The Northern Spy — Understanding?

The Northern Spy

Technology News and Views Since 1983
February 2021

Why is understanding so difficult?

The Spy’s opening lectures to both his first year calculus classes, and his third year computing students taking programming language concepts start with much the same words. “To date you have been shown recipes for ways to manipulate your algebras (that’s what a programming notation is) in order to solve a few canonical problems. But now, you are done with rote learning. This course focuses on what may be a radical new concept to you–understanding.”

The issue is that knowing a few behavioural patterns takes a student only to a trivial and lowest level toward mastery. The applications of calculus to its problem domain, and of programming to its many domains are so numerous and varied that unless the principles are thoroughly mastered, the apprentice will get so lost in detail as to be unable to function as a professional.  

The same is of course true of the process of mastering any discipline, whether it be machinist, finish carpenter, accountant, lawyer, programmer, jockey, psychologist, nurse, quarterback, business manager, pastor, physician, professor, officer, or head of state. One goes through a perhaps tortuous process of learning many details initially, but must eventually move on to absorbing the principles behind those details, or to put it in other terms, must engage a process of abstraction toward a wholistic top-down view of problem solving in . The Spy likens it to learning to ride a bicycle. You don’t “get it” until you can do it without thinking about the grotty details, for as long as it is merely minutia, one will continue to fall over.

Professionalism must reach far beyond how to use a screwdriver, balance a ledger, preach a few sermons, do library research, make a diagnosis, take and give orders, or write a few thousand lines of working code. One must know how and why to pick the right tools to solve problems, particularly those problems and tools that are on the face of them fundamentally different from anything seen before–must even know via the discipline’s history and past choices why the available tools were designed as they were, then be capable of synthesizing all this into new approaches to new situations. In computing science this quickly becomes the normal professional routine in a fast-changing environment.

In all these situations, one must also be able to work as part of a team, perhaps manage that team, keep records of decisions, satisfy inspectors, managers, customers, regulatory authorities, deploy resources, and operate within the confines of the appropriate legal and professional structures.

It may take years, even decades to reach the pinnacle of a profession. Trades require education and apprenticeship of three to seven years, as do some professions like accounting. Law demands additional time, medicine more still, and the road even from grad school to a full professorship, from school board member to Prime Minister, from Bible School grad to Senior Pastor, mail clerk to CEO, third lieutenant to General of the Armies, might stretch out a quarter century or more, and the goal be reached only by a minuscule percentage of beginning credential holders. Any form of leadership also has its own apprenticeship. One must engage in substantial training under others’ orders before ever being trusted to give them. The would-be elite practitioner of any profession must understand before doing.

Human understanding is fundamentally different from AI or as it is today more optimistically termed “machine learning”. The latter are both entirely rule based and deterministic. The number of rules upon which to synthesize diagnoses, legal, economic, political, or medical strategies, the best plays in a given game situation, or any other data-driven expert analysis and decision advisory system, may be very large, but the system remains a finite state machine, unable therefore to compute uncountably infinitely many functions, and with equal incompetence for problem solving in fast changing or original environments. 

The Spy is firmly in the camp of Nobel-winning physicist Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind) and contra Marvin Minsky”s slogan (“The mind is a machine made of meat.“) in respect of being convinced that the hard AI goal of duplicating the functionality of human thinking via a machine is indeed impossible. Understanding and intentionality are uniquely human. Sometimes it becomes necessary to think outside the box, even to disobey orders in extremis In such cases, being confined to pure (mere) machine-like reasoning based on a set of rules could be catastrophic.

So, why is it

that so many people so quickly throw sound reasoning to the winds, can so easily be led to believe nine impossible things before breakfast? The Spy cites a few cases in point. 

First, conspiracy delusions. (The word “theories” here loans the slightest, faintest odour of credibility that is entirely lacking in such wild fantasies.) Isn’t the very idea of people knowing all about a secret conspiracy or secret agenda an oxymoron? Wouldn’t it be equally logical to believe that someone is secretly conspiring to make people believe nonsense to the end of their own secret agenda, whatever that might be imagined to be? 

