Asserting your intelligence is never a bad thing.

With my grades pouring in and my GPA going up (a little) I feel the need to write something intellectual today. So here goes!

When I was in high school a long long time ago, I had this Humanities teacher who pretty much changed my entire outlook on life. He made me question my religion, how I perceived the world, my expectations for the future, etc. etc. He was a truly inspirational man in my life and I am eternally grateful to him. On one particularly confusing day of class this teacher asked us, “How does a rock know how to be a rock?” We all pondered the question, but none of us seemed to be able to produce an answer to satisfy our inquisitive instructor. Looking back I don’t think it was really an answer that he was looking for, however my recent academic past has pushed me to ponder this question once again.

One of the more fascinating and confounding elements of computer science and artificial intelligence that I’ve come into contact with over the past few months is the idea that a program functions without any knowledge of how or why. You tell you’re calculator to add 42 and 24 and it will do it, no questions asked. If instructed to inform the user how these two numbers are added however…the calculator would be utterly dumbfounded. Now of course talking about such a low level system seems trivial; of course a calculator can’t do anything besides add, subtract, multiply, and divide that’s all it’s programmed to do! Expecting anything else from that poor defenseless calculator is stupid. But apply this anecdote to a more advanced system. Assume for a moment that it is possible to create a machine that can interact with human beings. Assume further that it is able to relate to us on some level, understand our feelings about certain events or people. Perhaps this machine can even empathize with us. Now imagine what would happen if we were to ask this machine how it knows the proper way in which to empathize with us. In theory it would have absolutely no idea. While it executes this function and may even know that it is an element of its programming, it does not understand how the code responsible for its empathy. Further it does not understand how its empathetic behavior is a mirror of human empathetic behavior.

The same kind of process happens within human beings of course. At this very moment your brain is performing hundreds of thousands of functions, the vast majority of which we are totally unaware of. Those who do not study the functions of the human body are largely unaware of how it functions to create the world we perceive. Furthermore, despite the fact that I do study the brain I still do not understand all of the complexity that goes into even a single activity. I know that the phrenic nerve reacts to stimuli from the C4 level of the spinal cord (approximately) and aids in the control of the diaphragm, however there are many things about this system I don’t understand. I don’t know why the human body developed in this way, all I know if that this is how it functions. Without this knowledge I can still breathe and control my diaphragm. Before the advent of science, before anyone knew what the inside of a human looked like or how it functioned the human race was still successful. We do not require a knowledge of our basic structure in order to function. Just as a computer system need not understand why it was developed in a specific fashion, we humans do not require knowledge of our make-up to thrive.

If I were to run into my old humanities teacher again sometime I may pose this question to him, “Why does a rock need to know how to be a rock?” It seems only logical that a rock would be able to function perfectly well within rock society without any knowledge at all of how it came to be or how it survives. So maybe a rock doesn’t know how to be a rock, and perhaps that doesn’t matter at all.

-JLS

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One thought on “Asserting your intelligence is never a bad thing.

  1. allofalanah says:

    As I read this, there was seriously a small rock sitting on the table. I kept glancing surreptitiously at it, questioning its sentience. What if it can hear me? What if it’s only pretending to be a rock? What if it only knows how to be a rock, and has the desire to do something else, but can’t for lack of knowledge?

    See Sam? You give us sensible, logical progressions of question and answer, and I go all tangentially philosophical and end up hiding the rock under a shoe. Way to go, Sam. Way to go.

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