“David Edwards: The core of creativity is the fused process of ‘artscience’
“[Artscience] — that is, the natural progression through which we translate new ideas into reality, drawing on both aesthetic and analytical thinking. (…)
Art, like science, can be meaningfully understood as process or as outcome, the distinction between the experience of discovery and discovery itself. We think of art, in the sense of process, as a kind of aesthetic method, guided by intuition, enveloped by ambiguity, and thriving in uncertainty, while we think of science, as process, as a kind of scientific method, guided by deduction, enveloped in reductive clarity, and thriving in certainty.
In reality creators, artists, scientists, however you wish to assign the label, do not really create, or as I speak of it, translate their ideas from conception to realization through one pure method or another, but through a synthetic process of idea development that fuses intuition and deduction, analysis and dream, and this universal creative process is what I mean by artscience. It is in my mind worth a special name in a world where the avalanche of information leads us to divide up knowledge, and finally creative process, into smaller camps, disciplines, institutions, where we alternatively encourage dream or analysis, induction or deduction, and this is fatal to the creative process. It is essential to realize the universality of the creative process, not to kill it in our effort to catalog its myriad results. (…)
Where in all this is artscience? It is in the creative process itself, of course, but made perhaps more obvious, and even fruitful, by bringing together two great creators, one an artist, the other a scientist, and, led by a shared dream, helping them find a common process, the artscience process.” ”—David Edwards (Ph.D. in chemical engineering and a faculty position in Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), 'The Lab', Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2011.
“ "I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones." ”—John Cage, American composer, philosopher, poet, music theorist, artist (1912-1992), cited in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, Routledge, 2003.
“The Story of a Clever Young Man who dreamed of reducing the world to pure logic
“Let me tell you a little story.
There was once a young man who dreamed of reducing the world to pure logic. Because he was a very clever young man, he actually managed to do it. And when he’d finished his work, he stood back and admired it. It was beautiful. A world purged of imperfection and indeterminacy. Countless acres of gleaming ice stretching to the horizon.
So the clever young man looked around the world he had created, and decided to explore it. He took one step forward and fell flat on his back. You see, he had forgotten about friction. The ice was smooth and level and stainless, but you couldn’t walk there. So the clever young man sat down and wept bitter tears. But as he grew into a wise old man, he came to understand that roughness and ambiguity aren’t imperfections. They’re what make the world turn. He wanted to run and dance. And the words and things scattered upon this ground were all battered and tarnished and ambiguous, and the wise old man saw that that was the way things were.
But something in him was still homesick for the ice, where everything was radiant and absolute and relentless. Though he had come to like the idea of the rough ground, he couldn’t bring himself to live there. So now he was marooned between earth and ice, at home in neither.
Sam Keen on renewing our sense of wonder - “Human beings are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell”
“Keen believes that our lives are shaped — and occasionally misshaped — by the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s only by becoming intimately acquainted with these narratives — as they have been handed down from our families, our cultural backgrounds, our religious beliefs — that we can begin to live consciously and, as the Sufi poet Rumi said, “unfold our own myth.” Unless we understand our lives as a kind of autobiography in the making, we’re likely to take refuge in other people’s stories, in ready-made ideologies, and in unexamined systems of belief. (…) The paradox of self-knowledge is that it’s only by confronting the depths of our own ignorance that we can begin to glimpse the essential truth of who we are.”
“I think we’re always in the process of writing and rewriting the story of our lives, forming our experiences into a narrative that makes sense. Much of that work involves demythologizing family myths and cultural myths — getting free of what we have been told about ourselves. I think that critiquing the myths of our society and helping people find their way through them is a very important thing. (…)
Cultures that have a unifying cultural narrative are stable in some ways, but they are also resistant to change. The fact that we don’t have a unifying myth today allows us to create new stories from direct experience.
