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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Clothes that don't Fit, Categories that Break Down

New Haven has been abuzz with parties honoring the very late Mr. Charles Darwin. Everyone's been getting dressed up and having drinks at the British Art Center where they exhibited fanciful images of birds, flowers, and creatures from the beyond . .

There was the do at Mr. and Mrs. Prum's (both are ornithologists). Everyone's celebrating Darwin, but who is Darwin to us now? An extremely sensitive observer of nature, who bequeathed a vocabulary to use and wear out, to wear as part of our 'finery', no differently than a bird wears its feathers.

The clothes have to 'fit the occasion' . . . survival of the fittest.. . . ? What nonsense am I talking here?

I recoil . . . a bolt of anger passed through me when I heard the quip about the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. We stand around in heated buildings discussing the reputation of a scientist built upon a single recording of supposedly of a single extinct bird when all of Darwin's teaching seems to be saying that there's no wrong in making another species extinct, after all, it's survival of the 'fittest'.

Wait a second. That's not what Darwin taught at all. Darwin, like Leonardo, simply struggled to make sense of his observations. He made his theories servants to his facts. Social Manifest Destiny in turn made us servants to his theories. This cycle of observation/theory seems to repeat itself indefinitely. We observe. . we then theorize . . and if the body of theory fits, we enslave ourselves to the theory . . instead of continuing to observe.

That post-doc was paid for by mass extinction. Well in some ways it was.

 . . . it all has to do with language . . labels . . categories . . .

"Newton was wrong" I remember Ed North my physics professor crowing to his lot of kids. "He was right," North clarified, "Only so long as velocities remain below the speed of light."

I imagine the same scene today . . . "Einstein was wrong!" . . . or . . . given the frame of reference of large gravitational fields . . . large energies and masses, his formulas are provable . . but go searching for an individual electron? You need quantum theory . . . Einstein's suddenly no good.

"God doesn't play dice" Einstein was famous for saying. Turns out that God does throw dice. In fact '(I'll allow the personification) He has quite a number of games that He can play at any moment.

I remember a discussion with my father in the car when I was about three years old.

We were making the long (in those days it took nearly four hours) drive back to CT from New York City. It was Saturday and we'd spent the morning and afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. My father used to leave me to wander in the European painting section, or in Ancient art, where I used to look for hours at the paintings and glass cases filled with Greek pottery. He'd be in the slides and photos department, borrowing images for the art history course that he taught.

He commented that I was growing and that I needed new clothes.

"My clothes fit me" I said.

"Well they are starting to not fit" he replied. I wondered how something like a pair of pants could both fit and not fit at the same time.

"What does that mean?" I asked him. "I'm wearing them."

He started to think I was being obtuse. "We have to take you in to get you some new trousers. You're growing taller."

"If I'm growing out of my clothes and my clothes don't fit, what do I wear to the store while we go and get new ones?" I asked him.

"You'll wear the clothes you're wearing now" he said.

"But they don't fit me!" I protested.

He gave up. We turned our minds to the problem what to do with our last quarter. Buy gas, buy one Coke and very little gas, or buy two Cokes and have a nickel left over to put in the tank. A quarter bought a lot in those days!

I wasn't nervous about being naked, after all I'd spent the morning looking at naked men and women on the sides of pots. I was more curious about the absoluteness of 'clothes that fit' or 'clothes that don't fit'. It seemed that if a wise man like my father could say my clothes didn't fit me, I shouldn't be able to get into them at all.

So I was introduced to the idea of a category, and how they inevitably break down. Ever since that conversation, I've felt queasy about labels, or seeing the world in sort-able piles, this or that, a species or a related species, a proton or an electron. Classifications seem to carry an inherent unease, a built in self-knowledge that they are either partly or wholly outdated, like leaves that are brown, but haven't fallen.

Are we looking for definitions? If we are then I have to say that as far as I'm concerned Newton was wrong, Einstein was wrong, Heisenberg was wrong, and so most of all was Darwin.

A theory can only propose limitations to itself that are known. A theory can postulate it's own limitations, but cannot formulate them, since the needed observations are lacking. So when Newton proposed energy equals one half mass times velocity squared he could not have known the exceptions. At that time there weren't any! Newton's 'rightness' was only excepted once other discoveries had taken place. As an observer Newton was brilliant . .. so also Galileo, so Leonardo. . . who touchingly labels a spot in the center of a dissected skull and writes . . . "The soul of Man resides here."

I'm amazed at the resilience of theorists who believe in the search for a foundation theory, one that covers all cases, all future data sets. Hasn't enough theory been proven wrong to prove the wrongness of all theory? That theory as we know it. . . is really only a descent from observation. Or rather . . 'what I know to be true unless I learn differently.'

Perhaps what science, economics and behavior scientists should be working on is a notion of theoretical permanence, or, a theory that helps us try to calculate how much longer a particular mind set will last. When will the hummingbird make it's turn? How long will the car move down the road? How much longer might we rely on economic theory to run our society?

Let's take a page from our friend Darwin:

There are notions that descend from Darwin which we all grew up upon . . . One of them is the ideas of species distinction and two species not being able to produce fertile offspring.

Wrong. There are a ton of exceptions to this now.

From Darwin we came up with the idea that Man was the superior species . . even while the clock of evolution and of time ticked equally for every species on earth . . . so how could one species be called 'more highly evolved' than another?

The cries of "Wrong" are now starting to sound like buzzers on a game show. No disrespect . . . Darwin had a subtle mind that enabled us to discover much. . . as much about the natural sciences as anyone. But to take the categories that he offered us as creed . . therein must lie the problem. .

