That most people would fail the Turing Test

The Turing Test concerns machine intelligence. The question is: when can it be said about a machine that it is “intelligent”? Answer: when we cannot tell from observing its conversation that the machine is a machine.

Trying to think about this test, I have identified three areas that seem essential to me personally in any human interaction – three features of personality which I look for in every human encounter. All three are readily tested through conversation.


To some extent perception can be trained. For instance, looking at lots of song birds and comparing one’s findings with entries in ornithological guides trains the “mind’s” eye: it teaches the looker to look for features such as “rump” and “wing coverts” which an untrained looker might not notice (having no clue what he is looking at/for); or: looking at lots of very fine details (say, magnitude +6 stars with one’s naked eye) teaches one the trick of looking at things by not looking at them directly but rather by focusing one’s sight just to the right or left of the object (in order to engage one’s peripheral vision); and: smelling lots of roses teaches one not only that roses of different colors smell differently, but that a rose cannot be smelled too long before the brain no longer detects the smell (usually about 20-40 seconds), after which the nose must be “washed”; and that one can improve one’s sense of smell by pouting one’s lips (so that the upper lip creates a kind of “funnel” under one’s nostrils).

But all of these are techniques; and are useless if their owner is not interested to look/ smell/ taste/ observe; and then interested/able to reflect on what s/he sees. This kind of curiosity for the world around us is linked to something Konrad Lorenz called “exploratory instinct” and ascribed to all mammals (mice and hamsters in particular). But it is clear that not all mammals possess it: a great number of human beings are perfectly uninterested in observing and learning. And when they do (as tourists in my city do, for instance) they are perfectly happy to follow a manual (notice only what is pointed out to them).

Yet, to be in any way interesting a person must be able to tell us something new about the world, something they have not read in a book, or heard on TV, but something they saw and realized themselves. Otherwise, why listen to them in the first place? (And without listening The Turing Test cannot be performed).

Authentic aesthetic and/or emotional response

Another thing I look for in people is their ability to surprise me with original, novel, and authentic responses to the world. By authentic I don’t mean heartfelt, but – their own. i.e. ones not borrowed from others (Mom, friends, teachers, TV). I do not only ask them their opinions of things or love stories (or “art stories”), but also look at their clothing, accessories, apartments and furniture. By this measure most people are unoriginal in every way: they furnish their homes at IKEA and paint the walls white; they dress like they see others dress; their professional life is dictated to them by the market (“plastics”); and their emotional life is a copy of what they have seen on TV and read in romantic novels. If you ask them why they do this, or feel that, they shrug: as far as they are concerned, that’s how it is and there is nothing they can (or care to) do about it. Generally, my interlocutors are surprised when they are told they could do something/feel about something differently; prodded to say why not they can’t say why not, merely resist in a kind of panicky, animal, unthinking refulal: it is simply unthinkable. If you think about it, this is how computer generated characters in fantasy action games behave: they behave in some way and you cannot argue with it.

Independent planning

I am interested to talk to people who live their lives “differently” – who do not marry, or reproduce, for instance; or who do not live all their lives where they were born; or who do not buy a 42 inch flat screen TV when everyone else does – and generally do not buy anything when everyone else does; or who do not take a mortgage; or who opt out of the state pension program; or who do not own a car; or who wake up before daybreak; or who do not go to the beach on Labor Day; or who, during rush hour, when all traffic goes zig, drive the only car in the opposite lane, zagging; or who don’t know who won last night on penalty shots and genuinely don’t care; or who marry a woman twice their age, or live with two.

But this in itself is not interesting: a lot of non-conformist behavior is hard-wired – and hard-wired actors can’t tell you why they are doing what they are doing. These are not so interesting, no matter how odd their course of life.

The really interesting people are the ones who are doing odd things – or normal things, but oddly – because of a calculation: people who have thought about their objectives and then plotted their own course because that is what they wanted to do and this was the best way to get there. (They are called “autotelic”).


I can safely say that on these three measures, a very large majority of human beings would fail the Turing Test. Indeed, to an observer applying these three measures to his test, most of us would appear to be automata engaged in an elaborate deception to produce the (false) impressions that we are independently observant, sensitive and autotelic, that we have a taste, or emotions, or cunning; that we are, in other words, actually human. But this deception is easily exposed: put your ear to their forehead and listen carefully: you will distinctly hear the low murmur of the cooling fan.

Live unnoticed


Roskam’s Live Unnoticed (from Epicure’s λάθε βιῶσας) is scholarly — i.e. not interested in the doctrine as a tool for life, but in the doctrine as it was, or may have been, its origins and later fate. It meticulously traces the history of an idea — but doesn’t seem to care a whit for the idea itself.

(Well, well, scholars aren’t philosophers — what else is new; but give scholars a break:  by and large, even philosophers aren’t philosophers).

