Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 17 February 2017

My 2 sided philosophy

In a way, this gets incorporated into Roger Penrose's 3 world philosophy that I discussed last year, but the core principle of my world view, that turns up again and again in my musings, can be best understood as a philosophy in 2 parts, if not 2 worlds. I'm not an academic, so don't expect me to formalise this as I suspect one is meant to, but there is a principle involved here that I wish to make more fundamental than I have done in the past.

This has been prompted, not surprisingly, by various things I’ve read recently, in particular in Philosophy Now (Issues 117 & 118) and a letter I wrote to the Editor of said magazine, which re-iterated some of the ideas that I expressed in my post on Penrose’s 3 Worlds, referenced above.

A great deal of my personal philosophy stems from the view that there are effectively 2 worlds for each and every one of us: an inner world and an outer world; and the confluence and interaction of these 2 aspects of reality pretty well determine how we live our lives, how we navigate relationships and how we effectively determine our destiny.

I’ve even used this dichotomous philosophical principle as a premise for how I write fiction. Basically, a story should include an inner journey and an outer journey where the outer journey is the plot and the inner journey is the character. In fact, writing fiction reinforced my philosophical point of view, when I realised it’s totally analogous to real life. The outer journey is fate and the inner journey is free will. The 2 are complementary rather than contradictory, but the complementarity is even more obvious when one thinks of it in terms of consciousness and the physical world. To illustrate my point, I will insert an edited version of the letter (I referenced above) to the Editor of Philosophy Now.

This is in reference to an essay by Nick Inman, titled “Nowhere Men” (published in Issue 117).

One doesn’t need to argue for a ‘soul’ or a ‘spirit’ to appreciate that some aspects of Inman’s argument have validity without religious connotations. In particular, there are 2 aspects of one’s self, whereby one aspect is subjective and uniquely known only to ‘You’, and another aspect is objective and known to everyone you interact with. But I think the most pertinent point he makes is that it is only through intelligent conscious entities, like us, that the Universe has any meaning at all. In answer to the oft asked question, why is there something rather than nothing? without consciousness there might as well be nothing. When you cease to be conscious, there is nothing, for You, and certainly there is no meaning, for You. Because consciousness is so ubiquitous and taken for granted in our everyday lives, we tend not to consider its essential role in providing reality. In other words, we need both an objective world and subjective consciousness for reality to actually exist.

As you can see, this is almost an ontological manifesto, which suggests that the existence of the Universe and the emergence of intelligent beings are entwined in ways which we prefer to ignore or dismiss. The scientific answer to this is that there is a multiverse of possibly infinite universes, the vast majority of which cannot sustain life. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the multiverse is an epistemological dead end in that it explains everything and nothing, which, ironically, is its appeal. We don’t know if there is a metaphysical purpose to our existence, and I’m not arguing that there is; I’m simply pointing out that reality requires both an objective world, called the Universe, and a subjective consciousness, epitomised by our existence.

It is for this reason that the so-called strong anthropic principle (as opposed to the weak principle) has long appealed to me. Neither of the anthropic principles, I should point out, are scientific principles; they are more like metaphysical premises that can’t be proven or falsified, given our current knowledge. I’m currently reading a highly ambitious and lengthy book by John Hands called Cosmo Sapiens; Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe. It’s a comprehensive survey and review of the latest scientific theories concerning cosmology, biological evolution and the emergence of humanity. Not surprisingly, he briefly discusses Brandon Carter’s weak and strong anthropic principles plus John Barrow’s and Frank Tipler’s book-length dissertation on the subject. Effectively, the weak anthropic principle states that the Universe allows conscious intelligent agents to arise because we’re in it, which Hands points out is a tautology – a point I’ve made myself on this blog. The strong anthropic principle effectively states that the Universe specifically allows intelligent agents to exist otherwise it wouldn’t exist itself. It’s not stated that way, but that’s a reasonable interpretation, and, as you can see, it leans heavily towards teleology, which I’ve also discussed elsewhere. On that point, if one believes in teleology then it’s hard not to conclude that the Universe is deterministic, which means there is no free will. Einstein believed this so strongly that he couldn’t accept the inherent indeterminism displayed by quantum mechanics and therefore believed that the theory was incomplete and hid an underlying deterministic Universe that we're yet to discover.

