Incompleteness: More Than One / Teaching / Thinking Tools /
2005 12 08

Mission: I shall argue that the statements of modern physics on the limits of experiment, experience, knowledge, Heisenberg’s for example, need to be matched with parallel understandings from other fields.

Modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, have demonstrated intelligence all along. The current consensus seems to be that the caveman was as smart as his city-dwelling descendants. I personally don’t believe that we’re likely to be quite as smart, having thoroughly polluted ourselves, meddling with mortality … But, be that as it may, where I think contemporary mankind has clearly raised the bar is in the area of honesty. I don’t think that Heisenberg was any smarter than St. Augustine; I think Heisenberg, aided by modern science, was more honest. Humans have long been content to trust what they find in their belly button; modern science seeks external confirmation, and then is supposed to discount unsupported ideas, to throw out ideas contradicted by evidence. That, where it happens, stands in clear contrast to the oh-so-familiar practices of churches, political parties … university administrations …

On the physics side of things, the argument can be paraphrased quite simply: if our theory that we see by light is true, then experiment runs out of experience in the universe of the very small. In the macroworld, lots of light photons bounce off of large objects: an iron bar, an elephant. But if you’re trying to “see” a sub-atomic particle, you can only do so if at least one photon collides with it, and then reaches your eye: or your instrument. OK, you see the photon, you know that there WAS a proton “there.” But where is it now? The photon knocked it off someplace where you don’t see it. You can know where it was; you can’t know where it is.

Some very smart philosophers, arguing monotheism from their belly button (they may be more honest than their fellows, but not systematically honest like the ideal of the hard scientist), theorized a God, capitalized, who represented Authority, Authenticity: centralized, the boss, the final word. The God was paid some extreme compliments: infinitely wise, infinitely good, possessed of perfect knowledge …

Along comes Korzybski with his Semantics. The map is not the territory, he says. The symbol is not the thing symbolized.

Thus, if all that is right, and how can it not be? then the map can be much smaller than the thing mapped, the map can be much larger than the thing mapped, but the map will never be the thing mapped.

Our ideas about God can never be God.

And God can’t have perfect knowledge: about anything: unless His map IS the territory.

Forget about God: just try to imagine: how could the universe be accurately inventoried? The library would have to be larger than the universe! Infinitely larger. And then how large would the checking system have to be? checking the inventory against the universe?

Is any of this certain? No. Impossible. Because then the map would be the territory.

Conventional theology seeks certainty: we know what is going to happen, we know the final outcome. Because God told us. And God is right.

A scientist like Prigogine grooves on not knowing anything with certainty.

And I’m a convert. I groove on it too.

Now, the above is pk: pk being accurate about science: and philosophy: the best he can (as of 2005 12 08, 16:22 EST). What follows, scrapbook style, over time, will be pk talking out loud: not ex cathedra.

When a state takes a census, how accurate can it be? How can a state count every person in its territory at a given time? The state can concoct reasonable estimates, very reasonable; but it can’t be a count the way you can count the loose change in your pocket. The canvaser rings one door bell: “How many people live here?” “Me, my husband, and our two kids.” That answer may be as complete and as accurate, as honest, as you finding a quarter, a dime, and a penny in your pocket. Then the canvaser knocks on another door. He hears lots of shuffling on the other side. Finally, on a short chain, the door opens a crack. “How many people live here?” “Nobody.” There are two dozen Mexicans, Chinese, Haitians … trying to squeeze into the closet of the single bedroom.

The census can be sophisticated about births and deaths, about suddenly missing persons: and sophisticated about felons on the run, husbands on the run, wives, children on the run, and sophisticated about illegal immigrants … But no census is an actual “count.”

President Johnson said (in effect) Well, if you don’t think we should bomb all these Vietnamese, drop napalm on them, stick them upside down from a telephone pole with a bayonet through their ankles, tell me what you think we should do instead. Democracy, you see. How many people stepped forward and spoke up? (And what happened to them if they did?)

Talk about the photon blasting the proton into the next county.

Some people vote. Some other people, including people who voted, count the votes. Then some other people say, “Here’s what it all means.” Was the count as accurate as the census? Can what it all means possibly be right?

Can the map have equaled the territory?

Even if the counters and the explainers were as honest as Heisenberg, an extremely unlikely proposition, how reliable is the map?

If we could take the map to God, would God ratify it? give it his Imprimatur? How much should we care even if God does?

more coming, in time. Indeed, some of my original impetus has not yet found its way among the words.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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