Thursday, October 25, 2007

The importance of small steps in science (and in life in general)

One day, when finishing up my dinner in a Chinese restaurant, I cracked open my fortuneteller cookie and what I read stroke me and reminded me a long-time forgotten lesson that my mother used to teach my sisters and me. My mother's saying was like "the little rivers make the great ones". The Chinese one was something like "great things are achieved by small steps". I was quite amazed how I failed to remember this lesson which sounds so modest and powerful in the same time. Life around you goes so fast that at times it pushes you to burn the essential steps; but then, you burn yourself before reaching your goal.

Thus, it is with pleasure that I would like to refresh our Confucius-like philosophy today and reminded us of the importance of such simple lesson. What motivated me is this lesson appeared also in one of Ludwig Boltzmann's essay, a very important physicist of the late 19th century. This concerns science only but it applies, as he shows, to everything in life:

"Nowhere less than in natural science does the proposition that the straight path is the shortest turn out to be true. If a general intends to conquer a hostile city, he will not consult his map for the shortest road leading there; rather he will be forced to make the most various detours, every hamlet, even if quite off the path, will become a valuable point of leverage for him, if only he can take it; impregnable places he will isolate. Likewise, the scientist asks not what are the currently most important questions, but «which are at present solvable?» or sometimes merely «in which can we make some small but genuine advance?». As long as the alchemist merely sought the philosopher's stone and aimed at finding the art of making gold, all their endeavours were fruitless; it was only when people restricted themselves to seemingly less valuable quesitons that they created chemistry. Thus natural science appears completely to lose from sight the large and general questions; but all the more splendide is the success when, groping in the thicket of special questions, we suddenly find a small opening that allows a hitherto undreamt of outlook on the whole"

Ludwig Boltzmann, The second law of thermodynamics, in Theoretical physics and philosophical problems

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It's the demography!

Emmanuel Todd and Youssef Courbage, an intellectual and a demograph, have written a book The rendez-vous des civilisations (a title that I would translate as "The civilizations will unite"), which takes an opposite view of the much controversial book by S. Huntington The clash of civilizations.

In this book, that I have not read but which is reviewed by Pierre Assouline, it is argued that Islam, which is at the center of the "problem", is, contrary to what we might think, already on its way of being westernized, and this is deduced by a pure look at the demography of muslim populations: the birth rate passed from 6.8 to 3.7 child per women between 1975 and 2005. The thesis is the following: the intellectual and cultural evolution of a people depends much on its demography than on its mood. In particular, the highest the birth rate, the more powerful religion is and inversely. Apparently, this lecture fits well the evolution of christian people in Europe and the authors argue in their book that this is what is happening as well in muslim nations. Thus, for them, the future is bright, and the different civilizations are already on a road of convergence.

Although optimist, this book has nonetheless received many criticism regarding the simplicity of their theory and the lack of cultural factors to judge the future. Critics that I think are well founded. But it is worthy and courageous to give a different perspective, one which contradicts the much too fearful theory of S. Huntington.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mechanism of Nature, less dogmatic after all

Jerry Fodor has written an interesting piece about some modifications concerning the theory of evolution in Nature ("Why pigs don't have wings"). Darwin's powerful idea that selective forces are the reason for what Nature is might not be as true as it first appears: some characteristics of individuals might just come for no specific reason or deep principle. Because even in the mechanism of Nature, life is also full of surprises and the road is just full of irrational bumps.

Paradoxically, that would make a lot of sense in many cases.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A definition of complexity

Murray Gell-Mann gives a definition based on information theory of complexity in his book The quark and the jaguar. In this context, a measure of complexity can be associated with the actual length (in bits for instance) of the description of the regularities in a message.

If the message is perfectly regular, that is composed of only 1's, then the length of this regularity is short, "only 1's", and the complexity is small. On the other hand, if the message is perfectly random, so much so there is no regularity whatsoever, then the complexity is also low. Only when there is many different regularities together, the complexity will be large.

Although this definition might not satisfy a lot of people, at least it is the first time that I read any attempt to quantitatively define complexity.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The fantastic face-to-face between France and New Zealand during the Rugby Worl Cup 2007

This Haka was fantastic in intensity. The teams were so close to each other. I have never seen this before. When combat and confrontation can still be meaningful, intelligent and noble. Thanks all of players for this formidable moment.

