Friday, 24 September 2010

On imaginary numbers...

I've just been listening to the latest edition of In Our Time. The program concerns 'imaginary numbers'. Fascinating things!

An imaginary number is that which gives a negative result when squared. The square root of minus one - also known as i - is an example. The most astonishing thing about imaginary numbers (though perhaps their name ought to have given us fair warning) is that they don't 'exist' in the real world. One cannot count or measure with them. And yet - when embedded in equations - they have proven extraordinarily helpful in providing verifiably accurate solutions to real world problems. Imaginary numbers are crucial conceptual tools in contemporary scientific models of electromagnetism, fluid dynamics and quantum mechanics for example.

How can this possibly be? How can something that doesn't exist describe something that does? I suppose we ought not to be overly surprised. After all, negative numbers don't really 'exist' either. And that doesn't forestall their use in equations that come out with positive solutions. Imagine a healthy balance sheet. So long as your income (modelled by 'real' positive numbers) outweighs your debts (modelled by conceptual negative numbers), then your bottom line will be a 'real' number insofar as that one could convert it into tangible purchases if one so wished. It doesn't matter that you've used unreal negative numbers to get there. The only difference between negative numbers and imaginary numbers, then, is that the former may be attached to an intuitively graspable concept - debt.

Could √-1 be translated into a human practice analogous to debt? I wonder how that would look. How it would feel.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

On narrative…

I can’t stop talking about this book Consilience by the Harvard biologist and philosopher of science, Edward. O. Wilson. I first picked it up last summer and even now I find it echoing daily in my consciousness, informing whatever I’m thinking about. It’s kind of a map of everything; an intensely readable (but in no sense dumbed-down) guide to the current state of the natural sciences coupled with a thoughtful analysis of the possibilities for their unification with the social sciences and the humanities.

As my title suggests, I really wanted to write something about narrative. It’s just that whenever I’ve tried to write anything about anything recently, something from Consilience has popped into my head. Here’s the particular passage currently intriguing me:
Short-term memory is the ready state of the conscious mind. … It can handle only about seven words or other symbols simultaneously. The brain takes about one second to scan these symbols fully, and it forgets most of the information within thirty seconds. Long-term memory takes much longer to acquire, but it has an almost unlimited capacity, and a large fraction of it is retained for life. By spreading activation, the conscious mind summons information from the store of long-term memory and holds it for a brief interval in short-term memory.
The long-term / short-term distinction is pretty familiar to most people, I’m sure, but what really gets to me about this passage is just how limited the short term memory is: seven words (or other symbols) at a time! How on earth are you or I supposed to comprehend our daily lives, let alone the universe, if we can’t even hold the entirety of this very sentence in our heads at once? Our long term memory may stockpile a huge amount of information and experience, but we can never truly take account of the whole, only continue to wave the tiny flashlight of conscious thought erratically over its vast and dark expanse.

Reading a little more about the subject, I’ve encountered some controversy about what exactly constitutes a symbol, and whether our brains might deal with different sorts of symbols with varying efficiency. But these sorts of quibbles don’t detract from the central idea that present-tense mental activity may be essentially limited and linear in comparison with the brain’s total capacity. We don’t need science to tell us this; I just think about song lyrics. I might know every single word of a given song, but I'll still need to sing it right through in order to recall the second line of the third verse. Certainly, the way we talk about our mental life in everyday conversation – as a ‘train of thought’ or a ‘stream of consciousness’ – would seem to hint at an experience of a single path moving through a wider cerebral landscape.

Enter narrative. Narrative is our only hope, I think. Unlike the real world, in which each instant emerges out of the baffling array of forces at play in its immediate antecedent, a narrative will guide our one-track minds along a single path of causation from beginning to end. No wonder so many people prefer religion to science; stories to charts and diagrams.

