Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Stumbling Upon Genius

Yesterday on www.stumbleupon.com I came across a lecture from a course by Yale philosophy professor Kagen. The course title was “The Philosophy of Death”. Professor Kagen himself is very lively. He likes to hoist himself into a cross legged position on top of a lectern and then down again, hold his fist under his nose to act out his concentration, pace up and down and emphasize each and every statement with great enthusiasm for the positions he is explaining. The strange thing is that he acts out each every position he discusses with the same enthusiasm, the position he personally holds is simply the last enthused over. His exaggerated gestures and enthusiasm reminded me of Groucho Marx for a reason I can’t immediately explain, something to do with intelligence combined with exaggerated gestures. That put me in mind of Woody Allen, and the movie Manhatten, in which Diane Keaton’s character, a Harvard graduate, refers to all her friends as geniuses.

I am sure Professor Kagen is one of these geniuses too. I don’t know about you, but everyone I meet that has gone to Yale or Harvard also is convinced all who pass through these institutions are geniuses. I notice a lot of them end up in our government doing really bad and stupid things which however benefit certain classes of very rich people.

We, you the readers and myself, aren’t in that class, so we should be wary of trying to learn to be this kind of genius: we can’t market that skill.

But what skill is it? In professor Kagen’s class he presents the idea that the soul does not exist. He says a robot or computer can reason like we do and wish to reach conclusions in its reasoning and actions like we do, so in a way has feelings like we do.

Kagen of course is a genius, but has he read that Harvard genius of the last century Santayana? He defined emotion as having a preference for one condition of the body over another, and being aware of how some acts in the past lead us to a better condition and wanting to perform those acts. The question about the computer or robot is if they can do this. I am inclined to believe if a robot could become aware of the state of its functioning and prefer one kind of functioning to another, it would be like us, it would have a soul.

However I am not so sure that professor Kagen has a soul, at least when he is lecturing. That is because he shows equal enthusiasm for all positions, something like a ordinary soul-less computer analyzing each chess move in a given position, one move analyzed after another, the choices not integrated by a single desire. You can’t tell from listening to him that he likes one position more than another.

This is what I think we need to avoid. It is easy to succumb to our enthusiasm for the immediate task we have undertaken and not look any further, but we must not allow ourselves to become ordinary soul-less computers. To save our souls we must stay alert, remember what we want and not just casually take a position like the professor. Unlike him we don’t have anyone paying us to be geniuses.


P.S. From Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn:

"So he went to marching up and down, thinking, and frowning horrible every now and then; then he would hoist up his eyebrows; next he would squeeze his hand on his forehead and stagger back and kind of moan; next he would sigh, and next he'd let on to drop a tear. It was beautiful to see him."