The Forest vs. the Trees


After arriving at this crossroads with options for continuing with language, logic, mathematics, physics, philosophy, or some other path, I have decided to move up and view the situation from a higher level. It is as though we are in a deep woods with the various paths available to us from behind trees labeled "language", "logic", etc. So before we take a particular path, or take a look at any particular tree, I want to zoom back, as if we were looking at Google Earth, so that we can see the entire forest. Then, hopefully, we can spot a clearing that looks like it might make our enquiry clear, and then, again hopefully, we can see how to choose a trail through the woods that will take us there.

So what do we see when we zoom out? We see the expanse of history and the development of human thought, from the pre-Socratics and even earlier, right up to modern and post-modern thinkers. We see the amazing development of science and technology which would make our modern world seem so utterly fantastic even to the most advanced thinkers of the past. We see that the human desire to understand has remained essentially unchanged throughout history while the picture of the world, as understood by humans, has increased enormously with the human role seeming to diminish at every step.

We see that mathematics has reached a point where, in spite of the huge body of developed work, and the usefulness it has proved to humans, the mathematicians have more-or-less agreed that there is no essential meaning to mathematics. It is based on meaningless concepts and all the intricate inferences that have been developed are just as meaningless.

We see that science has reached a point where, in spite of the huge increase in the ability to predict, explain, and control nature, the scientists have more-or-less agreed that now with the appearance of dark energy and dark matter, the fraction of reality which we can claim to understand has continually shrunk over the years. With quantum theory seeming to underlie all physical reality, scientists have given up on making any statements about reality and have retreated to claiming only to be able to make statements about the probability of getting some predicted results of some measurements.

We see that religion, having been persistent and ubiquitous among humans since before recorded history, has evolved to the present state where we have a number of denominations, each claiming to know some truths about reality, but in fact contradicting one another in these claims. Many of those truths are the same as they were thousands of years ago. Most of the evolution of religion has concerned the organization of the various groups and their hold on power over people's thoughts. This accounts for their persistence over time. It also accounts for the violence that religious organizations have brought to the world from time to time, even up to our own time, as in 2001.

We see that the human condition has been enormously improved, primarily due to science and technology providing ways to utilize energy sources other than human and animal muscle power, and by providing ways of combating disease. This has led to the abolition of slavery and to the increased health and lifespan we enjoy today.

So with this view from, say, 15,000 feet, can we see a reasonable path through the woods that will lead us to a clearer understanding of reality? Science has sort of admitted that they are at a dead end, so heading into the scientific woods and hoping for a breakthrough doesn't look promising. Similarly, religion seems to have stalled with the ideas they started with mostly having been proved wrong over the years and the remaining ones give us no better insight into reality than the ancients had. Mathematicians have long since given up on any claims about reality.

Since we are still up at this altitude, let's turn our gaze to the grove of Logic, which I overlooked in the first scan. We see that the logicians established their principles and what they considered truths way back with Aristotle, if not earlier. These were considered to be constant for several thousand years. But in modern times, even logic has been shown not to contain any unassailable truths about reality. The watershed was the turn of the 20th century when Kurt Goedel dashed the hopes of Whitehead and Russell who were pursuing David Hilbert's ambitious project of reducing all of mathematics to logic. Goedel proved that if a sufficiently robust mathematical system is consistent, then it is necessarily incomplete. Moreover, we cannot in principle prove whether or not such a system is consistent in the first place. So it looks as though following Kant's, or Descartes plan to find a strictly logical path through the woods to arrive at a clear understanding of reality is probably a fruitless approach.

But from my perspective from this 15,000 foot level, it looks as if there might be a path to the clearing by taking the fuzzy boundaries between each of these dense clumps of woods. By taking advantage of the developments of each of the disciplines, taking cues from what has worked and what has not worked in each of them, by noticing the chinks and anomalies in each of them and trying to explain them, maybe in the context of another discipline, maybe we can find a way to explain at least some more of reality than what we already know.

Next time I think I'll begin our descent and zoom in a little into some of these disciplines looking for anomalies, useful tricks and results, and hints for how to proceed.

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