Maybe I am in a philosophical mood.I think that the first time that I explicitly thought about these things was when I read one of Richard Dawkins’ books; I think is was
Climbing Mount Improbable
. As all of Dawkins’
books, it is a delight to read. One of the chapters included a description of how relativelysimple is to write a computer program to simulate, with eerie efficiency, the flying behavior of aflock of birds.I remember thinking at the time that this was ok, but that reality must be something more thanthe reduction of the behavior of a dot in a computer screen to a few (actually
few)mathematical rules. That can’t be all there is; what about what is actually going on in anindividual brain of a given bird?(Ok, go ahead, feel free to insert your favorite “bird brain” joke here…)Anyway, I thought about the millions of neuronal connections in that little bird brain, I thoughtabout the thousands of complex calculations that it processed in mere thousands of a second, thekind of calculations that made it flap its wings a little faster or a little slower or the ones thatmade it veer to the right or to the left, up or down…Am I making sense? Now, what I think that I am thinking is that we can model flock behavior all we want; we’llinevitably fall into the proverbial asymptote, getting closer and closer to reality but never, ever quite there. The same applies to a human brain. The best simulation is no simulation at all!However, if this is true, we are forever trapped within our own minds. We can never know thetrue nature of reality. We can imagine and model reality, but we could never, ever experience itdirectly. Somehow these thoughts reminded me of the idea articulated in the 1970s by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his essay “What is it like to be a bat?“, essentially about the natureof consciousness.On the other hand, somehow I started thinking (and do not ask me why, I don’t even know whyI think the things I think about… (:-)…) about how we model the motions of astronomicalobjects. We can do this with a high degree of precision. Moreover, this is not even modernknowledge; people have been able to predict and model these types of things for thousands of years now. Now, if you think about this (and you knew this was coming), a model of how the planet Marsmoves through the Solar System is, as accurate as it is, just another approximation of reality.The mathematical equations used to trace the movements of the planet treat the planet essentiallyas a point in space. These equations are not explicitly concerned with every stone or even everymountain in the planet. In strict terms, every little movement, every minor “marsquake” changesthe planet’s actual position ever so slightly, but is does not matter, since it does not significantlyaffect our ability to determine how to get a space probe there.