Monday, October 1, 2007

universality versus relativism, reductionism versus complexity

This is an ambitious post and the topics are larger than life but I would like to share here some thoughts from The moment of complexity by Mark. C. Taylor. At the beginning of his essay, Taylor gives us an original account of the history of the debate on, let's say it, how to see the world: are there universal laws or is everything relative - culturally rather than physically speaking? what is the correct method to comprehend Nature, reduce the problem to a series of simple problem or see it as a whole? These are of course very general and deep questions, which may have as many answers as sand grain on a beach. But this does not prevent us to, at least, discuss about it.

Taylor details the philosophy of several intellectuals, among whom that of Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss is an advocate of universal laws and a reductionist view of the human culture. He is quoted saying:

"By drawing up an inventory of all the customs that had been observed, all those imagined in myths, those evoked in the games of children and adults, and the dreams of healthy and sick individuals and psychopathological behaviors, one would be able to draw up a period table like that of the chemical elements, in which all real or merely possible customs would appear grouped in families, and in which we would simply need to recognize those which societies have in fact adopted.
(Lévi-Strauss, quoted in The moment of complexity by Mark. C. Taylor, chapter 2; italics are mine)

There are many advocates of the other point of view, one of them, and maybe not the most clearer one according to Taylor, is Foucault. Foucault does not deny there are some kind of universal laws but he insists that these laws have been constructed within our own cultural frame, so that these laws are not, I will dare to say it, "universal enough":
"[W]hile admitting that there is an «order of things», he insists that this order is neither natural nor essential and thus cannot be preordained or unchanging. Whatever order is at work the world is historically contingent and therefore to a certain extent arbitrary."
(Mark C. Taylor, The moment of complexity, chapter 2)

This debate is typical between the scientist who applies reductionism in a professional way, and the humanist who restrains himself from doing so. Taylor writes "[w]hile certain scientists tend to reduce culture to nature, many humanists defiantly reduce nature to culture" (Mark C. Taylor,The moment of complexity, chapter 7). For the former, the understanding of human culture and its psychology is attainable from the study of the building blocks that are the genes: you have or have not the gene of painting, singing, writing, seeing the world this way and not this way etc. For the later, nature itself is a psychological construction different between individuals so that little can be said in general.

For Edward O. Wilson, reductionism, far from denying the complexity of nature, should rather be seen as a tool, not a philosophy or a statement about the world. For him, reductionism is "the search strategy employed to find points of entry into otherwise impenetrably complex systems. Complexity is what interests scientists in the end, not simplicity" (Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge, cited in The moment of complexity, chapter 2). Edward O. Wilson adds the following lucid statement:
"The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science."
A sensible illustration of such confrontation is also amazingly found in Lettre à D., Histoire d'un amour by André Gorz writing about the different way his wife, an englishwoman, and himself, influenced by French universalism, think:
"J'avais besoin de théorie pour structurer ma pensée et t'objectais qu'une pensée non structurée menace toujours de sombrer dans l'empirisme et l'insignifiance. Tu répondais que la théorie menace toujours de devenir un carcan qui interdit de percevoir la complexité mouvante du réel."
Although I have a lot of respect about critics of science, because as Descartes said we should always doubt, I have to admit that Edward O. Wilson's view seems correct. As again and again, the conclusion from this debate is not so much that one side is necessarily correct and the other wrong, but that each point of view is adapted to different situations or goals.

To conclude this little post, I would like to bring to your attention that according to Marc C. Taylor, it is possible to go beyond this classic debate. One of the mind-blowing example is the feedback that an idea can have on the brain itself. For instance, in linguistic, there is an academic school which thinks that the brain developed also from the use of the words themselves. Terrence Deacon writes that "the major structural and functional innovations that make human brains capable of unprecedented mental feats evolved in response to the use of something as abstract and virtual as the power of words" (T. Deacon, The coevolution of language and the brain, cited in The moment of complexity, chapter 7). James Gardner says also that "information can and does flow upstream into the genome from the particular extended phenotype we know as human civilization" (cited in The moment of complexity, chapter 7).

Applied to the debate surrounding reductionism as I understand it, the simple schema the scientific community chooses to describe Nature would have a certain effect on the brain over time, would physiologically improve it so that the brains of the scientists would come up with a new schema, more adapted to the world. In some way, it is true that the view of science has evolved and still evolves dramatically ; the idea here is that the improvement in the description of Nature has not been completely independent of the previous descriptions; in other words, the description of the world at a certain time has helped to shape the new description at a later time via a physiological change of the brain itself. In this case, reductionism still is the basic tool to comprehend Nature, but the reductionist schema has some internal subjectivity associated with the physiological limits of the brain. I do not know how far this is accepted but it is true that, if correct, it enlarges the debate and may bring possibilities to accommodate both the scientist and the humanist.