Bicycles and the seaside equation


During my one week hiatus from IdeaFestival blog, I caught up on my reading, lazily peddled a single speed around the Edisto island in South Carolina and devoured several dozen essays on my Kindle. And while watching the sun set or my children playing in the waves or listening to a living and fecund marsh behind our vacation home, I was reminded that some things just are. They need no further explanation.

Describing emergent properties, like consciousness, that arise from simpler phenomenon, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann asks rhetorically "do we need something more to get something more?" in one of my favorite TED videos. Like Gell-Mann, I'm astonished at the staggering beauty that is everywhere. And while, much to my regret, I won't be able to understand the mathematics behind the processes he describes, I can say now that I'm much more comfortable than ever before in that relative lack of knowledge. Not knowing doesn't change the underlying realities at work in any case.

One of the reasons for that comfort is that the urge to find simple, single answers in everyday complexities misleads as often as it informs. For Gell-Mann, emergent properties need no further explanation, and not, I suspect, because there may not be, in principle, any underlying realities to be had, but because the underlying realities are much too grand for us to grasp. Our minds simply aren't up to the job of deciphering the exact nature of the quantum wave, or able to make predictions about the interaction of whole societies.

Not that some don't try. In an article headlined with appropriate Onionesque dryness, "Reaching the Singularity: It’s More Complicated Than We Think," IdeaFestival presenter Parag Khanna push back on the nerd rapture talk. I have to say, as much as I admire the contributions of people like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey, predicting events like the singularity and radical life extension in the next 30 or 40 years ago smacks of the kind of just-so thinking against which they might otherwise declaim.

As another other great rhetorician, John Cleese, demonstrates here, reductionist thinking can afflict the scientific community as well.

It's good to be back.