Roskam’s interpretation starts with the assumption that everything ever issued from the lips of Epicure had to be based on the strict hedonistic calculus (the philosophers’ quest being, supposedly, a kind of Dumb Calculator).  And therefore, he argues, Epicurus probably didn’t dispute the pleasures stemming from fame, status and power, but merely suggested that the security of a low-profile life on balance yielded more pleasure than did the public life of success.


Or, maybe – just maybe — Epicure really did not feel any pleasure in status and power.

Hard as it is for an ambitious scholar to imagine, such people do exist, and some of them even bear the name of “scholars” — though the word in classical Chinese context means something else than it does in modern Europe:  dictionaries of prominent Ming and Qing figures are full of successful men retiring to small islands to raise storks and so forth.  (As well as, of course, many liars saying they wanted to).

But why look in China:  such men exist here.

Scissors not included

An actual walk in the park

Though it has been some years since, I still vividly recall the terror Ecco’s In search of a perfect language had struck in me: similar in some ways to Guns of August in documenting human mental malfunction, unlike Guns of August, it was not funny: not a record of bumbling fools but a cool, clinical description of madmen.

For days afterwards I felt not just depressed, but terrified: this was the world I lived in, these were the people who surrounded me; the notion that on numerous occasions my life would depend on the decisions and value judgments of such men and that there was no way I could insulate myself perfectly against that danger scared the living daylights out of me. Groping for safety, I changed my mobile number again, suspended another blog, broke off a few more iffy acquaintances.

Last night, Six walks in the fictional wood, picked up in a moment of desperation after several other books of literary criticism have disappointed (do they ever not), suddenly put Search in a new, alarming light: the madmen of Search were actually Ecco’s heroes; the Search failed to make fun of them not, as I had imagined, so as to profile their madness more starkly — as a dispassionate, clinical text might — but because Ecco was taking the book’s heroes at face value.

Yes, he was, I realized abruptly as I read Six walks‘ first chapter and my heart skipped a beat: the chapter features elaborate diagrams showing the relationship between E. A. Poe and the various roles which Ecco ascribes to his Pym — “fictional character as narrator”, “narrator as real person”, etc. Ecco does not cut them out, pin, and rotate them as Raymond Lull may have done — at least not as far as we can tell — but it is easy to imagine his readers — a few of those people who sat through these lectures, or some of those who rank the book 5 stars on Amazon, doing just that.

And to think that to most mortal men a stroll in the wood seems a perfectly harmless thing!

Regarding Jamesian existentialism

(One — rather good — way to escape existential doubt)

William James is a fellow two-kinds-of-mind ontologist.

His kinds are

(1) the happy go lucky and
(2) the existentially troubled.

(Not his terminology: his message, my words).

The happy go lucky, he says, were born happy, content, and untroubled by life.  One can’t call them “well-adjusted” as no adjustment is ever necessary.  James claims that Voltaire was one such; whether this is the case, I do not know (Voltaire’s perhaps too intelligent/complex/deceptive to generalize about facilely), but I have known several happy-go-luckies; and therefore know for certain that they exist; and never tire of their company.  Time spent with happy-go-luckies is the best thing you can do for yourself.

The other sort, the existentially troubled, on the other hand, see their life like unto a man hanging on for dear life to a loose, creaky twig inside a slippery, crocodile infested well. They permanently brood over their life options, none of which seems acceptable:  whether scramble (hopeless), let go (cowardly), or — gaze at the sky (escapist).  The agony leads some of the troubleds to experience altered mental states — emanating, suggests James, from the subconscious.  These are the religious experiences of the title of his book — Varieties of Religious Experience.

Sometimes, the religious experience leads to a satisfactory resolution of the agonies of the mind, James suggests.  For instance, Tolstoy, he says:  the Russian aristocrat found calm in the simplicity of humble and austere Christian life. he says.  Of course, James says it in 1902, when Tolstoy still has another 8 years to live, and not much is precisely known about his personal life.  This makes James’ mistake forgivable:  how was he to know that Tolstoy continued to be troubled till his dying day; and that he was to die at an obscure train station while fleeing his paradise of a Christian home?  Of course, one look at his photo (here) should have warned James that something was fishy with his example:  look yourself: is this a peaceful mind?

The escapes of the troubled minds are no such thing, for the most part.  Not a solution, just a coping mechanism.  The troubled, you see, are troubled always.

Below, Dante escapes his existential doubt:

(Or does he?)

The commentators of this program suggest that James represents a withered branch of English-speaking philosophy, which was going to take an interest in life but choked, spattered and — expired, deprived of air by Russelian logico-analysis.  It’s easy to see why that should be so:  given the almost unavoidable error involved in interpreting other people’s lives and internal states (such as, “Tolstoy found happiness in Jesus”) on the one hand; and the certainty of the tenure on the other; logico-analysis seems the safer route.

Thus it is shown that neither branch of philosophy does much to help us deal with our lives.

