Noesis 55 - November 1990

LETTER TO THE NOETIC SOCIETY
from Chris Langan

I received the following mention in the last issue of Noesis: "New editor sought...The first person to volunteer will get the job unless I have strong reason to believe you cannot handle it...C.M. Langan's issues were too focused on his own personal in­terests. Also, he never, to my knowledge, provided any member with his phone number, making him less accessible than would be ideal for an editor....” I find these remarks strange, and will there­fore subject then to the same painstaking analysis with which I have formerly addressed more widely known problems.

First, put yourself in the shoes of a disinterested party who has just come upon a full set of back issues of Noesis. You notice right away that certain topics were recurrently mentioned in the earlier ones. The most frequent (but seldom the most interesting) of these is one which may be generically labeled "The Latest Re-Norming of the Mega (or Titan) Test". These latter appear to be collections of original puzzles which, solely by virtue of various statistical analyses undertaken by their author, have been labeled "I.Q. tests". You note that this has been done in such a way that I.Q. cannot be equated with intelligence; no coherent theory of what constitutes intelligence is offered to explain why the tests are structured as they are, or what they measure. Consistent with the absence of any supporting theory but bare statistical mathema­tics - a science you know to be riddled with numerous inductive limitations - you find several "trial tests" designed as sources of problems to be included in the above final versions. These con­tain some interesting puzzles, a few of which seem as though they might be worthy of some of your spare time.

Then an enterprising thought comes to mind. Better yet, what if you were to design your own test, and have people pay to take it? Merely composing a collection of "verbal", "numerical", and "spat­ial" puzzles wouldn't be that hard to do. But then you'd have to "norm" it and market it. This seems a little out of reach, mainly because the market, and the ideal population on which to norm high end I.Q. tests, have to some extent been saturated by tests like this one. Reluctantly, you give up on the idea for now; the author of this test has probably squeezed the high-end population - a substantial percentage of whose available members belong to this very group - temporarily dry of the motivation they would need to do their very best, and you are not in the best position to impose on them to such an extent. The ones who are best situated are the group members themselves. You wonder if, together, they might not possess enough initiative to make such an idea work.

Obtaining a history of the group, you come upon several facts of interest. It was founded by Ronald Hoeflin. It has gone through several titles, including "The Hoeflin Research Group". While its members occupy a number of vocations, there are clear indications that many of them use and program computers; they probably share more than a passing interest in computer science. Several of then say they were educated as physicists. All have a keen interest in puzzles, paradoxes, and games, along with the relevant kinds of mathematics...e.g., logic and game (or decision) theory. And most qualified for membership by meeting or exceeding a .000001 perfor­mance level on the Mega Test, corresponding to a score that was clearly and unequivocally specified in OMNI magazine, the national publication which marketed the test (good thing nobody reneged on that. you reflect - why, somebody right have been sued over it!)

Regarding "The Hoeflin Research Group", it occurs to you that there are two ways to interpret this title. (1) It expresses the fact that purpose of this group is to provide a statistical popu­lation of high scorers on which Mr. Hoeflin can base his empirical 5 approach to human intelligence (along with whatever other purposes he conjoins to it). (2) It expresses the fact that the members, by virtue of their high scores on the Mega or Titan Tests, have the intellectual capacity to do research of their own. That is, they are not merely convenient solvers of more or less unrelated test problems , but people who share a higher purpose: the intellectual evolution of mankind. While the second possibility is clearly nobler than the first, it seems at first glance to be the lighter half of an unintentional double entendre.

This, you reflect, would be a sad waste of a valuable resource. It would be like gathering the very rarest of bird eggs to see how they compare with the norm, but refusing to let them hatch because the birds are of negligible importance relative to the hobby of statistical egg comparison. Only here, it is the human species, and not just species of endangered birds, which is being devalued. Surely, you reason, no really intelligent person could embrace so senseless a viewpoint! If this "research group" is really select­ing its members by intelligence, interpretation 2 must have weight equal to or greater than that of 1: the members should be contrib­uting to humanity by doing the research for which they are suppos­edly so well-equipped. If any of them lack the time or ability to do this themselves, they should be all the more sympathetic and supportive to those among them who can.

