The society of mind

The book “The society of mind” by Marvin Minsky has been recommended by many people, which naturally led me to it. It contains some useful ideas that are not only good to know, but also applicable in our daily life. Some people claim that some of the ideas wouldn’t pass a scientific test, which is probably true. But at the same time, we need to be aware that the author has deliberately chosen to explain things in a more accessible way, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the statements weren’t backed by some experiments and observations. One of the main advantages of the book is that it doesn’t “feel” like science. This makes it easy to read, despite not being very short. The illustrations are simple, almost iconic, and they clarify the points without to distract.

The main theme of the book is that our mind consists of agents with different functions that, depending on what we do, can work with or against each other and pull our thinking in different directions. This affects our lives in rather invisible ways and we are often not even aware what these agents have in mind. Through our actions we can support or harm them. The network they form is characterized through competing processes and constant fights for domination. Practicing certain actions makes some parts of our brain stronger and others weaker. Sometimes, in order to do the right thing, we may need to think in terms of which agents would be the right ones to exercise, before we tackle a concrete task. According to Buddha: “Those who seek the path to Enlightment dictate terms to their mind. Then they proceed with strong determination.” A potential way we harm ourselves is when we pursue contradictory or unrelated goals, which stimulate different parts of our brain, thus intensifying the agent fights in our society.

The author claims that experts are best in just a couple of things; others constantly seek to expand their knowledge, and in the process they spread their effort thin. Although the last group obtains more knowledge, it needs much more effort and special systems to manage it, which can be slow. Therefore, it is said that acquiring specialized knowledge is easier than acquiring commonsense one. Sometimes having less knowledge allows our brain to have simpler explanations of things, which enables it to decide faster. We can master something small and then gradually expand from there, but not before we feel that the time has come. If we go the opposite route to obtain too much and too diverse information, we may be unable to easily put it in context, which will either make it useless or easy to forget. Doing the same things repeatedly, can strengthen our need for convenience and thus stop our future growth.

If we are constantly willing to change too much, we may remain novice forever. Not doing this may help us retain what we have learned so far. At the same time, the more sure we are that we want to do a specific thing, the more our other ambitions will suffer.

Our “unit of success” is the goal. Accomplishment brings satisfaction; failure brings anxiety. Many things that we regard as physical are actually psychological. Feeling successful when not constantly achieving new goals is dangerous and we should avoid it. Good goal-driven systems don’t react to distracting external stimuli. We need to balance between too much commitment and too little concern. Our plans need to become larger and changing over time. If goals persist, they tend to conflict each other, which further diminishes our capacity to deal with them. Resolving them fast can eliminate this hurdle.

We need “to begin with the end in mind”, e.g. to have a clear vision of when our goal will be achieved. Keeping our goals constant for some time and developing a good feeling of our progress can be useful in tackling harder problems. Identifying a “desired situation” helps us evaluate which agents conform to it and which deviate from it. This is like setting an internal signpost to guide us. If we can’t progress on a subproblem, we can go one level up in the hierarchy; if we feel that we make progress, we can drill down and fill in more details.

Whenever we are faced with a difficult problem, our mind starts to juggle fragments of different states. Dividing it into smaller subproblems allows us to solve them more easily. At the same time, this divides our attention too, which makes it harder to apply our full intelligence to each subproblem. Another danger is that by tackling smaller and smaller subroblems that seem to relate to each other, we become increasingly detached from our original purpose, which can be enough to lose our way.

The most efficient way to solve a problem is to already know how to solve it. The steps of retrieving from memory and search for additional information can then be omitted. Even machines benefit from hard-coded knowledge, which makes them more efficient than if they need to compute their way to the facts.

Persistently seeking better ways to learn is important as this alone could open new opportunities for us. “In order to accumulate outstanding qualities, we need unusually effective ways to learn.” It’s not enough to learn a lot if we don’t manage it. We can’t clearly distinguish what we know from how it is used; knowing how to do something isn’t the same as knowing how it works. It takes time for changes in one part of the mind to affect others, which is why we can often make sense of some things later in life. As everything is highly interconnected, we need to learn ways to change some aspects of our lives without affecting all others. At the end, what we are rewarded for is what we learn.

