An Engineering Problem

Carl H. Flygt

December 2004


My theory of conversation requires development in two directions. One direction is focused on what must go on within conversational groups. It is an a priori analysis of the conditions on conversation, and will amount, when all is said and done, to a mathematical and artistic framework for eliciting the individual human potential. The other direction is focused on the effects such a theory would have, were it generally deemed to be true and practicable, for the greater social organization. It is an attempt to predict, and to some extent to engineer the social order that must arise should conversations of the sort I describe become part of a general social background.


Imagine a social situation in which two individuals are obligated to initiate and sustain a conversation, but neither is sure what to say to the other. Suppose for example there is a little bad blood between them, that they have decided they don’t really like each other very much and on the whole would prefer to avoid one another’s company. At the same time, imagine that they don’t want to spoil things for a third party who is present with them, and for whom no such issues are in play.


Now suppose that each of these individuals, call them A and B, has in his (her) possession a remarkable piece of modern technology. It is a sort of palm pilot with an infrared transmitter and scanner. This palm pilot has access to a lexicon of atomic propositions from which each person has selected a profile that suits his (her) philosophical endorsements and preferences, and that represents judgments he (she) would be willing and able to assert in conversation. Instead of invoking banal comments or inquiries about the weather, family or work, and sitting through the forced march that such commitments would require of them, they point their palm pilots at one another and read out a statement or a conditional assertion that the devices concur have a reasonable probability of succeeding as a theme for a brief conversation. Suppose moreover that both of them know how basically to conduct themselves in conversation (i.e. suppose they both know and accept my basic theory). What happens?


I say something good happens. I say the formalities normally used by the upper classes to expedite social conduct and confirm political legitimacy are brought to down to the level of the people (to the demos) for their own purposes. Because access to status, to capital and to political power are for them rather limited, the absence of the formal necessities that accompany these things and that elevate the experience of those who employ them well tends to leave the demos in a flat, undistinguished and highly materialistic mode of consciousness. But with access to real conversational intelligence, the heretofore silent and subjective aspirations of a people who want nothing more out of life than spiritual harmony and self-realization, and none of the distortions of material excess, will begin directly to affect an unbalanced and often disharmonious world. This causal power will be the result of formal causes applied to the energy and substance of human consciousness itself.


The situation is analogous to the emergence of  science and civilization from Neolithic Chinese culture, but in reverse. Whereas in the latter case political power and legitimacy sprang from clairvoyant practices and totemic rituals carried out by a political elite and mediated by the crucial factor of writing, in today’s New Age such formal causes will lead to widespread clairvoyance and ritual meaning not among an elite but among everybody. Conversation, as I have defined it from some very minimal and unpretentious assumptions, will probably spring full blown into existence as a new form of literacy, just as writing did in China and elsewhere, some 4000 years ago. The reason for this is that both conversation, in its true form, and writing in its original intent, are spiritual quantities with spiritual value. Well-formed and self-directed spiritual experience is the great motive of today’s New Age.


Now, notwithstanding the truth or falsity of the preceding claims, it is an interesting problem to think about how the technology described above could be engineered. Start with a list of terms, perhaps all the nouns listed in Mirriam-Webster and all the proper names in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Eliminate by some special algorithm all terms which appear to be of marginal interest, for example the sequence in Mirriam-Webster …moola, moon blindness, moon fish…. Similarly with a list of predicates, taking verbs, adverbs and adjectives from Webster. Now combine the two lists by applying a series of templates, for example Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s The City of God and Rousseau’s The Social Contract. What is produced is a list of atomic propositions certified by the best minds in the Western Tradition. Call this the atomic list (AL).


Now present the list of propositions that have survived the filter to our prospective conversationist. Let him (her) converse, as it were, with an artificial intelligence to arrive at a set of propositions that suits him (her) personally. Let him (her) add propositions of his (her) own about matters unknown to the Tradition, for example “Fiji is pleasant year-round,” or “Breckenridge has better skiing than Vail.” Let him (her) write essays and submit them as an additional filter. Let his (her) internet activity serve as a filter. Let this machine conversation be ongoing, and call its outcome the individual list (IL).


Now, figure out a way to have the conjunction of two ILs produce the two most probable conditional judgments, one tailored to A and the other tailored to B. For example, based on what A believes and favors currently, and when confronted with what B believes and favors, A’s palm pilot might say “If your parents had been professionals at raising children, you would have grown up in Fiji.” Going the other way, B might be prompted with “If you had been in Vail last week, you would have been metaphorically in chains.” By hypothesis, both A and B recognize all the references and implicatures generated by either palm pilot. Leave it to the individuals to decide whose pilot first to read out loud.


This sort of thing strikes me as doable. It is not an attempt to engineer a Ramsey test for possible conditional judgments, which appears a mathematically daunting undertaking. Nor is it an effort to model possible worlds corresponding to the subjectivity of individuals A and B, which seems even more impracticable. Rather it is like a relational database or an internet search engine which applies filters (queries) to a mass of pre-existing data to produce psychological results that can be implemented socially by self-conscious intelligences. That implementation in turn would hinge on the general acceptability of my theory of conversation or something like it. But given the institution and development of these two basic parameters, it strikes me as a possibly interesting place for a technology player like Google to invest some capital. Shall we draft an outline and send it to Larry and Sergey?