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Published by Scott Mcconnell

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Published by: Scott Mcconnell on May 16, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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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.
In other words, all the trillions of little points in space that correspond to every little rock, thatcorrespond to every spec of Martian dust are implicitly accounted for within the single point thatthe Newtonian model of gravitation works with.And still, this is strictly just an approximation of reality.Plato’s Cave Allegorystates that we are like prisoners chained to the wall of a cave, forever unable to look at the cave’s entrance, which would take us to the actual reality. According to thisanalogy, our only hope of ever catching a glimpse of true reality is by looking at the shadowscast by the objects that happen to pass by the cave’s opening.Although I still cannot say that I am a fan of a human brain simulation, it seems thatmathematical modeling at least allows us to take a barely “corner of our eyes” view of theentrance of the cave. Nothing more, nothing less, but it is a little better than mere shadows.There is hope to know ourselves a little better.I think I finally truly understand Plato’s Cave Analogy.
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