Aug 30, 2006

John Cleese, Edwin Meese, and apophenia

Over a week ago, inspired by a bizarre search query, I crafted a fiendishly simple puzzle that one very smart guy with too much free time decided to solve. He eventually gave up in frustration, admitting defeat first in the comments, and later in an email, which I've reproduced below. (Yes, with permission.)
Here were the best "leads" I had so far:

--The endings are filler, of course. I then took the "people" side to be the independent variable in any potential "transform one into the other" solution, since the endings of names are much harder to fake than the endings of adjectives: You can append "ary" to many things, with a few grammatically necessary transformations, and get an adjective.

--The presence of an identical or almost-identical "filler" in each "name side" entry was therefore perhaps a selection effect done purposefully to throw us off. It may have been that the appropriate transform could turn "Abe Lincoln" into "dromedary" for all that I knew. This is quasi-confirmed by "Reese's," which does not fully fit the pattern.

--In the case of the adjectives side, the endings were appended to words or roots of words to fit the pattern after an initial transform yielded the root.

--If the pattern relied on word counts in a given dictionary or other source of words, then all was lost. Such codes are almost insoluble without NSA-style equipment. And even then they're hard.

--I assumed that "Edwin" and "John" are extraneous (which is a big assumption),

I'm therefore left with:

1. R = zythep-
2. Cl = arbitr-
3. ch = lachrym-
4. M = consuetid-

And there I'm stuck.

My only other "lead" was that John Cleese's name was, indeed, arbitrary, since the Wikipedia entry noted that his father changed the family name. From Cheese. (!)

Anyway, those were the theories that "held up." I'll spare you the ones that didn't.
What does this have to do with intelligent design, you ask?

It's all about trying to find a pattern that isn't real--when pathological, the condition is called apophenia--by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle--if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn't. In the vague, meaningless sense of "design," one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which "Edwin Meese" is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than "hmm, this word sounds nifty."

If Jason Kuznicki (the very smart fellow in question) had found a pattern, I would be congratulating him on his transcendent cleverness, while secretly never admitting the true nature of the design.

What is my point? ("You often have no point," my wife always cuts in.) In their delightful and accessible introduction to probability, Chances Are, Ellen Kaplan and son Michael write,
Recent experiments using positron emission tomography (PET) scans have revealed that, even when subjects have been told they are watching a completely random sequence of stimuli, the pattern-finding parts of their brains light up like the Las Vegas strip. We see faces in clouds, hear sermons in stones, find hidden meanings in ancient texts. A belief that things reveal meaning through pattern is the gift we brought with us out of Eden.

Our problem, however, is that some things can have shape without structure, the form of meaning without its content. A string of random letters split according to the appropriate word-lengths of English will immediately look like a code.
Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, "We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution." Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn't.

Update: Matthew Anderson writes,
The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the aggression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
"It's up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself" restates the problem, making me sound like a radical subjectivist. Instead, I would have written, "It is up to the reader to determine if the meaning is in the puzzle, or in the mind of the puzzled."

Helmut of phronesisaical connects my post to his thoughts on "accidental art."
Part of the point of both posts is that decisions made about what to look for or how to create are as much a function of accident as they are rational design. If you look at the photos and decide they are "art" (I know this is presumptuous, but bear with me), understand that you are the one doing it. I made a selection of photos to show you. But I can't call them art, which, even allowing for the artist's relationships with accident, involves intentionality on the part of the all-too-human artist.
Another update: Jason Kuznicki links to another puzzle that ostensibly has a solution--except no one's solved it. Yet.

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