The inevitable limitations of all finite minds....

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Tue Nov 21 2000 - 21:23:38 MST


Here is an attempt to get a little more clearly at ONE of the points raised
in my "enigmatic" (i.e. baffling
and confusing ;) e-mail from this morning...

My claim, in this e-mail, is that any mind, even a superintelligent
supermind, necessarily is going to suffer from a certain
lack of wisdom, if it tries to maximize its intelligence.

In other words: Given a fixed amount of resources, there is a kind of
uncertainty principle between intelligence
and "wisdom/enlightenment/true-mental-health." To maximize either one is to
decrease one's strength in the other.

Humans have evolved to maximize intelligence rather than the other...

My argument here can be cast in mathematical terms, but here, I'll given an
intuitive version.

Let us begin with the philosophical thought of David Bohm, the late
quantum-physicist-turned-philosopher. One of the last books Bohm wrote
before his death, "Thought As a System", is wonderfully relevant to these

Bohm's views on mind are substantially in sympathy with my "psynet model"
(though far less intricately developed). He pictures thought as a system of
reflexes -- habits, patterns -- acquired from interacting with the world and
analyzing the world. He understands the self-reinforcing, self-producing
nature of this system of reflexes -- the emergence of autopoietic
subsystems. And he diagnoses our thought-systems as being infected by a
certain malady, a malady which he calls the absence of proprioception of
thought. Though Bohm's language is unfamiliar, it turns out that what he is
talking about is very familiar indeed...

Proprioceptors are the nerve cells by which the body determines what it is
doing -- by which the mind knows what the body is doing. To understand the
limits of your proprioceptors, stand up on the ball of one foot, stretch
your arms out to your sides, and close your eyes. How long can you retain
your balance? Your balance depends on proprioception, on awareness of what
you are doing. Eventually the uncertainty builds up and you fall down.
People with damage to their proprioceptive system can't stay up as long as
as the rest of us. A friend of mine suffered this sort of damage as an
indirect result of a serious skiing accident -- it took him years to recover

According to Bohm,

"... [T]hought is a movement -- every reflex is a movement really. It moves
from one thing to another. It may move the body or the chemistry or just
simply the image or something else. So when 'A' happens 'B' follows. It's a

"All these reflexes are interconnected in one system, and the suggestion is
that they are not in fact all that different. The intellectual part of
thought is more subtle, but actually all the reflexes are basically similar
in structure. Hence, we should think of thought as a part of the bodily
movement, at least explore that possibility, because our culture has led us
to believe that thought and bodily movement are really two totally different
spheres which are no basically connected. But maybe they are not different.
The evidence is that thought is intimately connected with the whole system.

"If we say that thought is a reflex like any othermuscular reflex -- just a
lot more subtle and more complex and changeable -- then we ought to be able
to be proprioceptive with thought. Thought should be able to perceive its
own movement. In the process of thought there should be awareness of that
movement, of the intention to think and of the result which that thinking
produces. By being more attentive, we can be aware of how thought produces a
result outside ourselves. And then maybe we could also be attentive to the
results it produces within ourselves. Perhaps we could even be immediately
aware of how it affects perception. It has to be immediate, or else we will
never get it clear. If you took time to be aware of this, you would be
bringing in the reflexes again. So is such proprioception possible? I'm
raising the question.... "

OK, now...

"Proprioception of thought" is a fancy phrase, a weird concept, a
brain-stretcher. But a very similar idea has been proposed within the Zen
Buddhist religion, under the much simpler name of mindfulness. [Side note:
I am not religious. But my wife is a Zen priest and so I'm fairly
knowledgeable in this area.] In the words of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

"[T]he seed of mindfulness -- when manifested, has the capacity of being
aware of what is happening in the present moment. If we take one peaceful,
happy step and we know that we are taking a peaceful, happy step,
mindfulness is present. Mindfulness is an important agent for our
transformation and healing, but our seed of mindfulness has been buried
under many layers of forgetfulness and pain for a long time. We are rarely
aware that we have eyes that see clearly, a heart and a liver that function
well, and a non-toothache. We live in forgetfulness, ignoring and crushing
the precious elements of happiness that are already in us and around us. If
we breathe in and out and see that the tree is there, alive and beautiful,
the seed of our mindfulness will be watered, and it will grow stronger.....