At this point, it occurs to you that some people might have a tendency to put the cart before the horse when it comes to I.Q. testing. You have a passing familiarity with "I.Q.", and know that the concept relies on its supposed correlation with academic per­formance and scholastic achievement. These in turn are supposed to correlate with the ability to solve complex sorts of "real world" problems within more or less precise formalisms and logical sys­tems. If I.Q. has any value whatever, that value depends on, and is dominated by, the real-world problems with whose solutions I.Q. allegedly correlates. To value I.Q. over its reason for existence would indicate a strange and loopy mentality. If, for instance, I.Q. testing ever happened to reveal someone who, within the con­text of an I.Q. society, was able to solve important problems with many known ramifications, it would be absurd to continue to split hairs over who did or did not bother to solve the more or less trivial problem (x) on test X. You wonder if anyone in this group is capable of being that irrational...but then dismiss the idea as simply too far-fetched.

Ideally, this real-world performance would present a unifying perspective relating specific problems offered by the members, in­cluding the matter of human intelligence central to the group. As Noesis is their only journal, this is where such research, and the problems it solves, must necessarily appear. Scanning the journal to see if such problems have been proposed by the members, you find several, including: theoretical difficulties involving the correct application of Bayes’ theorem, serendipitously reflected in a controversy over the correct solution of one of Mr. Hoeflln's test problems; Newcomb's problem, a famous conundrum relating the seemingly unrelated disciplines of physics, decision theory, and the philosophy of free will; the ultimate limits of computation and computational algorithms; and the crisis in modern physics, specifically involving certain aspects of quantum theory. A para­dox of confirmation theory, "Goodman's grue". is mentioned by name; rational behavior is discussed in an economic context; and "mad scientists" compete with God in an unbounded metaphysical arena.

In addition, you find that numerous other matters have been mentioned, some of them by Mr. Hoeflin himself. There include the inductive criteria for correct theorization, up to the existence of "undecidable" (purely subjective) sensations or intellectual parameters, and the formation of a unifying perspective on philo­sophy. And there are clear echoes of the controversies surrounding psychological and inductive limitations on intelligence tests and the norming methods employed by their authors. There is even a combined application of the theories of decision, computation, and statistics to the ceilings of certain intelligence tests (namely, those which explicitly map a scale of rewards into the scale of specific scores, like the OMNI version of the Mega Test), in a letter by C.M. Langan.

As you make these observations, you begin to lose hope that anything approaching a grand synthesis of these various topics can be achieved. It would, to put it simply, have to take into account the different interests of too many members, and be formulated at so high a level of generality that it would say nothing about the specifics it was meant to address. Too bad, you think; a unified resolution of all these problems would have made the history of this group the trail of a guided missile streaking inexorably to a profound theoretical explosion of great potential importance to humanity. Such a concinnity of ideas, you fear, is a beautiful but impossible ideal; it would almost have to be orchestrated beyond time itself.

However, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Beginning with issue number 44, one of the members proceeds to do the improbable. From a theoretical angle apparently tailor-made for the other members - i.e., using a blend of computation theory, logic, game theory, and some very general physics - he synthesizes a "grand unification" in which all the above problems become soluble. After an initial dowsing with some basic symbology, he even relaxes his presentation to let anyone with a dictionary and an I.Q. above his systolic blood pressure understand what he is saying. And while he is motivating and applying his theory, he is meeting the objec­tions raised by his only vocal critic, Mr. Hoeflin, one by one and in considerable detail.

