Science, reality, religion etc.

It's interesting how I tend to get entangled in extended durations of 'investigations' into specific subjects. Of late, the subject has been science in general. Actually calling it science would be narrowing the scope to a very orthodox view. It has more to do with the human effort at understanding how nature works; while we happen to gain those insights with science, the more important idea is the effort at understanding. This brings us to the topic of how precisely does reality correspond to our explanations and how long shall it keep doing it. Moreover, why exactly is it comprehensible (I think it was Einstein who said that the incomprehensible fact is that nature was so comprehensible), what makes us believe in the relative validity of theories which are just a result of our imperfect impressions gathered by our imperfect senses, and finally, if our scientific explanations are ephemeral (as history has proved time and again), what makes them vastly more credible (at least to me) than the religious/mystic (non)explanations.

Below is part of a video of the brilliant Feynman expressing his views on some of these topics. The relevant points start at 3:20.

Anyway, the book that started this wretched chain of thoughts is David Deutsch's 'The fabric of reality' and it is quite simply, a work of genius. The brilliant thing about this book is that it boldly argues and presents conjectures on such difficult topics and manages to provide convincing arguments for its case. Deutsch doesn't dabble in mollifying opposing viewpoints and thus presents a book which is as incisive in its insight as it is overarching in its reach. He lays the grave of such philosophical junk as solipsism, inductivism, positivism and doesn't shy away from pointing where some of the most brilliant minds (Weinberg, Wheeler, Hawking, Penrose etc.) went wrong. He manages to narrow down his discussion to four of our best theories: quantum theory, Karl Popper's theory of epistemology, Darwinian evolution as modified by Dawkins, and theory of computation (Turing principle), presents the underlying unities among all of them and clarifies as to how all these theories, together, provide us with the most comprehensible and integrated view of our world yet. In other worlds, our first 'Theory of everything'. Its an intense book and I've already started it again in order to make more sense than the 5% I have managed to make after the first read :).


Mnemosyne vs. Camera

It was raining hard today and I went on a drive. I went to a place called Mount Soledad from where you can see vast expanses of San Diego and the endless ocean and as I peered down from the mountain top I saw one of the most beautiful views of SD I've ever witnessed.

For a second I thought, hell! why do I not have a camera, it's a shame that this view will dissolve into the ravenous night in a few minutes and all that I'll be left with are faint impressions on an uncertain canvas. And dissolve it did. But I still stand by my aversion to a camera and my dislike for photographs. Photographs are too perfect to be interesting. They are too truthful to be beautiful. What memory preserves in jars of translucent glass, pickled in spices of uncertainty, salted with a heady mixture of imagination and lies - a photograph crams it up in definite color schemes between the convenient borders of a 4X6. At this point, I'm not sure if the background far into the ocean today was dark green or blackish gray, or if the patches of rain far into the distance overwhelmed the sunny green land but mnemosyne, in all her supple grace, paints a picture that has a vague tint of satisfaction and peace. They say that the most erogenous part of the body is the brain. They say that the best actors in the world are the ones that we carry in our heads. I agree. A photograph is only perfect. Too bad it fails to do any better.


David Deutsch on TED

Following is simply the most brilliant talk I've ever heard. TED is a highly respected platform and David Deutsch is a highly regarded physicist. Here he talks about the concept of knowledge, how it makes humans different from other species, and finally tackles the often emotionally driven topic of Global Warming and beautifully puts things in perspective with insightful rationality:

What surprises me the most is the clarity of his thoughts and the over-arching grasp of his analysis. Genius! Well, I came across this a few months ago but my mistake that didn't share it earlier.


Power of Metaphors

I do not profess to be any sort of a music connoisseur but in my limited experience the one piece that astonishes me to no end is Ralph Vaughan Williams's 'The Lark Ascending'. And I have used the word 'astonish' not by mistake. The primary emotion that I have when listening to this piece is not one of happiness or satisfaction but astonishment. Somehow while listening to this piece with my eyes closed, the abstract idea of a graceful skylark slowly rising up above the crystal water into the endless sky manifests itself in the mellifluous sounds of the lone violin. And it amazes me that something as disconnected as music is able to evoke such a specific emotion. I suppose this is a very subjective experience but allow me to develop the point.

