“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” – William Blake
Every living person finds something to believe in. The unique, individual way in which we believe is crucial to our individualism, and to our culture in general. Two Catholics may have two very differing opinions on the meaning of a passage from the New Testament. In the same way, two scientists may conceive two completely separate ideas from a single scientific theory.
After watching the Adam Curtis documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace I found myself lost in a spiral of thought about the idea of influence and perception and how, as humans, we can often believe in things with blinkers on. The beautifully compiled documentary flows through the last hundred years of computer history in an attempt to show that we have come to rely heavily on machines, and how this may be a problem.
One of the less badgered but still relevant points that I noted in the documentary was how human perception can cause drastic social problems. Human belief systems, whether we like them to or not, will dominate our understanding of anything that we attempt to explain through science or any other model.
The role of mathematics within nature has been pursued for at least two thousand years through the use and study of the golden ratio within living things. This ratio is seen to repeat in natural objects, and can be visible in everything from the human face to the spiral on the back of a snail, to the expanse of an unplanned city when viewed from the sky. As mathematics has been used as the language of nature we have a sense that mathematics is embedded within nature somewhere, through some system that is beyond our understanding.
This understanding of the link between mathematical patterns and nature was a structured belief based on observation. Without this belief we may never have come to the 20th Century theory of ecology using cybernetics, which held that there was some form of mathematical order in all living things. In theory, with enough data computers could calculate the patterns of systems of life. The man-machine concept presents a cybernetic utopia where all the systems of nature can be compiled and catalogued.
In a similar fashion to Marx’s original idealistic visions for a perfect Communist society, cybernetics presented a vision in the latter half of the twentieth century of a world that runs using only “natural balance”. The idea stood that by creating an egalitarian system of society, people would be able to self-govern and retain a level of balance and order, and machines were to help us do this. Once tested, the theory of a pattern of balance in life has been proven to be incorrect, or at least unprovable at present.
Scientist David C. Krakauer, in a series of lectures carried out in 2011 in the Santa Fe Institute (available online), spoke about how we are streamlining artificial intelligence in such a way that computers are becoming very good at carrying out single tasks, but beyond those tasks they have little use. He emphasises that computers have been evolving for 70 years, as opposed to life-forms which have had 3 billion.
This point is crucial in highlighting that how we perceive things is not always how they are. We understand computers to be extraordinarily advanced machines that can do more than people can in many cases. This understanding has led to the fear of Technological Singularity (computers taking over the world) but it is often forgotten that the machines that we are building have single functions that are programmed into them, and they are still quite stupid, even if they perform specific tasks very well. Computers can only operate exactly as humans program them to, as highlighted in the video below, where two advanced chatterbots were pitted against one another and told to pretend that they are human.
Like computers, we are only as intelligent as the information that we are provided with. In the past earthquakes and hurricanes were explained as acts of gods, until geological and meteorological studies showed that these phenomenon could have alternative explanations.
In the same way, until recently, we had never known anything in the universe that could travel faster than the speed of light until the faster-than-light neutrino was discovered. Afterward the world of science opened to a new possibility. Since this discovery it has been proven that the results were in error, but the perception now exists that something, maybe, can travel faster than light, and this belief may be carried further.
Mass perception can cause all manner of errors. When any belief system is hammered home as the truth, regardless of prevailing proof, many people come to accept this belief unquestioningly. History is far too quick to remind us that truth in science, religion, or any other form of belief is regularly proven to be incorrect. The only truth that we can accept is the one that we have most proof for. In essence this is like Sherlock Holmes’ theory that if you eliminate the impossible, then the improbable is the only solution. The universe (and even the earth) is far too erratic and under-explored for us to believe that any improbable answer is a hard-line truth of any sort. There is always another more improbable answer waiting to be found, and we need great thinkers to take off the blinkers in order to find these new ideas.
Perception is key when it comes to understanding and explaining all things. If we are given a hint that mathematics and nature may be connected, this does not mean that they are. If the only logical explanation is that thunder is caused by the hammer of Thor, this does not mean it is. To believe anything with closed minds, at any point, is dangerous. All theories have to be accepted as potentially incorrect. People will choose to believe as they do, but flagrantly dismissing another theory (as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry are want to do) is always irresponsible and reckless as it leaves no margin for error.
Everything is perception, and we should always remember that future generations will shun our philistine beliefs just as much as we shun those that went before us. We are far from the truth about life, the universe and everything, if it even exists. Everything that any individual believes is unique to them, and is almost definitely incorrect.
But then that’s just what I believe.
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