Fields of possibility

You have probably encountered the new-age-ish refrain “Anything is possible” especially in the context of human endeavours. I have. In the past, my first reaction has been to counter it. I also note that by sufficiently redefining the meanings of the words ‘anything’ (especially), ‘possible’, and ‘is’, I suppose a vague justification of the sentence is possible. The more vaguely redefined the terms need to be, the more the degree of untruth of such statements.

But ponder the ‘how’ of it, rather than its truth-value. That is, what is it that makes something possible? Consider a couple of specific instances of possibilities for humans, and the theory of evolution proffers an explanation. It is possible to up our capacity to run several miles, for our ancestors have passed on possibilities of augmenting (through training) lung capacities, strengthening leg muscles and so on that aid in running, – such abilities naturally selected for their hunter ways. Our evolutionary ancestors braved the cold climes leading to selections that allow us to put on layers of fat for training to swim in very cold climates. Spatial visualization possibilities selected to survive in prehistoric jungles make it possible to “intuitively” understand classical mechanics, a theory built on physical collisions of bodies of sizes comparable to those of objects encountered in the everyday world.

The inability to visualize a 4th dimension (or for that matter a 5th, 6th, 7th etc. dimension for string theory) is explained by the absence of positive evolutionary selection pressures exerted for that to come about, since an intuition for a 4th dimension does not improve survival possibilities of said ancestors. Similarly, not being able to develop an “intuition” for quantum entanglement is understandable considering the scales at which QM operates is without value for surviving in a “life-sized” world. Feynman said “I firmly believe if you cannot explain a principle of physics in common language and terms, then you probably do not fully grasp the principle in the first place.” Unfortunately, while the value of this dictum is self-evident, it applies in most but not all cases.

Consider now and compare a novice chess player NN, and a grandmaster GM. NN approaches the game as an area where he/she can eagerly demonstrate his/her proficiency in wild gambits, spectacular sacrifices and tactical melees. GM however, understands that the elegantly simple rules of chess set up complex fields of positional, strategic possibilities which allows the harmonious delicate dances of pieces on the board. NN, consumed by his/her myopia, does not recognize the source of the power he/she professes to possess. GM however, has understood that true mastery is an unraveling of the possibilities allowed by the rules of the game.

The game is paradoxically smaller than NN and yet larger than GM. A quote comes to mind – I am sure I paraphrase, please point me to the original if you are aware of it – “The apprentice laments ‘My art has failed me’, while the master says ‘I have failed my art'”.

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10 comments
  1. pseudopseudointellectual said:

    What is most interesting is the evolution of language itself.

    Were early humans as wont to hyperbole as we are?

    What was their definition of funny, tragic, romantic?

    How were ideas linked to words?!

  2. Unawoken said:

    pseudopseudointellectual,
    Thank you for your comment. Agree, those are interesting questions. I do not know enough about them to offer any answers. I am/will be reading up on these.

  3. Carpe Diem said:

    Nice post. Gets to this notion of verbal “tightness” that we have been pursuing in our other conversation.

    I tend to agree with Feynman though. While you seem dismissive of his position (“you have not understood some high-falutin thingamajiggy unless you can explain it to your mom in simple English”, to stretch it a bit) because of a few exceptions to his “rule”, there is a subtler point to consider.

    Words and stories are probably more innate to our cognitive processes, and the schemes by which we learn and store information, than numbers or diagrams. [Proof? Search me]

    Human beings are storytellers. Every culture in the world has had a storytelling tradition that has preserved its oldest epics and scriptures (long before writing eas even invented, or writing substrates became cheap enough, and writing talent widespread enough to enable chronicling and scribing at scale).

    All high-falutin influence is accomplished by injecting a temporal sequence, implied (if incorrect) causality to a chain of events, and associating emotion with those events to move the listener to a different state of mind (and hopefully into action).

    For better or for worse, that is how the bulk of HomoSapiens O/S works today IMHO. Over the past few centuries, we’ve developed advanced mathematics and applied it to massive problems at scale, but this often involves a small group of highly trained (specially conditioned to make technical judgements by repeated exposure to patterns/situations within science/engineering through schooling and practice) individuals, and that pool has grown over time, but remains small relative to the total world economy.

    For a vast majority of people, words and stories remain the primary way of receiving and processing more complex information. So if there is a difficult insight you drew, then the ultimate test of how well you understood it, would be to ask you to give up the formalism within which the theory is revealed (as in grad level Physics 307 class, for instance), and boil down its essence (via metaphor, analogy, and even hyperbole) into simple enough English to communicate it widely.

    Until diagramming and numbers become a more integral part of our innate compute machinery, I am not sure that this reliance on the “inspirational” and “motivational” characteristics of verbally managed mental information will diminish significantly.

  4. Unawoken said:

    Carpe Diem,
    Thanks.
    I almost notice this comment, because I don’t track anything here.

    I agree with all the things you said here except part of one paragraph:

    “… So if there is a difficult insight you drew, then the ultimate test of how well you understood it, would be to ask you to give up the formalism within which the theory is revealed (as in grad level Physics 307 class, for instance), and boil down its essence (via metaphor, analogy, and even hyperbole) into simple enough English to communicate it widely.”

    While I understand the usefulness of translating the formalism to commonly understood terms, and wish for that myself, I do not agree with
    “the ultimate test of how well you understood it,”

    (BTW I hope you do not think that we always disagree on things, I passed the rest of the stuff without comment because I agree)

    As we reach higher levels of understanding, i.e. beyond the first levels which evolution has thrown us up with, it becomes extremely hard (impossible) to translate to simple terms.

    For example, the truths that are revealed in the math of QM, are borne out by experiment. Math is an intermediate tool to get at the higher truth (true because borne by experiment). For example, Prof. Susskind (a father of string theory) requests you to get familiar with the math of QM, because no matter how you say it in English, you cannot make a human mind grasp it in analogies, because analogies by definition require something similar which works like that.

    Anyway, this is not defending snobbery or anything – I do not understand QM myself – but I do understand the truth of the above statement.

    It is ultimately devoid of meaning to say that these are the limitations of mind, therefore, _you_ do not understand something because _you_ cannot explain it to me in terms _I_ can understand. This principle is extendable to every human mind, and to the collective human abilities thrown up by evolution.

  5. Unawoken said:

    Another way of saying it is:

    Truth (if we anthropomorphise a bit) reveals itself in an as-deserved basis, not on an as-needed or some other socialistic type basis. So to understand something you have to work to deserve it.

    Yet another way of saying it is:

    We are toolmakers. We need tools that go to the level of granularity that the particular subject requires. To study cells we make microscopes. To pluck hair, we make tweezers. To understand QM, we make math.

    Sitting around and demanding that things need to be explained to us with our crude O/S is setting ourselves to miss the opportunity to learn. To those who do not wanna, I say, “good day sir/ma’am!” (or “what do you think of {insert actor’s name eg.} penelope cruz in {insert movie title here eg.} Vanilla Sky” i.e. hang like the next guy)

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