living computation / Dave Ackley

Logic and all

OK, now it’s me again, you know, the human. I love storiesliving computation :: I, story, by and large, but I’m not literally a story, myself. I collect stories, and remember them, and retell them, and make them up and improve them, and use them, consciously and un, to decide what to do… I’m pretty much a story machine, is what I am. Hey, youDear Reader too.

We’re packed with specific little tactical stories, you and I: to tie a shoe, to shake a hand, to agree on a place for lunch. And we’ve also got more general strategic stories to help us deal with unfamiliar or unexpected or longer term situations and people and such: follow the leader, the wheel of karma, laws of physics, he who hesitates is spilt milk, on and on.

And as humans, naturally, being the curious sort of scribble-scrabble find-the-corners critters of exploration and extrapolation that we are, of course we also have the eternal Quest for the Biggest Story®, that One Master Story that would make the right move obvious in every situation, no matter how complex or novel or desperate.

One candidate Biggest Story was notably espoused by LeibnizLeibniz, Gottfried (1646-1716) German philosopher, physicist, and mathematician… in the 17th century, though like all wannabe master stories its roots are as ancient as thought. It’s the idea that one day, once we figured out what was really going on, any question could be answered and any dispute resolved amicably, by using logic and rationality to determine the correct answer.

In that world, disagreement could never be inevitable, could only be an evanescent reflection of error or incomplete information. Any difference of opinion would simply need to be debugged—“Gentlemen, let us compute!”—and then all would agree there really had never been a dispute at all.

Today, in most ways, Leibniz’ notion is so outlandish as to be quaintly cute, a moth-eaten and tattered but still recognizable relic of a simpler, happier time for computation.

A time before Gödel Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) Austrian-American mathematician… showed there were truths that logic simply couldn’t prove and

before TuringAlan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) Founder of computer science, mathematician, philosopher… …and who killed himself fifty years ago today, as I write this :( showed we couldn’t even tell whether we’d get any answer at all;

before computational complexity showed that even if we knew we could compute an answer, some computations really will just really take too long; and

before deterministic chaos showed that even if we could compute whatever we wanted, and do it efficiently, there’d be cases were we still wouldn’t be able to measure all the inputs accurately enough to get anything but garbage as the output.

And yet, in the face of all that, here’s me, ranting on about computation and life and everything—essentially and not-so-secretly trying to resuscitate computation as some kind of pomo metaironic Biggest Story after all.

Leibniz’ idea is a touchstone for me, an icon of a basic plot, a basic story machine process: The nice modest idea, with a bright germ of truth and fetching in purity and simplicity, is tapped for leadership during a time of troubles, forcibly pulled from its natural domain and generalized to infinity, as a result hardening into a despot, more source of troubles than solution, and is ultimately pulled from power.

Of course perhaps the real conceit is presuming there’s any single, understandable One Master Story to be found; perhaps that metastory itself is misleading and arrogant.

Hmm. Likely.

But, even if always disappointing destinations, making the Quest does get us out of the house into the sunshine, seeing new things and meeting new ideas.

There’s wondrous humble integrity in Gödel’s and Turing’s results: Logic revealing—nay, proving—its own limitations; computation rejecting the One Master Story crown, demanding instead to be interpreted and contextuallized.

If we seek quality, if we refuse to settle, if we scribble-scrabble diligently enough at the cracks and corners of wherever we are—eventually every one master story will fall, yes, yes, yes.

But if we push on far enough, eyes open head high—see enough, do enough, be enough, if we just keep going—yes all will be well, because yes, in the end, every road leads home.

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17 Jun 2004
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