“Why do we expect that Nature is nice and clean? Because it’s more convenient for us. It’s up to us to figure it out, not to demand that it’s one way or another.” ~ American botanist Barbara Ertter
The deepest academic accomplishments are the constructions of knowledge systems. Overarching theories of physics, psychology, and biology are inferred on scales far surpassing the facts on which they are based. Such induction is an intellectual hubris with which the mind contents itself that it knows what is going on. Yet, as with learning language, sometimes the mind is on the right track.
The mind’s algorithms are clearly probabilistic. Generalizations from examples appear to be structured as representations in various mathematical forms: clusters, rings, trees, grids, and directed graphs, to name a few. Learning progresses from simpler structures to more complex.
Children initially assume exclusive clusters when learning words. Only later do they discover that nomenclature has a treelike hierarchy.
Science advances similarly. Biologists have long sought to systematically categorize the multitudinous forms of life on Earth. In the mid-18th century, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus fumbled the specifics of life’s lineages rather spectacularly with guesswork. In 1866, German biologist Ernst Haeckel, inspired by Darwin’s work, laid the foundation for modern biological taxonomy by proposing a tree of life rather than the existing linearity.
Biological classification progressed from how organisms looked to how they may have speciated through time. This involved distinguishing clades: groups based upon evolutionary descent. The ability to analyze genetics greatly aided the effort.
The cladism approach revealed that life’s diversity was much more sophisticated than could hang on any tree, but no more sophisticated structure could be arrived at.
In 1869, having noticed patterns in the properties of chemical elements, Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev published the modern form of the periodic table. While illuminating, this grid only begins to capture the wizardry by which molecules exist: a complexity which has defied embodiment within any known geographic or mathematical structure.
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Our mind’s algorithms only suss slivers of Nature. These fractional captures are nonetheless impressive, less for their logic than for their mystique.
“Such structural insights have long been viewed by psychologists and philosophers of science as deeply mysterious in their mechanisms, more magical than computational.” ~ Joshua Tenenbaum et al
Generally, human learning proceeds top-down: getting the big picture first, then using an established framework to fill in gaps. Only when the structural framework is stressed does the mind search for something more robust.
That search is not always successful. Mathematical discoveries have revealed structures to which our mind simply cannot fathom. Science has repeatedly shown that the human mind is limited by more than cultural convention, which is quite a constraint unto itself.
Beyond broad characterization, the mechanics of perception and mentation defy understanding, especially the fluid facility by which learning transpires. To attribute the mind’s intricate workings to physical substrates is more mystical incantation than science.
“It is the nature of appearance to appear to be real, even though it is unreal.” ~ Vasistha