Personally, I believe in free will and a non-deterministic Universe, which creates a paradox for the strong anthropic principle. I resolve this paradox by arguing for a pseudo-teleological Universe, whereby the Universe has all the laws of physics and parameters to allow conscious entities to evolve without determining what they will be in advance. I’ve argued this in a post on the fine-tuned Universe, and elsewhere.

I’m not arguing a religious reason for our existence, though, of course, I don’t know if such a reason exists, and I would argue that neither does anyone else, though many people claim they do. I’m arguing what the evidence tells me. We are the consequence of a lengthy and convoluted evolution that we are still struggling to understand and explain, even down to the molecular level. The Universe has laws and parameters that are ‘finely tuned’ for the emergence of complex intelligent life and we are the evidence. Without consciousness the Universe would have no meaning at all, which is why the strong anthropic principle is apposite if not scientific. Our existence is the only thing that gives the Universe meaning and we are the only entities (that we know of) that have the cognitive capacity to probe that meaning, which we do through science, I should point out, not religion.

Now, anyone who read my post on Penrose’s 3 worlds, knows it consisted of the Universe, Mind and Mathematics. So where does mathematics fit into my 2 sided philosophy? Mathematics, as most of us know it and use it, is a bridge between the Universe and the Mind, specifically the human mind. And it’s a bridge that has provided more insights and more meaning than any other we’ve discovered. In fact, the limits of our knowledge of mathematics arguably determines the limits of our knowledge of the Universe, certainly in the last century and since the times of Galileo and Newton. A few years ago, following in the footsteps of John Barrow, I wrote a post called Mathematics as religion. Religion, in its many cultural manifestations, often claims to have access to transcendental truth. Well, I contend that mathematics is our only depository of universal transcendental truths and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem effectively tells us that it’s infinite, so it’s a never-ending endeavour. By corollary, it follows that there are and always will be mathematical truths that we don’t know.

Last week’s New Scientist (4 Feb 2017) cover story was ‘The Essence of Reality’, which was an attempt to understand what truly underpins the Universe beyond space and time. Some argue that the answer is information, essentially quantum information, which of course is mathematical. The point is, notwithstanding whether that question can ever be answered, quantum mechanics, which is a little over a century old, remains our most successful scientific theory to date, and can only be understood and interpreted through the medium of mathematics.


Footnote: Brandon Carter’s definitions of his 2 anthropic principles.

The weak principle: ‘that what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the condition necessary for our presence as observers.’

The strong principle: ‘that the universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers with it at some stage.’

Saturday, 4 February 2017

When the patients take over the asylum

Oscar-winning filmmaker and left-wing provocateur, Michael Moore, has suggested that Trump’s occupation of the White House has been akin to a coup. It should be pointed out that Moore actually predicted Trump’s win when others were dismissive. Personally, I find it difficult to give Trump credit for any nuanced strategic thinking. I think he’s just a completely inexperienced and incompetent politician with a severe case of power-gone-to-his-head syndrome.

What is indisputable (at a time when facts are disputed every day) is that Trump and his closest advisor, Stephen Bannon, have taken the reigns of the presidency with unprecedented zeal and dare-I-say-it, recklessness. Recklessness, because they are issuing executive orders without consulting the parties that have to enact them and with no apparent regard to the consequences at home and abroad. Stephen Bannon, like Trump, has no experience in political office, but unlike Trump wasn’t elected. He’s been criticised for sexism and racism, even white supremacy, and is best known as the executive chairman of Breitbart news, website for the ‘Alt-Right’. He is currently Trump’s ‘Chief Strategist’, and is widely believed to be the man behind the new executive orders banning Muslims from specific countries.

