In this collection of essays, dialogues, stories, and other oddities, I have begun tying together some fundamental ideas of morals, ethics, religion, politics, philosophy, human relations, diplomatic protocols, communication theory, control theory, cybernetics, computer communication protocols, psychology, behavior, and cognitive science. To me, all these disciplines are shadows cast in different dimensions of the same central essence (with apologies to Douglas Hofstadter). By way of analogy, it appears to me that one can transfer knowledge from one domain to another by setting up a one-to-one bidirectional map between any pair of disciplines. The processes of learning, teaching, thinking, feeling, communicating, and taking action appear to me to be intimately related, and representable through a single simple model that can be used as the elementary building block of all mental activity. Whereas modern mathematics is founded largely on Set Theory (which is isomorphic to Boolean Algebra or Logic), the newer notion of Fuzzy Sets leads to Fuzzy Logic, or logic in which propositions have truth value varying probabilistically from zero to one, depending on one’s personal state of knowledge. Such a Calculus of Reasoning in the face of uncertainty and unreliable information appears to me to be a useful model of the functioning of the human brain (I feel that’s what’s going on in my brain when I move from certain knowledge to plausible hypotheses to possible explanations to speculation to wild imagination). Analogy, inferential reasoning and deductive logic are the software tools applied to data collected by our sensory inputs (vision, hearing, spoken and written language, tactile input, etc.). When the input data are unreliable (corrupted with noise, missing pieces, randomized, distorted by someone else’s fuzzy thinking) we are hard pressed to sort out the available inputs and interpret the meaning (i.e. the cause) of the scramble of sensory inputs which our brains are forced to sort out and make sense of.

Our mental processes proceed whether we are cognizant of them or not. Once we become cognizant that our brains are fumbling through such computational processes as information storage and retrieval, sorting, Bayesian inference, inductive and deductive reasoning, and reasoning by analogy, we can choose to manage those processes more efficiently through discipline (mathematics, logic, analysis, problem solving). We can also elect to delegate some of the mental effort to other people (experts, consultants) or to man-made tools (computers, information sources, expert systems) whose judgment we trust (with suitable audits or sanity checks to verify their reliability). Ultimately, our decisions are based on our feelings (belief) that the chosen course of action is the best alternative. A successful outcome confirms our thinking, while a failure reveals the presence of a previously unappreciated flaw. A major obstacle to discovering the most successful course of action when faced with any of life’s large or little dilemmas is our inability to conceive of a good (never mind optimal) solution. It is my thesis that the process of discovering good (even optimal) solutions to the dilemmas of life is itself a discipline that can be understood and mastered. We sometimes call this discipline common sense or rational thinking (coming up with good ideas). The trouble with those terms is that they are labels rather than recipes. What I feel we would like to have here is an easily understood method that implements common sense or mental reasoning. Having spent much of my career immersed in computer-aided problem solving, I ask the question: Is there an algorithm of common sense? The answer appears to be yes. I credit Socrates for first discovering the method (the Socratic Method).*  Socrates taught the method by using it. The Dialogues of Plato are examples of the Socratic Method. I feel that one can draw a flow chart of the algorithm of common sense, and that most of it would seem elementary to us. But it appears to me that we fail to follow the algorithm with precision and we get stuck time and again. Each of us tends to get stuck in certain places which vary from one individual to the next. I have noticed that the lyrics of popular songs contain fragments of the algorithm, and that we are drawn to just those songs that embody our current sticking point (misery loves company). The Socratic Method is nothing more than asking ourselves questions, in a particular order, and dredging up the answers from our reservoir of stored knowledge. If we happen to have the answers on hand, it appears that 36 steps (six cycles of six questions) lead us to the solution and get us off the horns of the dilemma: we then know what to do. But frequently we come to a question for which the honest answer is: I don’t know. At this point, we must decide if we want to obtain the answer and if so, we reenter the algorithm at the appropriate point. One of the most common failures is to overlook the option of seeking the answer externally: i.e. to ask someone else. Perhaps we fail to seek because we do not believe an answer even exists to be discovered. If we choose not to seek an answer, we are left with the question: Why don’t I want to know? The honest answer to that question leads us toward self-examination (self-awareness). (Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living.") 

One of the most powerful ideas is the notion of the negative feedback loop. As engineers, we are familiar with it in control theory and we honor Harold S. Black for discovering and applying the principle to amplifier design. It appears to me that the concept of establishing a feedback loop is a very old idea, going back to biblical times. The idea has been used time and again in discipline after discipline, and is the basis for cybernetics, human relations, iterative problem solving, communications, biological processes, and learning how to play the violin like Heifetz. The trick is to discover a way to observe the parameters of a process, and then to construct an appropriate feedback loop to control the parameter. Observe the effect, and use that observation to affect the cause of the effect. Close the loop and determine the gain (amplification) to achieve stable operation. In control theory, the feedback loop has two parts: 1) the observation (or estimation) of the system output (or internal state variable) that we wish to control, and 2) the calculation of a perturbation to be applied to the input of the system which would drive to zero the discrepancy between the desired output and the observed output. Our ability to discover the correct "transfer function" (to borrow a term from control theory) depends on our ability to accurately model the system we wish to control. The ultimate system we wish to control is our very selves. Can we observe our own behavior (become self-aware), and set up the right feedback loop inside our heads to control our own behavior (self-control, self discipline)? When children do this, we call it learning. These are the apparent functions of the ego and superego: the ego is where the feedback loops reside; the superego figures out where to put them, and adjusts the gain for stable operation. In the human brain, these processes occur in the cerebral cortex. The object of all this programming and self-programming is to control the passion-driven behaviors of the id, which if left unchecked would put ourselves and our society at risk. In the human brain, the (possibly uncivilized) non-conscious behaviors may stem from the activity of the cerebellum (self-gratifying behaviors) and the limbic system (self-protecting behaviors). It appears to be possible (perhaps I should say essential) for us to discover how to observe and control our own mental processes (thinking, feeling, communicating, acting).

Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King became the feedback loop within their own political spheres. They mirrored the behavior of the oppressive elements in their lands by making the acts of the oppressor visible to all. ("When you crack my skull, then my head bleeds. See your hitting. See my blood flow.")  Once this principle was grasped by the oppressor, the next step was to examine the motivation for wanting to crack the skull. (Jesus said, "If my words are false, why do you pay attention to them; if my words are true, why do you strike me?")  In our own time, my generation was seen to chant, "The whole world is watching," as the police cracked the skulls of American youths protesting the Vietnamese war. (They left it to the Authorities to realize what the whole world was watching.)  Once the out-of-control agent becomes aware of his behavior, it becomes possible for that agent to build the control loop that avoids the run-away behavior in the future. Mental health and the health of our society merely require us to search for the missing feedback loops and put them into place, one by one — programming ourselves, our children, our society to ensure stable growth, and to avoid run-away and potentially self-destructive out-of-control behavior.

Barry Kort

Holmdel, NJ