The truth is not that some “they” in government is out to get us. It’s far more likely that “they” are P.T. Barnum-esque and couldn’t care less whether hoi polloi are even on their radar except when it comes time to compute what promises are likely to gain the most votes from the suckers. Politicians of all parties are capable of doing a 180 on key issues like abortion, conscience, religious rights, immigration, international relations, energy, deficits, and the source and meaning of law and government itself if it suits them.

The Spy wonders whether the more ludicrous and ridiculous a conspiracy theory is, the more people would believe it. Try this: “There is a race of aliens from another galaxy living in a secret  installation under the Antarctic ice that is sending out zeta waves to scramble human minds and get us to believe conspiracy theories so they can take over the world and enslave us all.” The Spy made that one up on the spot, but you can bet that it it were promulgated on certain social media platforms, people would believe it anyway.

Second, counter-factual delusions. A prime example is the last U.S. election. Despite a vote margin of around seven million, many people actually believe it really went the other way and the counting was somehow fraudulent. Moreover, they persist in this conviction despite that in no case brought to any of many courts of law any shred of evidence could be presented that could factualize their fantasies, thus causing all the judges threw out the suits. There’ll be a dilly of a damage award to Dominion, the Canadian maker of the voting machines for the calumnies against it, falsely claiming they were programmed to rig the election. 

And, are not the outcomes of counterfactual ideas obvious? The Spy casually remarked to his wife after hearing the POTUS invite his followers to the Capitol, “by the way there’s going to be a riot in Washington day after tomorrow.” He assumed it would also be obvious to the DC police, government security, and national guard. Apparently not. Why not? After all, when the man you believe passionately against all evidence can do no wrong tells you to do something, you do it, do you not? It was obvious enough to the rioters.

Third, anti-science delusions. When, for example, by the proper gathering and analysis of data by repeatable experiments establishes that though there may be a coincidental chronological association in some people’s minds between vaccines and autism, there is absolutely no causal one, why do so many people choose to believe otherwise and put themselves in danger from preventable diseases? Likewise, when the world is in the grip of a pandemic the like of which has not been seen in a century, why do a significant number of people believe it is all a hoax, no more than a case of the flu, or a ploy by a secret cabal in league with governments to control the population? (See the section on conspiracy delusions.)

People of the Spy’s generation and before knew the daily fear of death from smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, mumps, scarlet fever, yellow fever, polio and other diseases, and that of disfigurement from measles (especially for the yet-to-be born child). Vaccines save lives by the millions. COVID-19 may possibly be more or less transmissible then a host of flu viruses, but it is far more deadly (estimates vary from 40 to over a hundred times as much), and those jurisdictions that have taken it lightly have suffered greatly for an almost criminal lack of understanding and integrity by leadership. The U.S. death rate could hit 100K a month before this is over.

And yes, the probability of death from the disease is low, especially for those under sixty, but the dead were living, breathing human beings, the grandparents, parents, and children of their families. To write them off as a mere low statistic shows a callous, one may say inhuman lack of compassion and understanding. It begs the question not of whether a machine can gain human understanding but of whether humans are becoming more machine-like by discarding theirs.

For instance, when church leadership defies health authority limits on gatherings over the inconvenience of not being allowed to gather personally in numbers (a mere inconvenience when gathering virtually is easily feasible) they endanger health and lives recklessly on the supposed principle of separation of state and church and the supposed “motive” of politicians seeking control over religious expression.

But suppose someone attends one of these gatherings, gets COVID and dies. Relatives sue for criminal negligence and wrongful death. No judge is going to accept the defence that the health authority lacked jurisdiction because it was a church. The potential damages against the church and its irresponsible leadership are both unlimited and deserved.

OTOH, when a government through its agencies allow bars and restaurants to stay open but not churches, the inconsistency and unreasonableness of their making and enforcing rules becomes so irresponsible that it almost invites defiance. OTTH, it is going much too far to claim unreasonable religious discrimination when it is more likely mere ignorance of religion combined with the normal amount of leadership incompetence.