But, of course, scientists are human too; scientific understanding cannot and does not literally transcend the tiny bandwidth of the brain. When I say that Consilience provides a ‘map’ of reality, I would inadvertently describe Wilson’s view as birdlike, surveying the conceptual scene from on-high. But that is not the case. He is on the ground with the rest of us, although he is certainly not lost. Every sentence of his book follows the previous one; step by step through from the laws of physics to the chemistry of cells to the biology of organisms to the workings of human minds and thenceforth to the generation of culture. Science succeeds to the extent that it allows our monkey-brained species to comprehend the complexity of the universe, and to that end it is necessarily a narrative in itself. We may never truly map the territory from above, but we may at least beat solid pathways through the undergrowth. Or hum our way through the tune to the point at which we are to start singing.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

On the meaning of life...

Almost every time I've been busking with my friends in Falmouth this year we've met a girl called Auburn. See is young; much younger than her remarkable self-possession would seem to suggest. She carries a notebook in which she records The Meaning Of Life, as dictated to her by the buskers of Falmouth. 'Meaning of life?' was in fact the first thing she said to me.

The question flummoxed me then as indeed continued to on subsequent encounters. On about the third time we met Auburn I asked if I could have a look at a few of the other buskers' responses, just to get some clues. No such luck. As one might expect, most read 'to be happy', 'to love and to be loved', 'to help others', and all the rest of it. I wasn't seriously hoping for a singular solution to millennia of existential uncertainty, but I'd hoped for something less nauseating.

I'm going busking tomorrow, and I'm going prepared. The following is perhaps best read aloud in the poorest of French accents:

What is the meaning of life? For a start it is a strange question. What do we mean by 'meaning', and what do we mean by 'life'? 'To mean' is often understood as 'to signify', so are we asking 'what does the word 'life' signify'? The answer would, I suppose, be something like 'animate matter, biology, the condition that differentiates animals and plants from rocks and gasses'. Or, perhaps, 'human existence'. Or simply 'existence' alone. But that is not what is being asked. Perhaps we are asking 'what does existence itself signify?', to which the only possible answer could be 'itself'.

Perhaps it is the definition of 'meaning' that ought to be broadened. Neuroscientists speak of 'meaning' in terms of linkage; it is the neurological pathways between words, concepts, memories and emotions. Those concepts, memories and emotions that one may associate with the word 'life' will depend less upon cultural agreement than upon one's own idiosyncratic experience of life. In these terms, the meaning of 'life' is necessarily defined by the pursuit of its own definition.

Dear God, that's far more nauseating isn't it? I'm reminding myself of this video, in which Jacques "Jacques" Derrida is forced to make up his bullshit on the spot:

Go on, Derrida! Do some philosophy! Do it! Do it!

Friday, 26 March 2010

On waking up...

This seems a reasonable place to start:
We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet's crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add - until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use. - Annie Dillard
I've long resisted the idea of starting a blog. They just seem so disposable. Quickly written, quickly read, quickly forgotten. If I've ever got something to say, something worth publishing, I'd like it to be thought it through from every possible angle. I'd like it to be well-researched and perfectly structured. I'd like it to be beautiful, and to know that no one else had ever said it before. Otherwise it's just noise, and who cares?

But what I'm realising is that with these caveats in mind I'll never get round to saying anything. It's taken me about an hour just to get this far. I'm only human, and I do have something to say, and perhaps the only way to figure out what that might be is to stop editing myself before I begin. To talk enough nonsense that I stumble across some sense. Where better than a blog?

The above Dillard quotation is taken from her collection of non-fiction essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, an unexpected delight on my university course reading list. Elsewhere in the book she describes the urge to live like a weasel, aligned perfectly with simple animal neccessity and unfettered by the painful contradictions of consciousness. But I don't buy it. This extract is more honest: here Dillard rails against the uselessness of the unthinking mind. Like all writers she is desperate to make sense of her experience, and for those around her to listen to what she has to say.

A worthy goal, I think.