To take the Categories as Creed .. . .

The Scientist is an observer who forms a theory. . . as a convenience . . to test his knowledge . to see if there's an order to his observations. He dies and his observations die with him. . but his theories . . they last. So the Master's students form a Church to teach the Master's theories and to guarantee each of the students an income for the rest of their lives.

How is the Christian Church different from a Kung Fu dojo? The master of Kung Fu dies. . the students each interpret the master's teachings differently. . they go off form their own schools. . and preach the master's theory. . .according to them. . and all hell breaks loose when the different schools get together.

So if a Church hands you a category called Christ do you believe it simply because it was called such . . and because there are Gospels to back it up? I never knew Jesus Christ, but wish I had. To me he was a Leonardo. . . a Darwin . . . a teacher . . an observer.

Is it possible to move forward past Christ, past Allah, past Yahweh, past Buddha? Is it possible to abandon the either/or categories they offer us and yet retain the essence of their teachings?

Thomas Jefferson was so frustrated with Christianity as a cult that he took a copy of the King James bible and edited it, removed all miracles and unbelievable events, leaving only Jesus's teachings. Jefferson recognized Christ for what he was, a man, and a great teacher, of the sort of greatness that only comes only every few thousand years.

They gave us shoes that fit the growing mind of man. . . for a while. The notion of species served us while we made other explorations. We are starting to see that all DNA is fungible . . movable . . it's information, and every interaction, between species offers an opportunity for duplication, for copying of code, even between humans and other mammals. . reptiles . perhaps even plants, certainly viruses and with viruses as vectors . . are swapped . . traded . . . yes like baseball cards.

Take a virus to make you resistant to a bacteria . . .splice in a gene from a plant to make your skin cells produce carbohydrates with the sun's energy . . . all this is possible . . .

More deadly than the demise of a once watertight category, such as the four elements of the Greeks [fire air earth and water] is the death of the belief system that once went with it. Yesterday it was a totalitarian interpretation of an ideal Communism that failed. Today it is Western Capitalism. No amount of bank aid or banker rip-offs can save the patient. No one believes in it anymore.

Yet what were Communism/Socialism and Capitalism but vectors in a physics that produced a variety of nation states, according to a similar mathematics of economy. It's the underlying math that's dead. The rules of both, which were the same, no longer apply. Those rules were in essence the governing rules of a fractal plane where ownership, and means of production were the vectors. Marx defined Capitalism and Communism both, but his laws have broken down. His rules are as hollow as the rotten stump that once was the God Odin.

Observe any system closely enough and it appears to be moving in a stable fashion, the whirling orbit of a planet . . or the gentle ride of a vehicle down the road or the incremental progress of a hummingbird into a flower full of nectar.

But wait. . and sometimes one has to wait a very long time . . . what was suddenly stable breaks apart, flies open, explodes, implodes, disintegrates . . changes radically. The planet's orbit disintegrates rapidly and sends it spinning into it's mother star, the vehicle suddenly makes a hard right turn . . or stops, the hummingbird is gone in a flash, leaving behind a flower slowly swaying in the breeze.

So then let's postulate . .. things appear stable and it is during this stability, and because of it that we make our labels, our categories. . . to name them and study them. But suddenly they break. Those very same containers suddenly crack, they don't hold their contents anymore . . . just as the relic of a god in the Jungle holds only a porous notion of past God . . . now is only home to bees and snakes.

Now let's examine the moment at which things collided or broke apart. . . slow the clock down. . examine closely the progress of it. Let us take for example the seemingly slow, or rapid, (depending who you are) collision of the landmass of India into the continent of Asia. This was how the Himalayas were formed.

It might seem catastrophic. . . quick . .. instantaneous even by some time scales. . .but slow the movement down even more it becomes a ballet of mountainous uprising. . . tantalizing as a dance. . . a dance that began 50 Million Years ago . . . and it is still happening.

In other words the cataclysm itself has a certain stability to it . . . a set of repeatable elements that make the future predictable (we know the Himalayas will rise significantly more from the collision of the Indian subcontinent.)

India was at one point a 'continent', a landmass . . until the collision . . at which point the categories of 'India' and 'Asia' are temporarily blurred. Like the clothes on a child who has grown out of them. If he has grown out of them why is he wearing them . . .they shouldn't fit at all.

Clothes and continents are not binary chips, delivering either a one or a zero, a fit or a not fit. . . Clothes and continents have a different 'physics' than the photon or electron, or binary numeral.

If we expand or contract the perimeters of a category. . . at what point do it's laws, it's rules . . . break down? As categories evolve and dissolve into and from each other, isn't it logical to expect the laws that go with them to change also? Doesn't the continuum of change also change the underpinning rules and principles? The rules of physics themselves.. . even the laws of math that underlie the physics . . it all changes.

This is the wonderful thing about fractals. They can help you take a category and expand it to the point that it breaks through it's own container . . into another definition, another category, just as the fruit of a mushroom pokes it's head into another medium, air, and releases it's spores. The life of the fungus has moved into the air. . . where all the rules are different. The first fish moved onto land and discovered the effects of gravity. . . The fungal spores drift through a world of light, and air. . . This is the notion of rebirth, seen on a cosmic scale it becomes a rebirth of Vishnu . . as we crawl out of our undersized snake skin sleep and venture up into a new Age . . . foreign and alien at first. Nothing we used to know and treasure is useful except for an ability to spot order in that older realm, the ability to formulate a specific set of data, experiences, or referential point of view appropriate for that time . .. that space.

And, as one would expect. . the laws of physics are different in that place.

Categories break down. Count on it.

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