It’s been a little longer than I would like since my last post, but we’ve been taking turns getting sick in my family and it’s slowed me down a bit. Well, this is wishful thinking but maybe it will help build up my immune system for the upcoming outbreak of avian flu.
Since this is Halloween, I thought I’d post about something befitting the occasion, computer science’s own version of the occult. Or, since discussions of the differences between ID and science are quite popular on the blogosphere now, maybe we should refer to this as our own version of intelligent design. But first…
One of my favorite recreational pages on the Web is Gerhard Woeginger’s P vs. NP Page. Not surprisingly, a lot of the entries on this page would appear to be the work of crackpots. However, many others of these were (seemingly) serious attempts at a proof by academics. Perhaps the most illustrious P vs. NP author appearing on this page is Selmer Bringsjord, who is chair of the department of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
I can recall seeing much discussion on Usenet and the blogosphere when his paper An Argument for P=NP, co-authored with Joshua Taylor, first appeared last year. A lot of the commentary was of the sort that the paper obviously was a parody, since it’s inconceivable that Bringsjord would actually believe his own ridiculous line of reasoning. It also spawned some investigations into the premises of Bringsjord’s arguments, the best example of which in contained within this article by Scott Aaronson.
I noticed recently that Bringsjord has updated his paper, to respond to some of the feedback it generated. So if it was intended as a joke, it must be of the “long-running” variety. The thing I find most curious about the whole episode, though, is not within the P=NP paper itself. On Bringsjord’s home page, just below a link to the P=NP paper, is a link to the paper The modal argument for hypercomputing minds. In it, Bringsford argues that, er, well, let me just quote from the abstract:
… we give herein a novel, formal modal argument showing that since it’s mathematically possible that human minds are hypercomputers, such minds are in fact hypercomputers. We take considerable pains to anticipate and rebut objections to this argument.
The thing is, the format of this paper, which takes a questionable premise and then uses formal reasoning via modal logic to reach a “remarkable” conclusion, is very similar to the P=NP paper. The conclusion I am tempted to come to is that Bringsjord, in his P=NP paper, is parodying his own work.
What then, should we make of the hypercomputation paper? This paper is published in no less than Elsevier’s Theoretical Computer Science, Volume 317 (June 2004), pages 167-190. This is part of a special issue devoted to “super-recursive algorithms and hypercomputation”. A glance through the table of contents lists a slew of articles with similar subject matter. Has Theoretical Computer Science gone all soft and fuzzy? Perhaps Chris Leonard, if he reads this, would care to comment.
Many of the authors are members of the Hypercomputation Research Network, which seems to be some sort of
cabal of sorcerers community of philosophers intent on plumbing the depths of the mind. Certainly nothing wrong with that; I find the philosophy of mind to be a fascinating subject. But perusing several of the articles linked to on this site, I find the level of reasoning to be painfully similar to what Bringsjord uses in his papers.
So what do you think? Do the hypercomputationalists escape scrutiny because they are philosophers and not scientists, and therefore not held to
any the same standards? Or are they theoretical computer science’s equivalent of alchemists?