March 28, 2018
Chapter 6. The Jump to Universality
From: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World - David Deutsch (2011)
where do I begin…
Okay let’s talk about abstraction. The first half of the Jumper chapter talks about the evolution of language and numerical abstraction. This is great because we can practically track the origins of “Abstraction” in and out of itself. A Conscious being looks at its origins, its cradle, its source, to find and understand novel things about the world to help him in life.
The problem is there’s an infinite amount of information out there and non of them are objectively useful to us. Well our sensors are limited anyways so that narrows down the amount of data we absorb from the environment. So the question becomes: What should he pay attention to? If the world around him can be infinitely broken and abstracted into different enough compartments, what comes first?
This is the direction i thought the article is going. I’m going to continue it and see how that merges into the Jumper.
So i think the clue to the answer is basically in the origins of the question. Why would he want to extract from its surrounding? What does the infinite have for him that he lacks? Well therein lies the answer: Limitation. His main reason is to overcome his limitations. That’s what gives meaning to his limitations. It can be as simple as a long stick that he can use to get the hard-to-reach fruit, or to attack the predator from a safer distance. So in essence, it’s the limitations imposed on him that creates function, creates meaning out of the infinite.
So this is actually what i thought Jumper was about. The evolution of meaning through language. Even with our limited senses, we are bombarded by infinite amounts of data and (although sad) we can’t possibly parse through it all. But one can project meaning on to the world and see Potential in things. So a cliff is not a rock formation; it’s a “Falling Off” place first, and then a physical reality with properties. A curb side might a “Step On” place for a tall guy like me, but can be a “Sitting On” place for a shorter person. Both of which have those potential for us (and not the other) basically because we are limited that way.
I would like to look at language the same way. This eventually writes off the idea of universality. Yes, in theory we are able to create universality in different fields, but that doesn’t mean it’s in any way practical to do so. The history of math laid out in the Jumper is a good example of that: there are infinite ways to create a number system, but only a handful will actually be practical. We can’t possibly store and keep track of all the abstraction a universal language can bestow upon us. A usual example is the Eskimo having (allegedly) 50 different words for Snow. Well that doesn’t mean 50 ways of pointing out the same thing, but means 50 different variation of Snow that doesn’t even occur to us that live outside of the Eskimo environment. Knowledge of different variation of snow and ice is absolutely crucial for their survival and having those compartments in their consciousness mirrors the necessity for those abstraction in their language. But how many words do you think they have for Soil? or Vegetation? How many different words they have for different shades of Green?
The Eskimo language is a good example because the Polysynthetic nature of it somewhat resembles unparsed postfix/suffix structures you see in “Language Theory and Automata” examples (Chomsky/Greibach context free grammar), which is maybe the closest we got to the idea of language universality. Words aren’t simple containers, but chains that can be added and added until it builds the meaning you want. You can think of Oriental languages as the polar opposite with a limited number of words. Each have their own benefits and hindrance.
Why don’t go a step further in the DNA language? Sure it seems that it fulfills that desire for universality, 4 letters and make the world out of it. But the result might be the most impractical language ever created; and we still haven’t figured it out! If we made Binary computers, we created the language, and the entity designed to understand it bit by bit. One can read and understand Binary, but we created abstractions on top of it to make it infinitely more practical. As for DNA, we’re not Cells that can read it bit by bit, but we CAN create higher level abstractions to parse through what the resulting bundle of cells mean to us.
I hope that makes sense.
P.S. I would like to also add that a computer never misses a bit, or the whole program fails. And the DNA/RNA can’t be misread, or it turns Cancerous. I guess that’s also a trade-off. Simple and Universal means less margin of error. That’s also a proper reason for abstraction. Think of EVERY language made on top of Assembly.