Alleviating confusion

I have a bad habit of abstaining from writing about something when I feel confused about it. The reasoning, I suppose, has something to do with the idea that there’s enough low-quality writing on the internet, and I would rather not contribute to that collection. That’s bad reasoning, however, because a blog is not necessarily written for others; recording one’s thoughts can obviously be quite beneficial to oneself. It seems that this becomes especially crucial when tackling a difficult and confusing problem, because in order to alleviate confusion, it’s essential to understand what the confusion is about in the first place. A related problem I’ve noticed is that I tend to be too picky about my writing at times by reading and re-reading what I’ve written, changing phrasing, etc. Clearly this is often a good practice, but when trying to resolve a confusing problem, the priority should be not on the words but on the ideas behind the words. Thus I will try (once again) to blog, in the hope that I can break these bad habits.

In addition to bad habits, there is another goal with this blog: I’ve come to believe that I do not introspect enough. For awhile I thought that this was an impossibility, because I spend most of my free time either reading (the internet, books, journal articles, etc.) or spacing out and thinking about what I’ve read. But this is simply being caught up in one’s own thoughts, not introspection. The process of introspection involves turning one’s thinking back around towards one’s own thought processes. This is something I rarely do, and I’ve only recently realized that that’s a very big problem. What I mean here is that for the past year, the manner in which I’ve conducted my investigations has been extremely inefficient. So a second major goal is simply to record what I think about in a given day so I can actually observe how I approach attempting to understand things.

In order for this to work well, I’m going to have to bear all here. A brief background: I grew up, went to college, started out pursuing a double major in computer and electrical engineering. I originally thought I wanted to play music, and I had a convoluted plan for utilizing my engineering degree for this purpose. Even though I fiddled around with music often, I was never really dedicated to creating it, and in my junior year I realized that I really wasn’t all that enthusiastic about getting a job as an engineer. I decided to finish out a B.S. in EE because I didn’t know what the fuck to do otherwise, and after graduation I took a semester off. During this period I realized that the problem of engineering a thinking machine was an extremely interesting and extremely important problem, and I went back to college to take classes in math and computer science, with the intention of getting into a graduate program studying something or other.

That’s essentially where I am today. I’m presently enrolled in classes, and I’ve spent the past year looking at and thinking about great deal of possible approaches to the study of intelligence (whatever the hell that means). My conclusion after over a year of this is 1) for the past year I’ve been doing it wrong and 2) none of the approaches I’ve looked at or thought about are sufficient to understand what thought is and how it can be engineered to occur in a system. I’m torn between feeling disheartened and rationally being aware of the fact that intelligence is a really freakin’ hard problem, and I can hardly be expected to have figured out a winning approach to it in a single year. Taking a broader point of view, at least thousands of researchers have spent decades without having glimpsed a detailed outline of the structure of cognition. I think I’m a bright fellow, but it is totally unreasonable to expect significant progress in a mere year, especially starting out from a novice’s understanding of the problem.

The question on my mind now is: what’s next? Well, I’m not going to continue taking classes, mostly because I can’t think of a specific field that I’m interested in enough to pursue graduate study in. This is not to say that I can’t think of a field I’m interested in. The problem is that there are too many potentially relevant fields of study, and picking one perspective to focus on would be complete foolishness. Actually, this frustrates me because I can make an argument for this not being the case. The task of understanding cognition is a scientific problem, and it’s a particularly complicated problem because it seems to be a somewhat complicated phenomenon. Hence, real progress may only come after a long, dedicated scientific effort to shed light on the various constituent sub-problems of cognition. So perhaps I would best service the scientific effort by sitting down, shutting up and picking some sub-problem to work on.

Ahh, but here’s a flaw in the above: if I want to maximize the efficacy of my research, I should invest time up-front to find an approach that I’m reasonably sure will be fruitful and important to understanding cognition. But how can I possibly do that by just picking something and studying it, which is what would almost certainly happen if I just decided to pick something to study in graduate school somewhere? And it’s not like I can take the easy way out by just picking something I happen to be extremely interested in that also, conveniently, happens to be potentially relevant to the problem at hand. My sole interest is in understanding cognition, and I’m only interested in any other fields of science insofar as they enable me to achieve this supergoal.

So it looks like I’m stuck for the time being.

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One Response to Alleviating confusion

  1. Pingback: Pesky ideas about science « I am confused

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