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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

the dullness of the general

It seems that I've gone through several phases of trying to put everything into one category. When I first learned some science and the concept of reductionism, it seemed that the whole world was made of atoms which were featureless, identical building blocks, possibly somewhat interesting, but not *that* interesting. The interest of the world had been traded for the interest of the atom, and it seemed a very poor trade-off.

I wrote about this once. I knew that I had made an error. At the time I thought it was in thinking that atoms were not particualrly interesting.

Later on, I thought about the idea of the digital- that all information can be encoded in 1's and 0's. I had a computer programming job in which I worked on an image compressor. I started to think of everything I saw in terms of bits. How can one environment be better than any other if each one is just a different collection of bits. There are certainly logical ways to attack this, and it doesn't even necesarilly make that much sense, but this idea sunk deeply into me. I suppose I was translating all problems into a language that could be engaged algorithmically in terms of an image compression or manipulation program.

Recently, maybe I've taken the concept of consciousness more seriously which has led to another of these reducing all experience to a single language that inevitably feels feeble and depressing. All experience is translated into a state of consciousness. Maybe I don't have as concrete a picture of this as I do an atom or a bit, but it still is a poor trade-off to replace all the world with a single category- that of conscious experience.

Stephen Wolfram wanted to do this with cellular automota. I think zen Buddhism does something similar to what I was describing as conscious experience. Modern physics does this with quantum field theories.

How do we get out of this? I suppose with a general skepticism about the power of any given language to describe.
Here lies a danger of academic work: one must fully saturate oneself with the given language in order to make progress and do something new. Maybe the old adage about the hammer is wise: "those whose only tool is a hammer will see all problems as nails." If one has both a hammer and a screw driver, then at least one has the concept of picking the appropriate tool for the problem. In the end, one can't do everything. But maybe the feeling of dullness when I take one tool or language too seriously is a sign that there are things I'd like to do that the current language is not so good for.

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