Monday, February 28, 2011

Random, Pointless Ideas About Complexity That I Had This Morning

Articles like this one boldly state that the human brain is "the most complex structure in the known universe". I think that is a very interesting -- if utterly pointless -- observation, one I've heard made over and over. It speaks of a perceptual horizon that mocks our attempts to understand the universe, once you start thinking about it. It has the self-referentialism characteristic of arguments that rely on the anthropic principle in some regard. Of course we can't know anything more complex than the thing with which we're knowing things.

The so-called "debates" or dialogues that concern themselves with intelligent design have a similar flavor. More or less intelligent people are having more or less intelligent discussions about whether evolutionary processes are more or less intelligent. But of course, intelligence is a subset of evolutionary processes in the first place. Can intelligence resulting from evolution make a real distinction concerning whether evolution is intelligent or not? Can craziness resulting from evolution make a real distinction concerning whether evolution is crazy or not?

We live in a snow globe, and our quest for a unified theory of everything is fruitless.

Douglas Adams famously said that if we ever did figure out the universe, it would vanish and be immediately replaced by something more complex. In fact, this had probably already happened.

I miss him.

I have long been a proponent of critical rationalism as a discipline offering some method of finding dialogue between different modes (fideist, reductionist) of knowledge. For example, most rational, scientifically-minded people would be very quick to ridicule the efforts of theologians who in bygone years discussed quite seriously the problem of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. Look twice - those theologians were talking about Zeno's paradox, and they had some interesting insights. They were using a different language to express their ideas.

Here's what I think. A fly crawling across a compact disc on which Beethoven's masterworks are recorded, has no experience, no possible way of appreciating in any sense the scale of the significance of what it is interacting with. It cannot understand humans, or their history, the industrial revolution and the invention of electricity, lasers, SONY corporation, music, Beethoven, coffee tables, or any of those other things. Can these things... the hairs on the fly's leg, the brilliance of Beethoven's 9th symphony... be said to be real in the same way? What do we mean by reality, then?

Consider your receipt of this message. It formed as an idea in my mind, I clumsily encoded it in English in my own brain, then sent biological signaling to my fingers to cause them to transmit kinetic force to plastic keys, which triggered a cascade of electronic signals through a relay of machines, which then reconstructed the data as images and displayed them as flashing lights, emitting photons which then were received by your eyes, which then talked to your brain, which then reconstructed the information into words in English, and then deconstructed the emergent meaning encoded in that English for the underlying idea.

Is this message real, then, in the same way that a rock is real? Part of the same universe? Is there any intersection of the state space? Do objects actually exist discretely?

Beats me.

Complexity is a funny word. Reality is a funny word.

Maybe we need to rank complexity. Maybe we need to rank realities. Maybe we need to index and measure our experiences accordingly.

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