birthday and my wedding anniversary, thereby decreasing both my chances of survival and my reproductive fitness. Were my brain built on a computer like ‘postcode’ system of memory rather than contextual memory, I would not suffer from any of these difficulties. I would, however, be doomed to remember a whole host of stuff I would rather have banished from my memory. That land law course I took 4 years ago and the time I accidentally locked myself in a toilet cubicle for 3 hours to give but two painful examples. To forget is often as useful as to remember.

Furthermore, as Marcus states, human choice and decision making is often highly irrational. This observation is based on the author’s presupposition that the ideal type of belief is scientific, based on logic and the laws of evidence. The brain’s nature as a roughshod collection of interacting systems means that it often fails to live up to this lofty ideal. Since ‘Kluge’ contains multiple digs at the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd, it is pretty certain who this last point is aimed at. To me I can think of nothing more horrifying than a world populated by Vulcan-like, logic robots and one has to ask whether such a world is preferable or likely to produce better results than the one we have got.

Throughout history most scientists have maintained a stubborn belief in their theories despite many of them being based on insufficient evidence and anathema to cold logic. The capacity to hold often irrational and counter intuitive beliefs is a major creative force and indispensable to humanity. What seems to be a flaw in some scenarios turns out to be essential in other circumstances. One thinks of heliocentrism which was largely developed by Copernicus for aesthetic reasons and was only proven by observation when the stellar parallax was observed with the greatly improved instruments of the 19th century. The scientific revolution and innumerable later advances were produced by people who believed that a creator God had created an orderly and rational cosmos based on mathematical laws. As Peter Harrison has shown in ‘The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, scientific methods themselves were originally devised as techniques for ameliorating the cognitive damage wrought by human sin and conceptualised as a means of recapturing the knowledge of nature that Adam had once possessed. We are now assured by today’s breed of logical positivist that these beliefs that drove these discoveries are not only absurd and infantile, but also invalidated by those methods of thinking which arose from their foundational metaphysic.

Above all, the book’s premise is refuted by its author, who is merely a kluge like the rest of us. My ageing laptop’s solitary method of self-critique is to present the blue screen of death to me when it suffers a fatal error. A kluge on the other hand can write an entire book an its defects and develop strategies to get around them. Accordingly, I too have been able to defy my irrational and poorly assembled brain by finding a war that started on my wedding anniversary, a role which the Boer War of 1899 fills pretty nicely. By using techniques like these we can become more than the sum of our evolutionary heritage.

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