Sunday, November 05, 2006

Polymers, Mind and Limits

Lucia, Carlos and Abraham gave me a lecture at 4 am today, at the Fleetwood. Two concepts were the center of discussion: Polymer and Crystal. According to my professors, a polymer is any string of multiple units that finds a stable structure, while a Crystal is any compound that results from the infinite addition of a definite unit in an ordered manner. This being so, windows stop being crystals (their structure is not given by an ordered repetition of the same structure); and the salt and egg that I ate while learning were polymers.

This lecture has changed something in the world. It has enforced my idea that the human mind works as a story -teller, and a story reader. It has also enforce the idea that Pierce is right, and an essential mechanism of this story telling is given by a belief-doubt psychology, not only a belief-desire one.

Pierce thinks that belief, as a mental state, comes with a feeling of easiness and tranquility, whereas doubt comes with the opposite feeling of uneasiness and dissatisfaction. Beliefs and doubts shape human action. The former do so by shaping our desires, the latter by shaping our beliefs. The goal of doubt, truly speaking, is to vanish doubt, to find an account, an explanation, or a story to believe in. The goal of doubt is, therefore, belief.

This generates a little problem: if doubt generates belief, then what generates doubt? Like any other chicken and egg question, rejecting the dichotomy solves this one: there are no doubts without beliefs and no beliefs without doubts. To believe something, e.g. to believe that there are polymers, or that salt is a polymer, presupposes a rejection of other alternative theories (e.g. everything is made out of water). It presupposes, thus, reasons to doubt the other theories, feelings of uneasiness when the other stories are told. They, in a word, make no sense.

If this is true, then what we have here is an infinitely moving cognitive machine. We will never stop having doubts, for we will never stop having beliefs. This is the beauty of our evolutionary endowment. Things simply could not work if we were just to have certainty. The environment is an ever-changing structure; certainty, on the other hand, presupposes sameness. If our theories where to give us certainty we would stop looking, stop searching, and eventually loose track of the environment.

This is like a never-ending game with two possible viewpoints. On the one hand, you might like to be tragic and stress how perverse it is that nature endowed us with a need of certainty and, at the same time, the inability to retain it. On the other hand, you might just realize that this is the game, and this is how it’s played. If you do, you might as well enjoy watching your theories, your stories, and cartoons of the world crumbling down at the seams. The latter view seems more humble, and more easygoing.

It must be said, however, that the game has its own limitations. It is not as if, to go back to our lecture, we can just tell any single story. The environment forces some limits upon us, if not by giving direct evidence, at least by giving shots of certainty in the form of predictions. Not every concept is useful, and not all useful concepts are equally useful. We might be tempted to take the universe as a polymer, or as a crystal, or as a molecule. The definitions allow it, but the predictions won’t work.

The fact that we live on a string of certainty does not imply boundlessness. Not any story will work, and not every story that works does so for any given task. Polymer science cannot explain why human beings have come up with a story about polymers. For that you need another story, you need a story about the mind, its nature, and limits.