For the past several years, I’ve been leading groups into Bhutan, a country that has probably the most intact cultural myth of any place I’ve been. It’s an agricultural society where more than ninety percent of the people still own land. The government is a monarchy with a Tibetan Buddhist mythology. For the Bhutanese, reality is simply what it always has been and always will be. In that sense, they are spared the kind of self-doubt that seems part and parcel of our predicament in the West. They are brought up knowing who they are and how the world works. And there is an innocent beauty in that. But there is also a certain foreshortening of experience.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the development of Western thought has washed away more and more of the certainties of our own religious myths. Our pilgrimage has led us deep into unknown territories. We have to re-invent ourselves. That’s a very tiring process and anxious process, but it also grants us a kind of freedom that no other culture has. So for all the chaos that comes from not having an organizing myth, there is also an enormous opportunity for creativity. (…)
In a way, human beings have never been part of the natural order; we’re not biological in the normal sense. Normal biological animals stop eating when they’re not hungry and stop breeding when there is no sense in breeding. By contrast, human beings are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell. When we get the story wrong, we get out of harmony with the rest of the natural order. For a long time, our unnatural beahvior didn’t threaten the natural world, but now it does. (…)
Most of us are fear-avoiders. We worship the god of security. Instead of facing our fears, we walk around with a kind of free-floating anxiety. It’s much more therapeutic to recognize that we have fears and to try to separate out the ones that are reasonable from the ones that are not. I think we have to become connoisseurs of fear. (…)
We have to get beyond our cultural mythology to find out who we are. “Writing my autobiography,” as I call it, necessarily involves demythologizing my family’s history, my culture’s history, and even my own history to get to this deeper layer. So I think it’s increasingly hard to have deep self-knowledge without entering the darkness in some way. (…)
Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. I believe it also ends in wonder. The ultimate way in which we relate to the world as something sacred is by renewing our sense of wonder. That’s why I’m so opposed to the kind of miracle-mongering we find in both new-age religion and old-age religion. We’re attracted to pseudomiracles only because we’ve ceased to wonder at the world, at how amazing it is.” ”—Sam Keen (American author, professor and philosopher) interviewed by Scott London, Renewing Our Sense of Wonder: An Interview with Sam Keen. Originally adapted from the public radio series “Insight & Outlook.” It was published in the October 1999 issue of The Sun magazine. It also appears in the book Saga: The Best New Writings on Mythology, (White Cloud Press, 2001). (Illustration source)
“Mark Changizi: The path to enhancing our brains is not to change or add to it, but to harness it in altogether novel fashions
“As I recently discussed in a “manifesto” of sorts, the key to our future human development will be technology that harnesses our brain’s evolved functional powers. That’s how we got to be the humans we take ourselves to be today, so radically different from our essentially genetically identical Homo sapiens ancestors. Chief among those differences are writing, speech, and music (arguably the pinnacle of the arts) – I argue in my research and books that cultural selection has acted over time to shape these core artifacts to fit our brains like a glove, redirecting brilliant ancestral powers into modern ones. We read, for example, not because we evolved by natural selection to read, but because writing culturally evolved to be shaped like the fundamental contour combinations found in natural scenes (I call it nature-harnessing), just what our visual system is optimized to process.
This “harnessing humans” vision is an intrinsically humanistic one, and is in stark contrast to the “sci-fi” flavor of the artificial-brains prognosticators. In fact, rather than sci-fi, my viewpoint is best illustrated by another genre of fiction: fantasy, and, in particular, the magic found within it. (…)
The biologically innate powers hundreds of millions of years of evolution gave us are like magic. They are ancient, inscrutable and potent, and should be studied, safeguarded and revered. And just as you can’t beat magic with human invention, we cannot hope to out-engineer our brains and bodies.
The human condition has been granted a finite number of “magical powers,” and the best route to moving forward is to exploit those powers in new ways. The path to enhancing our brains is not to change or add to it, but to harness it in altogether novel fashions.
In my “manifesto” I suggested that via understanding how culture harnessed us we are in a better position to intentionally harness our brains more effectively, with the hope of tapping into powers far beyond that which any artificial brain is likely to wield for a long, long time." ”—Mark Changizi (evolutionary neurobiologist, cognitive scientist, aiming to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do), Harnessing Humans, Forbes, March 25, 2011. See also: Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.
James Gleick on information: The basis of the universe isn’t matter or energy — it’s data
“It is not unreasonable to imagine that information sits at the core of physics, just as it sits at the core of a computer.
It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.”
— (John Archibald Wheeler, 1990: 5 cited in Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, 1980. The Unity of Nature. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux.)
