Friday, 29 June 2018

The limits of the narrative mind

There is an old joke about having one million monkeys punching keys on typewriters for a hundred years.

They wouldn't be able to create the works of Shakespeare.

It is used by critics of the evolution theory to showcase what they see as the folly of it: how could something so perfect (... sorry, I lost some minutes laughing my ass out) and beautiful (I agree, as far as some specimen goes like, say, Natalie Portman, Constance Wu and Tyra Banks or Ajang Majok, as for the rest - I need some more minutes) as humanity have been created by randomness.

The joke is, of course, more than a bit inaccurate...

A more accurate depiction of evolution in action, would be something like this:

Imagine having a hundred billion thrillion monkeys, punching keys on typewriters for seven hundred million years.

Every monkey has an implacable editor that revise his work, throw away the lines that makes no sense or are unfit for the gig at hand (without this, without a selection function of some kind we'd be back to the one million monkey joke - but Darwin' theory has precisely that, an implacable, inflexible editor prone to kill the monkey that fails to perform: it's called nature).

Any line that is good is conserved and assigned a key or a macro in the monkey typewriter... over time the monkeys will stop "reinventing the wheels", and will simply play combinations with already edited and accepted blocks (beyond the little required by the code used to synthesize proteins - the edited and tested blocks - much of  evolved species DNA is regulating and designs hints that operate on a "higher logical level"...)

The lines written by "good" monkeys  are dispersed among the writers, the monkeys that consistently fail to deliver are eliminated and the libraries of their phrases is destroyed.

One hundred billion trillion monkeys, for seven hundred million years - represents well the initial stages of life's evolution, when the biochemical basic tricks have been evolved; at the level of complex organisms, the "game" changes and a better metaphor would be "imagine a billion programmers stitching together randomly functions and libraries, with project managers ruthlessly firing all hose that do not deliver - ah, that sounds like a scaled-up Microsoft?... I see.

The question is: would they create a set of stories comparable to those written by Shakespeare?

The real answer is no.

They would end up writing something so good that Shakespeare himself could hardly understand how it "works" or what it really means, beyond seeing that it makes people weep, laugh and get passionate about it, or whatever was inside the selection parameters that were assigned to the editors.

Shakespeare would read them, and conclude that they are the creation of a God(*). 

Which brings me to the point for which I titled this piece.

The rational mind as we typically identify it - the mind that sees the universe as a set of processes that can be analysed, i.e. described in a more or less linear tale - is a severely limited instrument.

In the real world, almost everything happens at the same time (by definition) and almost everything influences anything else.

When we analyse natural processes, we divide them into steps in a sequence and we deal with their close interactions by devising feedback loops.

It is a remarkably successful strategy, a "Divide et Impera" even more powerful than the one devised by the ancient Romans to keep under control the conquered barbarians at the borders of their empire.

It has helped us understanding a great deal of the physical world that we inhabit (maybe - we can only suspect what we do not know, and yet we suspect there is much, much, much more to know... just the fact that the Standard Model and General Relativity tries to snuff each other is a nice clue about us knowing "jack"), to the point that many laymen feel ill at ease with the ever growing power of science.

However, the strategy cannot hide the fact that we are using a tool that works at most in three dimensions - more likely, just in two.

Consider how our minds handle plots in a story... there is one thread, a second thread, they intertwine.... how many dimensions are required to represent them?

Two? That's right... narrative plots need at most two dimensions to be represented, and I suspect not just because often writers simply draw them on a sheet to navigate them.

When a scientific theory is explained, it is usually written down in a short piece of narrative.

So, our descriptions of an extremely interconnected, multi-dimensional reality is always bound to be, in ultimate analysis, a bi-dimensional representation of some kind.

It is inevitable that these will ultimately lack precision and only approximate somewhat the real thing.

It is also inevitable that at some point this fundamental inability of the rational mind to see the universe as it is  - a free for all multidimensional chasm, ordered beyond its apparent chaos - but only as a collection of separated aspects of it, will present limits to our ability to understand our reality.

It seems only inevitable that this inability will resurface even when facing those artificial systems that we create mimicking the way nature works, like many AI projects or even just a simple tone detector created through "evolutionary algorithms".

I think that in the long term, this will prove a fundamental limit to our capacity to improve our understanding, i.e. to improve science.

And I am not completely sure that there is any real way to address the issue, at least none that is meaningful to us humans.


(By the way, if you believe in a God that is not as much as powerful as clever, it may as well be... the hundred billion trillion monkeys being just the tool he decided to use for this specific bit of creation, and yes, He would hide any possible clue of him ever having been around - complaining about scientists refusing to see the necessity of God is, really, wishing Him to be sloppy; Don't worry, we'll be in hell together, me for what I draw, you for having tried to lessen God to a stature you could understand)


  1. Just found your blog... I've seen your drawn artwork in many other places already. But your expansion of the monkey typewriter thought experiment, with comparison to evolution and software development is even more fascinating :-)

  2. :-) A comment, A comment! Thanks... it was quite a bit I did not get one here.

    You are now part to one of the many open secrets of this universe:

    what I think about when I do not draw my stuff is even quirkier than that.


Feel free to point me out conceptual, orthographical, grammatical, syntactical or usage's errors, as well as anything else