The System Of The World
Aside from being the final installment in Neal Stephenson‘s excellent Baroque Cycle, The System Of The World is an important part of a metaphor for my approach to matters philosophical. It goes like this:
Picture a system of equations. Or just consider this one:
a + b = 3
2a + b = 4
It’s a very simple system with a very easy solution: a = 1, b = 2. But how does one solve this system? Well, one method is to examine one equation to try to find a relationship that can help us solve another equation. If we consider the first equation, we can discover that b = 3 – a. If we use this insight about b’s value in the second equation, we get the equation 2a + 3 – a = 4, which we can then solve for a. Once we know that a = 1, things become very easy.
So a system of equations can be solved by, essentially, crossreferencing the information in one equation with the information in the others.
This sort of action, however, is not limited to manipulation of numbers. Philosophy, I believe, works the same way. We can analyze one work of philosophy, or literature, or what have you, and use the conclusions we draw to analyze another different work in a different field, and from this crossreferencing we can derive new equations – perhaps ones with easier solutions.
Let’s work on a very prominent and easy example: The Oedipus complex. Freud looked at a dramatic and mythological character, Oedipus, and from his story drew some conclusions about human nature, which he then applied to the field of psychoanalysis to achieve new and unexpected results. We can challenge Freud’s particular assertions, his methods, etc, but we cannot challenge the fact that Freud was incredibly influential and his insights essentially generated a whole new science.
So where do we find insights like Freud’s? Insights that, regardless of their ultimate validity, help us to look at old problems in new ways? Insights that open up entire new fields of enquiry? The answer is, anywhere.
Each philosophy, each story, each insight, represents a piece of information, an equation in the System of the World. Each equation helps us decode other equations, helps us situate other ideas in reference to one another. All that is needed is for us to find relations, but the fun thing is that everything is related. Anything can be a metaphor for anything else, if creativity and thought are put into it. You might even say that every thought and image we have is a metaphor – after all, a picture of a pipe is not a pipe. And now we’re verging into epistemology and cognitive science. How, exactly, are thoughts organized in our minds? How do we form knowledge? Difficult questions, and well beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that time will tell whether my methods are valid – whether the insights I am able to produce contain truth or falsehood.
January 24, 2008  Posted by panoptical  About  Baroque Cycle, cog sci, epistemology, Freud, math, methodology, Neal Stephenson, Oedipus, the system of the world
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