Friday, February 18, 2011

Some Perspective

Ten days ago, I publishes this post, which linked to this post, what amounts to a quite literal telescoping shot from the Earth-Moon system out to a galaxy so many billions of light years away, it may perhaps be among the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang, and so massive the editors note that its very existence violates our current understanding of astrophysics. Just looking at the way stars we see as we gaze out to the night sky - Arcturus, say, or Betelgeuse - swallow not just our sun, but the entire solar system are enough to blow your mind. It is, quite literally, incomprehensible beyond merely repeating certain facts, that this really is as it is presented. The scale, beyond not just our experience, but any practical understanding of what would constitute experience, leaves me, as the title of my post said, dumb struck.

Reading through Freeman Dyson's review of James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, I came across the following that gave me another one of those jolts of perspective.
In 1949, one year after Shannon published the rules of information theory, he drew up a table of the various stores of memory that then existed. The biggest memory in his table was the US Library of Congress, which he estimated to contain one hundred trillion bits of information. That was at the time a fair guess at the sum total of recorded human knowledge. Today a memory disc drive storing that amount of information weighs a few pounds and can be bought for about a thousand dollars. Information, otherwise known as data, pours into memories of that size or larger, in government and business offices and scientific laboratories all over the world. Gleick quotes the computer scientist Jaron Lanier describing the effect of the flood: “It’s as if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole town before you can even rise to your feet.”
Dyson, a physicist, also offers this somewhat slight aside on the information flood and what it means, in particular for scientists:
The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Internet is a wild, whacky place. One encounters all sorts of folk, and when you write about the Christian religion, without fail you will end up encountering that strange bird, the creationist. Now, quite apart from all sorts of reasons why "creationism" is really, really lousy Christian teaching, I could not subscribe to it if it were Christian doctrine because of . . . perspective.

The photos of our Universe, the sheer immensity of it, is beyond our brains' ability to process beyond seeing a few, two-dimensional photographs that compare sizes to which we can relate. It is possible to buy a device on the open market and put it in your home that contains more information that was created in all of human history up to sixty-two years ago. There are things on the drawing board, apparently, called "Quantum computers", a name I've heard but about which I know nothing at all, that will make pretty much everything we currently do not only obsolete, but the equivalent of Linear B, and it is happening so rapidly it is almost impossible to keep up.

For all that science continues to shrink our understanding of our place in the Universe, it is not designed to address very thorny issues. As the critics of logical positivism pointed out decades ago, there are all sorts of things, like freedom and patriotism and love that science just cannot address, let alone understand. These are the things about which human beings care most deeply, have killed one another, fought and are quite willing to die for (as we have seen on our TV screens over the past couple months). These realities, too, provide perspective that reminds us how small we are.

It goes without saying that one principle, perhaps one of the very few, I hold most dear and which guides what I do is - pretty much everything I have said, either categorically or otherwise, might well be quite wrong. Indeed, I expect most of what I know to be the case is, in fact, quite wrong. Furthermore, as a self-professed Christian, I hold that my confident statements on all sorts of things regarding faith matters is not only wrong, but almost comically so. Indeed, part of my own sense of what faith means is that I have no guarantees, for example, that I have been granted salvation. I certainly hope so, and I live my life in the faith that is so, and my reflections on matters of faith are rooted in a belief that is so. When all comes to an end, however, I may find out that, as the Emperor said to Luke Skywalker, I am wrong about a great many things.

And I'm OK with that. I'm OK with the various perspectives that shrink my own worth to nothing. I'm OK with the notion that, before 2020, or perhaps 2030 (the year I turn 65), the world will look so vastly different than it does now, and the pace of change - not just in information technology but in so many other ways - will only increase, defeating my attempts to keep up. I'm OK with the reality that, at age 45, I am losing millions of brain cells every day, making my attempts to keep up with information and understanding increasingly difficult. I'm OK with the thought that, when the end comes, whatever is to be my lot, I did the best I could with the tools given me.

Virtual Tin Cup

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