I’ve been reading Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, Surfaces and Essences, in which he posits an analogy model for what human intelligence ultimately is, and I notice that the new November edition of The Atlantic has a profile piece on Hofstadter, a part of which nicely summarizes his book’s thesis:
[C]omputers today still have trouble recognizing a handwritten A. In fact, the task is so difficult that it forms the basis for CAPTCHAs (“Completely Automated Public Turing tests to tell Computers and Humans Apart”), those widgets that require you to read distorted text and type the characters into a box before, say, letting you sign up for a Web site.
In Hofstadter’s mind, there is nothing to be surprised about. To know what all A’s have in common would be, he argued in a 1982 essay, to “understand the fluid nature of mental categories.” And that, he says, is the core of human intelligence.
“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” as the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table,” you see a meeting as “an emperor-has-no-clothes situation” and a friend’s pouting as “sour grapes” and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on ceaselessly throughout your day. That’s what it means to understand. But how does understanding work? For three decades, Hofstadter and his students have been trying to find out, trying to build “computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought.”
“At every moment,” Hofstadter writes in Surfaces and Essences, his latest book (written with Emmanuel Sander), “we are simultaneously faced with an indefinite number of overlapping and intermingling situations.” It is our job, as organisms that want to live, to make sense of that chaos. We do it by having the right concepts come to mind. This happens automatically, all the time. Analogy is Hofstadter’s go-to word. The thesis of his new book, which features a mélange of A’s on its cover, is that analogy is “the fuel and fire of thinking,” the bread and butter of our daily mental lives.
“Look at your conversations,” he says. “You’ll see over and over again, to your surprise, that this is the process of analogy-making.” Someone says something, which reminds you of something else; you say something, which reminds the other person of something else—that’s a conversation. It couldn’t be more straightforward. But at each step, Hofstadter argues, there’s an analogy, a mental leap so stunningly complex that it’s a computational miracle: somehow your brain is able to strip any remark of the irrelevant surface details and extract its gist, its “skeletal essence,” and retrieve, from your own repertoire of ideas and experiences, the story or remark that best relates.
In other words, intelligence has to do with detecting in the noise a meaningful and useful signal; to see that this is that (or that this contains that). It is to transcend distraction by vision. Hofstadter’s model of awareness is about the power to contextualize, map, analogize–to have valuable “aha” moments as in, “That too is an A!” and “That too can be used as a chair!” and “I can change the syntax of this sentence in such-and-such a manner without losing my main point.” Shakespeare’s rapid-fire metaphorical intelligence is exemplary of Hofstadter’s model of intelligence generally, and Shakespeare even seems to me to anticipate Hofstadter’s very model itself in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Act 5, Scene 1 (Theseus speaking):
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!
“Cool reason” could be read as the merely calculating reason, the “reasoning” done by (for example) the computer. And notice in the above passage that Shakespeare twice uses the word shape (“shaping fantasies”; “turns them to shapes”), as in the human mind’s power to make of seemingly “airy nothings” and noise-laden impressions sense, shape. It is the lover’s, the prophet’s, the madman-poet’s gift; the gift of an energetic and creative intelligence to locate frames for seeing things. As Shakespeare has Polonius say of Hamlet, “How pregnant [heavy with implication; connotation] sometimes his replies are!” (Hamlet 2.2.206,207.)
And catch also in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare’s notion of the “imagination all compact,” which I read as the concentrated analogical imagination; the imagination that actively seeks and is anxious to find, for instance, not just a reasonably fit word for an occasion, but what Gustave Flaubert coined le mot juste–the very best word–the lightning, not the lightning bug (to echo Mark Twain).
That’s the highest intelligence–the searchers after the lightning in the raw data of experience.
Image at top of page: Giorgione’s The Tempest (1508), its flash of lightning illuminating an enigmatic scene. Image source: Wikipedia Commons.