What is Thought?
Eric B. Baum
MIT Press 478p January 2004
*What is Thought?* proposes a model that explains how mind is
equivalent to execution of an evolved computer program,
addressing aspects such as understanding, meaning, creativity,
language, reasoning, learning, and consciousness, that is
consistent with extensive data from a variety of fields, and
that makes empirical predictions. Meaning is the computational
exploitation of the compact underlying structure of the world,
and mind is execution of an evolved program that is all about
meaning. Occam's Razor, as formalized in the recent computer
science literature, is explained and extrapolated to argue that
meaning results from evolving a compact enough program behaving
effectively in the world; such a program can only be compact by
virtue of code reuse, factoring into interacting modules that
capture real concepts and are reused metaphorically. For a
variety of reasons, including arguments based on complexity
theory, developmental biology, evolutionary programming,
ethology, and simple inspection, this compact Occam program
is most naturally seen to be in the DNA, rather than the brain.
Learning and reasoning are then fast and almost automatic
because they are constrained by the DNA programming
to deal only with meaningful quantities. Evolution itself is
argued to exploit meaning in related ways and thus to speed
itself up in ways analogous to how it speeds our learning and reasoning.
The ways in which evolved computer programs can exploit
underlying structure of problems and thus "understand" are
explored through computer simulations, discussion of the
evolutionary robotic literature, and discussion of how humans,
computer science programs, artificial intelligence
programs, and evolved programs address problems such as chess, Go,
planning, and interacting with the real world. A theory regarding
evolution of cooperation among many agents (for example modules
within a computer program) is discussed. Based on this discussion,
new techniques for evolutionary computing are described and
shown to result in powerful, human-like performance on problems
such as Rubik's cube and some planning problems that foil AI
approaches and previous evolutionary/genetic programming approaches.
The origin and nature of language is discussed within the context
of this picture. Why it took so long for evolution to produce
language is discussed. Words are seen as labels for meaningful
computational modules. Using the abilility to pass along programs
through speech, humans have made cumulative progress in constructing,
as part of their minds, useful computational modules built on top of
the ones supplied by evolution. The difference between human and
chimp intelligence is largely in this additional programming, and
thus can be regarded as due to better nurturing.
The many aspects of consciousness
are also naturally and consistently understood in this
context. For example, although the brain is a distributed
system and the mind is a complex program composed of many
modules, the unitary self emerges naturally
as a reification (manifestation) of the interest of the genes.
Qualia (the sense of experience of sensations such as pain
or redness) have exactly the appropriate nature and meaning that
evolution coded in the DNA so that the compact program behaves
No previous familiarity with computer science (or other fields)
is assumed-- *What is Thought?* presents a pedagogical
survey of the relevant background for its arguments.
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>From the back cover:
"This book is the deepest, and at the same time the most
commonsensical, approach to the problem of mind and thought that
I have read. The approach is from the point of view of computer
science, yet Baum has no illusions about the progress which has
been made within that field. He presents the many technical
advances which have been made -- the book will be enormously
useful for this aspect alone -- but refuses to play down their
glaring inadequacies. He also presents a road map for getting
further and makes the case that many of the apparently 'deep'
philosophical problems such as free will may simply evaporate
when one gets closer to real understanding."
--Philip W. Anderson, Joseph Henry Professor of Physics, Princeton
University, 1977 Nobel Laureate in Physics
"Eric Baum's book is a remarkable achievement. He presents a novel
thesis -- that the mind is a program whose components are
semantically meaningful modules -- and explores it with a rich
array of evidence drawn from a variety of fields. Baum's argument
depends on much of the intellectual core of computer science, and
as a result the book can also serve as a short course in computer
science for non-specialists. To top it off, *What is Thought?* is
beautifully written and will be at least as clear and
accessible to the intelligent lay public as *Scientific American*."
--David Waltz, Director, Center for Computational Learning Systems,
"What's great about this book is the detailed way in which Baum
shows the explanatory power of a few ideas, such as compression
of information, the mind and DNA as computer programs, and
various concepts in computer science and learning theory such as
simplicity, recursion, and position evaluation. *What is Thought?*
is a terrific book, and I hope it gets the wide readership it deserves."
--Gilbert Harman, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University
"There is no problem more important, or more daunting, than
discovering the structure and processes behind human thought.
*What is Thought?* is an important step towards finding the answer.
A concise summary of the progress and pitfalls to date gives the
reader the context necessary to appreciate Baum's important insights
into the nature of cognition."
--Nathan Myhrvold, Managing Director, Intellectual Ventures, and
former Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft