"The mind is a compact, multiply connected thought mass with internal connections of the most intimate kind. It grows continuously as new thought masses enter it, and this is the means by which it continues to develop."

Bernhard Riemann On Psychology and Metaphysics ca. 1860

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Uprooting Our Mostly Misleading Assumptions

Habits can make us captive of oppressive opinions, in much the way that conscience makes us cowards. Such a habit is the lack of scrutiny about why we say what we do. Every so often, almost out of the corner of our eye we have an inkling of this. For instance, I just read this passage in Cooper's Homeward Bound:
Reflections something like these passed through the mind of Eve Effingham, as she examined the mixed crowd, in which some were busy in receiving stores from boats; others in holding party conferences with friends, in which a few were weeping; here and there a group was drowning reflection in the parting cup; while wondering children looked up with anxiety into the well-known faces, as if fearful they might lose the countenances they loved, and the charities on which they habitually relied, in such a mêlée.
Cooper's use of the word stores struck me; and I realized at once that I have never before stopped to ask why I go to what I call the grocery store. Now I suppose that the naming of the very thing which I use as a necessity in the end could matter very little if I had forever remained in blissful ignorance of the wherefore of its name. It seems so very trivial a thing. And of course if one were to try to tease out all such linguistic connections, then you would end up spinning your wheels like the Red Queen.

Thus Leibniz declared that memorizing names of things was futile. You need them the same way you need street signs: to get somewhere. For that matter, DeGaulle said that political parties are like taxis.

Descartes set out to carry the illusion that names are equivalent to substance to its ultima ratio. If I create an algebra where a grid can locate a point no matter where it might try to hide itself, I can always create a formula that will name that very same point. But why do we believe that doing so we have somehow captured reality? Is it because we have been oh so clever in interpreting the shadows on the wall of the metaphorical cave that our senses are so certain of?

And why when we have the enormous binary filing system that is the Internet do we erroneously believe that that is somehow the equivalent of human creativity? How often, dear reader, have you paused in silent awe to ask "why do I believe what I just thought to myself?"

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