Friday, July 24, 2015

The Code (2012)

     The Code (2012) Presented by Marcus Du Sautoy. Three-part series about mathematics, and its role in describing the universe. An excellent overview and introduction to mathematics, clearly explained, with better than average visuals, and emphasis on everyday, real-life applications. The title alludes to Du Sautoy’s metaphysics: the code is a method of making sense of the world. The series is worth watching more than once, especially of you’ve forgotten most of your high-school math. Above all, it’s reminder of how much of our economy, our technology, our politics, our social life, even our  private lives is described and explained by the code, whether we know it or not. Understand the code, and you understand the universe.
     Or so it seems.
     Du Sautoy believes that mathematics underlies reality. I don’t. I believe that mathematics is one of many symbol systems we use to make models of our experience, models that are good enough to help us survive. We make mistakes in creating those models, and some models are more than a little off. The only check we have is that the models work. But I don’t think they answer the question of what’s really out there. If they did, then any model that works is a true representation of reality, at least insofar as it works, at least a partial truth, at least a limited glimpse of the real. Trouble is, we have models that contradict each other. When that happens we get into squabbles about which one is truer than the other. There’s no question that the religious models work in the sense that they give people a reason to get up in the morning. But they contradict each other, and they contradict mathematics.
     The mystery about mathematics is that it works so unreasonably well. Why? There is no good answer that I know of, there is none that satisfies me. But I think the observation that mathematics begins with physical interactions between us and the world around us offers a clue. Other animals do this too, sometimes so well that we want to ascribe conscious reasoning to them. It may be that a crow figuring out how to unlock a cage is reasoning consciously, but we’ll likely never know. We do know that we can devise algorithms that reason about the data that we feed in, and produce more reliable results than we do ourselves. Reasoning does not require consciousness.
     What then does require consciousness? The kind of understanding that enables us to choose the kind of reasoning we need, and more than that, to recognise and understand new problems, and devise the reasoning to solve them. It’s at this level of understanding that Du Sautoy’s belief in the underlying reality of mathematics occurs, and that I disagree.
     Not that it matters. This level is so abstract that it’s not about reality anymore, but about our images of reality. Those are all finally private. The wonder is that language enables us to share these private imaginings as well as we do. We can share mathematical models better than any other, which deepens the mystery.
     The series can be watched on TVO. ****

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