“Shannon said that the notion of information has nothing to do with meaning. A string of bits has a quantity, whether it represents something that’s true, something that’s utterly false, or something that’s just meaningless nonsense. If you were a scientist or an engineer, that idea was very liberating; it enabled you to treat information as a manipulable thing. (…)
Scientifically, information is a choice—a yes-or-no choice. In a broader sense, information is everything that informs our world—writing, painting, music, money. (…)
Information is crucial to our biological substance—our genetic code is information. But before 1950, it was not obvious that inheritance had anything to do with code. And it was only after the invention of the telegraph that we understood that our nerves carry messages, just like wires. When we look back through history, we can see that a lot of different stories all turn out to be stories about information. (…)
Information is a definite, specific thing, rather than an indefinite generalization. (…)
Modern physics has begun to think of the bit—this binary choice—as the ultimate fundamental particle. John Wheeler summarized the idea as “it-from-bit.” By that he meant that the basis of the physical universe—the “it” of an atom or subatomic particle—is not matter, nor energy, but a bit of information. (…)
Information is the thing that we care most about. The more we understand the role that information plays in our world, the more skillful citizens we will be.”
“Q: “If the ultimate fate of our universe is so bleak, what then is its purpose?”
A: “Why does everything have to have a purpose? There is a lot of opportunity for us in a universe with 50 billion more years of ‘life’. If we are up to the challenge, we are going to have a lot of fun and exciting time to look forward to. If we are not up to the challenge, we will soon become extinct on a planet whose days are numbered.
You choose!!” ”—Sten Odenwald, astronomer, researcher studying the cosmic infrared background and space weather, Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University, “Ask the Astronomer”
“A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ’set’ to the brain. As the author last quoted Julius Bahnsen in Beiträge zu Charakterologie mit besonderer Berücksichtigung pädagogischer Fragen, (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1867) remarks:
“The actual presence of the practical opportunity alone furnishes the fulcrum upon which the lever can rest, by means of which the moral will may multiply its strength, and raise itself aloft. He who has no solid ground to press against will never get beyond the stage of empty gesture-making.”
No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down.
A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use. Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.” ”—William James (American psychologist and philosopher, 1842-1910), Habit, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890, p. 60. cited in Entersection
“ “We have greatly overestimated value of access to info and greatly underestimated value of access to each other." ”—Clay Shirky, American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, at SXSW 2011 cited in Kristina Loring’s The Long Game of Social Change, Design mind, Intrapreneur, March 12, 2011
“The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-yar-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success - the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history - with a society that provides opportunites for all. (…)
I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. (…) It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t. (…)
Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all. (…)
Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. (…)
In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours."
“Jeffrey Dill on education of global citizens in 21st century
“To be involved in the creation of knowledge means that students are self-directed learners. Rather than learn about science from an external source, such as a teacher, they plan and design their own labs in order to “do the acts of a scientist.” The global citizen must approach learning with the assumption that “nothing is certain” because we live in a multifarious world with a plurality of ideas and choices. It is not enough for students to simply study history, or even to know it; they must also be active participants. Teachers value this kind of inquiry because it leads to an “independence of learning,” rather than the “static reception” of knowledge.
The flexible thinking of the global citizen also means that he or she is open to other perspectives and viewpoints. Collaboration is important because there may be more then one way to solve a problem. Innovation and getting things done is largely dependent on one’s ability to adapt to and skillfully navigate a cooperative setting of diverse opinions. (…)
Historically, education has been understood to be, as the French sociologist Émile Durkheim stated, “the means by which a society prepares, in its children, the essential conditions of its own existence.” In this sense, education is always an exercise in the transmission of a culture, a passing on of inherited understandings of the self and the world. The movement to teach 21st century skills and cultivate global citizens is no exception.”—Jeffrey Dill, Teaching the virtues of a global citizen, (pdf) CULTURE, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Fall 2009, p. 3-4.
“ Freeman Dyson: “Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries”
“The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate.
The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions. (…) Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” ”—Freeman Dyson, British-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering, How We Know (tnx chrbutler)
“ "If you build a machine that makes connections between everything, accumulates all the data in the world, and you then harness all available minds to collectively teach it where the meaningful connections and meaningful data are (Who is searching Whom?) while implementing deceptively simple algorithms that reinforce meaningful connections while physically moving, optimizing and replicating the data structures accordingly - if you do all this you will, from highly economical (yes, profitable) position arrive at a result - an intelligence — that is “not as far off as people think.” ”—George Dyson, scientific historian cited in Kevin Kelly, Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism, The Technium, October 24, 2008.