Fourth, consider national and race delusions, which are not the same thing but are related. Yes, all nations and all so-called races (an artificial and misleading word if there ever was one) are created equal. To be sure, some nations and some political systems have better/worse track records than others, but the idea that one nation is somehow exceptionally favoured, or has some divinely sanctioned and manifest destiny is pure tribalistic fantasy. So is the inverse. And, to claim that skin colour or eye or hair colour somehow makes one people group more human than others lacks all scientific or Biblical authority (though both are cited). It is a remnant of older animus that was given new impetus by Darwinistic notions that some peoples were more highly evolved and therefore “better” than others.

Fifth, political delusions. The more passionate people are about loyalty to their political tribe, the more ready they are to castigate those of differing beliefs and to excuse bad behaviour by their own compatriots. In any deeply divided country, expect both factions to continue excusing extremist riots by people “on their side” and to condemn those by people at extremes on the other side. And, expect the established American precedent of “rule by presidential decree” to continue under the new political regimen. The Spy suspects that behind the façade of all too many seekers of office is the soul of an autocrat. Disclaimer: he can be a political cynic. 

Sixth, religious delusions. Perhaps the most alarming of all images associated with the Washington insurrection were the religious ones. Christ never endorsed a particular kind of  human government or political party, and never advocated the overthrow of even the ruthless dictatorship of Rome. In general, he ignored such issues. For so large a number of his professed followers to hitch their temporal wagon to a political cause as to amount almost to a transfer of worship is far beyond understanding. For them to be so easily and so cynically manipulated is worse still. For them to join a violent insurrection is incomprehensible. He told his followers to make disciples of him, not to enslave themselves to worldly systems. He said “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” There is no eternal salvation in a political party, whether one agrees with all, some, or none of its principles (even at the same time). Such people should have been about a different business for a different Master. In this context, see again the comment above about who is not out to get… Apart from election time manipulation, few politicians in the western world have much incentive to think about religious people and their ideas from one month’s end to another. 

So, what is the bottom line?

The dystopia we need to fear is not that the robots learn how to reason and make decisions to the point where they intentionally take over from humans (not going to happen). It is rather that humans will increasingly abdicate rationality and abandon understanding to throw in their lot with unreason, delusion, denial of truth (because they don’t like it or are mislead), and more often engage in violence on behalf of causes whose goals (if any) they cannot and will not know how to understand. The dystopia at the end of that line is a world of failed states where the only order is one enforced by ruthless dictatorships. There is plenty of evidence out there among current countries that this is not only well under way, but that politicians at both extremes of the spectrum admire that way of doing things and would like unlimited power for themselves. Who needs elections anyway if they are all supposedly “rigged” by anonymous shadowy conspirators whose very existence cannot be demonstrated?

Understand then that human intentional understanding is not only misunderstood, but is increasingly becoming devalued, and further, that it cannot be sloughed off on machines. 

Additional word on the cancer saga

Surgery has been ruled out for Joyce, seemingly permanently. The oncologist has, after five treatments, determined that the canonical carboplatin with paclitaxel treatment has done all it can, given the severe side effects. Treatment number six was with carboplatin only, in hopes of dampening down and eventually reversing the consequent severe neuropathy and edema generated by the paclitaxel. After a five week interval, treatment will resume with a single one where carboplatin is combined with an immunotherapy protein bevacizumab (Avastin®). The latter isa monoclonal antibody that attacks by inhibiting tumour blood vessel growth but does not much affect normal tissue except to impede healing. (BTW, these kinds of treatments are more the wave of the future than classical chemotherapy, though they are very expensive.) Following that will be a year of triweekly protein treatments alone. There might be other options beyond that, but the goal is delay rather than cure, and with fewer side effects. We are, however in other hands than the doctors’ and their technology.

See you all again next month–DV.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fiftieth year as a high school and university teacher in 2020. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

The Northern Spy Home Page:

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Sheaves Christian Resources :

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General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

Author Site:

Publisher’s Site:

The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ):

Other URLs of relevant interest: 

BC Government COVID site:


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About the Author

Rick Sutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.