In this week’s spotlight I would like to take up the idea of ambiguity. If you give any serious thought to this, you must wonder how it is that our minds are equipped to recognize an ambiguity let alone decipher it.
Think of artificial intelligence (AI) for a moment. Machine learning (ML) experts recognize that the world we live in is messy, full of uncertainty and ambiguity. Brian Ziebart, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has suggested one working solution for this. His solution, “. . . feeding systems messier data in the lab can train them to better recognize and address uncertainty.”1
Life is Messy
I don’t know if AI systems will ever be able to truly recognize ambiguity in the many forms that we encounter in our real world, but I’m certain that it will never be able to ascertain the ambiguous beauty in Emily Dickinson’s The Brain is Wider Than the Sky.
Dickinson’s poem goes like this:
The Brain—is wider than the sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
Is Dickinson saying the brain/mind is part of one mind/brain, a form of process theology? Is she saying the brain, a hunk of matter, is the origin of our thought and being—a form of agnosticism based on emergent properties of the brain? Is she offering up a view of Darwinian reductionism—physiological processes, neuro-chemical interactions—the soul only an illusion?
Some of the beauty in art is how it transcends the limitations of literality. Poetry is one such expression of art. I suggest that it is the ambiguity in nature and art that feeds the imagination leading to uncertainty in life. Further, it is this very uncertainty that makes us human—capable of recognizing ambiguity and thereby enabling our self-reflection.
Webster defines ambiguity this way, “the quality or state of being ambiguous especially in meaning.” It is our certainty of our own ambiguous nature that leads to genuine self-reflection. The meaning of life, the purpose for each of us, our own unique expression, etc. and so forth—that is the true ambiguity we all seek to make clear.
My thoughts anyway, what are yours?
1. Davey, T. 2018. “How AI Handles Uncertainty: An Interview With Brian Ziebart.” Future of Life Institute. March 15, 2018.