“I was young and crazy… I didn’t know what is possible and what’s not, so I did impossible things.”

  • Mart Laar, Prime Minister of Estonia 1992-1994 and 1999-2002

Beware the Limits of Reductionism

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies. – Shakespeare

I said before that generalization, patterns, and abstraction are powerful ideas, but they have their limits. It is useful to reduce a thing to its core principles, but beware! Taking reductionism too far you can lose the essence of the thing.

Poetry is far more than words and meter; man far more than mammal; and reality far more than relativity or quantum mechanics. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about music in terms of the temporal and harmonic relationships between sounds, but if you think of it as only that, you’ll never understand why some music moves you.

Generalization, Patterns, and Abstraction

εν αρχη ην ο λογος – John 1:1

Our world behaves in consistent, predictable ways. If it were not so, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, philosophy, economics, engineering, medicine, and countless other disciplines would simply not work. Every discipline studies a range of specific phenomena and aims to distill the detailed observations into general principles or patterns of behavior. It is this ability to generalize that allows us really to know anything at all.

In software engineering, certain problems come up repeatedly. How to sort a collection of numbers, how to manage allocation of system memory, and how to maintain good application performance as the number of users increases are just a few examples. Some very smart people have been working on these problems for a long time, and their documented best practices for solving these problems are called Design Patterns (or sometimes just Patterns). Other disciplines have similar patterns—in mathematics, for example, someone might work out an elegant method for using matrix arithmetic to solve systems of differential equations. Similarly in medicine, physicians follow best practices for diagnosis and treatment.

We’ve seen how each discipline develops patterns to understand and solve problems within its own domain—and many of these, like General Relativity, are truly powerful in their own right. But what has been fascinating me lately is abstraction—taking an already powerful idea and stripping away the domain-specific parts, until you’ve liberated the core idea, the pattern-behind-the-pattern. Then you begin to see how that core pattern applies across wildly divergent disciplines. In the beginning was the Logos—the organizing principle on which everything else rests.

I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but just take redundancy as one quick example: we find redundancy at work correcting errors in computer hard drives and on networks, improving readability in the English language, correcting mutations in DNA, functionally replacing damaged neurons, stabilizing financial markets, and in many other places.

Powerful Ideas

Ideas are the most basic of tools with which we understand and influence our world. And like tools, not all ideas are created equal—some ideas are more powerful than others. What makes an idea powerful?

  • A powerful idea conforms to absolute truth—the way the world actually is, not necessarily the way we think it is or want it to be.
  • A powerful idea has a broad scope—it can be appropriately applied across a variety of disciplines, explaining diverse phenomena or solving diverse problems (or, if you prefer to put it this way, solving the same problem across diverse domains).
  • A powerful idea is elegant, accomplishing its explanatory or functional purpose with a minimum of “moving parts.”
  • A powerful idea is fundamental—it is a solid foundation on which to build other ideas.

This post is the first in a series called Powerful Ideas, which will explore several of these ideas, from a variety of perspectives. I have broad interests—technology, photography, religion, science, philosophy, mathematics, music, language, and psychology—and I have been thinking a lot lately about the common threads that run through some or all of these. I hope that means I’ll have something interesting to say.

On Failing Successfully

Inspired by an episode of the “Ockham’s Razor” podcast:

“I want to argue that failure doesn’t get the credit it deserves. If you want to understand success, you must appreciate the ubiquity of failure, and if you’re not regularly failing, you’re not trying hard enough.”

-Mark Dodgson

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor/stories/2008/2252771.htm

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.

“Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”

-William McKnight, Chairman of the Board at 3M Corporation, 1949-1966