I feel that the lone quality that separates a genius thinker from a mediocre wannabe and an ignoramus is the capacity for metaphorising, so to say. The power to draw striking analogies between seemingly very different fields is the stuff brilliance is made of. I suppose we all have some sort of 'knowledge specialization' now that we have ventured beyond the dark ages of immaturity and pointlessness and I suppose we shall continue to add to our repository of existing understanding for the rest of our lives. As is probably done by any and every human being. But at the cost of sounding a bit defeatist most of us would vanish without a whimper in the cosmic sonata or without a flash in the divine pan. And one of the most important reason for this, I feel, is that the power to discover the underlying simplicity of this seemingly chaotic universe doesn't come easy. And to most, it doesn't come at all. And this power to find an underlying order simpler and more beautiful than the mess it bedrocks is the power to form metaphors and analogies. We can see it everywhere but lets take science for the sake of our hardwired brains. The story of science and its heroes is a classic case of gradual simplification and continued unification of our concepts. From Newton's brilliant insight that the forces that make the heavens go round are the same as the force that squashed the most famous apple in history to Maxwell's observation that electricity and magnetism can be combined beautifully into one elegant theory to Einstein's leap of imagination which unified space and time to Bohr's fruits which managed to provide a unified umbrella theory to 3 out of 4 fundamental forces of nature and the present quest for the final frontier that seeks to unify gravity with the rest, it's one breathtaking story of a string of ideas that are the scientific equivalents of the literary concept of 'metaphor'. In fact, our theories are nothing but self consistent set of metaphors relating mathematics and the observable reality and that is the poetic beauty of our simple universe. And like a great piece of music, like Beethoven's 9th, like Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace, like Wilde's essay on lying, like Fry's wonder at cheese and wine, like the soaring flight of the skylark, the joy of finding that there is an order under this chaos, that things are interconnected and simple below this mind-numbing physical complexity is one that gives me goosebumps.

'Metaphor' in fact is hardwired into our systems and we cannot speak a simple sentence without resorting to it in one way or another. As Guy Deutcher mentions in his brilliant book 'Unfolding of language', language itself is built upon a reef of dead metaphors. If you go back long enough in history simple words like 'back', 'have', 'will' etc. will turn out to be metaphors. And as we start maturing as a civilization, as our 'tolerances' for existing metaphors increase, the more experimental and cutting edge of our writers begin exploring other metaphors which are more radical than the old ones but nevertheless stomachable for an age of increased sensitivity. The same happens with ideas and concepts which increasingly seek to interconnect hitherto disconnected notions with more flamboyant analogies and more radical metaphors. So when Nabokov wonders about the dancing electric wires as he sits on the window seat of a traveling train and compares the motion with the life of a human being suffocated by social clutches or when Fry compares language with sex, one has to sit back, shake his head in reverence and give it to the genius who could connect such uncoupled ideas. And it's not that their analogies are contrived. I suppose you need a sufficiently developed sensitivity to appreciate the brilliance required to come up with such unifications in very much the same way wherein an average person will be able to relate the concepts of love and rose because the metaphor has been so beaten to death. So if one is willing to give legitimacy to the connection between a love and a rose, ideally, every connection should be beyond reproach and hence our snickering disapproval for the avant garde seems baseless.

But the more important and 'underlying' argument is that simplification and unification are concepts that a human being seems to strive for in all his endeavors. And when such comprehensibility and interconnectedness emerge from a heap of confused mess, it's a very primal joy. That it's an effort that is beyond the average human being is without doubt. Knowledge by itself is not of much use. I mean, Dan Brown seems to have a lot of knowledge but he doesn't bring anything really new and interesting and thought provoking to the dinner table. We are super specialized in our fields but as to our ability to further our fields by any respectable jump, the lesser said the better. But knowledge definitely is the bedrock upon which a greater understanding is constructed. It's like Fry's complaints about the sorry state of the 'verse libre' generation who do not write metrical poems not because they do not want to but because they cannot. Newton famously said, 'The reason I have been able to look beyond others is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants' and he was referring to Galileo. So genius is a rare combination of a voracious appetite for existing knowledge and an uncanny ability of simplifying the current scheme by discovering hidden and often surprising connections. That is why Wilde was such a great genius. What we often overlook, overwhelmed by his brilliant wit, is his encyclopedic grasp of literature before his age. What we often gloss over, however, is his unmatched capacity of elucidating faint connections. 'No man is ever completely unhappy at his friend's success'! It's a faint connection, a frail analogy, a tenuous 'metaphor'. But it's there, vital and universal.

About Me

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Like a particularly notorious child's tantrums, a mountaneous river's intemperance, a volcano's reckless carelessness and the dreamy eyes of a caged bird, imagination tries to fly unfettered. Hesitant as she takes those first steps, she sculpts those ambitious yet half baked earthen pots.