This text is reproduced solely for the limited academic use of students in Webster University BUSN 6150.

Numbers in brackets indicate the start of a page in the original text.

 


 

Roszak, Theodore. The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. New York: Pantheon Book, 1986. 210-220.

[210]

TEN

DESCARTES’S

ANGEL

Reflections on the

True Art of Thinking

 

On the night of November 20, 1619, Rene Descartes, then an aspiring philosopher still in his early twenties, had a series of three dreams which changed the course of his life and of modern thought. He reports that in his sleep, the Angel of Truth appeared to him and, in a blinding revelation like a flash of lightning, revealed a secret which would “lay the foundations of a new method of understanding and a new and marvelous science.” In the light of what the angel had told him, Descartes fervently set to work on an ambitious treatise called “Rules for the Direction of the Mind.” The objective of his “new and marvelous science” was nothing less than to describe how the mind works. For Descartes, who was to invent analytical geometry, there was no question but that the model for this task was to be found in mathematics. There would be axioms (“clear and distinct ideas” that none could doubt) and, connecting the axioms in logical progressions, a finite number of simple, utterly sensible rules that were equally self-evident. The result would be an expanding body of knowledge.

Descartes never finished his treatise; the project was abandoned after the eighteenth rule—perhaps because it proved more difficult than he had anticipated. He did, however, eventually do justice to [211] the angel’s inspiration in the famous Discourse on Method, which is often taken to be the founding document of modern philosophy.[20] Descartes’ project was the first of many similar attempts in the modern world to codify the laws of thought; almost all of them follow his lead in using mathematics as their model. In our day, the fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science can be seen as part of this tradition, but now united with technology and centering upon a physical mechanism—the computer—which supposedly embodies these laws.

The epistemological systems that have been developed since the time of Descartes have often been ingenious. They surely illuminate many aspects of the mind. But all of them are marked by the same curious fact. They leave out the Angel of Truth—as indeed Descartes himself did. For he never returned to the source of his inspiration. His writings spare no time for the role of dreams, revelations, insights as the wellsprings of thought. Instead, he gave all his attention to formal, logical procedures that supposedly begin with zero, from a position of radical doubt. This is a fateful oversight by the father of modern philosophy; it leaves out of account that aspect of thinking which makes it more an art than a science, let alone a technology: the moment of inspiration, the mysterious origin of ideas. No doubt Descartes himself would have been hard pressed to say by what door of the mind the angel had managed to enter his thoughts. Can any of us say where such flashes of intuition come from? They seem to arise unbidden from unconscious sources. We do not stitch them together piece by piece; rather, they arrive all at once and whole. If there are any rules we can follow for the generation of ideas, it may simply be to keep the mind open and receptive on all sides, to remain hospitable to the strange, the peripheral, the blurred and fleeting that might otherwise pass unnoticed. We may not know how the mind creates or receives ideas, but without them—and especially what I have called the master ideas which embody great reserves of collective experience—our culture would be unimaginably meager. It is difficult to see how the mind could work at all if it did not have such grand conceptions as truth, goodness, beauty to light its way.

At the same time that Descartes was drafting his rules of thought, the English philosopher Francis Bacon was also in search of a radical new method of understanding. Bacon, who was a mathematical illiterate, preferred to stress the importance of observation and the ac- [212] cumulation of facts. He too was a man with a revolutionary vision—the intention of placing all learning on a new foundation of solid fact derived from the experimental “vexing” of nature. Before the seventeenth century was finished, these two philosophical currents—the Rationalism of Descartes, the Empiricism of Bacon—had formed a working alliance to produce the intellectual enterprise we call science: observation subjected to the discipline of an impersonal method designed to have all the logical rigor of mathematics. As Bacon once put it, if one has the right method, then “the mind itself” will “be guided at every step, and the business be done as if by machinery.”

Since the days of Descartes and Bacon, science has grown robustly. Its methods have been debated, revised, and sharpened as they have thrust into new fields of study; the facts it has discovered mount by the day. But the angel who has fired the minds of great scientists with a vision of truth as bold as that of Descartes has rarely been given her due credit, and least of all by the computer scientists who seem convinced that they have at last invented Bacon’s mental “machinery” and that it can match the achievements of its human original without the benefit of unaccountable revelations.