Eye openings, applied aesthetics, and the unhappiness of poets

(This idol – a Calcutta Durga — has not had its eyes opened)


The Manichean book‘s third part — and longest (200 pages) — with the baroque title perhaps best rendered as (bear with me while I am having fun):

A small anthology of poetic mind-twisters;
consisting of
40 problems in the form of poems to be translated
along with commentary showing why the task is impossible
40 solutions of the same problems
in the shape of translations made nevertheless

is perhaps the book’s most useful; and mostly (with the exception of the poems and their translations themselves), generally translatable.  It consist of 40 chapters, each of which consists of three parts:  1) the original poem (in Spanish, German, English, Russian or Lithuanian), 2) a discussion of the difficulty it presents, and 3) its Polish translation.  The discussion is the useful part because it explains Baranczak’s take on the elements of the original poem which make it great.

An unpoetic know-nothing, I find the exercise fascinating:  I read the original, at which point it seems to me anything from O.K. to (ahem) waste of time; then read the discussion, nearly always with a sense of “aha”; and then reread the poem with the discussion in mind.  In general, guided by the comments, I do notice the goodness of the poem on the second rereading.  (For one thing I seem to know how to read it — I mean, where to lay stress, rests, etc.)

It is for me, a kind of Prana Pratishta.


This is a kind of applied aesthetics.

There should really be such a term as applied aesthetics, I imagine:  it would refer to the use of language to describe the good-making (or bad-making, as the case may be) characteristics of a work.  The difficulty of applied aesthetics would appear to be two-fold:  first, the difficulty of knowing what we like (the sound of a musical performance, say, as opposed to the pianists’ body-language, or hair-do, or politics — as explained by Rosen, see this post) — which is a kind of refined power of introspection; and, second, the difficulty of being able to name what we like in precise terms.

This has been lacking in the Avdeeva controversy (see this post):  while several of her critics have been able to name very precisely what they found displeasing about her performance (such as lack of chord differentiation in her performance of x; her pedaling of a specific place of y; her unrestrained use of fortissimo in z; etc.), no supporter of her has yet been able to name a single specific thing s/he liked; thus leaving me with the suspicion that perhaps the theory of educated taste is OK and the debate is really between the more educated taste (that of the articulate) and the less educated taste (of the inarticulate).  (The more articulate invariably seem to be more right).

Now, while I am in principle prepared to believe that we and Avdeeva’s fans are equally educated in the appreciation of Chopin performance and the radical difference between our perceptions of the quality of her work is one of genetic mutation of brains – divergence of DNA, a kind of proto-speciation; which would seem to make our views equivalent and further debate pointless (who’s to say our pleasure is better than theirs?); the lack of specificity in Avdeeva’s defense does make me wonder if their opinions are as valid as ours.  After all, if you cannot say specifically what it is that you like about the performance, I suppose I am free to imagine that you like the outfit?  (Which, incidentally, I did, too, no matter her piano playing).

Of course, the problem is complicated by the fact that most musicians are inarticulate.  How much less can one expect of music fans!


One interesting thing about the experience of reading the 40 Problems is that, even though Baranczak’s presentations do make me realize what is special about poems like Hopkins’ As kingfishers draw fires, dragonflies draw flame (here) or Blake’s Tyger, Tyger or Benn’s Meinen Sie Zurich zum Beispiel; and thus make me appreciate their technical accomplishment, often with a sense of great admiration and pleasure; I am not turned into a poetry reader by it.  I can now see the art of Hopkins, but I still do not see the value of the point he is making.  I mean, come on, “that each thing is what it is and not some other thing”?  This is Dunce Scotus, for Chrissake, isn’t it?  Why is this worth saying, no matter how beautifully?

In the course of the last 15 years I have vastly expanded my appreciation of many arts, often through reference to applied aesthetics (i.e. having someone explain to me why they liked what they liked).  Often I have thereby learned to enjoy arts which had failed to interest me before.  (One of the biggest surprises being film to which for most of my adult life I have devoted no time at all, but which, over the last two years has become and important part of it).  This has raised the frequency with which I experience happiness and therefore greatly improved the quality of my life.

But some arts, I suspect, shall have to remain outside of my range of interests and poetry appears to be one of them.  As I explained to Kate recently, language seems to me an epistemological tool — by which I mean a tool for the discovery of facts; and given that facts are often extremely complicated, the language used to elucidate them must be precise and, for this reason, the simplest possible.  One mucks with its simplicity at his own peril. The proof of this lies in the fact that by and large poets seem chronically unhappy.  This is to be expected, because happiness comes from good cerebration (see this post) and undue pre-occupation with the musical aspects of language at the expense of its semantic content interferes with good cerebration.  Look at the semantic content of poetry:  poets, appear by and large, to be — ahem – tenors.  I mean, seriously, except that they say it beautifully, what reason is there to listen to any poet speak?

For this reason, poetry is perhaps best appreciated in languages which we do not understand:  in such cases, we can appreciate the musical aspects of poetry without falling into the temptation of trying to understand the poet’s argument.