The Lost Scholarchs

I’m about halfway through reading Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller. For those unfamiliar with the book, it’s a set of profiles of 12 philosophers over the last 2000 years, focusing in particular on the relationship between their philosophy and the way they lived their own lives.

As I’ve moved through time from the ancient times of Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, and Seneca up through the classical period of Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, and Rousseau, the thing that has struck me most is the change in the position of a philosopher within society. Early philosophers of the Greek and Roman era cultivated, for lack of a better phrase, a cult of personality around themselves, where they were seen as figures to emulate in one’s life, behavior, and even thought.

The ancients had a term for this – the “scholarch.” Plato was the first to have the official title, as head of his Academy, but the term is certainly suitable for earlier philosophers like Socrates as well, whose academy was the public square, where bystanders “were invited to join in the ongoing argument he was holding, with himself and with others, over the best conceivable way to live.” Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurious, and others also had official titles as Scholarchs of their own respective schools, and even Seneca was known as “the most famous orator in the empire” (back when orators could be famous) and eventually a “friend of the emperor” to Nero, “one of the three most powerful people in the Roman Empire.”

This high place in society seems to be a far cry from the position held by later philosophers such as Montaigne, who was a nobleman by birth but became “a master of oblique criticism” in order to hide his philosophy from the warring Catholic and Protestant factions who seemed to care little for seeking deeper truths as opposed to arguing religious dogma. Descartes “tried to conceal his work and whereabouts, instructing [mathematician Marin] Mersenne on more than one occasion to lie about his activities” because it was considered heretical to hold “‘any public debate other than those approved by the doctors of the Theology Faculty’ of the Sorbonne.” Not only were these philosophers no longer seen as the epitome of scholarship and fine examples of how to live one’s life – they were actively persecuted for their work.

I’ve not yet completed the book (Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche are yet to come), but I’m hard-pressed to find examples of figures similar to the ancient scholarchs in modern society. Certainly we have systems of apprenticeship in areas like academia, where students are bound to a particular advisor for a period of time as they learn their discipline. But (at least in most cases), students only look to their advisors for advice in academic matters – it is not expected that the student will emulate their professor’s actions and way of life in as deep a way as Plato followed Socrates around the streets of Athens, for example.

In another vein, there are certainly thought leaders among politicians (e.g. Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck) or the technorati (Steve Jobs, Paul Graham), and many of followers formulate their own views based on these leaders. But again, the dedication seems almost superficial when compared to the way someone like Plato or Alcibiades hung on Socrates’ every word (at least until the latter decided he preferred being a tyrant to being a philosopher).

Is there still a place in today’s world for scholarchs? These learned, if imperfect, men who dedicated their lives to introspection and cultivate a following of others interested in the same goal had an important role the intellectual underpinnings of the entire western world. Is our world too fragmented and our echo chamber too loud for someone similar to exist today?

Strange Attractors and Perception

In my last post, I ended by suggesting that

Many systems in the world display truly chaotic behavior, wherein small changes to the initial conditions creating vast differences in the outcomes. On the other hand, many have very stable attractors like those described above, where one can discard most of the external factors affecting them in favor of a much smaller number that have the largest effects on the outcome.

Weather is the canonical example of a chaotic system. atmospheric systems are extremely unpredictable, with their behaivior varying greatly depending on small variations of initial conditions. Moreover, weather systems are so immense, and consist of so many
component variables, that even if we could accurately simulate them, collecting the right initial conditions to kick off our simulation would be infeasible as well.

Even so, there are features of weather systems that do make them somewhat tractable – we can recognize and predict the behavior of things like storm fronts, high pressure systems, hurricanes, and jet streams. These behave in relatively stable ways for short periods of time, allowing us to make predictions (though over long enough periods of time, the collective weight of small errors in initial conditions build up and render our models useless).

Similar things may be said about other complicated systems. While it is impossible to perfectly predict the behavior of the U.S. electorate during a national election, with enough samples, sites like came within an astonishingly small margin of the final tally in the 2008 presidential election. Again, this result was possible because the electorate behaves in a relatively stable way for a short period of time, even if we cannot measure its initial state 100% accurately.

We can even say the same sort of thing about things like the observable world around us. For instance, on my walk to work, I see an incredibly complex world around me, with cars, people, animals, buildings, rain and snow, and thousands of other events happening
all the time. If I were to freeze-frame a single moment of my walk, and observe the multitude of objects around me, there are millions of possible “next steps” that might happen. That car on the street might swerve violently to the left and hit a parking meter. That woman in front of me might start spinning in circles in the middle of the sidewalk. The lights might change color at random times, without warning.

