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Oct172013

Book Reviews 

Cuba:  The Island I Treasure

By Walter de Jesus Fitzwater

 

Reviewed by Noel Mawer

 

Thomas Wolfe told us that you can’t go home again, but that never stopped anyone from trying.  And how alluring must the thought of returning be when the home from which one was precipitously removed almost fifty years ago is Cuba, a land that has become almost mythical to Americans as the U.S. government’s embargo has gone on for an unbelievable half century. 

 

Walter de Jesus Fitzwater (the name alone suggests the conflict he experienced as a Cuban American), along with his mother and sister, was abruptly spirited out of Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis (1962).  After taking refuge at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, where Fitzwater’s mother was employed, the family did as so many others did at that time:  boarded a plane for Florida, not knowing if or when they might return.                     

 

But years passed, and Cuba grew more and more mysterious to Americans and  Fitzwater became more and more convinced that he wanted to go back and see what the land of his childhood had become.  If we have tried this ourselves, going back to our childhood homes, we know the strangeness of the experience.  Once we were little, while everything else was big, and the change in our perceptions was not limited to size.  Everything has shrunk and does not match the reality we remember.  Not only is everything smaller; it is also shabbier or even gone—ruined or replaced.  And with a country as affected by isolation as Cuba there is the inevitable decline in the appearance and reality imposed by its estrangement from the United States, once its close ally and trading partner.

 

Fitzwater was able to participate in a cultural exchange to conduct AIDS-awareness workshops and theatrical presentations on the island.  This alone could be life-changing, but the past and present coming together is a story that appeals not only to one’s own memories of one’s childhood but also to those who want to experience this first-hand encounter with the mysterious island which is only now, if slowly, being opened to us.  

 

Cuba, the Island I Treasure is published by Xlibris and available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

 

 

 

The Cambridge Quintet

 by John L. Casti

 

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

 

I entered college the year after publication of C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. It was required reading in my Freshman English class. Three years later I took my first upper division philosophy course (actually a graduate course) called “Philosophy of Mind,” and I was introduced to Gilbert Ryle, Norman Malcolm and, most importantly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations remains the most well-thumbed book on my bookshelf. I read it at least yearly to sharpen my mind, and to remind myself that being smart can be fun.

 

I’m retired now, but John Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet, brought back all of these experiences. Once again I felt the thrill of thinking about how marvelous the human brain is, how miraculous its computational power. Reading The Cambridge Quintet is pure fun, probably more so for someone of my age and background, who cut my intellectual teeth on the writings of the “quintet” and who wrestled with the same problems as they did for much of my professional career, including my post-psychology career as a novelist.

 

The quintet consists of Charles Percy Snow, the host for the evening, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, mathematician Alan Turing, biologist J.B.S. Haldane and physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The setting is Christ’s College, Cambridge. The year is 1949. Snow has been asked by his government to explore the idea of “thinking machines,” an idea pioneered by Turing in Great Britain and by John von Neumann in the United States, by discussing it with a group of the U.K.’s greatest thinkers. To do so, he invites Wittgenstein, Turing, Haldane and Schrödinger for dinner at his alma mater.

 

The author, John L. Casti, a mathematician and futurist who has authored numerous books, some scientific or mathematical, some historical and some fiction is well qualified and well-versed in the work of each member of the quintet and the issues discussed in the book. He calls it a work of “scientific speculation,” rather than a novel.

 

Wittgenstein and Turing are two of my personal heroes. The first because he has given what I continue to believe is the most cogent analysis of what philosophy is about and what it should not be about that I have ever read. His statement, “The first mistake is to ask the question, the second is to try to answer it,” sums up, for me, most of the speculative conversations that have been spoken or written. Turing was a brilliant mathematician whose “Turing Machine” provided the theoretical basis for the computer revolution. His “Turing Test” to determine if humans can distinguish the output of a computer from that of a human being is still regarded as the best way to determine whether or not a computer can really think.

