How Gödel Saved Mark Changizi from Physics

Evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi is obsessed with asking the question, "why?" — and as a scientist, it's served him well. His questioning of virtually everything has led him to investigate why it is that we think, feel, and see the way we do — a set of inquiries that has led to important discoveries on why we see in color, why letters are shaped as they are, and why the brain is organized as it is.

Mark, who is a professor of human cognition at a new research institute called 2AI, and the author of Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, is confident that he's found his true calling — but that wasn't always the case. Normally, scientists like to talk about how their heroes inspired them to enter into a particular field of study — but for Mark, it was a scientist who steered him away from an area that had caught his interest. This discovery would set him on an entirely new course for his career, and he was kind enough to share his story.

How Gödel Saved Mark Changizi from Physics

I was a physics kid. In large part it was Carl Sagan's influence – through his Cosmos series, he conveyed so well that many of the life-the-universe-and-everything questions lie within physics. And for the deep questions outside of physics that attracted me even more strongly — like those about how groups of atoms can come alive and lead to the biological and cultural world we know — physics was as grammar is for writers: a vital tool, whether one enjoys it or not.

But as critical as physics was to becoming the scientist I needed to be to make the cracks in biology I hoped to make…

…physics almost ruined me.

And it was Gödel who saved me.

Physics is filled with some of the deepest questions. And physics is a prerequisite for a theorist, as I would eventually become. But it is not equipped to grapple with where most of my romance laid – life, brains, consciousness, etc. And in those days I didn't realize physics' inadequacy.

What could physics possibly lack? I don't mean here to refer to the reductionism young physics heads sometimes suffer through. Physics these days has intelligent things to say at all hierarchical levels, including complex self-organized systems. Organisms are complex self-organized systems, and so physics does have things to say about life.

The problem with physics is that life is so much more than complex self-organized systems.

The organisms we see with us today may be self-organized complex physical systems, but they're the vanishingly small fraction of self-organized complex systems that made it through the cold, cruel filter of natural selection.

These self-organized complex systems — organisms, life — do stuff. They're packed with teleology, parts that stab, fly, cluck, see, jump, and reproduce. Like the implements on sale at a toolshop, they can't be understood without knowing what they're for.

When physics tries to tackle a brain or liver, it treats it as a galaxy or star or food web. But these successful targets of physics have no function — they aren't designed to do anything. They aren't engineered. They aren't selected for. Organisms, however, are. And so are many of our cultural artifacts, like writing, language and music, which I have argued in my book, Harnessed, are designed by cultural selection – again, physics is not enough.

Physicists have a knack for treating living, function-filled animals as complicated, dynamic – but dead and functionless – goop.

As I said, I didn't appreciate back then that physics wasn't enough for what I eventually wanted to do. I hadn't actually started cracking open any problems in biology, brain, etc. What did I know?

I didn't realize it, but what I actually needed, in addition to physics, was some engineering, but in those days I was much too romantic about science to study anything one might mistake as being useful for everyday life. Nah, I wasn't about to take an engineering course, even though the principles within engineering aren't "merely" useful in real life, but potentially priceless for understanding the natural world of engineered organisms.

Lucky for me I found Gödel.

Some of the most awe-inspiring discoveries in the 20th century are about the limits of thought, and about rigorous ways to think about thinking. Gödel was central to these results, and, like physics, I was motivated to learn about these results both because of the romance and because comprehending all we know about the "mathematics of thinking" was surely crucial for understanding how thinking can occur in biology, whether in brains or more generally in the computations found in biology.

But, unbeknownst to me, through my inculcation into the world of Gödel I was also accidentally becoming steeped with the sort of design and teleology found in engineering. When one enters into mathematical logic and the theory of computation, one enters into the world of computer science, and in that world function and purpose is central. We write code to do stuff. From hardware, software, operating systems, databases, algorithms, complexity theory, recursion theory and meta-logic, it's all about doing stuff, and about characterizing what it means to implement a function.

My background in physics and mathematics was essential to my growth as a scientist. But it was my foray into Gödel and the theory of computation that set me to build rigorous, testable hypotheses about the design found in biology, brains and even culture. Physics gave me the tools to study dead things – Gödel gave me the mindset to study the living.

What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted on io9 and Gizmodo that asks the luminaries of science and science fiction what inspired them to delve so deeply into the only kind of magic we have in the real world - science and technology. What was it that first opened their eyes? Find out more at What Was It?

Top image via fyms.de. Inset image via Mark Changizi.