Advance Praise for What is Thought?

"This book is the deepest, and at the same time the most commonsensical, approach to the problem of mind and thought that I have read. The approach is from the point of view of computer science, yet Baum has no illusions about the progress which has been made within that field. He presents the many technical advances which have been made -- the book will be enormously useful for this aspect alone -- but refuses to play down their glaring inadequacies. He also presents a road map for getting further and makes the case that many of the apparently 'deep' philosophical problems such as free will may simply evaporate when one gets closer to real understanding."
--Philip W. Anderson, Joseph Henry Professor of Physics, Princeton University, 1977 Nobel Laureate in Physics

"Eric Baum's book is a remarkable achievement. He presents a novel thesis -- that the mind is a program whose components are semantically meaningful modules -- and explores it with a rich array of evidence drawn from a variety of fields. Baum's argument depends on much of the intellectual core of computer science, and as a result the book can also serve as a short course in computer science for non-specialists. To top it off, What is Thought? is beautifully written and will be at least as clear and accessible to the intelligent lay public as Scientific American."
--David Waltz, Director, Center for Computational Learning Systems, Columbia University

"What's great about this book is the detailed way in which Baum shows the explanatory power of a few ideas, such as compression of information, the mind and DNA as computer programs, and various concepts in computer science and learning theory such as simplicity, recursion, and position evaluation. What is Thought? is a terrific book, and I hope it gets the wide readership it deserves."
--Gilbert Harman, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University

"There is no problem more important, or more daunting, than discovering the structure and processes behind human thought. *What is Thought?* is an important step towards finding the answer. A concise summary of the progress and pitfalls to date gives the reader the context necessary to appreciate Baum's important insights into the nature of cognition."
--Nathan Myhrvold, Managing Director, Intellectual Ventures, and former Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft

Reviews of What is Thought?

Igor Aleksander wrote a page + review in the June 17 issue of Nature:
``For Eric Baum, a US expert in machine learning [thought] is a computer program. This is not a superficial assertion: Baum pursues the idea with elegance, clarity, and considerable pursuasion...
It is important not to treat the idea that thought is a program in too superficial a fashion... Baum intends a level of sophistication that is far above this. The program to which he refers is one that extracts meaning from complex data. Thought for him is the process that `understands' the complexities of the world. So a thought program is one that detects sensory information as a compact code...
Baum's central point is that it is quite possible for programs to evolve, adapt and learn, making them more powerful than anything that a programmer can concoct...
Artificial Intelligence, in the past, was the product of programmers writing smart programs that do clever things, such as beating Gary Kasparov at chess. Baum goes beyond this by presenting clear explanations of what it is to extract the compactly coded information in the world using the simplest possible program; what it is for such a program to come into being through a process of evolution and adaptation; and what it is for the program to learn both over several generations and during daily life. Baum calls this `Occams razor' programming, stressing that the simplest program model is likely to have the best powers of explanaion.
... Baum gives a reasoned response to John Searle's claim that no program can `understand' the world, and to Roger Penrose's contention that conscious insight lies beyond the logic that can be achieved by computation.
...this is a splendid book for discovering what is new. It will enthrall some computer scientists and provoke some philosophers. And it should engage general readers who wish to enjoy a clear, understandable description of many advanced principles of computer science."

Gary Marcus wrote a full page review in the June 4 issue of Science:
"Much as Schrodinger aimed to ground the understanding of life in well understood principles of physics, Baum aims to ground the understanding of thought in well-understood principles of computation... In a book that is admirable as much for its candor as its ambition, Baum lays out much of what is special about mind by taking readers on a guided tour of the successes and failures in the two fields closest to his own research: artificial intelligence and neural networks...The book covers an enormous range, expanding from computer science into fields as diverse as economics and animal behavior, all in language that could be understood by an advanced undergraduate... a look from the outside is healthy for any field and Baum clearly shares with Schrodinger an abiding concern for the big picture. If What is Thought? can inspire a generation of computer scientists to inquire anew about the nature of thought, it will be a valuable contribution indeed."

Edward Witten posted a review on Amazon! Witten, a Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a Fields medal winner, was recently named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet, which is unusual for a theoretical physicist :) He wrote, in part:
" With this starting point, Baum proposes answers to many old riddles. Our sense of ``self'' reflects our origin in an evolutionary struggle for survival toward which all components of our biology are directed. ``Free will'' is a useful approximation because of the great complexity of our brains (and our limited knowledge about them) and the concommitant difficulty of predicting a person's behavior. Baum illustrates his arguments with numerous examples drawn from biology, psychology, and computer science; the material is generally quite interesting, though at times perhaps too detailed for a casual reader. His arguments are surprisingly persuasive, and, while certainly no expert, I suspect that Baum is closer to the mark than most of the old and new classic writers on these problems."

Go to Amazon for Witten' s full review.

Peter Woit posted a review on his blog, saying in part: "One thing that most impressed me about the book is the underlying theme that he refers to as his version of Occam's razor and summarizes as follows: mind is a complex but still compact program that captures and exploits the underlying compact structure of the world. To understand something about the world is to capture its features in a compact subroutine that allows one to effectively interact with it. This is clearly related to what theoretical physicists mean when they discuss the "beauty" or "elegance" of the fundamental equations and concepts that they are exploiting. So, if you have an interest in cognitive science, and enough interest in physics to be reading this weblog, I recommend heartily that you find yourself a copy of Eric's book."
Go to blog review.

Apostolos Georgopoulos, reviewing in The Quarterly Review of Biology (March 2005), wrote
"This is a very original, provocative book. It is a tour de force on all that is relevant to the title of the volume, from computer science and artificial intelligence to evolution and molecular biology, and a bit of philosophy to. A clear, bold, and refreshing thesis is propounded, namely that the mind is a program that has been molded during evolution into a very compact and efficient representation of knowledge needed for survival...
fireworks come with the discussion of free will. This chapter... is a masterpiece of clarity, pragmatism (in the tradition of James and Pierce), and common sense... What is Thought? has shown the good way."

Klaus Galensa, reviewing for ACM reviews wrote:
``The book makes many interesting points, and is worth reading as an account of how computationalists model our thought processes. This is a book that provokes the very thing that it studies: thought."
Go to ACM review.

David Voron, reviewing for e-Skeptic, wrote:
What is really going on in our brains when we think? Is the process of thought just the electrochemical activity of a mass of inter-connected preprogrammed neurons? As Peggy Lee asked, ?Is that all there is?? Eric Baum?s answer in his book, What is Thought? is ?Yes, Peggy, that is all there is!? We humans are just robotic ?meaning in life? overachievers.
What we find meaningful is determined by the mechanistic interaction of the physical world with our physical brains, evolved and optimized over billions of generations of organisms. Our understanding of the structure of the world, which to us seems so self-evident, is encoded in our DNA. That sounds like a far stretch, even for pure materialists, but Baum, a computer scientist with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton, is convincing.

Go to e-Skeptic review.

Eric Baum
Last modified: Wed Nov 2 08:25:47 EST 2005