Saturday, February 27, 2010

Symbols, people and society...

Most people know the difference between reality and fantasy, and yet they are unaware that just about everything that they have learned, everything they believe, everything they understand, everything in their head is in a way a fantasy - it isn't real. The reason has to do with our wonderful ability to use symbols. (bigger versions)

Symbols represent a concept, a dream of something that doesn't truly exist in nature - or rather something beyond what we can perceive in nature. The truth of nature is always beyond knowing, and yet we have no problem communicating with each other… our languages allow us to communicate, to build upon the knowledge that came before us, to organize and to create. We have languages built on symbols and rules for social uses. We have languages of mathematics to model reality, to predict what has not been observed. We have languages of the arts that can convey emotions and ideas for which our common languages are insufficient. Indeed as we grow older and become members of any society, of any group, the symbols and rules, the language in that context becomes everything to us.

The problem comes when these abstract concepts we so often use are taken as real - when someone thinks that because a mathematical formula gives a particular result that reality must obey - it just doesn't work that way. Our models of they world may predict what will happen, but for every single one there is always a possibility that the model is wrong. Indeed every model we can ever build will likely not always be correct in every context of reality.

For an engineer it doesn't matter. An engineer only needs a model that is good enough for a given application. An engineer uses symbols and rules, a language, to create something for a limited purpose.

For a scientist it doesn't matter. A scientist (a real scientist) always tries to figure out where the models fail in hopes of coming up with a new model that fails in fewer situations, a model that is in some ways better.

For an artist it doesn't matter. An artist coveys something beyond the common understanding to others. Artists are the creators of symbols and rules and language.

Indeed for everyone it really doesn't matter, until we get tricked or distracted by someone else who uses their mastery of symbols and rules to mislead us for their own agenda.

Math however; is a little different than the rest of our languages. Math is a completely artificial and abstract framework of rules and symbols where every single person shares exactly the same internal understanding. Unlike a word such as "tree" for which each of us may have a slightly different internal representation, 0,1,2 and +,-,= mean exactly the same thing always and everywhere. For this reason (the completeness of definition) we can build machines that can manipulate these symbols and these rules faster and faster. When we can model things with math we can therefore be increasingly more productive.

But a machine, no matter how productive, is not a person. Machines operate with a framework completely defined and can therefore be replaced or repaired. Machines can never be anything more than what they were created. Every person functions and exists in a unique way - and so unlike any machine, people have the potential to add something, to make the world different and hopefully better…

With a machine the value is in productivity (what can it do).

With a person the value is in potential (what might you be able to do).

Anytime potential is sacrificed for productivity - a group, a society, a culture will benefit in the short term but is doomed to fail (or be replaced) in the long term.