The gap that has so often been left by philosophers between the origin of ideas and the subsequent mechanics of thought—between the angel’s word and the analytical processes that follow—simply reflects the difference between what the mind can and cannot understand about itself. We can self-consciously connect idea with idea, comparing and contrasting as we go, plotting out the course of a deductive sequence. But when we try to get behind the ideas to grasp the elusive interplay of experience, memory, insight that bubbles up into consciousness as a whole thought, we are apt to come away from the effort dizzy and confounded—as if we had tried to read a message that was traveling past us at blinding speed. Thinking up ideas is so spontaneous—one might almost say so instinctive—an action, that it defies capture and analysis. We cannot slow the mind down sufficiently to see the thing happening step by step. Picking our thoughts apart at this primitive, preconscious level is rather like one of those deliberately baffling exercises the Zen Buddhist masters use to dazzle the mind so that it may experience the inutterable void. When it comes to understanding where the mind gets its ideas, perhaps the best we can do is to say, with Descartes, “An angel told me.” But then is there any need to go farther than this? Mentality is [213] the gift of our human nature. We may use it, enjoy it, extend and elaborate it without being able to explain it.

In any case, the fact that the origin of ideas is radically elusive does not mean we are licensed to ignore the importance of ideas and begin with whatever we can explain as if that were the whole answer to the age-old epistemological question with which philosophers have struggled for centuries. Yet that, I believe, is what the computer scientists do when they seek to use the computer to explain cognition and intelligence.

The information processing model of thought, which has been the principal bone of contention in these pages, poses a certain striking paradox. On the basis of that model, we are told that thinking reduces to a matter of shuffling data through a few simple, formal procedures. Yet, when we seek to think in this “simple” way, it proves to be very demanding—as if we were forcing the mind to work against the grain. Take any commonplace routine of daily life—a minimal act of intelligence—and try to specify all its components in a logically tight sequence. Making breakfast, putting on one’s clothes, going shopping. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, these common-sense projects have defied the best efforts of cognitive scientists to program them. Or take a more extraordinary (meaning less routine) activity: choosing a vocation in life, writing a play, a novel a poem, or—as in Descartes’s case—revolutionizing the foundations of thought. In each of these exercises, what we have first and foremost in mind is the whole, global project. We will to do it, and then—somehow, seemingly without thinking about it—we work through the matter step by step, improvising a countless series of subroutines that contribute to the project. Where something doesn’t work or goes wrong, we adjust within the terms of the project. We understand projects: whole activities. They may be misconceived activities, but they are nevertheless the ends that must come before the means. When we get round to the means, we remain perfectly aware that these are subordinate matters. The surest way any project in life goes wrong is when we fixate on those subordinate matters and lose sight of the whole. Then we become like the proverbial centipede who, when he was asked to explain how he coordinated all his parts, discovered he was paralyzed.

What I am suggesting is that, in little things and big, the mind works more by way of gestalts than by algorithmic procedures. This is because our life as a whole is made up of a hierarchy of projects, [214] some trivial and repetitive, some special and spectacular. The mind is naturally a spinner of projects, meaning it sets goals, choosing them from among all the things we might be doing with our lives. Pondering choices, making projects—these are the mind’s first order of activity. This is so obvious, so basic, that perhaps we are only prompted to reflect upon it when a different idea about thinking is presented, such as that thought is connecting data points in formal sequences.

Now, of course, the mind takes things in as it goes along. We do register data. But we register information in highly selective ways within the terms of a project which, among other things, tells us which facts to pay attention to, which to ignore, which deserve the highest and which the lowest value. Thinking means—most significantly—forming projects and reflecting upon the values that the project involves. Many projects are simply given by the physical conditions of life: finding food, clothing the body, sheltering from the elements, securing help in time of danger. But all of us at least hope we will have the opportunity in life to function at a higher level than this, that we will spend as much of our time as possible beyond the level of necessity, pursuing what John Maynard Keynes once called “the art of life itself.” Forming projects of this kind is the higher calling that comes with our human nature. Teaching the young how to honor and enjoy that gift is the whole meaning of education. That is surely not what we are doing when we load them down with information, or make them feel that collecting information is the main business of the mind. Nor do we teach them the art of life when we ask them “to think like a machine.” Machines do not invent projects; they are invented by human beings to pursue projects. What Seymour Papert calls “procedural thinking” surely has its role to play in life; but its role is at the level of working out the route for a trip by the close study of a road map. It is an activity that comes into play only after we have chosen to make a journey and have selected a destination.

