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Society of Mind


Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. —Albert Einstein

This book tries to explain how minds work. How can intelligence emerge from nonintelligence? To answer that, we'll show that you can build a mind from many little parts, each mindless by itself.

I'll call Society of Mind this scheme in which each mind is made of many smaller processes. These we'll call agents. Each mental agent by itself can only do some simple thing that needs no mind or thought at all. Yet when we join these agents in societies — in certain very special ways — this leads to true intelligence.

There's nothing very technical in this book. It, too, is a society — of many small ideas. Each by itself is only common sense, yet when we join enough of them we can explain the strangest mysteries of mind. One trouble is that these ideas have lots of cross-connections. My explanations rarely go in neat, straight lines from start to end. I wish I could have lined them up so that you could climb straight to the top, by mental stair-steps, one by one. Instead they're tied in tangled webs.

Perhaps the fault is actually mine, for failing to find a tidy base of neatly ordered principles. But I'm inclined to lay the blame upon the nature of the mind: much of its power seems to stem from just the messy ways its agents cross-connect. If so, that complication can't be helped; it's only what we must expect from evolution's countless tricks.

What can we do when things are hard to describe? We start by sketching out the roughest shapes to serve as scaffolds for the rest; it doesn't matter very much if some of those forms turn out partially wrong. Next, draw details to give these skeletons more lifelike flesh. Last, in the final filling-in, discard whichever first ideas no longer fit.

That's what we do in real life, with puzzles that seem very hard. It's much the same for shattered pots as for the cogs of great machines. Until you've seen some of the rest, you can't make sense of any part.