New societies learn to exploit old ones. We learn and acquire new skills, but at a certain point we are likely to stop growing. Then the next generation comes and uses what we already know. Once we slow our learning rate, we start functioning as both subject and teacher to the layers that form later.

Knowing how to reason isn’t enough, we need to learn to apply our reasoning to different situations. We often search for “lands of consistency”, where our ordinary reasoning seems safe. Learning is about making useful changes in how our minds work.

Whatever we learn, we need to learn even more in order to be able to apply it. It pays to develop more ways to use our knowledge and to apply it in a variety of contexts. Very often, we seemingly understand things, but are unable to apply them in real situations.

We need to try to combine hierarchies of related knowledge. What we learn will depend on how we classify. But choosing what knowledge to accumulate requires deeper insights. Sometimes it makes more sense to group together things of similar uses. And we need to remember that a chain of knowledge can break at any link.

A skill can only grow if we have the prerequisites and if we build on it later. Some processes can’t be learned until others become available. We have to seek new building blocks that we can pile on top without inadvertently collapsing the structure. Being highly selective in how we apply bits from our past knowledge to our present situation determines which agents we will stimulate.

Much of what we think in later life is based on what we’ve learned in early life. We have truly learned something only when we aren’t consciously aware that we are using it. The earlier we learn a skill, the more methods we can acquire for using it.

We build models of the world in our minds. Our thinking depends first on how we shape these models and only then on how we were raised. Again, according to Buddha: “In the sky there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” Our mind is structuring our own reality by drawing dividing lines. Then it’s not surprising that most of our problems are of our own making. The language we use is also shaping how our mind works; the thinking itself affects our thoughts.

Thoughts and feelings are always intertwined and it’s not always clear which is the cause and which the effect. Being unable to control our emotions exposes us at a risk that we lose our intelligence. Our intellect depends on the everyday activities in which we choose to engage our brain. Our surroundings often teach us what we ought to feel. David Hume says: “The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation.”

“Do not become attached to the things you like, do not maintain aversion to the things you dislike. Sorrow, fear and bondage come from one’s likes and dislikes.” - Buddha. But possessions play essential role in our plans, as we can’t use our ideas until we have gained control of the tools needed to realize them.

Our measures of pleasure help us make comparisons, compromises and choices. As long as we are satisfied with our current situation, we will be unable to get out of it. This complements a recent article that stated that even poor people now feel rich and are less likely to protest when being satisfied with cheap commodities to which they didn’t have access before. Cheap was presented as a silencing mechanism.

Best ideas bridge multiple worlds. They are born from new ways of looking at things and dealing with them. Ideas often root in older ones and are adapted for new purposes. But some older ideas also prevent that new ones take root. If we try to sidestep our older ideas, we’ll base our future thoughts on less and less. Marcel Proust says: “Only by art can we get outside ourselves; instead of seeing only one world, our own, we see it under multiple forms, and as many as there are original artists.” Developing our imagination can be helpful in our challenge to overcome problems that seem beyond our control.

Big machines break from small defects. Building them in a way that preserves their functionality over time—through the use of time-independent components—becomes the more important, the more critical their use is. This is one reason why we need to devote more time to study the small details from which a larger entity is built, because getting them right, although seemingly simple, can be quite complicated. We can even reason about the whole from its parts. Waiting for a system to fail before we fully acknowledge its defects is just plain wrong. In the building process, it helps to think of the properties the system needs to have, so that we can ensure that our actions intensify them.

Scientists like to make their theories very delicate and fragile. If a theory is even partially wrong, it is left to collapse entirely rather than kept half-true. This way they are among the first who notice something wrong. Albert Einstein says: “The hardest thing to understand is why we can understand anything at all.”

If your agents crave for more context and details, consider reading the whole book.