As an outsider (from Australia) it’s almost beyond belief that a new leader (Prime Minister or President) can come into office and, within days, start drafting new laws with immediate effect. Trump gives the impression that he has little regard for the ‘rule of law’ in his country, which was a key note of Obama’s farewell speech, who had no idea that this very issue would be put to the test by his successor. In fact, it seems that Trump’s key advisor, Bannon, who was not even elected by the people, is the man making laws, literally on the run.

When the acting Attorney General (Sally Yates) with over 27 years experience, defies a Presidential executive order because she believes it’s unconstitutional, then maybe people in high places should take notice. Obviously, I’m no expert on American constitutional law, but I imagine that issuing executive orders that are legally dubious could lead down the road to impeachment. It’s early days, so Trump and Bannon may temper their newfound egotistical powers, but neither give the impression of having that inclination. If they continue to issue executive orders that challenge the constitution or even the intent of the constitution, then eventually Congress is going to say enough is enough. After all, isn’t that the purported role of Congress?

As I say, I’m no expert, but one doesn’t have to be an expert to note that in his first 10 days of Office, Trump has pushed the envelope in abusing his newfound presidential powers like no one before him. Another example of overt abuse of presidential authority is the gagging of government scientists, even on social media; tantamount to declaring war on science.

Trump is like the school bully who has been made school captain – no, he’s actually been made school principal, if one extends the metaphor accurately. He is a man who boasts about groping women, who ridicules and humiliates his opponents and detractors, who is a serial liar and who foments hate towards Muslims, Mexicans and refugees. How did a man with these qualities get elected President when we knew all this before he was elected? I don’t completely blame the American people; after all he lost the ‘popular’ vote by 2.9 million. But I do wonder how many, who stayed away from the polling booth, now regret it.

There have been 2 side-effects to Trump’s presidency, one of which was expected and one less obvious. It was reported that a mosque was burned down in Texas (the congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center), which highlights the obvious side-effect of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. But the local Jewish community has offered its synagogue as a place of worship for the Muslims while their mosque can be rebuilt. This is the unexpected second side-effect of Trump’s policies.

I think Americans are generally compassionate, generous and accepting. I lived and worked in America before, during and after 9/11, so I witnessed first hand the inherent optimism of the American people in the face of adversity. I think Obama’s professed optimism in future generations of Americans, that he expressed in his farewell address, is well founded. I think Trump will bring out the best and the worst in the American people, but the best will prevail.

Meanwhile, in the face of this new authoritarian leadership of the so-called free world (isn’t that an oxymoron?) we could do a lot worse than follow the advice of former Dr Who actor, David Tennant.


Addendum: Yes, I've changed the third paragraph.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The smartest man in the room

In my last post I made passing mention of Barry Jones, who is now 84 and has just written a book, Knowledge Courage Leadership. When I was a kid, growing up in the newly discovered and infinite possibilities of ‘television-land’, Barry Jones was a TV quiz champion on Pick-a-Box, sponsored by BP and hosted by Bob Dyer, an ex-pat American. In the days (decades) before the internet and Google, Barry had a truly encyclopaedic mind, and when he entered virtually every Australian’s living room, he was quite literally the smartest man in the room.

Many years later, when he published Dictionary of World Biography (in the late 80s) someone I worked with at the time, who was widely read and a self-imagined scholar, told me that Barry Jones was a 'savant', which he meant in the most derogatory sense. In other words, whilst Barry could summon facts at will, he had no analytical skills and no real intelligence worthy of the name. Looking back, I would put that down to intellectual jealousy, but, even at the time, I thought his observation very wide of the mark.