As you read, you notice that he is forming and organizing his material to enhance its self-evidence. Whatever difficulties and complexities his theory contains, he is formulating general isms with a degree of exactitude which either exempts them from these difficulties, or ensures consistent solution. Vet, he is managing to solve the problems he set out to solve, as presented by the other members. Whatever their doubts or complaints concerning his presentation, one of them will certainly not be that he pursued his own narrow interests at the expense of theirs. In fact, if there is a breath of truth in this theory - and it seems possible that "hurricane" might be a better choice than "breath" - this member is doing the other members a considerable service by trying so hard to satisfy their curiosity and desire for meaning.

Just as you am getting swept away by the possibilities, you tighten up and get cynical. "Walt a minute", you say. "This is all just a bit much. This person has made himself appear very intel­ligent indeed. But he's also made his solutions seem very simple - so simple that it's hard to believe that all those professional geniuses out there, the ones who get their work printed in heavy­weight journals of science and philosophy, could have missed them. There must be insuperable problems that simply escape my notice... problems that a more sophisticated intellect could easily cite." Chastened, you review the material to see just where these "prob­lems" might be hiding.

And find, with a mixture of disappointment and relief, that there really isn't any place for them to hide after all. Whatever the author has done, it has been done in such a way that any real disagreement will tie its maker in knots of logical contradiction, forcing him to embrace fallacies or violate tautologies. Whatever such critics have to say, they had better say it at low volume if they wish to maintain their credibility. And it seems pretty clear that If anyone dares to call him a "crank" or "crackpot", the name-caller should at least consider how it will feel to wear a pair of huge floppy shoes, a red rubber nose, and a baggy jumpsuit with outsized polka dots and a big round crinkly collar. The truth of it is, a "genius" is just a "crackpot" whose astounding (but relevant) pronouncements cannot be meaningfully contradicted.

The subject of credibility rings a bell. The author has stated that he lacks "credentials". Doesn't this indicate that he must be somehow deficient? After all, who in our fame, power, and money-grubbing world can afford to neglect the critical matter of credentials? Such a person would have to be unrealistic, to put it kindly. Can someone so obviously out of touch with reality be able to produce this kind of material?

But just when you have almost convinced yourself that every genius in history has enjoyed a personal star on Academia's Walk of Fame, you realize that history does not support any such claim. Humanity has not only failed on numerous occasions to recognize truth within the lifetimes of its discoverers, but has often met their ideas with great resistance. What did "credentials" mean prior to the existence of modern universities? Were no intellectu­al advances made before prizes and degrees were awarded? Might there not in fact be a fundamental conflict between the quest for knowledge and the lust for recognition? And between extreme crea­tivity and the propensity to thrive in institutional environments like those of universities, under the rigid tutelage of masters who are themselves the products of that very environment? When all of this is considered in light of your almost total ignorance con­cerning the author, his situation, and the formative circumstances he might have encountered in his life, you conclude that whatever the achievements of those with credentials, the credentials them­selves are all but meaningless...at least with regard to him.

Being up on the literature, you see that it all bolls down to a situation like that of the "Turing test" or the "Chinese room". Given that the author has made himself look intelligent by means of intellectual interaction across an opaque barrier, what basis exists for denying that he is just as intelligent as he has made himself look? Absolutely none. This barrier insulates him from denial as surely as it feeds your doubts. In fact, it is the very kind of inductive barrier that he has been describing in his theo­retical "output", and he obviously knows what it means as well as do any potential critics he might attract.

The more you consider what the author has done, the less open to doubt he appears. He has applied his theory, with varying de­grees of detail, to an amazing range of subjects, including ones that were initially not clearly related to the problems suggested by the other members. He even claims that any problem with a solu­tion must have a solution in terms of this formalism, and does so with every indication that he can back up his assertion. You feel, somewhat justifiably, like you have been treated to a glimpse of twenty-first century insight. . .or even witnessed the first dawning of a new era of human understanding.

But now you come; to issue 5O in the series. Suddenly, every­thing changes. The author of the theory is no longer editing. The new editor is now informing everyone that regardless of whatever costs might have been incurred prior to that moment (a little fact-finding reveals that the author's costs were a bit over $200, after payments he received from two other members) , everyone must either pay up or get out. This seems vaguely off-color, given that the journal's content has regressed to reprints. And as nearly as you can determine, the last six issues have been erased from the group's collective memory. It is eerily like they never existed... as though the new editor, true to his title, has edited them right out of reality! Next, as if to confirm this illusion, there comes an issue from a member who forgot to change his listed address and thereby missed the six issues in question. The next issue is again little more than a collection of reprints.

