#11 On measurements

Dear Mat,

Congratulations and I accept your excuse. But I ask, How many more of these “children” do you anticipate having? And will their births interfere with more important work like these letters, published on our WordPress site?

To clarify a point from last letter, I agree that ideas have to check out with the real world. I also think philosophers fail on that front quite a bit. When I was talking about hierarchy I was getting more at values, or valuations. In a quantitative enquiry (something in physics) those ways of ordering things can be measured and the hierarchy produced is one of magnitude or multitude or whatever. Uncontroversial. But when that gets translated across to human stuff, value judgements come in whereby measuring some difference between two things generally, inexorably, leads to one being valued more than another.

I want to do that with aesthetic or even moral questions, or questions of richness and complexity (like comparing artworks, stories, ideas); hence I’m especially interested in measures from physics of things like information density, complexity, isomorphisms, energy rate density, etc.  But politically we often want to de-value things. By that I mean one wants people to be treated equally before the law, let’s say, despite differences. The fear of those philosophers I referred to (a fear that’s warranted I think, based on history) is that once you start noting differences between people, that inexorable ordering/valuing/ranking takes place and you compromise on equality.

As it happens, I actually don’t quite agree with that particular project, even though any good liberal would obviously want equality under the law. I don’t think we do. And that’s why I don’t think I should be described as a liberal per se… But that’s another letter.

On Deutsch, I still haven’t read beyond the first little bit, having been massively sidetracked by various deadlines, but I’m salivating over the prospect. Interestingly, I note that Steven Pinker is a big fan of The Beginning of Infinity and can be seen recommending it a lot these days.

On your scale ideas, I have to say I think I’m a bit nervous now of the order of magnitude jump representing something non-linear. You say:

“some objects take precedence over others and ‘eclipse’ them. Quarks don’t play a role in my life, and I don’t play a role in theirs”

In what sense are they eclipsed? Is that merely a product of what scale we measure? And surely quarks do play a role in your life: you are quarks. I know what you mean, but if you look at a parallel, with say neuroscience, then people often say individual neurons play no role in consciousness. Which is kind of true, but leads people down the path of thinking consciousness is somehow not explained by the totality of neurons in your head either. Which is ludicrous. I’m not trying to be an autistic reductionist here, but I wonder if it’s just our lack of ability to have a fairly continuous set of measurements or descriptions or whatever that mean we retrospectively notice a significant shift from phenomena at one scale to another. Phenomena exhibit different properties on different scales, of course, but is their novelty merely a product of taking snapshots at different scales, rather than having a smooth running film across an range of scales? Does that make sense? We can’t really comprehend a smooth continuum of the behaviour of you, all the way from the quark level to the macro-object obeying gravity level. But it must be there.

I’m just getting a little sceptical of emergence these days, with a lot of people using it for all kinds of escapes from good old hardcore materialism.

Please correct me,