“People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.”
|—||David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest|
Kateoplis posted a “Moon model by Johann FJ Schmidt at Chicago’s Field Museum, 1898.” One can scarcely imagine a more beautiful representation of knowledge, that strange abstraction which exerts so much control over the irreducible physical cosmos; as David Deutsch noted in his first TED talk:
Now how do we know about an environment that’s so far away, and so different, and so alien, from anything we’re used to? Well, the Earth —our environment, in the form of us— is creating knowledge. Well, what does that mean? Well, look out even further than we’ve just been —I mean from here, with a telescope— and you’ll see things that look like stars. They’re called “quasars.” “Quasars” originally meant quasi-stellar object. Which means things that look a bit like stars. But they’re not stars. And we know what they are. Billions of years ago, and billions of light years away, the material at the center of a galaxy collapsed towards a super-massive black hole. And then intense magnetic fields directed some of the energy of that gravitational collapse. And some of the matter, back out in the form of tremendous jets which illuminated lobes with the brilliance of —I think it’s a trillion suns.
Now, the physics of the human brain could hardly be more unlike the physics of such a jet. We couldn’t survive for an instant in it. Language breaks down when trying to describe what it would be like in one of those jets. It would be a bit like experiencing a supernova explosion, but at point-blank range and for millions of years at a time. And yet, that jet happened in precisely such a way that billions of years later, on the other side of the universe, some bit of chemical scum could accurately describe, and model, and predict, and explain, —above all— what was happening there, in reality. The one physical system, the brain, contains an accurate working model of the other, the quasar. Not just a superficial image of it, though it contains that as well, but an explanatory model, embodying the same mathematical relationships and the same causal structure.
Now that is knowledge. And if that weren’t amazing enough, the faithfulness with which the one structure resembles the other is increasing with time. That is the growth of knowledge. So, the laws of physics have this special property. That physical objects, as unlike each other as they could possibly be, can nevertheless embody the same mathematical and causal structure and to do it more and more so over time.
It is not solely humanity which is capable of this; all life, to some degree, embodies knowledge as a function of selection processes which reward, so to speak, successful adaptive responses to environments. But humans have a vastly greater degree of precision and accuracy in their knowledge than any other creature, in part because our knowledge is so often explicit, rather being than coded into inexplicit, lossy genomic systems; in part because our knowledge is representational in many ways, rather than merely responsive to stimuli; in part because of our capacity for abstraction and generalization; and largely because ours is aided, in innumerable ways, by tools we have constructed to help acquire knowledge.
These tools now themselves contain models precisely as our minds do; inside this room is a model of the moon, just as inside your mind are the models for countless phenomena you will never witness, never touch or feel, and yet whose shape and behavior you can predict with stunning accuracy. We know a great deal through statistical computation, but all such computation is contingent on explanatory models which “embody the same mathematical and causal structure” as this or that element of the natural world.
Man is above all else the maker of models. Real knowledge is not merely predictive but virtualizes; one needn’t go to the moon; one merely keeps a model of it at hand.
“The Internet is my Religion” Jim Gilliam tells a moving story of faith, tech, and cancer at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum. He’s on with Brian Lehrer today at 11:20.
|—||John R. Lindensmith (via pleaseallowmetointroducemyself)|