Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

Life is Algorithms

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Excerpt from Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Hofstadter, Douglas R. (Book – 1997) page. 215-216

Two-ties joke

A Jewish mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. He puts on one at once, but when she sees him, she says, “So what’s the matter with the other one?”

The deep link is that the mother plays the role of the dimwit who recognizes neither the symmetry of the “competition” nor the silliness of drawing any conclusion from the identity of its “winner.” More precisely she doesn’t recognize that between the two ties, there will always be a winner and a loser—never a tie… although the son’s choice might reflect a strong preference on his part for one time, his mother cannot know if it does or doesn’t; after all, no matter whether he liked his new ties equally or liked one of them far better, he could wear but one of them.

Excerpt from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Dennett, Daniel Clement (Book – 1995) page 53-54.

We can begin zeroing in on the phylum of evolutionary algorithms by considering everyday algorithms that share important properties with them. Darwin draws our attention to repeated waves of competition and selection, so consider the standard algorithm for organizing an elimination tournament, such as a tennis tournament, which eventually culminates with quarter-finals, semi-finals, and then a final, determining the solitary winner.

Notice that this procedure meets the three conditions. It is the same procedure whether drawn in chalk on a blackboard, or updated in a computer file, or—a weird possibility—not written down anywhere, but simply enforced by building a huge fan of fenced-off tennis courts each with two entrance gates and a single exit gate leading the winner to the court where the next match is to be played. (The losers are shot and buried where they fall.) It doesn’t take a genius to march the contestants through the drill, filling in the blanks at the end of each match (or identifying and shooting the losers). And it always works.

But what, exactly, does this algorithm do? It takes input a set of competitors and guarantees to terminate by identifying a single winner. But what is a winner? It all depends on the competition. Suppose the tournament in question is not tennis but coin-tossing. One player tosses and the other calls; the winner advances. The winner of this tournament will be that single player who has won n consecutive coin-tosses without a loss, depending on how many rounds it takes to complete the tournament.

… Any elimination tournament produces a winner, who “automatically” has whatever property was required to advance through the rounds, but as the coin-tossing tournament demonstrates, the property in question may be “merely historical” – a trivial fact about the competitor’s past history that has no bearing at all on his or her future prospects….Chance has no memory. A person who holds the winning lottery ticket has certainly been lucky, and thanks to the millions she has just won, she may never need to be lucky again—which is just as well, since there is no reason to think she is more likely than anyone else to win the lottery a second time, or to win the next coin-toss she calls.


Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

One thought on “Life is Algorithms

  1. Pingback: The Meaning of Life is a Game | Katablog

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