The point is, having read his latest offering, I think the sobriquet, ‘smartest person in the room’, still stands, especially compared to the current crop of politicians we have attempting to govern our country. At 84, he displays more vision than anyone currently involved in politics in Australia. For a start, he’s pretty scathing about the nature of what he calls ‘retail politics’, where the only criterion for a decision or a policy is if it can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. In the so-called ‘post-truth’ era, most vividly demonstrated by Donald Trump’s recent election campaign, ‘byte-sized’ slogans overrun and out-rate attempts at evidence-based explanations. In fact, he uses the word, ‘evidence’, quite a lot in his own preferred version of political discourse.

He gives a summing up of the political leaders in this country that he has known or met or worked with, giving a subjective yet honest appraisal. In his time in politics, he was told that he didn’t have a ‘killer instinct’, which means he could never engage in character-assassination, which has become increasingly an integral component of the ‘game’ as it is played in Australia. In fact, it’s probably the most important part of the game if you have any aspirations of party leadership.

He then goes on to do the same for a number of world leaders, whom he has personally had some engagement with; some more so than others. At the end of the book, he gives a rather scholarly and informed analysis of the French Revolution, explaining, as he does, why he considers it unique in the history of Western civilization and why it is still relevant to current global politics. It basically illustrates how precariously our civilised existence is when political power and economic subsistence are no longer in balance. I’m probably doing him an injustice in attempting to sum up his treatise with a one-liner; but that was the message I received. It’s happened in a number of revolutions, when paranoia and violence combine to completely destabilise a nation and drive it into civil war. There are examples in evidence right now, not to mention the ones from last century.

But the most important part of the book for me, was a chapter or section, titled: Evidence v. Opinion / Feeling / Interest; the attack on scientific method. It was an address he gave, apparently, at the Australian National University for the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on 2 July 2014. He starts off with a quote from Don Watson, heavily laden with sarcasm:

The people are sovereign… to hell with the sovereignty of scientific facts, popular opinion will determine if the Earth is warming and what to do about it, just as it determined the answer to polio and the movement of the planets.

As anyone knows, who is a regular reader of this blog, this is a subject close to my heart. But Jones gives it a perspective that I hadn’t considered before. He points out that as the number of university graduates has increased in Australia and the information revolution exploded via the internet, there has been a ‘dumbing down’ in areas concerning legitimate science, evidence-based knowledge and the consequential political decision-making that should be informed by such learning.

To quote: Paradoxically, the Knowledge Revolution has been accompanied by a persistent ‘dumbing down’, with IT reinforcing the personal and immediate, rather than the complex, long-term and remote.

Barry Jones was Science Minister from 1983 to 1990 (the longest serving in Australian politics) and he maintains, in his own words: ‘an intense interest in science/research and its implications for public policy and politics generally.’

He wrote a book in 1982, Sleepers Awake, which I must confess I haven’t read, even though I always took an interest in what he said in the media. According to his own appraisal: ‘Three decades on, my central thesis stands up pretty well.’ And his ‘central thesis’ was ‘trying to predict the social, economic and personal impact of technological change, [but] in 1982 I was on my own.’ Note that I alluded to Barry’s predictions in my last post (Political Irony).

What makes Barry Jones exceptional in the world of politics is his grasp of the enormous gap between political expediency and reality. Yes, reality. I will allow Barry’s own words to illustrate my point:

I can claim to have put six or seven issues on the national agenda, but I started talking about them 10 > 15 > 20 years before audiences, and my political colleagues were ready to listen. In politics, timing is (almost) everything and the best time to raise an issue is about ten minutes before its importance becomes blindingly obvious.

We live in an era when science totally governs our lives, yet it is so subliminal, so ubiquitous, so everyday common, that we fail to appreciate that fundamental fact. Most of the public are science illiterate in the sense that they see absolutely no value in acquiring scientific knowledge. The argument is that you don’t need to know the laws of thermodynamics to drive a car – in fact, you don’t need to know anything technical about the dynamics of a vehicle to operate it.