But none of those things are likely to happen. In fact, if you showed that snapshot of my walk to a dozen people, and asked them what the same scene would look like three seconds hence, they’d probably unanimously agreee on the major features of the scene.
Cars will continue to drive down the road in a predictable way, people will continue to walk straight down the street, lost in their thoughts, and lights will change on a regular timetable. The dozen people might disagree on the details, like what color the next car
that comes down the street might be, but the major components would be the same.

So, the world evolves in a chaotic way where the details are difficult to predict, but the major features tend to evolve in a stable and continuous way when observed at a certain scale of time and space. Sound familiar? These relatively stable features are strange attractors in the complex system of the world. For nearby sets of initial conditions, events in the world fall into a the same basin of attraction. A car driving down the street will most likely continue to drive down the street, regardless of whether it is one inch to the right or left. A person walking will continue to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of whether they step on a crack in the sidewalk or not.

This continuity and predictability on a certain scale is a major feature of the world around us, and one that I believe is intimately related to the way our brains perceive the world. If the world really were chaotic, in the sense that outcomes were extremely sensitive to variation in initial conditions, we wouldn’t be able to make any sense of it. Unless we had extraordinarily sensitive perceptions, each time we perceived something we would miss subtle details in the initial conditions, and the outcome would be so different that we’d never be able to understand the world.

But this isn’t the case. There are millions of possible places that a car that I perceive could be three seconds from now, but my brain can predict with high probability that it won’t be on the sidewalk, so I continue walking. Similarly, despite subtle variations in lighting, angle, and distance, I can consistently recognize a friend’s face each time I see him. The details are different each time, but the overall impression – “That’s my friend” – is the same to my mind.

Our brains are wired in such a way as to mimic these basins of attraction in the world. We do, actually, perceive many subtle variations in our environment, things like lighting, angle, distance, temperature, and smell. To make sense of the world, we look beyond the chaos, and see only the patterns.

Strange Attractors on My Walk to Work

As I discussed last time, seemingly discrete events in the macroscopic world (like my possible walks to work) seem to “collapse” themselves into fewer possible outcomes based on intervening events. A large set of initial states result in a single end state, and overall, the total number of initial states gets winnowed down into a much smaller number of final states.

Additionally, at many (if not most) points along the spectrum of starting states, a little variation one way or another doesn’t mean much for the outcome – the system is resilient to small changes. However, there are certain points (“inflection” or  “tipping” points, one might say), where the outcome changes drastically based on a small change in initial conditions.

All of this might sound familiar if you’ve read much about chaos theory and strange attractors. Consider that my walk to work is a dynamical system, evolving over time based on a set of constraints, the most significant of which are the red lights. The possible arrival scenarios are attractors – the system tends to evolve towards those points from a large set of initial conditions (the basin of attraction).

Note that there are thousands, if not millions, of other events along my walk to work that affect the timing of my walk to work. This is what makes the system chaotic, and the attractors strange. The sequence of my steps, whether I’m tired or well-rested, the other people walking around me, the prevailing winds, and many other variables affect my speed and my arrival time. However, the red lights have, by far, the most significant effect on my arrival time. That’s why I was able to draw the diagrams I did in the previous post to show how the red lights affect my arrival times at work.

In fact, my exact arrival time may vary by fractions of a second one way or another because of these other, more minor effects. But in analyzing my arrival at work, those miliseconds don’t matter nearly as much as the multi-second (or even multi-minute) swings caused by the red lights.

(Similarly, one might say that in analyzing my entire day, the difference between arriving at work one minute earlier or later doesn’t mean very much, unless, for example, I miss breakfast. Further, one might say that in analyzing my career, my arrival at work on one day doesn’t have much effect, unless, for example, I miss an important meeting and get fired as a result. This points to another interesting bit, which is that a similar analysis of the attractors in a system is valid at many different scales, but that’s a whole other blog post…)

Many systems in the world display truly chaotic behavior, wherein small changes to the initial conditions creating vast differences in the outcomes. On the other hand, many have very stable attractors like those described above, where one can discard most of the external factors affecting them in favor of a much smaller number that have the largest effects on the outcome.

Next time: rampant speculation on how these attractors relate to how we perceive the world…

Walking to work

My commute to and from work each day consists of a train and subway ride, as well as about 1/2 a mile of walking. This time is when I get most of my reading, writing, and thinking done. Unsurprisingly, given how much time I spend missing trains and held up walking at red lights, my thoughts often turn to the walk or ride itself.

Let’s consider one part of my commute: the walk from the PATH station to the office. This walk is about 5 blocks or so on the New York grid, passing through a traffic light at each intersection. Plotted with one dimension of space and one of time, it might look like this:

In this plot, time progresses from left to right, and my walk will take me from the top of the plot (the train station) to the bottom (the office). Each red light along the way is indicated as a red line (green lights are left blank for clarity – they would fill the blank spaces between each red dash).

