Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Discouraging Thoughts

I recently began reading Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. It's a very fascinating book that covers (directly, tangentially, or in passing) many of the topics that I'm interested in these days: artificial intelligence, Turing Machines, Gödel's theorem, formalism in mathematics, quantum mechanics, fractals, complexity, predictability, etc., etc. In fact, it's a lot like another excellent book that I'm trying to get through at the moment, Douglas Hoftstader's Gödel, Escher, Bach, both in terms of related topics and in how the author draws from many different sources to drive toward an eventual point about the mind (the impossibility of strong AI and/or the irreducibility of the mental to the physical in the case of Penrose, and the self-referential nature of consciousness in the case of Hofstadter. Or so I believe, since I haven't gotten too terribly far in either of them yet, and I'm only dimly aware of what their conclusions will be).

Anyway, the problem: I was skimming through the latter parts of The Emperor's New Mind to see what lies ahead, and for a pop-science book, it contains a bewildering number of frightening equations (aghh! Look at all the ψ's, ω's, and other intimidating esoterica!) . Now, I'm not as put off by this as the average reader might be, but still, I'm worried about my ability to adequately grasp this kind of thing, particularly given my currently less-than-pleasing math knowledge. And, moreover, I'd genuinely like to be able to understand these sorts of things. But do I have the patience? Do I even care enough? How can I learn these things outside of a classroom environment?

I'm also slightly concerned that the math-heavy sections of the book will be like roadblocks for my reading: that is, I will procrastinate getting through them since I'll keep thinking, "I want to understand this, so I'll just come back to it when I'm not feeling so tired, when I'm more in the mood to concentrate, etc., etc." And then, six months later, I still won't have made any progress in the book. Just some things for me to watch out for.

Etymological fact of the day: the word 'rapt'—to be engrossed or enraptured—derived from the past participle of 'rape,' which originally denoted 'seizing' or 'carrying off' without necessarily denoting non-consensual sex acts. Indeed, 'rapt' was occasionally used to indicate being carried from Earth to Heaven (as, perhaps, a prophet or mystic might be taken by God; or as one might be struck rapt in the midst of a vision). 'Rapture,' unsurprisingly, shares a very similar derivation, and this, I presume, is why the modern Christian doctrine of The Rapture has the name it does. The word 'ravish' also derives from the same distant root (Latin rapere); it has a near-identical meaning—to carry off forcibly, particularly in the case of a woman. But, 'ravish' has also been used in the sense of transport from Earth to Heaven, much the way 'rapt' has been, and so 'ravishing' is a complimentary term because it means something like 'enchanting' or 'entrancing.'

The frightening thing is that 'ravish' is still a synonym for our modern sense of 'rape' today. And so, telling a woman that she looking 'ravishing' seems to indicate that she looks rape-able. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not list anything like this in its usage history of the word, and I generally consider the OED the final authority on all things language related, but still... kinda makes you think.

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