Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Donuts and Data.

Each morning, around 8:45, I walk downstairs to Dunkin' Donuts and join one of the three donuts-and-coffee lines. I choose the same line everyday because the girl at the counter knows me and has my coffee ready at my turn. Normally, I give her $2. The cost is $1.50, she keeps the 50 cent tip.

This morning I had a 5 dollar bill in my pocket. She had the coffee ready, I handed her the five and waggled three fingers at her. My non-verbal communication meant: give me the $3 dollars and keep the change. For a split second she wondered if I meant three coffees, occasionally I do get more than one, but she quickly realized my intent, then smiled and gave me the three dollars. As I walked away I considered some of the calculations she made in that split second, to wit:
  • the meaning: three fingers = ?
  • the expression on my face meant ?
  • the denomination of the bill = $5.
  • my purchase history
  • the change is usually a tip.
  • the frequency in which I had ordered more than one coffee.
  • the other sounds and images in our proximity filtered out.
In addition, she had the pressure of needing to resolve the statement I was making in the finger waggling because of the long line behind me. All of this, and a decision, in about 1 second.

Bear with me, usually (but not always) I get around to a point. It is this:

I keenly dislike the prevailing metaphor of man in our era, i.e, "man as machine." And more particularly, the metaphor of brain and mind as hard-drive or RAM.

It is convenient but inadequate.

What about the source of life itself and the anomalies of the person? What of beauty, courage, selflessness, or of sloth and despair, or romance, where is romance without man "qua" man? What of the unseeable source that enlivens everything? That makes a dead seed "alive." It's not that science has no answers, it is that it has rejected the possibility of the existence of certain knowledge outside of the material. In my view, a mistake of grand proportion.

My three finger message to the girl at the Dunkin' Donuts counter was all that I needed to get the correct result. It was an everyday decision that the mind of a person makes in the midst of everything else that is going on, including all the involuntary actions of breathing, heart rate, etc., and it is fascinating to me.

But, that she said thank you with her smile; that is something only a person can do.


Jake Good said...

I'm a fan of neuroscience, I have to say...

You should check out the short read "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins

creator of Palm and inventor of the Palm Pilot...

At any rate, without giving too much of the book, he proposes that the brain stores things abstractly... and that your brain is a giant prediction engine...

I like the theory, lots of our daily interactions and things go down this route...

Also, along the same lines, interesting studies have been done with flies and have also shown that their brains are prediction engines as well...

But you know me, I'm quite a naturalist and can't fathom metaphysical explanations :)

Great post! Love the insight...

Francis Shivone said...

Love that kind of book, Jake.

And this is why I do not like the binary metaphors. There is little capability for abstraction there.

My view is that modern thinking about man needs a little old-fashioned Aristotelian metaphysics.

Thanks for the response. I'll look for the book.