“Is consciousness a product of the brain? The only certainty here is that anyone who thinks they can answer this question with certainty has to be wrong. We have only our conceptions of consciousness and of the brain to go on; and the one thing we do know for certain is that everything we know of the brain is a product of consciousness. That is, scientifically speaking, far more certain than that consciousness itself is a product of the brain. It may or it may not; but what is an undeniable fact is the idea that there is a universe of things, in which there is one thing called the brain, and another thing called the mind, together with the scientific principles that would allow the one to emerge from the other - these are all ideas, products of consciousness, and therefore only as good as the particular models used by that consciousness to understand the world. We do not know if mind depends on matter, because everything we know about matter is itself a mental creation.
In that sense, Descartes was right: the one undeniable fact is our consciousness. He was wrong, however most would now agree, to think of mind and body as two separate substances (two ‘whats’). This was, I believe, a typical product of a certain way of thinking which I suggest is characteristic of the brain’s left hemisphere, a concern with the ‘whatness’ of things. Where it was so obviously a matter of two ‘hownesses’ in the same thing, two different modes of being (as the right hemisphere would see it), he could formulate this only as two whatnesses, two different things. Equally it is a misplaced concern with the whatness of things that leads to the apparently anti-Cartesian, materialist, idea that the mind and body are the same thing. We are not sure, and could never be sure, if mind, or even body, is a thing at all. Mind has the characteristics of a process more than of a thing; a becoming, a way of being, more than an entity. Every individual mind is a process of interaction with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves according to its own private history.” ”—Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and writer, The Master and his Emissary : The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2009. (tnx jamreilly) See also: Interview with Iain McGilchrist, Frontier Psychiatrist
“Free will lies somewhere between randomness and determinism which seem to be at the opposite extremes in reality. It’s clear that neither pure randomness or pure determinism would leave any room for free will. If the world is completely random, then by definition we have no control over what will happen, and if the world is completely deterministic we also similarly have no control over what will happen as it would all be pre-scripted. So you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.” ”—Vlatko Vedral, Serbian born Physicist and Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and CQT (Centre for Quantum Technologies) at the National University of Singapore, Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information, Oxford University Press, 2010. (tnx johnsparker)
“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the Earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.” ”—Albert Einstein cited in John Horgan, New Year’s Resolution: I will believe in free will, Scientific American, Dec 27, 2010 (tnx johnsparker)
“ "We suggest that conventional mental images are structured by image-schemas and that image metaphors preserve image-schematic structure, mapping parts onto parts and wholes onto wholes, containers onto containers, paths onto paths, and so on. The generalization would be that all metaphors are invariant with respect to their cognitive topology, that is each metaphorical mapping preserves image-schema structure.” ”—George Lakoff, Metaphors we live by, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1993
“Richard Feynman used to go up to people all the time and he’d say “You won’t believe what happened to me today… you won’t believe what happened to me” and people would say “What?” and he’d say “Absolutely nothing”. Because we humans believe that everything that happens to us is special and significant. And that — and Carl Sagan wrote beautifully about that in The Demon-Haunted World — that is much of the source of religion.
Everything that happens is unusual and I expect that the likelihood that Richard and I ever would’ve met. If you think about all the variables: the probability that we were in the same place at the same time, ate breakfast the same. Whatever. It’s zero.
Every event that happens has small probability… but it happens and then when it happens; if it’s weird, if you dream one million nights and it’s nonsense but one night you dream that your friend is gonna break his leg and the next day he breaks his arm… *sound of revelation*. So the really thing that physics tell us about the universe is that it’s big, rare event happens all the time — including life — and that doesn’t mean it’s special."
“ "The true men of action in our time those who transform the world are not the politicians and statesmen but the scientists. Unfortunately poetry cannot celebrate them because their deeds are concerned with things, not persons, and are therefore speechless. When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes." ”—W.H. Auden (1907-1973), 'The Poet and the City' (1962), in the collection The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays, Random House, 1965, p. 81.
“ "Without Art, we should have no notion of the sacred; without Science, we should always worship false gods." ”—W.H. Auden (1907-1973), "The Virgin & The Dynamo", in the collection The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays, Random House, 1965, p. 62.
“ “Feedback is a method of controlling a system by re-inserting into it the results of its past performance.
If those results are merely used as commercial data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineer. If, however, the information which proceeds backwards from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process that may be called learning.” ”—Norbert Wiener, mathematician, Cybernetics in History. In The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954, p. 84.
