New Review of A New Kind of Science

Wed Oct 26, 2005

Polymath Cosma Shalizi has an entertaining review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. I have a paper in various stages of revision on the rhetoric of Wolfram’s book, and Shalizi’s discussion of Wolfram and the taxonomy of crankishness is very apt there. In fact, I invoked his guano comparison in the version I read at a conference.

I have to register disagreement in a few places, however. I suspect that there have to be correlations between any useful version of “complexity” and what is visually interesting to the cortex of an East African plains ape. Wolfram is indeed vague on that point, and I appreciate quantitative measures of complexity as an abstract principle, but I’m not convinced that it is as arbitrary as Shalizi thinks it is. I’ve read Investigations and am intrigued to learn of the apparent existence of a cult devoted to it (shape spacers?), though I very much appreciate that Shalizi has also been annoyed by Lakoff’s definition of cognitive science (the worst display of which I’ve encountered is in Philosophy in the Flesh).

Of Grammatology’s inclusion in the list of crank works at the end is unfortunate, however. Putting aside the question of whether you think it is a major philosophical work or one filled with elementary misreadings (as Chomsky has said), it presents a trial for its readers. The other works listed there (and Wolfram’s) all seek to explain complex matters very simply.