Models of My Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Herbert Simon could have depicted his life as an upward curve, leading to his triumphs as an eminent social scientist who also became one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence. Simon’s own theories of discovery and epistemology, however, forced him to produce an autobiography which accounts for the many variables in the decisions that have governed his life. At the heart of this narrative is a conflict produced by Simon’s willingness to take his own science seriously and an ability to counter the tendency to portray life’s path as linear or logically designed.

Though Simon has not achieved the fame of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, or Albert Einstein, his notable contributions—artificial intelligence and the idea of bounded rationality—are metaphors which have created as much fear and controversy as natural selection, the unconscious, and relativity. Simon’s demonstrations that the processes of the human mind can be represented by machines have engaged the full critical energies of mathematicians, economists, psychologists, and philosophers. The analogy between mind and computer has sustained the consistent criticism of being both reductive and inhuman. We might expect the autobiography of such a thinker to be as dry as a generated program, just as B. F. Skinner’s account of his early development, Particulars of My Life (1976), suffers attenuation from its author’s adherence to his own behaviorism.

Simon, however, anticipates and responds vigorously to charges of inhumanism. He demonstrates that his own models and metaphors encompass complexity and that a range of preferences and contingencies figure in any decision, those of his own life included. Citing a Darwinian principle of conflict and competition, Simon portrays his own decision-making as a series of uncertain conflicts and rivalries which demanded difficult choices. As Darwin’s autobiography becomes most passionate when he rejects Christian escatology as a “damnable doctrine” and natural theology as ignorant of the variety of nature, so the pugilistic Simon is particularly powerful in describing his conflicts with the totalizing theories of classical economics and the moral certainties of conservative politics in the United States.

Often risking bravado, Simon takes a moral high ground in asserting that the idea of artificial intelligence is actually more humble and humane than exaltations of unlimited intuition and rationality. Simon includes one of his best testaments against his critics in a charming letter to his eldest daughter, Barbara. He argues that he finds no need to retain a special mystery for man nor to regard him above the rest of nature—assuming, of course, that the rest of nature engages in cognitive processes that can be simulated by a computer. But Simon’s primary objection to his critics is really a defense of his conception and definition of science, a vision particularly powerful for its merging of aesthetics and ethics:

For my money, to show that something whose behavior looks very complex and erratic is really built from the combinatories of very simple components is beautiful, not demanding. It would seem to me that every scientist would have to think so, for the whole purpose of science is to find meaningful simplicity in the midst of orderly complexity.

Simon attempts to justify this model of the scientist as problem-solver as a representation of human rationality. In his autobiography he pushes this concept to the limit, with an interesting result—it is the story of the problem-solver trying to test his own theories of decision-making and problem- solving on his own life. This sounds circular, like the snake swallowing its own tail, and Simon is particularly engaging when he confronts the irony.

While Simon’s goal has been to test his theories of decision-making on the way administrators and organizations actually behave, testing them on his own life provides a particular challenge. If nature in the former case is human society, at least the evidence is, to some extent, verifiable, a given, external to the investigator-scientist. But in the case of the autobiographer, the evidence is self-generated by the author. To what extent can his own decisions be viewed objectively? Throughout the work, Simon chooses his subject matter and evidence. He struggles to provide narrative unity and structure, acutely aware that such simplicity is both self-serving and dishonest. He originally titled a chapter-length version of his autobiography “A Theory of My Life.” Caught in the web of a postmodern epistemology he helped to create, Simon recognizes that several interacting models and metaphors will be needed as well as a variety of subsidiary explanations for some events, while others must remain open-ended problems.

The tension of the narrative takes the form of a mixture of temporal and spatial metaphors. The work is divided into four “panels,” corresponding to four phases of his life. Self- consciously Simon observes that this structure destroys the unity provided by the triptychs which have often depicted the Passion.


(The entire section is 2101 words.)