The end of insight?

by on January 5, 2006 at 5:37 am in Science | Permalink

Steven Pinker dared commentators to write down their most dangerous idea; Steven Strogatz from Cornell offered this response:

I worry that insight is becoming impossible, at least at the frontiers of mathematics. Even when we're able to figure out what's true or false, we're less and less able to understand why.

An argument along these lines was recently given by Brian Davies in the "Notices of the American Mathematical Society". He mentions, for example, that the four-color map theorem in topology was proven in 1976 with the help of computers, which exhaustively checked a huge but finite number of possibilities. No human mathematician could ever verify all the intermediate steps in this brutal proof, and even if someone claimed to, should we trust them? To this day, no one has come up with a more elegant, insightful proof. So we're left in the unsettling position of knowing that the four-color theorem is true but still not knowing why.

Similarly important but unsatisfying proofs have appeared in group theory (in the classification of finite simple groups, roughly akin to the periodic table for chemical elements) and in geometry (in the problem of how to pack spheres so that they fill space most efficiently, a puzzle that goes back to Kepler in the 1500's and that arises today in coding theory for telecommunications).

In my own field of complex systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs, known as cellular automata, whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave; the best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces insight. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport.

If this is happening in mathematics, the supposed pinnacle of human reasoning, it seems likely to afflict us in science too, first in physics and later in biology and the social sciences (where we're not even sure what's true, let alone why).

When the End of Insight comes, the nature of explanation in science will change forever. We'll be stuck in an age of authoritarianism, except it'll no longer be coming from politics or religious dogma, but from science itself.

Here is a much longer list of Dangerous Ideas; the index and list of contributors is on the left.  It includes Michael whats-his-name from the Monkees, Clay Shirky, Pinker himself, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Daniel Dennett, Lee Smolin, Frank Tipler, and many others.  Determinism, religion, and variation within the universe/multiverse are especially popular topics at the moment.  Thanks to Elaine Hawley for the pointer.

And beneath the fold, Geoffrey Miller tries to explain the Fermi Paradox...

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that organic life evolved very quickly after earth’s surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi’s Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi’s Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD, TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online, instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework, dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud’s pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.

My dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred nursery.

1 joshg January 5, 2006 at 9:12 am

“evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity”

I find this conclusion questionable. How many times did brains or ganglia evolve independantly? Or cells or nucliec acids for that matter? There’s almost certainly life in the Universe depending on how you define life.

You have to remeber life on this planet started from simple chemical compounds that were structured in a way that they could replicate themselves using materials that it came into contact with in the primordial soup. This might be common on other planets in which life similar to ours is capable of evolving. We think, “it happened quickly after the earth cooled, so it must have happened somewhere else as well.” I don’t doubt replicating chemicals are common on other planets, but we’re looking for something even more specific, we’re looking for the same kind of replicating chemicals which could later evolve into intellignet life. Next we need for cells to develop. Among other things we need cells to develop complete with organelles similar to those found on earth or at least some kind of organelles which allow the cell to function in some indpedendant fashion. I’m obviously glossing over a million independent evolutionary steps including some seriously non-linear ones. We need these unlikely cells to come together for some reason to form cellular organisms. We need some form of multi-organism reproduction to speed up evolution. We need brains to develop, we need a circle of life similar to our own nitrogen cycle to come into existance which only happened after billions of years on earth. We need big, animal-like critters, to develop their brains enough to discover the wheel, electricity, nulcear energy, and eventually warp drive. It’s possible so many other things are required like a moon similar to our moon or a planet tilted such that it has seasons in order for life so similar to our own to exist.

Given that all of this took 4 billion years on earth, and we are looking for something so rediculously similar to the exact path life took on earth. Given that it takes a couple billion years after a star is born for a planet to be cool enough to sustain life. Given that it is doubtful anyone is going anywhere without warp drive and that that might require anti-matter for an anilation reaction to power. Given that the Universe is “only” 10 billion years old. Should we be surprised if we haven’t met any Klingons?

In my oppinion, no.

2 David Hecht January 5, 2006 at 9:35 am

Actually, if you read “Rare Earth” (, you will see that the preconditions for advanced life are now estimated to be much more stressing than previously thought.