But the last issue contains the kicker. Remember that complaint about the scope of the forgotten six issues, the one that you had to rule out because it was so contrary to the facts? The current editor, in bold violation of reality itself, is holding it forth as a "strong reason to believe" that the author of those issues "cannot handle" the responsibilities of editorship! Instead, he proposes to hand over the editorship to someone willing to uphold the "values" that he has traditionally striven to maintain. You are a bit confused by this; there are many books and periodicals containing puzzles and articles which can be photocopied by anyone with a library card, and the only other content this journal seems to have is, with rare exceptions, another version of the foremost personal interest of the current editor (i.e., the latest norming of the Titan exam). As if to stress the ascendancy of his personal interests over those of anyone else, he caps it off with the edict that if a suitable candidate fails to volunteer, he will let the group dissolve.

Now, quite at a loss to make sense of all this, you notice several things in rapid succession. The current editor has no immediate plans to write a new test, and his willingness to let the group dissolve confirms interpretation (1) above. What this says about the members is quite clear, particularly after what has al­ready been done to elevate them above the status of I.Q. guinea pigs. Next, you observe that "let" is too gentle a word; what the editor is actually saying is that if he cannot abandon the society on his own terms, period, then he his going to enforce its disso­lution. This is plainly evident in the fact that he has placed restrictions on who may be allowed to "perpetuate the group" as editor of its journal. The idea seems to be that, although he is personally no longer willing to shoulder the burden of printing the journal, he is determined to continue to enforce his will upon it...perhaps to avail himself of it the next time he has a trial test to run, should the whim coalesce.

But at least one thing is clear. Whatever the editor's motiva­tion, it is not the ability of his successor which is important; it is his evaluation of that ability. This seems to involve the transparent fallacy that someone capable of totally misevaluating the work of past editors has the capacity to determine the fitness of a future editor, or the long range utility of any group strategy at all. You perceive that if this is so obvious to you, a disin­terested outsider, it must be glaringly evident to the members of any group purporting to select them for extreme intelligence.

You note also that the editor has a new journal, and that it is (a) far more lucrative than Noesis; (b) a forum for the initial publication of a book that he is writing on the topic of philoso­phy. Wait a minute, you say - given that the editor has accused C.M. Langan of shamelessly subjecting others to the narrowness of his own personal interests, how can he simultaneously be doing precisely that in this other journal? Examining the work to date, you note that (a) the editor's work-in-progress is even "narrower" in scope than the one he criticized, being thus far an examination of the history of philosophy in light of the work of another philosopher; (b) it alternates, by odd and even issues, with letters from the members of his TOPS society, many of them praising his work somewhat lavishly (mainly for its ambition). You reflect on the convenience of these letters as filler for the new journal. This is a convenience which has never been there for the editors of Noesis.

There is nothing bad or even inordinately selfish about what the editor is doing in the other journal, called In-Genius. You opine that he well might deserve the praise he is harvesting, de­pending on how the work develops. But there is an incongruity, if not an earsplitting dissonance, between the rules he is applying to himself and those to which he has summarily subjected the pre­vious editor of Noesis. You do not want to call it anything as extreme as hypocrisy, but you are finding it difficult to avoid an unpleasant conclusion of some kind. What began as an instance of intellectual altruism has been cast as an example of selfishness, and the "values" by which puzzles are supposed to be solved in meaningful ways have regressed to the "values" by which it is un­acceptable to do anything but reprint them and give unrelated sol­utions for each one in conceptual isolation from the rest. What on earth is going on? Could there be a personal or emotional reason for this, something you missed in the six "forgotten" issues?

