Rinse and Repeat

The “rinse and repeat” instruction line on shampoo bottles is a beautiful illustration of the tight interconnection of self-inclusion paradoxes, time, quotation marks, levels of abstraction, consciousness, and the evolution of the universe.

Very few people are found dead in showers, their heads rotted away by infinitely iterated applications of shampoo. But the instruction line on the bottle would if followed literally lead to this deplorable result. Idiots, we know, don’t know when to stop. Computers are brilliant idiots; every time one freezes, it is because it has run across the equivalent of the instruction line and gotten itself into an infinite feedback loop.

In fact it is difficult to see how the line could be amended to avoid the error. If one added “Stop” to the end of the line, the idiot (acting as a Turing Machine) might go on repeating forever and never get to the “Stop” instruction. Or if one added before the repeat command “stop after two repetitions”, the idiot might take the injunction to repeat as applying to the reading of the instructions as well as the lathering process, and on returning to the instructions would read, again, “Stop after two repetitions”, and reset its counter obediently to two. If it had a counter. And if it didn’t simply crash as a result of getting two contradictory commands.

A counter is one level up in abstraction; it implies an overview of the process, a summing-up rather than just the execution of the process. But even a simple counter won’t work in this case, as we have seen. Another level is required, to recognize and solve the self-inclusion paradox. The paradox is similar to Russell’s famous paradox of the village barber who shaves everybody in the village who doesn’t shave himself. Who shaves the barber? The issue is whether the command “repeat” applies to itself or not, and whether, if it does, its efficacy somehow ceases after the first iteration. Gödel’s even more intractable paradox, “This statement is unprovable”, contains the same implication, of a self-nested logic that goes on unendingly: “This statement: ‘This statement: “This statement: ‘….’ is unprovable” is unprovable’ is unprovable.”

The simplest components of the physical universe, quantum events, don’t seem to have a “repeat” command, which is what you need to have any kind of coherent time. But the moment enough of them reach a consensus to repeat, classical matter is born, and with it time as we know it. In the competition for survival in time between repeaters and non-repeaters, repeaters of course win, but they do so by idiotically repeating themselves into the future, rinsing and repeating, generating the next moment’s version of themselves as fast as time will allow as described by Planck’s constant.

It was only when higher forms of computational difficulty arose, from whose perspective mere repetition could be recognized and put a stop to when system survival dictated it, that higher forms of matter, especially living matter, and quintessentially conscious living matter, could begin to appear.

Which is why, except when we default to the old logic of OCD, we don’t go on lathering up.

By Frederick Turner

Professor, poet, lecturer, black belt, and more.

3 replies on “Rinse and Repeat”

I’ve been mulling the subjects of your essay for a few days now, the Turing machine, Godel’s version of the liar’s paradox, and how they relate to the problem of what logic is and how it contributes to things coming into being. These questions are kind of a hobby horse of mine. The Turing machine, an algorithm, led to the digital revolution, which now includes iPods, the internet, cyber warfare- and we’re still not sure if all this is a benefit or a curse. We just know that it was an idea that changed our world. The irony is that all these previously unrealized possibilities are the result of a severely limited set of rules, an initial set of conditions, and that it is these very restrictions that make it possible for me to store, let me see, 6,386 songs- so far- on my hard drive.
What fascinates me is that none of these possibilities are predictable from knowing everything there is to know about the physical facts of the universe- ie, matter- whether atoms, quarks, stars, rocks, water or our very own livers and fingernails. Just as it is impossible to predict the existence of dinosaurs from knowing everything possible to know about DNA and proteins. Is it possible to predict that one of the properties of calcium is to form bones and teeth?
And what are the properties of bones and teeth that lead to the music we keep on our iPods? Yet this is what Neo- Darwinians insist upon. They simply can’t admit that it is the desire for music that provides the motivation to create iPods. The will precedes the material fact.
I find myself descending into incoherence so I’ll just leave off by thanking you for the thoughtful idea- based on a reading of the shampoo bottle.

I loved this essay! I think such things all the time–here’s one in poetry reflecting upon the reiterative nature of lovers, and–of course–that constant the Turing machine:


To you my several sometimes-lovers
I dedicate this service; with each of you
I ran an order, made a bond–obeyed.
The torch, I pass it to the horses,
Praying while my dreams of them abate:
I think I see the figures of the Universe
In my lace curtains–had I lace curtains,
Which I do not, and never will, real curtains;
I think I see dark figures, figurines
Where ought to be my horses–your lips
On mine, contiguous with time, a Turing
Machine beatified–a toast to you.
Come you, my several sometimes-lovers
And like curtains airily lingering, hover.

And of course, wouldn’t you know it (for time seems to exist in my world) I now do have lace curtains–real ones!

Looks like someone’s run out of magazines. You should check out Theory’s Empire, eds. Patai and Corral. It’s like Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader for literary critics.

Bilingual Canadian shampoo bottles offer especially good reading, e.g. “Shampoo Shampooing,” “Fortifying Fortifier”, etc.

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