Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Thinking Non-Linguistically

I was chatting with a fellow systems designer today who told me that when we first met my OS design project seemed more advanced than his. The more I tried to place the year we met, the odder this impression seemed. Eventually he told me that my precise use of words and names for my ideas made them seem more refined than his.

It turns out that he thinks in pictures and gestures. This is hardly the first time I've heard that idea but it always just baffled me previously. You know all those people who advise you to think of something visually or other-than-linguistically when you want to memorize something? That "advice" never meant anything to me either. The whole concept of non-linguistic thinking seemed incomprehensibly alien. What else are you supposed to think with?

Well, I understand it now. It has nothing to do with thinking. My friend uses pictures and gestures as referents to memorize ideas and concepts. The same way that I would use names. Now, the idea that naming isn't thought is hardly novel. Richard Feynman, that world-class evil fucking asshole wrote about how his father taught him that knowing the names of a bird in 10 different languages says absolutely nothing about the bird.

(And let me say that it is a majestic tour de force for him to have left an impression of himself as easy-going and folksy in his books when I heard he was a sadistic torturer who enjoyed destroying his students' self-confidence just to make himself seem all-knowing and better-than-them. He was also the biggest hypocritical fucking idiot in physics since he correctly diagnosed the cause of Einstein's lack of productive work later in life and then ... proceeded to emulate him!)

So anyways, names are not ideas. Big deal. That doesn't mean anything until you can actually explain what ideas are in the first place. That turns out to be absurdly simple if you know exactly what synthesis and analysis are. Or maybe I've got that turned around since I think I figured out what ideas are before nailing analysis and synthesis. Or maybe I did them simultaneously, since these questions are so closely related.

What's an idea? An idea is a chain or graph of concepts. The relations between the concepts are themselves some of the most fundamental concepts. Some of these are structural identity, essential identity, association, negation, opposition, and implication. An idea is a TOPOLOGY OF REFERENTS. Think of a web with words at every intersection. Unless you're a non-linguistic thinker in which case the words are replaced by gestures, pictures or pictures of paths.

What's a concept? A concept is a contiguous shape in an N-dimensional scatterplot. I highly recommend reading this essay on machine learning if you want more details. It's what made me understand synthesis and exactly what space concepts are shapes IN. Beforehand I only knew that concepts had a sort of shape, and that they were fuzzy, and in some people could be ridiculously malleable. In a few, concepts get systematically broken down into subcomponents.

So what does thinking non-linguistically mean? It still doesn't mean anything and it is still absurd. But no less so than thinking linguistically. Because you don't think with words. Words are merely placeholders. Symbols with no intrinsic meaning whose meanings is arbitrarily imposed on them from without.

And what does this mean for non-linguistic thinkers? Well, it means they're at a severe disadvantage in communicating anything. Because keystrokes are extremely fast and drawings are extremely slow to generate, even on paper. Their brain's use of non-linguistic referents presents an enormous obstacle to communicating their thoughts. Or even writing them out in a diary and forgetting them.

Most importantly, it means people with a refined use of names (or language in general) are not necessarily better thinkers. Neither more analytic, nor synthetic, nor even more intelligent.


Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Where's a good source describing Feynman tormenting his students?

Richard Kulisz said...

I'm sorry I can't provide o solid reference but you'll want to hear the story I heard nonetheless.

Feynman had a habit of finding out what research his students were working on surreptitiously. Then he would work hard to solve it and put it in his filing cabinet. Then when the student came by to ask a question about it, he would casually pull out the answer from his filing cabinet, answer them, then equally casually put it back.

The message Feynman was deliberately sending was "your research is totally worthless and not at all worth publishing". And he did this deliberately and maliciously in order to make himself look good.

And you know what? I find this TOTALLY believable because Feynman really was the kind of bastard who cared about his image very much. This story is just the unacknowledged dark side of the entire "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" where he spends all his time trying to prove how he's so much cleverer than thou.

Richard Kulisz said...

I don't have nearly enough info on Feynman to make a psychological profile of him. Or to diagnose what the hell was wrong with him. Which is odd since I can do this for most public figures without any trouble.

I can't diagnose Feynman as narcissistic, neurotic or even egotistical. But he was an egomaniac obsessed with himself. His autobio has not a single trace of any other person except as a shining mirror to reflect how wonderful and clever he is.

Unlike Yudkowsky, Feynman seems to have been careful and subtle enough not to blatantly ask people whether they've ever heard of anyone smarter than himself. There is also a conspicuous lack of anything mean Feynman ever did or said in his autobio. He is slickly wonderful according to himself.

So yeah, egomaniac. And it wouldn't surprise me at all that he sadistically tortured helpless students in order to fulfill that egomania. Or that it's all missing from his autobios. And who writes autobios except egomaniacs?

And IF I remember correctly, he was also in the habit of wrecking public presentations by asking intricate questions the presenter had no hope of answering. But that's a big IF.

You know, I'm really hoping Feynman was an evil mean-spirited fucking asshole. Because that's giving him the benefit of the doubt. The alternative is he was a narcissist, and that is so much worse.

Anonymous said...

I can corroborate some of the comments made about Feynman. I did my grad physics work at MIT. Feynman gave the physics colloquiem one week. He made a point of saying he had put very little work into the talk and everyone said it was crappy. He was letting us know he was better than us.

Also, a colleague of mine from Cal Tech took QM with Feynman and during one lecture he was was outlining a derivation on the board and stopped and said 'I leave the rest of the derivation to the mediocre hacks'. then turned to the class and said 'that's you, you know'.

Also at Cal Tech, nobel lauriate Gell-Mann had an office next door to Feynman's and was disgusted by his egomania and felt he was not as good as he thought he was. Gell-mann also pointed out that the diagram technique was invented by someone else, not feynman.

Richard Kulisz said...

If Feynman had been an egomaniac, he would have devoted half his autobiography to how very much he despises everyone else and why. There are plenty of reasons why. For instance, in the last few days I have learned to despise John Searle.

If he had been a neurotic, he would have avoided the topic entirely and diverted onto other people. In that case, there would have been no autobiography at all.

Only if he was a narcissist would he have written an autobiography the way he has actually done.

Basically, Feynman isn't hung up on his own superiority because he isn't RIGHTEOUS about it. And he isn't fucked up because he doesn't avoid talking about himself. He really is just broken.

And broken people should all be rounded up and killed (and despised, never pitied!) until we come up with a neurochemical treatment for their brains to impede their being menaces to society's continued existence.

I do not accept that society can or should tolerate ANY proportion, no matter how small, of psychopaths and narcissists.

Richard Kulisz said...

Oh and the deal with John Searle is that in the last week I did 100x as much primary research in his field as he plagiarized in his entire lifetime. I also arrived at 5x as many original conclusions as he cribbed from others. It is a sign of how evil and corrupt is human society that this fucker is lauded and has a career whereas I have nothing.

I intend to crush all memory of this fucker like the cockroach he is. My biggest problem is that all his colleagues are exactly like him, mindless fucking roaches. Academia needs to be incinerated wholesale. Philosophers and psychologists need to be eradicated as surely as alchemists. Once you've had a taste of the real stuff, you don't tolerate mumbo jumbo.