The tree of knowledge

What is “MENS” knowledge? It stands for modernist empirical natural science.  The theory suggests four layers of knowledge: matter, life, mind, and culture. Each layer cannot be fundamentally described by an underlying layer and needs to be learned in a different way. More reading here, here, and here.

Strong emergence

About 13.5 billion years ago a big bang created matter and space. Probably 3.5 billion years ago, some primitive life started to flourish on earth. When we talk about the human mind, it emerged only several million years ago and nothing in the life around could predict its arrival. Animal mind is more simple and much older. Our culture is measured in thousands of years, and knowing human minds does not enable prediction of the culture.  Neither knowing ants predicts the behaviors of the colony…

I quote:

There is a different kind of jump in complexity when we move from chemistry to life. Life is strongly emergent in that it represents a novel plane of existence. That is, life is a complex adaptive landscape that emerges as a function of new kinds of information processing and cell-cell communication. Chemistry is weakly emergent from physics, and both are part of the physical/material sciences. However, biology carries a different relation to chemistry than chemistry does to physics. The reason biology is not a physical/material science is because life carries strongly emergent properties. As Stuart Kauffman notes, the emergence of life is a “world beyond physics.”

Why do we care?

When can a certain idea be used in different contexts? For example, we probably cannot use the term “evolutionary advantage” when talking about matter but it can apply to mind and to the culture. A life form probably should not be described as schizoid, but culture may be as schizoid as a mind. On the other hand, democracy or capitalism does not make sense outside of cultural context.

Reusing metaphors

Let us take something from physics like elastic and plastic deformation. What does it mean for a life form, for a mind, for a culture? How do we react to traumatic experiences? What did it mean for Indian culture when Guptas met with Greek, and what it meant when Islamic Moghuls conquered the subcontinent?

We can take metaphors from more basic level of complexity and see how it transforms on a higher complexity level. I do not think that we can use metaphors in the opposite direction.

Scientific proof

Something in physics can be proven almost without doubt. This may require a huge collider that costs tens of billions of dollars and enough energy to power a city for a year. So what?

In biology the proof is more complex. Proving something about one life form does not tell much about other forms. Even the rules of epigenetics are thoroughly controversial. Even death is not a rule. Some deep ocian life forms do not die in our sense.

When we study mind, we rarely have strong causation, but we can measure correlations. Certain things will likely work, while other things are likely to fail. There are states and transition probabilities, however unlike quantum physics, repeating an experiment on a large scale will provide numerically different results.

Discussing culture, we can notice certain trends but we cannot even make experiments. Communism was a huge social experiment, and what did we learn? Sovient Union disintegrated into conglomerat or capitalistic states and China is one of the world’s leading superpowers. Cuba did not change munch since Castro’s Cuban revolution.

Are humanitarian sciences scientific?

Our ability to experiment is one of the cornerstones of the scientific method. It is not really possible to do experiments when we deal with culture, at least not in the same sense as it is in subjects with lower complexity. Economics might allow experimentation, but what experiments can apply to history?

From all the information we collected about history, we still fail to predict the destiny of a culture. If you disagree, consider the great cultures eliminated by Genghis Khan and his mongols. Or try to find anything predicting early victories of Islam over the Byzantian and Persian empires…

Collecting evidences, researching statistics and uncovering artifacts are important, however… When scientists cannot make experiments or predict they become highly decorated detectives and writers.

A different side of complexity

Physics experiences a different complexity-related issue. Scientists can mathematically predict the results of experiments, but do not have an explanation for these results. Dark matter and dark energy are just fancy ways to say “we do not know”.  What is the intuition behind the quantum physics? Not clear, at least for me. The formulas are good and they predict actual experimental results, only we do not understand why they work.

What’s wrong with life and mind

The other branches of science are struggling with ethical dilemmas. Pavlov’s experiments on dogs and orphans were unethical and inhumane. The issue is not just human suffering, but a real chance that something truly evil will be released. Examples may include mind control techniques, killer viruses and clones with hidden agendas.

Is slow and frustrating progress in highly regulated sciences adjusted to the fast pace of our modern life?  Probably not, but the alternatives are scary.

Interdisciplinary studies

While the tree of knowledge looks cool, it is just an interesting abstraction. Many truly interesting subjects fall between sciences. DNA was discovered thanks to physicist who got disappointed by the Manhatten project.

Bioengineering is trying to deal with all kinds of stents and prostetics, but the biggest interdisciplinary challenge is brain science. Nobody can quite figure out the mechanics of our intelligence. Computer scientists, chemists, phisicists, phisicians, phychologists,… It feels like representetives of every science possible tried to understand our mind and we still do not understand it. This is actually cool in so many ways…

White men science

MENS stands for modernist empirical natural science. It is also a sort of a joke.  There is not enough diversity in science. Ramanujan got his insights from indian goddess.  Lemaître was a catholic priest. Curie were a family, with Pierre, Marie, Irene and Frederic winning the nobel prizes in 1903, 1911, 1935. They were outliers.

Today the best scientific achievements typically result from very expensive projects, where teams of hundreds of scientists collaborate.  Usually these projects get money from US, Japan, China, EU.  Someone from a poor country needs to immigrate into a rich country first…

Political complexity is just an added bonus to the overwhelming complexity of modern science.

Artificial intelligence

It seams like we are building a god. A computational device more powerful than the common intellectual effort of the entire humanity. If everything goes as planned this god is scheduled to arrive sometimes in 2060s. There are big teams of scientists with cool multi-billion budgets working on this. We do not know what kind of intelligence this will be. Maybe guided by quantum computing and other technologies we did not yet concieve.

The emerging science of the supercomplex intellect is not even a science. We do not really understand what we are building. Yet, this is arguably the most important project of the humanity.

Scientists are slowed down by the increasing complexity and danger, but they never stop… Tasting the biblical tree of knowledge was not a very good idea. We enjoy our science, but do we know at what cost?


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