This is a fair assessment as far as it goes, but when it comes to making decisions about issues like climate change or vaccinations or education of scientifically validated theories like evolution, then a large percentage of populations in well-educated societies, are plain ignorant.

The problem is, as Barry points out, in far more articulate and erudite prose than I can muster, politicians, who are often as ignorant as their electorate, exploit this shortcoming by giving slogan-bearing opinions in lieu of evidence-based facts, knowing that emotion will always win over rationality if the relevant emotional buttons are pushed.

He laments the fact that complex explanations of complex phenomena are considered simply ‘too hard’, and then, to illustrate his point, provides an entire chapter on the explanation of climate change and its history, going back to the 19th Century and even earlier. He gives the example (amongst others) of Tony Abbot (before he became Prime Minister of Australia, when he was Leader of the Opposition) stating: ‘carbon dioxide was invisible, weightless and could not be measured’. In fact, carbon dioxide is not weightless and is easy to measure. We know from chemistry that ‘On burning, each tonne of coal produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2… (a confirmation of Lavoisier)’. This is a prime example of a science-illiterate politician (a future PM, nonetheless) exploiting a largely science-illiterate voting public.

Jones makes the salient point that ‘Not to choose is to choose’, citing ‘French statesman and diplomat Charles de Talleyrand (1754-1838)… failure to act in a crisis has the same effect as an intervention: in practice there is no neutrality.’

I know, and I imagine Barry Jones knows as well, that the people who are stubbornly opposed to climate change are not persuaded by facts or evidence and often provide their own facts and evidence to make their point. Anyone who has studied science, even to the rudimentary level that I have, knows that science is complex, not easy to understand or communicate and can rarely be broken down into byte-sized chunks for easy digestion. Nevertheless, as I alluded to earlier and in other posts, I’m often struck by the obvious contradiction between our total reliance on science and our ability to ignore or obfuscate its message when it conflicts with our ideological agendas. Science is our best tool for predicting the future and for planning for future generations on this planet, yet very few politicians, not to mention commentators in the media, give science more than lip service in providing this essential role. One of the problems is that its message is often negative and pessimistic, which is when we should take most heed, yet politicians can’t win elections with negative messages. As a consequence, we only hear the negative message when its effects have become so obvious it can no longer be ignored.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Political Irony

There’s a strange phenomenon happening worldwide (in the Western world, at least) whereby centrist politics is not working, or should I say: not winning. Politics naturally divides itself into 2 because the population naturally divides itself into 2: right leaning and left leaning, though there’s a broad spectrum.

There is evidence that our genetic makeup contributes to which way we lean, possibly even more than environmental factors, which would explain why there seems to be roughly an even divide and why almost all societies seem to be split between the two. It comes down to personality traits as I’ve discussed once before, albeit a long time ago. Basically, conservatives are more conscientious, arguably less impulsive and more resistant to change. I know that’s being a bit stereotypical but studies pretty well support that view. Liberal-minded individuals are more open to change and diverse ideas. The thing is that it would seem functional societies need both types: people to challenge the status quo and people to maintain the status quo.

But recent events in Britain, America, parts of Europe, and here in Australia, indicate that politics is becoming more polarised, virtually worldwide, with people on both sides of the political divide becoming disenchanted with the status quo. The status quo has been to go for the centre in order to grab the highest number of people on both sides, but we’ve seen a clear desertion of the centre when it comes to polling and actual elections.

I’m not an economist or a political commentator, but I am a participant in the process and an observer. I should say at the outset, something that I don’t hide, which is my political leanings are definitely towards the left, so that will have a subjective influence on my particular interpretation of events.