The substance of education in the early years is the learning of what I have called master ideas, the moral and metaphysical paradigms which lie at the heart of every culture. To choose a classic model in the history of Western pedagogy: in the ancient world, the Homeric epics (read or recited) were the texts from which children learned the values of their civilization. They learned from adventure tales and heroic exemplars which they could imitate by endless play [215] in the roadways and fields. Every healthy culture puts its children through such a Homeric interlude when epic images, fairy tales, chansons de geste, Bible stories, fables, and legends summon the growing mind to high purpose. That interlude lays the foundations of thought. The “texts” need not be exclusively literary. They can be rituals—as in many tribal societies, where the myths are embodied in festive ceremonies. Or they may be works of art, like the stained glass windows and statuary of medieval churches. Master ideas may be taught in many modes. In our society, television and the movies are among the most powerful means of instruction, often to the point of eclipsing the lackluster materials presented in school. Unhappily, these major media are for the most part in the hands of commercial opportunists for whom nobility of purpose is usually nowhere in sight. At best, a few tawdry images of heroism and villainy may seep through to feed the hungry young mind. The rudiments of epic conduct can be found in a movie like Star Wars, but the imagery has been produced at a mediocre aesthetic and intellectual level, with more concern for “effects” than for character. At such hands, archetypes become stereotypes, and the great deeds done are skewed with an eye to merchandising as much of the work as possible.

Those cultures are blessed which can call upon Homer, or Biblical tales, or the Mahabharata to educate the young. Though the children’s grasp of such literature may be simple and playful, they are in touch with material of high seriousness. From the heroic examples before them, they learn that growing up means making projects with full responsibility for one’s choices. In short, taking charge of one’s life in the presence of a noble standard. Young minds reach out for this guidance; they exercise their powers of imagination in working up fantasies of great quests, great battles, great deeds of cunning, daring, passion, sacrifice. They craft their identities to the patterns of gods and goddesses, kings and queens, warriors, hunters, saints, ideal types of mother and father, friend and neighbor. And perhaps some among them aspire to become the bards and artists of the new generation who will carry forward the ideals of their culture. Education begins with giving the mind images—not data points or machines—to think with.

There is a problem, however, about teaching children their culture’s heroic values. Left in the hands of parents and teachers, but especially of the Church and the state where these institutions become dominant, ideals easily become forms of indoctrination, idols [216] of the tribe that can tyrannize the young mind. Heroism becomes chauvinism; high bright images become binding conventions. Master ideas are cheapened when they are placed in the keeping of small, timid minds that have grown away from their own childish exuberance.

In the hands of great artists like Homer, images never lose the redeeming complexity of real life. The heroes keep just enough of their human frailties to stay close to the flesh and blood. Achilles, the greatest warrior of them all, is nevertheless as vain and spoiled as a child, a tragically flawed figure. Odysseus can be more than a bit of a scoundrel, his “many devices” weakening toward simple piracy. It is the fullness of personality in these heroes that leaves their admirers balanced between adulation and uncertainty. The ideal has more than one side; the mind is nagged with the thought “yes, but . . . .” Where such truth to life is lost, the images become shallow; they can then be used to manipulate rather than inspire.

The Greeks, who raised their children on a diet of Homeric themes, also produced Socrates, the philosophical gadfly whose mission was to sting his city into thoughtfulness. “Know thyself,” Socrates insisted to his students. But where else can self-knowledge begin but with the questioning of ancestral values, prescribed identities?

