Millions, Billions, Statistics and Stories

I used to think that the mind was like a lens – capable if ground and polished enough (i.e. with enough education and training), of perfectly perceiving and understanding the world it inhabited. In theory. 

Of course, I knew, in practice, most people’s perceptions were warped by flaws in the lens or smears and blemishes on its the surface, caused by their personal or cultural misconceptions. However, I thought it possible that the wisest, most clear-sighted among us might, collectively, capture a perfect picture or map or plan-diagram of the world in all its complexity and set it down in words, in books. Then other, wise people could focus on one aspect of science or psychology or philosophy and render it perfectly explicable to the layman. Thus, over time, the store of collective human knowledge might reach something close to complete understanding. The light of human reason could illuminate every last intricate piece of the universe. 

Hurrah!

Now I realise that we are very lowly organisms, crawling across the curved surface of a tiny planet under a blazing sun in an inconceivably vast and complex universe. All we have ever done is responded to stimuli, evolved some basic strategies to meet immediate challenges so that we can survive another diurnal round. The mind is not a window on the world. It is just a way of organising data. The world is just that organised data-bank in the brain. 

The existence of that data suggests that there is some sort of world, of reality, but any aspect of reality that doesn’t impinge directly on us or our survival may be entirely beyond our comprehension. Whole areas of the mathematical structure of the universe may be utterly beyond human conception, because we’ve never needed to evolve that level of knowledge. Self-teaching AI may easily outstrip us, seeing structures in the world that we do not even suspect, not even as ghostly shadows and hints, just as the camera on your phone can still produce an image of the room in what appears to be pitch blackness, because it can register a wider spectrum of electromagnetic waves than the human eye. 

And right at the limits of our understanding is dealing with numbers in the millions and billions, and probabilities and futures and predictive risk.

The very stuff of politics and social science. 

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