I don’t believe that there is a single factor, but a confluence of factors, some of which I’ll try and elaborate on. However, I think that we are going through a socio-economic change not unlike the one that must have been experienced during the industrial revolution, only this time it’s a technological revolution caused by automation. Basically, automation is putting people out of jobs in the Western world, and I would suggest that this is only the beginning. I know this, partly because I work in the industry where it’s taking place: industrial engineering. But I can remember Barry Jones, Australia’s first science minister, foretelling this coming ‘revolution’ some 30 or more years ago. Barry Jones was most unusual in that he was probably more scientist than politician; certainly, he was a scholar of the highest calibre, which made him something of an oddity in politics.

I would argue that our economic paradigms are yet to catch up with what’s happening in the workplace, not that I’m claiming to have any solutions. But if things stay as they are then the divide between those with jobs and those without is going to become greater as technological advances in robotics and data management become more ubiquitous. So what about all the jobs going offshore? Yes, cheap labour is being exploited in countries with lax OHS regulations and where the cost of living is cheap. But, despite what Donald Trump told his voters, manufacturing has increased in America, not decreased (over the last decade) while unemployment has gone up. How do I know this? Chas Licciardello, the nerd on Planet America showed the graphics on one of the shows he co-hosted with John Barron, explaining that this was due to automation and not offshore labour, otherwise the manufacturing graphic would have declined with the employment graphic.

But, as I alluded to earlier in my discourse, there are other factors involved, not least the still lingering effects of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), which, need I remind anyone, actually started in America with the sub-prime mortgage debacle. So that also had its biggest impact on the least affluent in society, or most economically vulnerable, and they are the ones who are having the biggest say in our collective democracies. We should not be surprised that they feel betrayed by the political system and that they want to turn back the clock to a time when jobs weren’t so scarce and they weren’t at the mercy of the banks.

Someone once said (no idea who it was) that when times get tough, economically, societies have a tendency to turn against their fellows. People look for someone to blame and we have witch-hunts (which actually were the consequence of dire circumstances in medieval times). One only has to look at pre-war Europe when Jews were demonised and blamed for everyone else’s economic plight. John Maynard Keynes warned after the armistice deal at the end of World War 1, that it would bankrupt Germany and start another war, which, of course, we now all know it did.

And now we are in similar, if not exactly the same, circumstances where an election candidate can gain substantial ‘populist’ votes for promising to stop immigrants from taking our jobs and undermining our society with un-Western cultural mores. Protectionism and isolationism is suddenly attractive when globalism has never been more lucrative. And it is the right wing of politics, and often, the far right, in whatever country, that has had the most appeal to those who feel disenfranchised and essentially cheated by the system. No where is this more apparent, than in Donald Trump’s recent win in the American presidential election. He has demonstrated just how divided America currently is and the division is largely between the big cities and the rural areas, just like it is in Australia and also England with the recent Brexit vote. It’s the people in outlying regions that feel most affected by the economic crisis – this is a worldwide phenomenon in the Western world. It’s a wakeup call to all mainstream political parties that they can’t leave these people behind or think they can win elections just by appealing to city voters.

However, as alluded to in the title, there is an irony here – in fact, there are a few ironies. Firstly, all politicians know, including the ones who don’t admit it, that immigration, in the long term, is good for the economy. Countries like Australia, America, Canada and New Zealand are dependent on immigration for their continued economic growth. There is a limit to economic growth by population growth - and whilst that’s another issue which will need to be addressed some time before this century is over - it’s not what the current political climate is about. The other irony, particularly in America, is that Trump will promote deregulation of commerce, which is what created the financial crisis, which is what spawned the disenfranchised and unemployed workers, who voted him into office.

There is a further irony in that many of these populist leaders – certainly in Australia and America – have an almost virulent opposition to science when it doesn’t suit their ideological agenda. This is particularly true when it comes to climate science. Why is this ironic? Because science has created all the affluence, the infrastructure and the extraordinary communication convenience that everyone in the West considers their birthright.