 

Turing and Wittgenstein provide the tension for the evening. Snow is the mediator and the Haldane and Schrödinger provide input from their respective fields of science (and Schrödinger from his studies of Eastern philosophy). While Turing asserts that a machine that follows a set of computational operations to solve any problem can be described as “thinking,” in the human sense of the word, the others are not so sure. Wittgenstein is the most vehement in his objection, arguing that the term “thinking” is not appropriate for a computer. The others question whether the machine’s ability to do circumscribed operations, such as solve math problems or play chess, brings it any closer to the way humans think.

 

Casti claims poetic license and pulls his arguments and even some of his science from the post-1949 period. An example is Wittgenstein’s use of Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment, relabeled as the “Hieroglyphic Room,” or Chomsky’s argument for a deep structure of language and a special language acquisition device, which Turing introduces as an “organ of language” inherited in all humans. The discussion of computing, which is led by Turing, cites the work of McCulloch and Pitts (1943) on neural nets but goes well beyond that into some of the connectionist models and experiments, which came decades later.

 

I was somewhat puzzled by Wittgenstein’s implacable stance against Turing’s position, based as it was on the philosopher’s argument that it didn’t capture what went on “inside” of a human when they were thinking. Wittgenstein, in his later work was one of the staunchest opponents to the claim that the essence of thought or language (as we use those words in ordinary language) was what went on inside of a person, as opposed to what was evident in their social behavior. In fact, for this reason, most behaviorists have claimed him as one of their own. But it is Turing who champions the behaviorist position, at least during some moments in the dinner conversation. He, in fact, arrives at the conclusion that a computer could learn through the same kind of operant conditioning posited by behaviorists (he seems prescient here with regard to connectionist experiments with neural network learning, especially in the area of language).

 

Casti throws a lot into the dinner-time colloquy. The conversation ranges over culture, religion and evolution. Turing defends the evolutionary point of view by introducing an “inclusive fitness” idea to explain altruism. And Snow comes up with the concept of “reciprocal altruism.” Casti is putting them both ahead of their time (and the concepts they voice are those of others, rather than their own).

 

But Wittgenstein’s point about language being learned as part of a “language game” within a community of speakers and the semantic aspects of language being socially determined, added to his claim that a computer would not have a community around it to give meaning to its behaviors may contain a kernel of the most telling criticism of Turing’s position. The output of computers only makes sense in terms of the “culture” surrounding the humans who program it so that it fits into their community. In fact, the situations in which computers can actually solve problems or produce creative results is pretty much restricted to those mathematical or mathematical-like situations that do not involve a social community anything like the one in which humans solve problems and create responses every day. How to get the rest of the culture, which, as Wittgenstein said, gives meaning to language and behavior, inside of the computer remains a daunting problem.

 

The debate is inconclusive, although the tenor of the discussion, with Turing providing the earnest voice of logic and Wittgenstein (the logician) flying off the handle in exasperation, seems to favor a positive outcome for the “machines can think” position. Snow is not convinced but he, like this reader, was quite satisfied with the  vitality of the discussion and settled down to write his report to the government.

 

The Cambridge Quintet was published in 1998. I only discovered it now. The debate is still alive, carried out by philosophers, roboticists, computer scientists, cognitive neuroscientists and fiction writers. We are not a lot closer to a computer that can mimic the thinking or behavior of a human than were these scientists and philosophers of the last century. But the gauntlet cast down by Turing has been picked up and the work on designing such a computer continues. The technical details are much better defined today than in 1949 and, probably pleasing to Wittgenstein, the cultural implications of designing such a device have been explored in depth in both the popular and academic cultures. The most intriguing aspect of this debate is the subject of the “personhood” of computers if it turns out that they really can think. Casti’s dinner guests discuss the topic. Philip K. Dick has examined it in depth. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was devoted to the question of whether “Data” the android on the starship Enterprise deserved the rights accorded to a person or was just an object. And of course, I attempted to address the same question in my novel I, Carlos, perhaps less elegantly, but more dramatically than some of these others have.

 

I just wish I had read The Cambridge Quintet before I wrote my novel.

 

 

 

 

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