Monday, September 29, 2014

We must obey the forces we want to command

For a recent MOOC, On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn from Great Philosophers, the final exam asked us to respond to Francis Bacon's assertion that "we must obey the forces we want to command," presenting two arguments, with a quotation and an example for each.


Francis Bacon famously wrote that we must obey the forces we want to command in reference to the laws of nature. One can readily transpose this dictum to other domains: market forces, military forces, cultural forces, psychological forces, etc. — each being subject to the same rigor and scrutiny we demand when performing natural science.

Literature is one such domain. Although it is steeped in tradition – the rules of language (from grammar to semantics), conventions of genre, formal narrative structures, as well as cultural expectations – truly original work emerges only once these elements are firmly understood [Argument 1]. The rules are acknowledged and assimilated, and subverted to new ends. This is especially true in the example of Oulipo – a formally defined literary movement. Cofounder Raymond Queneau described Oulipians as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape"[1].

Consider for a moment, though, how it (or any other constraint, for that matter) works. It places a restriction on the expressions and phrases that can be used in a poem, and it determines to some extent what the poet is able to say. It makes the process of writing both more difficult — by short-circuiting habitual modes of self expression — and, paradoxical as it may seem, easier: certain decisions have already been made for the writer. A constraint confronts the writer with a puzzle to solve, not a blank page, and this can be strangely comforting. Finally, a constraint will almost always force a writer to be creative, to seek out new means of self expression.[2]

Clearly the forces of language are fully obeyed by Oulipians in order that their practitioners can bend them to their will.

Science has evolved since Bacon’s time, and its ambitions have become more complex and its progress more nebulous. The pursuit of artificial intelligence is limited in exactly the way Bacon’s dictum would suggest [Argument 2]: "How do you make a search engine that understands if you don't know how you understand?"[3].

Douglas Hofstadter is a cognitive scientist who has become disillusioned with the common approach: "Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not"[4].

While advances have been made in data processing, and a form of "intelligence" has grown out of this capability, we have not yet achieved a truly artificial intelligence. We cannot master this domain until we have fully understood the workings of the mind and can obey the algorithms that are in play.

Bacon's assertion is thus borne out in both successes and failures across domains.

1. Raymond Queneau. Definition provided at Oulipo meeting. Apr 5, 1961.
2. Paul Kane. Review of Oulipo Compendium. Oct 2006.
3. James Sommers. "The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think." Atlantic Monthly. Oct 23, 2013.
4. Douglas Hofstader. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 1979.

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