A recent article in New Scientist (3Dec16, pp.29-32) claimed that people on both sides of an ideological divide will use whatever science they believe to bolster their position. This is called confirmation bias, and we are all guilty. But the issue with climate science is that many on the right believe that it’s a conspiracy by scientists to keep themselves in a job. Most people find this ludicrous, but anyone who is a climate-change sceptic (at least in Australia) believes this with absolute conviction. One Australian politician (recently elected into the Senate) claimed: “I know science fiction when I see it”. How could you argue with that? Not with ‘science facts’, obviously.

Somehow, all these issues get tied to the opposition of gay rights and gay marriage, which one can understand in the classic conservative versus liberal political arena. What this has in common is that it’s a desire to turn back the clock to when things were simpler: men were men and women were women; and marriage was between sexes and not with same sexes. So Trump’s slogan: “Let’s make America great again”; is also a call to turn back the clock by bringing in protectionism and stopping immigration from taking jobs and losing jobs offshore. When Americans made American cars for Americans to drive and didn’t import them from Japan or Europe because they were more fuel-efficient. In fact, he’d love to go back to when fossil fuels were easy to access and there was no limit on their supply. Addiction to oil is arguably the hardest addiction for Western nations to overcome, and, until we do, we really will be living in the past.

But the gay marriage issue is like a marker in the political sand, because one day, like abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, it will become the status quo and it will be valued and defended equally by both sides of politics. We are in a transition: politically, culturally, technologically and economically.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

How algebra turned mathematics into a language

A little while ago I wrote a post arguing that mathematics as language was just a metaphor. I’ve since taken the post down, though those who subscribe may still have a copy. In the almost 10 years I’ve been writing this blog it’s only the second time I’ve deleted a post. The other occasion was very early in its life when I posted an essay on existentialism (from memory) only to post something more relevant.

The reason I took the post down was because I thought I was being a bit petty in criticising some guy on YouTube who was probably actually doing some good in the world, even if I disagreed with him on a philosophical level. Instead, I wrote a comment on his video, challenging the premise of his talk that the reason mathematics is ‘difficult’ for many people is because it’s not taught as a language. I would still challenge the validity of that premise, but I would now change my own approach by acknowledging that there is a sense in which mathematics is a language, but not in a lingua franca sense.

In my last post – the review of Arrival – language and communication are major themes, and I make mention of a piece of expositional dialogue that I thought very insightful and stuck in my brain as a revelatory thought. To remind everyone: it was the realisation that language determines the limits of what we can think because we all think in a language. In other words, if a language doesn’t define the specific concepts we are trying to comprehend then we struggle to conjure up those concepts, and mathematics provides a good example.

The reason that mathematics is best not construed as a language is because mathematics, as it’s generally practiced, has its own language and that language is algebra. As I’ve said before: mathematics is not so much about numbers as the relationship between numbers, and the efficacy of algebra is that it allows one to see the relationships without the numbers.

And this is the thing, because some people find it easier to think in algebra than others. I will illustrate with examples.

A = k/B then B = k/A

If k is a constant (can’t change) and A and B are variables then there is an inverse relationship between A and B. In other words, if A gets larger then B must get smaller and vice versa. This can be written as A ∝ 1/B or B ∝ 1/A, where ∝ (in this context) means ‘is proportional to’. Note that if the number on the bottom gets smaller then the whole term must get larger and, of course, the converse is also true: if the number on the bottom gets larger then the whole term must get smaller.

People who are familiar with these concepts think this automatically. They also know that if you move a term from one side of an equation to the other, then you either invert it or take its negative. So if you have a language that captures these concepts, then you can think in these concepts with no great effort. It also means that you are not easily intimidated by equations.

To give another common example: the distributive rule, which is arguably the most commonly used rule in algebra.

A = B(C + D) is the same as A = BC + BD

And if A = -B(C - D) then A = BD – BC

(Note that multiplying by minus changes the sign: from + to - and - to +)

We could have done this differently because –(C – D) = D – C and B(D – C) = BD –BC   (So same answer)

This is all very simple stuff and it can be extended to include square roots (including square roots of -1), logarithms, trig functions and so on. Even calculus is just algebra with numbers disappearing into zero with the inverse of infinity.

