September 26, 2003

Strange Beliefs

Posted by Curt at 02:02 PM in Geek Talk | TrackBack

I don't know why (certainly not procrastination--I'm done with class for the week), but I am going to wade a little ways into this matter despite knowing far less about the issue than my brother. However, two things seem apparent to me. One is the current and ongoing superstition among scientists that they are somehow immune to superstitions, which seems more and more ludicrous to me every time I hear of some new fad theory like superstring theory or, apparently, "sync." These generally fall either under the category of "so obscure that they cannot be understood, let alone proved" as in the case of superstring, or a series of blindingly obvious observations all swept up in some grandiose-sounding concept, as seems to me to be the case with this new theory of "sync." The most cuttingly insightful example of this grand theory which is supposed to wrap together biology, chemistry and physics, et. al is that fireflys can coordinate their flashing by observing each other? Imagine! At root, are any of these sort of theories really more substantially grounded than Leibniz's theory of monads? Anyway, I think the more important point is that these kinds of wildly presumptuous theories are more or less inevitable when the natural world is essentially perceived through a mathematical lens, because the discipline is predicated upon discrete, quantitative relationships between all the elements. And empirically also, talking about "spontaneous order" and logic in nature is to some extent simply tautological, as all of our empirical concepts of order and reason are based upon the the structure we perceive in nature and human society. Or as Hegel said back in 1821: "What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational...since rationality...enters upon external existence simultaneously with its actualization." Far from rendering math obsolete, this "sync" theory seems to demonstrate to me the current dominance of logical systemizing over the particular subject to which it is applied. I think in general we pay far too little attention to the ways the contents of our thoughts are shaped by the means of communication we use. In my opinion, the content of our conscious thoughts is simply the articulation of our inchoate feelings via language, and if anything divides our conscious selves from other animals, it must essentially be language itself. Anyway, the point I am making is that when a physicist uses numbers as a language to describe natural phenomena, that description will be limited and defined by the structure of the language, of math, just as an English-speaker or a Russian-speaker are constrained in the contents of their thoughts by the language of their thoughts. Therefore, I do not honestly understand how anyone could hold that math is inapplicable or unuseful in studying something like this theory of "sync", whatever it is, which is essentially based on the observation of numerical relationships in nature, i.e. is mathematical in nature. Anyway, I am sorry for ranting for so long, but I find myself constantly confounded by the dogmas in our society of those who argue about math as if it were some sort of philosophical object or concept rather than what it is, a sort of symbolic language which imposes a filter through which everything which it is used to describe must be perceived. I believe this is true even in the theoretical realm, as number-systems could not simply have been dreamed up a priori as a speculative-imaginative exercise, but rather serve to represent and correspond to quantities of ojects observed in the world.