Here is the other significant use of ideas: to produce critical contrast and so to spark the mind to life. Homer offers towering examples of courage. Ah, but what is true courage? Socrates asks, offering other, conflicting images, some of which defy Homer. At once, idea is pitted against idea, and the students must make up their own minds, judge, and choose. Societies rarely honor their Socratic spirits. Athens, irritated beyond tolerance by his insistent criticism, sent its greatest philosopher to his death. Still, no educational theory that lacks such a Socratic counterpoint can hope to free the young to think new thoughts, to become new people, and so to renew the culture.

In a time when our schools are filling up with advanced educational technology, it may seem almost perverse to go in search of educational ideals in ancient and primitive societies that had little else to teach with than word of mouth. But it may take that strong a contrast to stimulate a properly critical view of the computer’s role in educating the young. At least it reminds us that all societies, modern and traditional, have had to decide what to teach their children [217] before they could ask how to teach them. Content before means, the message before the medium.

The schooling of the young has always been a mixture of basic skills (whether literacy and ciphering or hunting and harvesting) and high ideals. Even if our society were to decide that computer literacy (let us hope in some well-considered sense of that much-confused term) should be included among the skills we teach in the schools, that would leave us with the ideals of life still to be taught. Most educators surely recognize that fact, treating the computer as primarily a means of instruction. What they may overlook is the way in which the computer brings with it a hidden curriculum that impinges upon the ideals they would teach. For this is indeed a powerful teaching tool, a smart machine that brings with it certain deep assumptions about the nature of mentality. Embodied in the machine there is an idea of what the mind is and how it works. The idea is there because scientists who purport to understand cognition and intelligence have put it there. No other teaching tool has ever brought intellectual luggage of so consequential a kind with it. A conception of mind—even if it is no better than a caricature—easily carries over into a prescription for character and value. When we grant anyone the power to teach us how to think, we may also be granting them the chance to teach us what to think, where to begin thinking, where to stop. At some level that underlies the texts and tests and lesson plans, education is an anatomy of the mind, its structure, its limits, its powers and proper application.

The subliminal lesson that is being taught whenever the computer is used (unless a careful effort is made to offset that effect) is the data processing model of the mind. This model, as we have seen, connects with a major transition in our economic life, one that brings us to a new stage of high tech industrialism, the so-called Information Age with its service-oriented economy. Behind that transition, powerful corporate interests are at work shaping a new social order. The government (especially the military) as a prime customer and user of information technology is allied to the corporations in building that order. Intertwined with both, a significant, well-financed segment of the technical and scientific community—the specialists in artificial intelligence and cognitive science—has lent the computer model of the mind the sanction of a deep metaphysical proposition. All these forces, aided by the persuasive skills of the advertisers, have fixed upon the computer as an educational instrument; the machine [218] brings that formidable constellation of social interests to the classrooms and the campus. The more room and status it is given there by educators, the greater the influence those interests will have.

Yet these are the interests that are making the most questionable use of the computer. At their hands, this promising technology—itself a manifestation of prodigious human imagination and inventiveness—is being degraded into a means of surveillance and control, of financial and managerial centralization, of manipulating public opinion, of making war. The presence of personal computers in millions of homes, especially when they are used as little more than trivial amusements, does not in any meaningful way offset the power the machine brings to those who use it for these purposes.

Introducing students to the computer at an early age, creating the impression that their little exercises in programming and game playing are somehow giving them control over a powerful technology, can be a treacherous deception. It is not teaching them to think in some scientifically sound way; it is persuading them to acquiesce. It is accustoming them to the presence of computers in every walk of life, and thus making them dependent on the machine’s supposed necessity and superiority. Under these circumstances, the best approach to computer literacy might be to stress the limitations and abuses of the machine, showing the students how little they need it to develop their autonomous powers of thought.

There may even be a sound ecological justification for such a curriculum. It can remind children of their connection with the lively world of nature that lies beyond the industrial environment of machines and cities. Sherry Turkle observes that, in times past, children learned their human nature in large measure by comparing themselves to the animals. Now, increasingly, “computers with their interactivity, their psychology, with whatever fragments of intelligence they have . . . bid to take this place.”[21] Yet it may mean far more at this juncture in history for children once again to find their kinship with the animals, every one of which, in its own inarticulate way, displays greater powers of mind than any computer can even mimic well. It would indeed be a loss if children failed to see in the nesting birds and the hunting cat an intelligence as well as a dignity that belongs to the line of evolutionary advance from which their own mind emerges. It is not the least educational virtue of the traditional lore and legends that so much of it belongs to the pre-industrial era, when the realities of the nonhuman world were more vividly present. [219] How much ecological sense does it make to rush to close off what remains of that experience for children by thrusting still another mechanical device upon them?