“ “As words are not the objects they represent, structure – and structure alone – becomes the only link that connects our verbal processes with the empirical data.” ”—Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity, Int’l Non-A Pub. Co. (1933)
“ “And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which is culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationships and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness. Each language performs this artificial chopping up of the continuous spread and flow of existence in a different way.” ”—Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Language, Mind and Reality”, ETC: A Review of General Semantics , Vol 9 No. 3 (Spring 1952).
“ “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.
It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.
The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. (…) We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” ”—Edward Sapir, German-born American anthropologist-linguist and a leader in American structural linguistics (1884-1939), The Status Of Linguistics As A Science (1929), p. 69.
“ "A more problematic example is the parallel between the increasingly abstract and insubstantial picture of the physical universe which modern physics has given us and the popularity of abstract and non-representational forms of art and poetry. In each case the representation of reality is increasingly removed from the picture which is immediately presented to us by our senses." ”—Daedalus (Winter 1965). Scientific Concepts and Cultural Change, Science and Culture, ed. Gerald Holton, Beacon (1967).
“C. I. Lewis on abstraction and common understanding
“But the condemnation of abstractions is the condemnation of thought itself. Nothing that thought can ever comprise is other than some abstraction which cannot exist in isolation. Everything mentionable is an abstraction except the concrete universal; and the concrete universal is a myth. (…)
The concept, so defined, is precisely that abstraction which it is necessary to make if we are to discover the basis of our common understanding of that reality which we all know. On a day which is terribly long to me and abominably short to you, we meet, by agreement, at three o’clock, and thus demonstrate that we have a world in common.” ”—C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, Dover (1956), p. 54-55, 80.
“There were no witnesses to what was about to happen. “Happen” didn’t yet exist. Reality was timeless. Space also didn’t exist. The distance between two points was immeasurable. The points themselves could be anywhere, hovering and bouncing. Infinity tangled into itself. There was no here and now. Only Being. Suddenly, a trembling, a vibration, an ordering began. Like roiling waves, space shuddered and swelled. What was near became far. What was now became past.
Lee Smolin on Thinking In Time Versus Thinking Outside Of Time
“One very old and pervasive habit of thought is to imagine that the true answer to whatever question we are wondering about lies out there in some eternal domain of “timeless truths.” The aim of re-search is then to “discover” the answer or solution in that already existing timeless domain. For example, physicists often speak as if the final theory of everything already exists in a vast timeless Platonic space of mathematical objects. This is thinking outside of time.
Scientists are thinking in time when we conceive of our task as the invention of genuinely novel ideas to describe newly discovered phenomena, and novel mathematical structures to express them. If we think outside of time, we believe these ideas somehow “existed” before we invented them. If we think in time we see no reason to presume that.
The contrast between thinking in time and thinking outside of time can be seen in many domains of human thought and action. We are thinking outside of time when, faced with a technological or social problem to solve, we assume the possible approaches are already determined by a set of absolute pre-existing categories. We are thinking in time when we understand that progress in technology, society and science happens by the invention of genuinely novel ideas, strategies, and novel forms of social organization.
The idea that truth is timeless and resides outside the universe was the essence of Plato’s philosophy, exemplified in the parable of the slave boy that was meant to argue that discovery is merely remembering. This is reflected in the philosophy of mathematics called Platonism, which is the belief that there are two ways of existing. Regular physical things exist in the universe and are subject to time and change, while mathematical objects exist in a timeless realm.The division of the world into a time-drenched Earthly realm of life, death, change and decay, surrounded by a heavenly sphere of perfect eternal truth, framed both ancient science and Christian religion.
If we imagine that the task of physics is the discovery of a timeless mathematical object that is isomorphic to the history of the world, then we imagine that the truth to the universe lies outside the universe. This is such a familiar habit of thought that we fail to see its absurdity: if the universe is all that exists then how can something exist outside of it for it to be isomorphic to?
On the other hand, if we take the reality of time as evident, then there can be no mathematical object that is perfectly isomorphic to the world, because one property of the real world that is not shared by any mathematical object is that it is always some moment. Indeed, as Charles Sanders Pierce first observed, the hypothesis that the laws of physics evolved through the history of the world is necessary if we are to have a rational understanding of why one particular set of laws hold, rather than others.
Thinking outside of time often implies the existence of an imagined realm outside the universe where the truth lies. This is a religious idea, because it means that explanations and justifications ultimately refer to something outside of the world we experience ourselves to be a part of. If we insist there is nothing outside the universe, not even abstract ideas or mathematical objects, we are forced to find the causes of phenomena entirely within our universe. So thinking in time is also thinking within the one universe of phenomena our observations show us to inhabit.
