Von Neuman beats Hawkings…

Posted on January 1, 2011


Professor Wiggly: “Let’s start off the new year with an old idea. Hawking’s is being given credit for discovering the idea that we construct our realities out of selected bits and pieces of experience. But it’s an old idea.”

Jenny:” Yep, Plato said it thousands of years ago – he said we create our reality out of shadows of experience.”

Professor Wiggly: ” Yes, and more recently Von Neuman and his pals showed how we diddle our glorified logic to make it work.  He noted how we construct and protect categories… or as logicians and mathematicians like to call them ‘sets’. We use categories to help cut experience down to mind size – categories are mental baskets for storing similar bits of experience, like the category for birds, or fish, or humans, or cars, or republicans, or  sexy women, etc. These categories, or mental baskets make it easier to store bits of experience and share them with others. So instead of saying ‘ that a  thing with feathers, a beak, wings, that sings and lays eggs flew through our window’. we just say a bird flew through our window. ”

Jenny: ” So this is a form of mental economy, a mental filing and storage system – in Hawkings terms these are models or labels for similar bits of experience?”

Peter: ” Yeah but where do you store penguins or storks? They don’t fly or sing, but we label them birds?”

Professor Wingy:”Good point Peter. Categories are convenient but they’re also crude. They’re a bit like stereotypes, they focus on similarities and ignore differences, they’re based on selecting some sensations and ignoring others – they’re model dependent forms of realism. Von Neumann noted that  it sometimes got messy when you tried to be logical  or mathematical using fuzzy or leaky categories – for instance when you were counting birds did you include penguins, or when counting republicans did include ones that had voted Democratic in one previous election. So Von Neumann realized that logic and math weren’t as neat and tidy as it appeared when trying to think  in a disciplined way about familiar categories that you and I use every day. It’s another example of Simon’s mantra: no conclusions without assumptions, for instance without the prior assumption of what kinds of bird or Republican or doctor, or woman we’re counting. So in order to communicate effectively we have to share  each other’s assumptions or models of reality, we have to share beliefs about what  kind of Republicans, or women, or birds we’re talking about. Hawkings ‘model dependent realism’ says that we can’t say that a model deals with reality, only that it agrees with ‘observations’ – which is another way of saying that it agrees with another currently trusted model – with a measuring tool  which is nothing more than a particular selection of  signals.”

Peter:” There you go again Professor you managed to sneak your hero Don Campbell and his mantra into the conversation. Campbell’s mantra is your thing. It’s kind of your mental foundation stone on which all your other assumptions rest – if it’s turtles all the way down, Campbell’s  mantra is the turtle supporting all your other turtles.”

Posted in: Sciencing