In effect, the authors stand the conventional narrative on its head: whereas it has traditionally been thought that life itself is a rare and unusual accident, but that–once started–would inexorably progress to greater and greater complexity, the authors point out that we have found life in all sorts of high-stress environments (glaciers, icecaps, volcanoes, deep-sea volcanic vents, and so on), but it is not complex: they then lay out the environmental factors that have made long-term evolution on earth possible (including being in a system with a large “goalkeeper” planet to keep comets and asteroids away; having a large moon to avoid runaway greenhouse effects; having a magnetic field to avoid excess cosmic radiation, and so on).

Pretty interesting stuff, and a different perspective on the Fermi Paradox.

3 A Tykhyy January 5, 2006 at 10:00 am


Sorry, just couldn’t help myself with that… Back to serious mode. Assume Earth, no stellar flight, “narcissists” are on the way to extiction.

1) How will the “breeders” control their population? Does the death rate go up to meet the birth rate, or vice versa, and how is this achieved?

2) How do the “breeders” of different stripes prevent fighting each other? It’s the most likely outcome, they’ll go down in flames together.

3) How do the “breeders” attack the problem of zealotry, literal-mindedness and general incapability of tolerating different POVs?


Regarding the Fermi paradox, an unflattering idea is that we’re in quarantine until we sort ourselves out a bit. Lots of fiction works propose this. Indeed, I find that 50s-70s fiction authors have investigated a wide range of different ideas about social and economic organization. In fact, if the online worlds become a bit more society-like, it will become possible to do social experiments with drastically less dangerous side effects. That would be the ultimate purpose of these worlds, I believe.

4 Joel B. January 5, 2006 at 10:39 am

When the End of Insight comes, the nature of explanation in science will change forever. We’ll be stuck in an age of authoritarianism, except it’ll no longer be coming from politics or religious dogma, but from science itself.

That sounds nothing like the way creationists perceive naturalistic evolutionists today. I’m afraid, we’re already there.

There are couple things that would severely undermine Biblical Creationism. In reality, none of those have occurred, confirmation of extraterrestial life or intelligence, interbreeding between humans and “close relatives” (ick). Existence before ~6-10000 years ago (as opposed to mere inferences on extrapolated data). The oldest living thing is believed to have been almost 5000 years old (a tree which can age multiple years in single years given correct conditions.), startingly close to the Bible’s date of the Genesis flood AM ~1690.

The complete lack of demonstrated intelligence in the rest of the universe, quietly undermines naturalistic explanations of our existence. Chance, it appears is not enough.

Now granted absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence…completely. But it is a data point, to keep us on our toes, questioning.

Cosmologists already accept that the universe in Isotropic with respect to all space (it appears the same everywhere). They must, for the startling implication is that man is disturbingly close to the center of the universe. This is disturbing and violative of the Copernican principle. We are not special after all, BUT…what if we are.

5 nmg January 5, 2006 at 1:08 pm

The answer to Fermi’s Paradox is obviously that life is very rare. If life is common and develops intelligence frequently, there is no one path or rule that would determine the outcome for those civilizations. Some may nuke themselves, some may drug themselves, some may endure environmental holocausts but not ALL of them. If thousands of civilizations arise over millions of years certainly some of them will die out and certainly some of them will not.

Look at the variation we have just within human culture and individuals. Multiply that across species. There is no rule that could be applied to all.


6 Gabriel Mihalache January 5, 2006 at 2:48 pm

Re: the Fermi paradox… you don’t have to wait for the future for the “decadent” Americans to get eaten-up 🙂 There are many countries in the world where survival and the lack of entertainment and comfort are the norm.

In any case, as long as people are able to earn enough, a basic division of labour between virtual world inhabitants and real-world security personnelle could be arranged. You could play Everquest 7.0 all you want as long as you secure your physical body. 😉

7 Constant January 5, 2006 at 5:12 pm

Gregody Chaitin is a mathematician whose studies dovetail closely with this idea. He has essays like:

“Omega and why mathematics has no “theories of everything””


“Irreducible complexity in pure mathematics”

and derives conclusions such as, “Whether each bit of omega is a 0 or a 1 is a mathematical fact that is true for no reason, it’s true by accident!”

8 Matthew Petersen January 6, 2006 at 2:17 pm

Read Richard Dawkins’s dangerous idea.

He marvels at his own lack of postulated enlightenment–a failure to human action as deterministic–the way a narrow-minded economist struggles with his failure to conform to rational expectations and homo oeconomicus. “Ever learning yet never coming to a knowledge of the truth”, he can see only with his eyes and perceives nothing but the physical world that forces itself upon him. If that is that is the essence of science then insight should hardly be expected of such a partial view of the world.

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