Thursday, February 28, 2008

The respective role of science and art

This is a difficult subject mixing neurobiology with the interpretation of art. Edward O. Wilson offers, however, a simple distinction between science and art. Science can translate a certain perception into another language. "We [humans] can translate the energies of magnetism and electricity into sight and sound, the sensory modalities we biologically possess. We can read the active neural circuits of bees and fish by scanning their sense organs and brains". By doing so, we can then know what type of perception all species possess assuming that each perception corresponds to a specific and different neural activity.

But what science cannot translate is the feeling of the perception. We will a priori never be able to feel the magnetic and electric perceptions of the bees and fish. We can imagine it. We can study it. But we cannot experience it. "But", as Edward O. Wilson emphasizes, "incapacity is not the point" as art fulfils another role. "Art [...] transmits feelings among persons of the same capacity. In other words, science explains feeling, while art transmits it."

But Wilson wonders "how can we know for sure that art communicates this way with accuracy, that people really, truly feel the same in the presence of art?". My personal answer to this question is: who cares? Do we have to know if the feeling transmitted by art is the same for every person? As long as something is transmitted, as long as art triggers some kind of reaction, a good or a bad feeling, as long as an original message has been sent and received, that is what matters according to me. But this is my usual romantic definition of art. A bit anarchic and maybe too relativistic.

But what if art does transmits the same feeling? what a victory for a universal language. Wilson thinks that it is indeed the case. And how do we know it? "We know it intuitively by the sheer weight of our cumulative responses through the many media of art. We know it by detailed verbal descriptions of emotion, by critical analyses, and in fact through the data from all the vast, nuanced and interlocking armamentaria of the humanities".

A difficult and fascinating subject indeed.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A brief history and critic of complexity theory

This is a brief history synthesized by E. O. Wilson in Consilience of the accomplishments and promises of the science of complexity as well as its present drawbacks and its objectives needed to be fulfilled to convince a larger portion of the science community.

"Complexity theory was born in the 1970s, gathered momentum in the early 1980s, and was envelopped in controversy by the mid-1990s. The issues of contention are almost as tangled as the systems the theorists hoped to unravel. I think it possible to cut to the heart of the matter, as follows. The great majority of scientists, their minds focused narrowly on well-defined phenomena, do not care about complexity theory. Many have not yet heard of it. [...] Those who care can be divided into three camps. The first comprises a heterogeneous scattering of skeptics. They believe that brains and rain forests are too complicated ever to be reduced to elementary processes, let alone reconstituted in a manner that predicts the whole. Some of the skeptics doubt the existence of deep laws of complexity, at least any that can be grasped by the human mind.

In the second camp are the fervent advocates, a band of audacious complexity theorists, exemplified by Stuart Kauffman (author of the The origins of order) and Christopher Langton, who work at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, unofficial headquarters of the complexity movement. They believe not only that deep laws exist but that their discovery is on the near horizon. Some of the essential elements of the laws, they say, are already emerging from mathematical theories that use exotic conceptions such as chaos, self-criticality, and adaptative landscapes.[...] Their grail is a set of hoped-for master algorithms that will speed passage from atom to brain and ecosystem, consistent with reality but requiring far less factual knowledge than would be needed without the algorithms.

The third group of scientists, of which I am a reluctant member, has settled along positions strung between the two extremes of rejection and unbridled support. I say reluctant, because I would like to be a true believer: I really am impressed by the sophistication and élan of the complexity theorists, and my heart is with them. But my mind is not, at least not yet. I believe with many other centrists that they are on the right track -but only more or less, maybe, and still far short of success. [...] The basic difficulty, to put the matter plainly, is an insufficiency of facts. [...] The postulates they start with clearly need more detail. Their conclusions thus far too vague and general to be more than rallying metaphors, and their abstract conclusions tell us very little that is really new.
None of the elements of complexity theory has anything like the generality and the fidelity to factual detail we wish from theory. None has triggered an equivalent cascade of theoretical innovations and practical applications. What does complexity theory need to be successful [...]?

Complexity theory needs more empirical information."
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (Chapter 5)

Obviously, this discussion needs to be continued and I will keep posting critics and successes of complexity theory.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

From complexity to reductionism and back to complexity

Edward O. Wilson in his Consilience describes the two fundamental steps of science to understand Nature. First, you need to break down the processes into simple blocks. That is reductionism. Then you need to build back the complexity of the system. "To dissect a phenomenon into its elements, [...] is consilience by reduction. To reconstitute it, and especially to predict with knowledge gained by reduction how nature assembled it in the first place, is consilience by synthesis. That is the two-step procedure by which natural scientists generally work: top down across two or three levels of organization at a time by analysis, then bottom up across the same levels by synthesis" (Chapter 5).

