JOHN MEANEY

16.4.08


YOU CAN'T STEP INTO THE SAME RIVER TWICE.

That was Heraklitus pointing out that every situation is unique, and change is constant. You've read van Vogt's World of Null-A, right? (Or maybe not, and I'm showing my age...) Non-Aristotelian logic recognizes that uniqueness, while Aristotelian logic is about generalizations and categorization, which are essential to human reasoning. Both forms of logic are essential for rational thought.

Yep, it's gonna be one of those posts again...

"Red" is an abstraction of a common feature recognized in different objects in the real world. "Colour" is an abstraction at a higher level. And so on... By "abstraction" I mean a noun that does not refer only to one unique object in the world, one that you can point at or hold in your hand.

In the world of NLP (which is close enough to the World of Null-A) abstractions are often treated in a particular way, as "nominalizations". In the context of personal changework, of removing past barriers to what you wanted to achieve or the way you wanted to be, this is very useful. If "fear" stops someone from being the person they want to be, perceiving "fear" (or "depression" or "anger") as an active process is a sudden (and disconcerting) change of viewpoint that allows change. If someone has an "irrational" phobia, asking them questions like "How do you know when to be afraid?" opens up sudden new possibilities.

But I really wanted to talk about logic and paradigms, and the way science changes, as we filter our world through new metaphors in order to understand it more.

Because "science" is a nominalization, that balances scepticism with an open mind (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). Every scientist is concerned with testable theories, and progress is partly defined by the theories that are thrown away.

No one needs the concept of phlogistons to model combustion, or vortices (as per Descartes) to model gravity -- they are outmoded metaphors or models. But even among the metaphors in current use, there's no single correct model (unified theory), and the things which are unexplained or lie at the boundary between two different theories are so often the puzzles that drive understanding forward.

Before Newton, time was not a "geometric" dimension in scientific models. Before Faraday, fields (of force) were not a core concept (although they were a vague metaphor to understanding), whereas since Faraday's time, physicists have "absorbed the concept of fields with their mother's milk", to quote Albert Einstein...

Here's a list of some important understandings which have arisen in my lifetime:

- from microfossils, evolution began 4 billion years ago (up to 1 billion years earlier than previously thought)

- stars have planetary systems (over 1700 such systems detected so far, with different observation methods that agree with each other -- previously, no one knew whether this sun was the only star with planets, now it's likely that planets are everywhere)

- symbiosis is as important as predator/prey relationships in evolution (The mitochondria in every cell of every animal (incl. human) species, the powerhouses of the cell, contain DNA that is nearly always -- not always, as most people think -- inherited from the mother. The nuclear DNA (half from each parent) is quite separate. It's now widely accepted that early unicellular animal life was the symbiotic pairing of two distinct species of bacteria, hence the two separate sets of DNA in all our cells.)

- quantum physics can be observed at the macroscopic level (the next huge leap forwards -- happening right now -- large collections of atoms are being put into quantum states that effectively make them a single quantum particle, and so the weirdness is about to be seen in large physical objects. Teleportation has already been achieved, in physics labs under verifiable and reproducible conditions.)

- I'm going to add neurolinguistic programming, which is just the beginning of various models that will have different names in the future, being powerfully verified by cognitive neuroscience now, such as: the 20th century discovery of mirror neurons (it's not news!) and the more recent discovery of the neural spatiotemporal grid (which I hypothesise is a hugely powerful mechanism, responsible for "timelines" and "submodalities" and other aspects of the way we structure our subjective experience of the world)

- emergent properties arise from complex systems regardless of the properties of the underlying substrate.

- human beings are dissipative structures thermodynamically, locally increasing complexity while obeying the second law of thermodynamics (Prigogine won the Nobel prize for this in 1976)

- black holes are real and there's a big one at the heart of our own galaxy (when I was an undergraduate, Prof. John Taylor visited and gave a talk on black holes, prompting one 3rd year student to stand up and say: "Do you seriously call yourself a physicist?")

- dark energy and dark matter, the latter being a codename for the huge majority of the mass in the universe, that is made up of something we can't see and whose nature we don't know. Talk about unknowns and boundaries!

And of course humanity will model reality in new ways in the future. Wolfram's book, A New Kind Of Science, is just one possible vision of mathematical models that don't use equations (they're replaced by local rules for cellular automata). What else haven't we thought of yet?

Because beyond that, Newtonian physics implied a metaphor that was the-Universe-as-clockwork, while current physics (and neuroscience in a sense) consider the-Universe-as-computer (Wheeler's "it from bit"), so in five centuries time, perhaps that metaphor will be quite outmoded. I wonder what the new ways of thinking will be?

1 Comments:

Anonymous Josh said...

Universe as society?
Universe as language?
Universe as life-form?
I suppose it depends what problems we try to solve, or perhaps what worldviews become useful to solve our problems. I have this growing suspicion that our machines are physical manifestations of our philosophy, so how then does design work? Do we find the new philosophy by tinkering and finding that something does what we want, or do we make the right machines by finding someone with the appropriate philosophy to build them? Probably a bit of both, and a bit of neither!

November 20, 2008 at 10:32 PM  

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