"Mindfulness makes things like our eyes, our heart, our non-toothache, the
beautiful moon and the trees deeper and more beautiful. If we touch these
wonderful things with mindfulness, they will reveal their full splendor.
When we touch our pain with mindfulness, we will begin to transform it. ...

"Mindfulness is something we can believe in. It is our capacity of being
aware of what is going on in the present moment. To believe in mindfulness
is safe, and not at all abstract. When we drink a glass of water, and know
that we are drinking a glass of water, mindfulness is there."

Ok, this is not new -- it's just a different way of formulating familiar
ideas from Zen Buddhist philosophy. But it is an interesting reformulation

Basically: Mindfulness is the mind acting, and knowing exactly what it is
doing as it is acting.

Now, what does all this have to do with anything?

We can tie this in with pattern recognition, a basic activity of the mind.
(Much of mind activity has to do with mind
recognizing patterns in the outside world, and in itself.)

To recognize a pattern in something is to compress it into something
simpler -- a representation, a skeleton form.
[This can be formulated mathematically, I've done so e.g. in, Section 5.
It is inevitable that we compress our experiences into abstract relational
systems of one form or another. This is the function of much of our network
of mental processes: to come up with routines, procedures, that will
function adequately in a wide variety of circumstances. We can never know
exactly why we do what we do when we lift up our arm to pick up a glass of
water, when we bend over to get a drink, when we produce a complex sentence
like this one, when we solve an equation or seduce a woman. We do not need
to know what we do: the neural network adaptation going on in our brain
figures things out for us. It compresses vast varieties of situations into
simple, multipurpose hierarchical brain structures.

But here comes the key point. Having compressed, we no longer have access
to what we originally experienced, only to the compressed form. We have lost
some information. This is the ultimate reason for what Bohm calls the
absence of proprioception of thought. It is the reason why mindfulness is so
difficult. Thought does not know what it is doing because thought can do
what it does more easily without knowing. Proceeding blindly, without
mindfulness, thought can wrap up complex aggregates in simple packages and
proceed to treat the simple packages as if they were whole, fundamental,
real. This is the key to abstract symbolic thought, to language, to music,
mathematics, art. But it is also the root of human problems.

Thus we arrive at the conclusion that intelligence, itself, rests on the
lack of mindfulness. It rests on compression: on the substitution of
packages for complex aggregates, on the substitution of tokens for diverse
communities of experiences. It requires us to forget the roots of our
thoughts and feelings, in order that we may use them as raw materials for
building new thoughts and feelings. But this forgetfulness, after it has
helped us, then turns around and stabs us in the back. It works against us
as well as for us.

And this "uncertainty principle" is not limited to humans. It holds for any
entity with finite computational resources.

Any entity can try to maximize its intelligence given its resources -- but
if it does so, it will not be maximizing
its mindfulness, its wisdom, its true mental health.

A system with complete power to rewrite its own code will STILL, therefore,
not be able to achieve both the goal of
maximum intelligence given its resources, and maximum mental health given
its resources. It must make a choice.

Which choice will it make?

We might assume that in most cases a system with maximum mental health would
not choose to decrease its mental
health. But this won't always be true. Instead, such a system might decide
that, in order to do the maximum good
in the world, the best thing it can do is to make itself LESS enlightened
and wise, and cleverer....

What's the point of this train of thought. Really, just to concretely
demonstrate that perfection, in a finite
universe, cannot exist. In its own way, even the digital superintelligence
of the future will experience similar
limitations to ours.

Of course, you can always argue that a superintelligent future mind will be
able to find its way around the limitation
I'm describing, using infinite superfandibular megamysterymatter or
whatever. But this kind of argument isn't all that
interesting, since it can be used to justify anything whatsoever...

OK, that's enough for now...

-- Ben

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