"The greatest challenge today, not just in cell biology and ecology but in all of science, is the accurate and complete description of complex systems. Scientists have broken down many kinds of systems. They think they know most of the elements and forces. The next task is to reassemble them, at least in mathematical models that capture the key properties of the entire ensembles. Success in this enterprise will be measured by the power researchers acquire to predict emergent phenomena when passing from general to more specific levels of organization. That in simplest terms is the great challenge of scientific holism" (Chapter 5).

There is also an order of complexity. From "simple" to more complex, we find: physics, followed by biology, followed by sociology, with the arts closing the chain. "[T]he opposite journey from physics to end points, is extremely problematic. As the distance away from physics increases, the options allowed by the antecedent disciplines increase exponentially. Biology is almost unimaginably more complex than physics, and the arts equivalently more complex than biology. To stay on course all the way seems impossible. And worse, we cannot know before departure whether the complete journey we have imagined even exits" (Chapter 5).

"The profane word now having been spoken on hallowed ground, a quick disclaimer is in order. While it is true that science advances by reducing phenomena to their working elements -by dissecting brains into neurons, for example, and neurons into molecules- it does not aim to diminish the integrity of the whole. On the contrary, synthesis of the elements to re-create their original assembly is the other half of scientific procedure. In fact, it is the ultimate goal of science" (Chapter 10).

Such disclaimer should lessen the critics of reductionism. Reductionism is a fundamental stage that we need to go through to understand Nature. We have barely started to reconstruct the parts. Patience.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The brain and the learning process

Edward O. Wilson explains why it is difficult to understand how the brain works; the brain was made to survive, not to understand itself:

"All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental processes in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness. For thousands of generations people lived and reproduced with no need to know how the machinery of the brain works. Myth and self-deception, tribal identity and ritual, more than objective truth, gave them the adaptive edge.
That is why even today people know more about their automobiles than they do about their own minds-and why the fundamental explanation of mind is an empirical rather than a philosophical or religious quest. It requires a journey into the brain's interior darkness with preconceptions left behind. The ships that brought us here are to be left scuttled and burning at the shore."
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience, Chapter 6.

Maybe, such explanation may give a beginning of answer of why passion -or the absence of reason- plays such an important role in human society.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Utopia according to Gabriel García Márquez

This is an extract from the Nobel lecture given by Gabriel García Márquez when his received his award in 1982:

"On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, «I decline to accept the end of man». I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth."
cited by Jay Winter in Dreams of Peace and Freedom.

read the full lecture.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A salute to the Romantic and Postmodern movements

Although Edward O. Wilson disagrees in general with the ideas of and motivations behind the Romantic and Postmodern movements, here is what he has to say about them:

"As today's celebrants of corybantic Romanticism, they enrich culture. They say to the rest of us: Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong. Their ideas are like sparks from firework explosions that travel away from all directions, bevoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects. That is one reason to think well of postmodernism, even as it menaces rational thought. Another is the relief it affords those who have chosen not to encumber themselves with a scientific education. Another is the small industry it has created within philosophy and literary studies. Still another, the one that counts the most, is the unyielding critique of traditional scholarship it provides. We will always need postmodernists or their rebellious equivalents. For what better way to strengthen organized knowledge than continually to defend it from hostile forces? John Stuart Mill correctly noted that teacher and learner alike fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field. And if somehow, against all the evidence, against all reason, the linchpin falls out and everything is reduced to epistemological confusion, we will find the courage to admit that the postmodernists were right, and in the best spirit of the Enlightenment, we will start over again. Because, as the great mathematician David Hilbert once said, capturing so well that part of the human spirit expressed through the Enlightenment, Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen. We must know, we will know."
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience, Chapter 3

The notion of time

This is a much too brief place to discuss the full history and meaning of the notion of time. This post will progressively fill up...with time.

The first idea that I would like to start with is the fact that time, in terms of the dynamical evolution of the objects and systems which surround us, has not always been an obvious concept in the History. A surprising example is the static view of the world that the Greeks had. Heracles may have been the only one at his time to notice that "you do not always cross the same river", that things are changing and are not immutable.

More generally, the Greeks thought the world was in balance. As Ludwig von Bertalanffy notices, "Greek physics did not contain a time dimension" (General System Theory, Chapter 10). That is why, among other things, the Greeks spent so much time on geometry.

The question that I would like to ask is if the notion of time was absent only from the teachings and the work of the scholars only or if it was generally absent from the psyche of people. On one hand, it is hard to imagine that anybody could not have noticed that objects can fall, things got unbalanced and stones have trajectories. Should apes notice that the world is constantly changing? Or did the humans have to learn such concept which appears so "obvious" to us?

If you see an ape or an ancient Greek, don't hesitate to ask him.

To be continued.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Mysterious wisdom,
can an artist be wise?
Beautiful wisdom,
can the wise man be in love?

O wisdom where art thou?
Dans les yeux du fou,
in the hands of the priest,
in the lines of the professor,
in the sins of the sinner?

Or maybe you are here.
In the steps that I left in the sand.
Just behind me.

(inspired by a quotation of E.F. Schumacher cited by Cédric Chavanne)