Let’s say I leave the train station at a particular time near the left side of the graph and start walking:

Assuming I walk at a constant speed, my path while walking looks like a diagonal line through time and space. When I get held up at a red light, my path goes horizontal (I’m standing still in space, but still progressing through time). Overall, this gives my path a bit of a zig-zag pattern in the 1-D space + time plot.

Now, on the same morning, let’s say I leave the PATH station minute or two later (maybe the train was delayed a bit, or I exited from the back of the train instead of the front):

Once again, my zig-zag path takes me to the office, stopping at the red lights along the way. But interestingly, despite leaving later from the train station, I arrive at the office at exactly the same time:

In both routes, despite stopping at different lights early on my journey, I still get caught at that same last red light. It didn’t matter that I started earlier or later – the outcome was the same.

Now, we plot all of the possible starting times and their resulting walks:

Interestingly, despite dozens of possible starting times at the train station, there are only a few possible times of arrival at the office. In effect, the red lights “collapse” the outcomes into a smaller set. For example, the 18 different starting times highlighted in the figure below all have the same result:

Another interesting set of paths to look at are the “tipping points” – any pair of neighboring paths with different arrival times:

Here, a difference of a few seconds in starting time between the blue and yellow paths means many minutes of delay on the arrival side. Also notable is that the blue path is one of the shortest, with respect to total time, whereas the gold path is one of the longest.

Next time: how I think these paths relate to chaos theory and strange attractors

(Inspired by Ybry’s visualizations of train schedules, from Edward Tufte’s book Envisioning Information.)

Book: Einstein’s Dreams

1905, known as Albert Einstein’s “annus mirablis,” saw him produce some of the most inspired work in the history of natural philosophy. From the outside, it is easy to see the import of this work – in a single year, Einstein established whole new fields of study, including fundamental discoveries in quantum physics and the special theory of relativity.

But what was it like on the *inside*? What was it like to *be* Albert during that year, the Swiss patent clerk discerning the true nature of the universe in his spare time? What is the essence of scientific discovery, of seeing so deeply into fundamental truths, of “Eureka!”?

Alan Lightman’s beautiful novel Einstein’s Dreams brings us inside the thoughts of this most famous of scientists through a series of meditations on the nature of time. Imagine time as a stream, “occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze,” or time flowing backwards, or a single place where time stands still. Imagine a world where time flows more slowly for those at higher altitudes, where everyone lives in the mountains on houses built on stilts.

In “a world in which people live just one day… [where] a man or a woman sees only one sunrise, one sunset.” December babies live a cold life, while June babies only know warm. Those born at night tend to be insular, not venturing outdoors even when daylight finally breaks, while those born during the day become depressed in the literal twilight of their lives.

Written in short chapters with brief sentences like brushstrokes on a painting, Einstein’s Dreams is an exercise in “What if?” – much like scientific thought itself. Each chapter takes as its premise some new truth about time, using it as the basis for a meditation on love, loss, relationships, life, and death. In the world without memory, lovers find that every night is the first night of passion. At the point where time stands still, mothers refuse to let go of their children, staying where “the beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blonde hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this soft pink glow on her cheeks… will never think thoghts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil.”

But beyond the meditations on time, I found the interludes, describing Einstein in the Zurich of 1905, to be even more fascinating. Here is Einstein walking slowly down Speichergasse with his friend Besso; here is Einstein absentmindedly staring off into space during dinner; here is Einstein sitting in a fishing boat, looking for shapes in the clouds.

I’ve been fascinated by biographies and portraits of great scientists since I first read Genius, James Glieck’s fabulous portrait of Richard Feynman. What is it that makes these great thinkers tick? Why do they see deeper or farther into the truth of the universe than the rest of humanity? How do they discern this truth, and how do they manage to convey it to the rest of us? Einstein’s Dreams is another fantastic portrait of a great thinker in his prime, seeing what no one else has seen.

First Post!

I figure an endeavor like this deserves some sort of introduction to
get things started. A bit of a “Who, What, Why…” sort of thing.

First, the who – you can read more about me here.

What? I tend to be interested in physics, biology, neuroscience,
artificial intelligence, computer science, scientific histories and
biographies, science fiction, and hell, pretty much any book that blows your hair
. Incidentally, the title of the site itself is a play on
words regarding the possibility of man creating another intelligence
in the world.

As to why, mostly, this blog is a way for me to get my thoughts down –
to work through things I’ve been reading, thinking, and taking notes
about for many years now. I expect it to be a bit scattershot, but I
also think that’s going to be half the fun.