Ever more baffled, you review them yet again, this time looking for anything the current editor might justifiably construe as a slight. You see a couple of possibilities, but always accompanied with praise for whatever feedback has been received. This is in fact a characteristic of the former editor's work; he is very careful to give credit even for the mention or citation of a prob­lem, and is nowhere guilty of uncharitable comments concerning other members of the group. This is not surprising; such care is to be expected of the editors of journals. But this is precisely what makes the current editor's unkind evaluation so hard to swal­low. There has to be something else involved here.

Could there be a proprietary conflict between the current edi­tor's work and that which has already been published in Noesis? You note that the former contains an analogy between metaphysics and analytic geometry which fits a recurrent theme of the latter: the translation of common data configurations from logical syntax to logical syntax as a model for the "metaphysical" scheduling of acceptive collapse (coordinate systems are just highly symmetrical computative syntaxes). But all ideas are to some extent reflec­tions of other ideas, and no one seems to be making much of this similarity; there appears, as yet, to be no serious repetition of one work by the other. While the former editor has already stated in effect that the ultimate "root metaphor" is the quantum trans­ducer, the current editor is known to prefer the "purposive act" for that distinction. Propriety does not seen to be the problem at this stage of the game.

You now decide to find out how it was that the editorship switched hands in the first place; maybe this information will contain some clue about what is happening. It turns out that the previous editor received several letters from the current editor voicing his unrationalized "belief" that the former editor should share responsibility with two or three others, each to serve as editor on a cyclical basis. The former editor, apparently seeing nothing wrong with that alternative, quietly acceded. But then the initial proposal of editorial rotation seems suddenly and undemocratically to have gone the way of the dodo. Even while announcing the editorial rotation, the new editor declared himself in full charge! You observe that no one seems to be complaining about this decision: however unilateral it may have been, the new editor has achieved his purpose and can easily afford not to say anything unkind about his "opponents", either real or imaginary.

But there you are again, back in a quandary about the unkind remarks of the current editor regarding his immediate predecessor. Like any realist, you admit that human nature has its dark side. Still, it is unfortunate when a society for the intellectually gifted is politically isomorphic to a group of children, one of whom has brought to the playground a ball and bat, gotten tired of them and given them to another, changed his mind and coerced them back into his possession, and then threatened to take them home if he doesn't get precisely what he wants, when he wants it. You also reflect on the members of such a group, and what they must be thinking on the other side of that wall of silence. It is a sad fact of life, you consider, that when one person effects an injus­tice in the name of a group, the members of that group may be held morally accountable for it in the absence of resistance. Most intelligent people know better than to open their mouths about things they don't understand, but there is a fine line between that and a speculative form of self-interest wherein conflicts are habitually spectated with a cynical eye. Inveterate fence-perching is becoming only in birds, lizards, and small furry animals. You decide that if such is the fruit of a high I.Q., you will regret­fully have to pass in favor of nobler virtues.

You are now at the end of your rope. Could all this be no more than a ploy to shock the other members out of their lethargy? This strategy has been used before and has usually worked. But never before was any member, let alone one who had distinguished himself in a positive light, been singled out for abuse. Reluctantly, you decide, that if this matter is not satisfactorily resolved within the next issue of Noesis, you will have no choice but to reach an unpleasant conclusion regarding the whole mess. And there will be little doubt as to who must (and who need not) bear the onus in that unfortunate event.

Your faith in humanity shaken, you retain no more than a hope... a hope that the current editor has a top hat, and that it contains either a rabbit or an apology. And that if a rabbit should come out instead of an apology, it will not be carrying sticks with which to conveniently drum the previous editor out of the group. That, you think with a smile, would be asinine...a rabbit cutting a herd of guinea pigs. It would also be the height of ingratitude, and so reprehensible under the circumstances that no pretext could begin to justify it. In that event, it seems clear to you that no dignified member of the group could do better than resign in haste and shake the dust from his sandals. You don't know quite what the other members have at stake - maybe a couple of them got their names in the paper when they qualified - but whatever it is, it is not important enough to make them sell out their knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And it is wrong to let someone print a journal for half a year at his own expense, and then try to get rid of him for defending himself...even if his issues, like more recent ones, had consisted of little more than reprints instead of high quality original ideas.

