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#15 On exactitude in science

Dear Mat,

Great letter. I feel like we’re finally getting into it… whatever it is. You asked a quick question:

I’ve quoted this book [David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity] tons in the last letters and I worry. Is it because the book has great insights into these seemingly unconnected topics? Or am I too good at drawing connections between things that should remain separate?

That’s a tricky one. EM Forster said “only connect” because that’s what thinking is, that’s what creativity is. But then again paranoia, conspiracy theories and apocalyptic prophecy are born of too much connective thinking. That’s the old madness/creativity thing: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” I’m trying to sugarcoat it with some nice verse, but what I’m saying, Mat, is that you have full blown schizophrenia and it’s because of David Deutsch.

I’m still only 2/3 the way through The Beginning of Infinity, but I too find myself applying it to everything. I guess it’s a big, worldview kind of book. It does kind of make me think, why aren’t there more people out there writing big books that provide a whole framework for looking at the world? I expect physicists or people with a good coverage across lots of high level sciences to be coming up with this stuff. Then I remembered that there’s a lot of that on the Internet, generally offered up by unrecognised, independent researchers who have developed a perpetual motion machine which they can demonstrate for you in their basement, as long as you don’t work for the federal government.

But although Deutsch is clearly not a crank he is a bit too much of a platonist for me. I’m going along with a lot of what he’s saying but he goes in for the independent existence of abstract objects like numbers and mathematical structures. He’s not Roger Penrose1)Another big book guy. level platonist, but it’s a little bit loopy for me. But then as you know, I’m a hardcore anti-platonist. What am I talking about? Is this some esoteric philosophical distinction? Yes, but to make it interesting let me summarise it concretely: I don’t think anything exists that ain’t physical. Instead I think mathematical objects, concepts, information, meaning, consciousness, life and ideas only exist in the physical medium in which they’re found (often that’s in a brain or a computer, or many people’s brains in roughly the same structure). This is pretty well in  line with another big, general kind of thinker, Douglas Hofstadter2)Known for the whimsical, Lewis Carroll-style Gödel, Escher, Bach and the more straightforward I am a Strange Loop which carries my highest possible recommendation., whom Deutsch actually misrepresents slightly in an early chapter of BOI.

As a literature guy, I am drawn to the notion that mathematics and scientific theories (not the reality they attempt to describe) are fictions. They’re damned good fictions that are resistant to a lot of probing and — as Deutsch would point out — they are falsifiable and they’re good explanations (hard to vary but with large explanatory reach). But they’re fictions nonetheless; the map, not the territory3)As in that Borges story, whose name I forget.. There is a baroque theory in the philosophy of mathematics called fictionalism which claims that even well formed mathematical theorems essentially have the same existential status as Sherlock Holmes. You can say consistent or inconsistent things about Holmes (his address, his actions in this or that story) that work within the internal logic of the narrative. Some fictions, like those shithouse sci-fi ones that don’t even follow their own rules, are not well formed. Mathematics is an extreme case of very well formed, consistent fictions. Does a well formed fiction necessarily mirror reality more closely? I guess that’s what Deutsch is getting at with his thought experiment.

Meanwhile I gave a conference presentation on the weekend about some of Richard Dawkins’ ideas (to do with the long reach of the selfish gene and the extended phenotype) and turned it into a bizarre thing about self-reference and strange loops and weird narrative shit… I don’t think it went down too well with the humanities crowd there on the day. The point is that I too am basically an intellectual conspiracy theorist, with a metaphorical garage in which the walls are covered with pictures of David Deutsch and Douglas Hofstadter, with arrows pointing to theories of mathematics and aesthetics, and pages of Borges stories with every third letter cut out to form a pattern over a blown up image of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s goatee beard.

Non-platonically,

Jamie.

Footnotes

1. Another big book guy.
2. Known for the whimsical, Lewis Carroll-style Gödel, Escher, Bach and the more straightforward I am a Strange Loop which carries my highest possible recommendation.
3. As in that Borges story, whose name I forget.