Saturday, October 22, 2011

Let the Mystery Be? On Leo, Alan Turing, and The Mind-Matter Thing

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life will remain completely unanswered.”
Just a quick, personal note (which I’d meant to post before) about this whole business with Leonardo DiCaprio supposedly playing Alan Turing in a forthcoming biopic called The Imitation Game. Could be an interesting project. Or it could not. (How’s that for wishy-washy?) The potential involvement of Ron Howard suggests that he may be desperate for more Oscar glory a la A Beautiful Mind; or maybe he’s just doing penance for the insane liberties A Beautiful Mind took with its depiction of John Nash’s personal life – because no way in hell are these guys gonna be able to whitewash Turing’s.

Over the years, Turing – the brilliant philosopher, breaker of the WWII Enigma codes, artificial intelligence pioneer, uncloseted homosexual and all around fascinating human being -- has become something of a mini-obsession of mine. It started when I somewhat foolishly took an artificial intelligence class in college, back when I thought I might be able to understand such things; the section on him was probably the only point at which I paid any attention.

My obsession though is with his personal story and his character; as a complete dolt when it comes to math and science, I do not presume to grasp even a tiny minute fraction of Turing's thinking. I do have a collection of his writings that I’ve made several foolhardy attempts to get through. Let’s just say that Turing was never really writing for the average reader. In fact, let’s say that Turing probably wouldn’t know what an average reader was.

Turing was famously literal-minded, and this literal-mindedness was both the source of his power as a thinker and scientist and the cause of his personal torment. As a philosopher, he made monumental strides in addressing the centuries-old issue of the Entscheidungsproblem, called by some “the main problem of mathematical logic”: A mechanical and methodical process for testing the validity of any assertion. On the other hand, Turing reportedly never could understand why his mostly open homosexuality was a problem for others; unfortunately, in mid-20th-century Britain, it absolutely was, and he suffered monstrous psychic and physical torture because of it. Seriously, what they did to him (“chemical castration,” jesus) sounds like something either out of a Medieval nightmare or a futuristic dystopia; alas, it belonged to our time.

Furthermore, I think any film about Turing would have to get a particular kind of longing right: Not just the longing for a solution to the problems of mathematics and the question of mind vs. matter, but also a longing for a clarity and openness about life and relationships that never came. Life was complicated, and unlike many of the rest of us Turing was never quite able to reconcile himself to it.

There is already a touching little Turing biopic called Breaking the Code, starring the great Derek Jacobi, that aired in England in 1996, based on Hugh Whitemore's 1987 play (also starring Jacobi, who unfortunately looks rather old to be playing Turing in the TV film). Here’s a key scene from it, which also contains my opening quotation, attributed to Wittgenstein:

In the end Turing’s lifelong project may well have been what his biographer Andrew Hodges has called “our common natural mystery of birth: the mystery of how matter comes to support human mind.” In fact, maybe the best way to try and explain Turing a little bit is to excerpt the powerful 1998 oration given by Hodges at the dedication of a plaque at his birthplace:

There were wounds throughout Alan Turing's life; and many veils which can only be partially lifted. Beneath the irreverent wit of his famous paper of 1950 on the future of artificial intelligence, there is a serious anxiety over the relationship of thought and action, the individual and society. This reflects his own experience of life, and in particular his exclusion from the Manchester engineering culture, which respected only the outward and visible, valued the hard machine and not the soft…. 
[A]fter fifty years Turing is still the Trotsky of the computer revolution…Silenced by secrecy, Turing could never speak of having led British intelligence from defeatism to industrial-scale supremacy. In 1939, in Turing's words, no-one else was doing anything about the naval Enigma signals and so he could have the problem to himself. Alone, in naive unrealism, he broke the unbreakable; then, intransigent, saw it through into Allied mastery of the Atlantic by 1944. But he could not draw on this investment to execute his peacetime plan, the computer of the future.  
[W]ar took Turing away from his profoundest explorations, thinking the uncomputable. The decision that Turing took in 1938 lies behind another veil. I doubt whether Sigmund Freud, by coincidence exiled here in Turing's birthplace in that year of refugees, could have analysed how Turing chose to bite Snow White's apple, and forgo the paradise of pure mathematics. That decision is too deeply embedded in the complex bonds between the unique individuality of genius, and our common planetary home. In the perspective of centuries...Turing's decision may seem a sacrifice of the truly long-term: losing the marathon of mathematics, for a sprint to save a self-destructive world.

Um. So there. Don’t fuck this up, Leo.

BTW, Hodges's site devoted to Turing is pretty excellent. And his exhaustive biography of Turing, subtitled "The Enigma of Intelligence," is terrific, too. It’s also a bit of a beast. For a shorter, equally lovely, bio, you can try David Leavitt’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

And if you want to watch all of Breaking the Code, it’s available on YouTube:


  1. DiCaprio as Turing is a really bad idea. Only in SHUTTER ISLAND have I found him believable as an adult who's lived more than thirty years. There's something terminally callow about him. I hope J. EDGAR will prove me wrong, but his work there, as edited in the trailer, doesn't impress me much.

  2. Except that Turing was reportedly very boyish himself, and was said to have had a childlike demeanor. I think he was only in his early 40s when he died, too. DiCaprio might not be the worst choice to play him. But something tells me this project, at least w/ Leo, isn't really going to happen.

  3. Came across this the other day; can't imagine it'll be hitting the big screens but looks interesting