The problem, you think, can be summed up concisely. If you were to go out and gather a group of people using questionnaires. telephone canvassing, on-the-street interviews, or any other means at all, and then name the group and appoint yourself its founder, one of the first things you'd have to get straight about would be the extent of your “power” over the members. Technically, once you have assembled them. you cannot - this being to some extent a free society - then arbitrarily restrict their interactions. If, for example, you get fed up with the group and decide to hand over de facto control to some willing member, you cannot maintain de jure control beyond that point. You can reasonably expect that you will continue to command some respect, and that your views will be con­sidered if and when you choose to interject them. But you cannot choose the priorities of the members. Specifically, you cannot set arbitrary and potentially self-serving restrictions on who may and who may not edit the group's journal. And before you hang new names on the group, you must clear them with the members. Other­wise, your actions assume your own superior status...an assumption which must be proven, in this case intellectually.

Only would such proof enable the group to trust blindly in your decisions. For example, suppose you say. "I've gathered 14 non-member subscribers. Since potential members are scarce, this new readership has far more growth potential than you do, and promises ultimately to-be far more lucrative than you are. So Noesis will henceforth contain no material that they (and for that matter. I) cannot grasp in one superficial reading". With clear proof of your intellectual superiority, they could then say. "Our leader's un­surpassed intelligence entitles him lo hold our edification secon­dary to that of a group of subscribers who may not share our abil­ity to assimilate complex ideas, despite the fact that our group is supposed to conform to the interest and abilities of the top one-millionth of the general population by I.Q.".

The reader may now pop out of his "disinterested" mindset and admit his own utility to the situation. Being on the other side of the wall in that "Chinese room" I mentioned earlier, I can divine your intentions no more easily than you could fathom mine, had I not been forthcoming about them. But I am certain that no one is waiting in the wings with enough intellectual dynamite to destroy anything I've written. On the other hand, I have shown, freely and generously, what I can do for this group, and that is no less than Mr. Hoeflin has done for it. The operative distinction involves a gratuitous denigration of my abilities, one that its maker cannot meaningfully back up. You will note that I am saying nothing per­sonal about my detractor, but have confined my remarks to a set of disinterested observations.

My own preference would be to receive an apology, and for the editor to be more considerate and less autocratic in the absence of any coherent justification for "martial law". If I were caught in as morally indefensible a position as his, I would do precisely that myself. Incidentally, I do not currently have a telephone. Then again, I have never seen the transcript of a telephone call in Noesis, which is purely a written medium. A convenience if may well be, but when one considers the editorial "ideal" for a journal of the intellect, having a phone fades into relative unim­portance. And there is something about not having a phone that is different from not having the other qualifications: anybody can get one. If and when I do, I will gladly provide my number.

The reference to reprinted puzzles is not meant to discourage those members who have offered such puzzles for general solution. They are clearly within the range of acceptability for Noesis; my own contributions were largely based on just such puzzles. Had any of you submitted further puzzles to me while I was editing, they would have been included in the journal...as was every piece of printable mall I received.

Nor do I mean to suggest that Ray Wise might not make a per­fectly good editor, were he to accept Mr. Hoeflin's invitation.

I lack the data that would allow me to speak for George Dicks, who was even more strongly impugned than I. But he should be given an opportunity to explain himself. whether or not he wishes to use it. In my capacity as a member, I invite his remarks.

I regret the length of this explanation. It was not I whose misleading comments necessitated it. Because Mr. Hoeflin gave no indication of his real motives, it was necessary to "exhaust all possibilities"...something he is not averse to requiring of those who take his tests.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you. C.M. Langan



The Mega Society


Copyright © 1990 by the Mega Society. All rights reserved. Copyright for each individual contribution is retained by the author unless otherwise indicated.