Among contemporary cosmologists and physicists, proponents of eternal inflation and timeless quantum cosmology are thinking outside of time. Proponents of evolutionary and cyclic cosmological scenarios are thinking in time. If you think in time you worry about time ending at space-time singularities. If you think outside of time this is an ignorable problem because you believe reality is the whole history of the world at once.
Darwinian evolutionary biology is the prototype for thinking in time because at its heart is the realization that natural processes developing in time can lead to the creation of genuinely novel structures. Even novel laws can emerge when the structures to which they apply come to exist. Evolutionary dynamics has no need of abstract and vast spaces like all the possible viable animals, DNA sequences, sets of proteins, or biological laws. Exaptations are too unpredictable and too dependent on the whole suite of living creatures to be analyzed and coded into properties of DNA sequences. is the prototype for thinking in time because at its heart is the realization that natural processes developing in time can lead to the creation of genuinely novel structures. Even novel laws can emerge when the structures to which they apply come to exist. Evolutionary dynamics has no need of abstract and vast spaces like all the possible viable animals, DNA sequences, sets of proteins, or biological laws. Exaptations are too unpredictable and too dependent on the whole suite of living creatures to be analyzed and coded into properties of DNA sequences. Better, as Stuart Kauffman proposes, to think of evolutionary dynamics as the exploration, in time, by the biosphere, of the adjacent possible.
The same goes for the evolution of technologies, economies and societies. The poverty of the conception that economic markets tend to unique equilibria, independent of their histories, shows the danger of thinking outside of time. Meanwhile the path dependence that Brian Arthur and others show is necessary to understand real markets illustrates the kind of insights that are gotten by thinking in time.
Thinking in time is not relativism, it is a form of relationalism. Truth can be both time bound and objective, when it is about objects that only exist once they are invented, by evolution or human thought.
When we think in time we recognize the human capacity to invent genuinely novel constructions and solutions to problems. When we think about the organizations and societies we live and work in outside of time we unquestioningly accept their strictures, and seek to manipulate the levers of bureaucracy as if they had an absolute reason to be there. When we think about organizations in time we recognize that every feature of them is a result of their history and everything about them is negotiable and subject to improvement by the invention of novel ways of doing things." ”—Lee Smolin, physicist, Perimeter Institute, answering the question What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?, Edge: The World Question Center 2011. (Illustration source)
“Holism is colloquially summarized as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (…)
I think that the scientific concept that would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit is holism: the abiding recognition that wholes have properties not present in the parts and not reducible to the study of the parts.
For example, carbon atoms have particular, knowable physical and chemical properties. But the atoms can be combined in different ways to make, say, graphite or diamond. The properties of those substances — properties such as darkness and softness and clearness and hardness — are not properties of the carbon atoms, but rather properties of the collection of carbon atoms. Moreover, which particular properties the collection of atoms has depends entirely on how they are assembled — into sheets or pyramids. The properties arise because of the connections between the parts. I think grasping this insight is crucial for a proper scientific perspective on the world. You could know everything about isolated neurons and not be able to say how memory works, or where desire originates.
It is also the case that the whole has a complexity that rises faster than the number of its parts. Consider social networks as a simple illustration. If we have ten people in a group, there are a maximum of 10x9/2=45 possible connections between them. If we increase the number of people to 1,000, the number of possible ties increases to 1,000x999/2=499,500. So, while the number of people has increased by 100-fold (from 10 to 1,000), the number of possible ties (and hence, this one measure of the complexity of the system), has increased by over 10,000-fold. (…)
We can understand organisms by breaking them down into organs, then tissues, then cells, then organelles, then proteins, then DNA, and so on.
But putting things back together in order to understand them is harder, and typically comes later in the development of a scientist or in the development of science. Think of the difficulties in understanding how all the cells in our bodies work together, as compared with the study of the cells themselves. Whole new fields of neuroscience and systems biology and network science are arising to accomplish just this. And these fields are arising just now, after centuries of stomping on castles in order to figure them out.” ”—Nicholas A. Christakis, Physician and Social Scientist, Harvard University, answering the question What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?, Edge: The World Question Center 2011
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” ”—Arthur Conan Doyle, Scottish physician and writer (1859-1930), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, (1892) (Illustration). "Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." — paraphrased in the Sherlock Holmes movie.