One of the problems in learning mathematics is that we are trying to learn new concepts and simultaneously a new ‘language’ of symbols. But if the language of algebra allows one to think in new concepts, then a hurdle becomes a springboard to new knowledge.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Arrival; a masterclass in storytelling

Four movie reviews in one year; maybe I should change the title of my blog – no, just kidding. Someone (either Jake Wilson or Paul Byrnes from The Age) gave it the ultimate accolade: ‘At last, a science fiction movie with a brain.’ They also gave it 3.5 stars but ended their review with: ‘[the leads: Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner] have the chops to keep us watching even when the narrative starts to wobble.’ So they probably wouldn’t agree with me calling it a masterclass.

It’s certainly not perfect – I’m not sure I’ve seen the perfect movie yet – but it’s clever on more than one level. I’m always drawn to good writing in a movie, which is something most people are not even aware of. It was based on a book, whose author escaped me as a couple in front of me got up to leave just as the name came up on the screen. But I have Google, so I can tell you that the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer, and Ted Chiang wrote the novella, “Story of Your Life”, upon which it is based. French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve has also made Prisoners and Sicario, neither of which I’ve seen, but Sicario is highly acclaimed.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the music and soundscape, which really adds another dimension to this movie. I noticed that beginning and end scores were by Max Richter, whom I admire in the contemporary classical music scene. Though the overall music score is credited to Johann Johannsson. Some of the music reminded of Tibetan music with its almost subterranean tones. Australia also gets a bit of 'coverage', if that's the right word, though not always in a flattering manner. Forest Whitaker's character reminds us how we all but committed genocide against the Aboriginal people.

I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to give credit to both writers for producing a ‘science fiction story with a brain’. Science fiction has a number of subgenres: the human diaspora into interstellar space; time travel; alien worlds; parallel universes; artificial intelligence; dystopian fiction, utopian fiction and the list goes on, with various combinations. The title alone tells us that this is an Alien encounter on Earth, but the movie keeps us guessing as to whether it’s an invasion or just a curious interloper or something else altogether.

I’ve written elsewhere that narrative tension is one of the essential writing skills and this story has it on many levels. To give one example without giving the plot away, there is a sequence of narrative events where we think we know what’s going to happen, with the suspense ramping up while we wait for what we expect to happen to happen, then something completely unexpected happens, which is totally within the bounds of possibility, therefore believable. In some respects this sums up the whole movie because all through it we are led to believe one thing only to learn we are witnessing something else. It’s called a reversal, which I’m not always a fan of, but this one is more than just a clever twist for the sake of being clever. Maybe that’s what the reviewer meant by ‘…when the narrative starts to wobble’. I don’t know. I have to confess I wasn’t completely sold, yet it was essential to the story and it works within the context of the story, so it’s part of the masterclass.

One of the things that struck me right from the beginning is that we see the movie almost in first person – though, not totally, as at least one cutaway scene requires the absence of the protagonist. I would not be surprised if Ted Chiang wrote his short story in the first person. I don’t know what nationality Ted Chiang is, but I assume he is of Chinese extraction, and the Chinese are major players in this movie.

Communication is at the core of this film, both plot and subplot, and Amy Adams’ character (Louise Banks) makes the pertinent point in a bit of expositional dialogue that was both relevant to the story and relevant to what makes us human: that language, to a large extent, determines how we think because, by the very nature of our brains, we are limited in what we can think by the language that we think in. That’s not what she said but that was the lesson I took from it.

I’ve made the point before, though possibly not on this blog, that science fiction invariably has something to say about the era in which it was written and this movie is no exception. Basically, we see how paranoia can be a dangerous contagion, as if we need reminding. We are also reminded how wars and conflicts bring out the best and worst in humanity with the worst often being the predominant player.