There is a crucial early interval in the growth of young minds when they need the nourishment of value-bearing images and ideas, the sort of Homeric themes that open the adventure of life for them. They can wait indefinitely to learn as much as most schools will ever teach them about computers. The skills of unquestionable value which the technology makes available—word processing, rapid computation, data base searching—can certainly be saved for the later high school or even college years. But once young minds have missed the fairy tales, the epic stories, the myths and legends, it is difficult to go back and recapture them with that fertile sense of naive wonder that belongs to childhood. Similarly, if the taste for Socratic inquiry is not enlivened somewhere in the adolescent years, the growing mind may form habits of acquiescence that make it difficult to get out from under the dead hand of parental dominance and social authority.

As things now stand, there is a strong consensus abroad that our schools are doing a poor to mediocre job of laying these intellectual foundations. The reasons for the malaise of the schools are many. Teachers are often overworked and under-appreciated; many Students come to them bored, rebellious, distracted, or demoralized. Some of the children in our inner cities are too disadvantaged and harassed by necessity to summon up an educative sense of wonder; others may have been turned prematurely cynical by the corrupted values of commercialism and cheap celebrity; many, even the fortunate and affluent, may be haunted by the pervasive fear of thermonuclear extinction that blights all our lives. The schools share and reflect all these troubles; perhaps, at times, the troubles overwhelm the best efforts of the best teachers, driving them back to a narrow focus on basic skills, job training, and competitive grading. But it is at least worth something to know where the big problems lie and to know there is no quick technological fix for them. Computers, even when we reach the point of having one on every desk for every student, will provide no cure for ills that are social and political in nature.

It may seem that the position I take here about the educational limits of the computer finishes with being a humanist’s conservative appeal in behalf of the arts and letters. It is that. Scientists and [220] technicians, whose professional interests tend to make them computer enthusiasts, may therefore see little room for their values in the sort of pedagogy I recommend. But as the story of Descartes’s angel should remind us, science and technology at their highest creative level are no less connected with ideas, with imagination, with vision. They draw upon all the same resources of the mind, both the Homeric and the Socratic, as the arts and letters. We do not go far wrong from the viewpoint of any discipline by the general cultivation of the mind. The master ideas belong to every field of thought. It would surely be a sad mistake to intrude some small number of pedestrian computer skills upon the education of the young in ways that blocked out the inventive powers that created this astonishing technology in the first place. And what do we gain from any point of view by convincing children that their minds are inferior to a machine that dumbly mimics a mere fraction of their native talents?

In the education of the young, humanists and scientists share a common cause in resisting any theory that cheapens thought. That is what the data processing model does by closing itself to that quality of the mind which so many philosophers, prophets, and artists have dared to regard as godlike: its inexhaustible potentiality. In their search for “effective procedures” that can be universally applied to all aspects of culture, experts in artificial intelligence and cognitive science are forced to insist that there is nothing more to thought than a conventional mechanistic analysis will discover: data points shuffled through a small repertory of algorithms. In contrast, my argument in these pages has been that the mind thinks, not with data, but with ideas whose creation and elaboration cannot be reduced to a set of predictable rules. When we usher children into the realm of ideas, we bring them the gift of intellectual adventure. They begin to sense the dimensions of thought and the possibilities of original insight. Whether they take the form of words, images, numbers, gestures, ideas unfold. They reveal rooms within rooms within rooms, a constant opening out into larger, unexpected worlds of speculation.

The art of thinking is grounded in the mind’s astonishing capacity to create beyond what it intends, beyond what it can foresee. We cannot begin to shape that capacity toward humane ends and to guard it from demonic misuse until we have first experienced the true size of the mind.



[20] Jacques Maritain offers a lengthy analysis of Descartes’s fateful dream in The Dream of Descartes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944).

[21] Turkle, The Second Self, p. 313.

[_borders/footer1.htm]