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The Realm Of Pure Idea

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on January 30, 2001 23:27:16 UTC


True enough, our sciences, our mathematics, our languages are all patterns of patterns. But where, in the material world, can something so seemingly ethereal as pattern exist? It seems that you have a ready answer: the patterns -- numbers, symmetries, concepts -- come before all else; they exist independently in a separate realm of pure idea. As evidence for this mystical belief, you point to how our brains seem to resonate with the very fabric of the heavens, using this seemingly natural faculty called "mathematics" to discover laws that apply throughout the universe, throughout time.

But consider this: perhaps the patterns we discern are neither universal nor arbitrary, but the result of the intersection between our nervous systems and the world as it really is. Hence, when the phenomena of the universe seem to obey mathematical laws, it is only because one product of the nervous system -- mathematics -- is recognizing another: the realm of pure idea. The brain evolved in the world; it is molded by the environment. Thus, we can expect our metal representations to bear some relationship to at least this tiny corner of a single galaxy. But by embracing this view, we abandon the idea of the mind as a clear pool of water, passively reflecting truths that lie beyond the senses.

And, at the very least, this would explain why Schrodinger's equation is only one of the many formalisms used to solve problems in quantum mechanics, as I am sure you must know. Indeed, quantum phenomena can also be described using mathematical devices called Dirac state vectors. And this, of course, is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle; yes, it is we, the observes, who must decide what to measure. Nevertheless, for those seeking an all-embracing map of the reality our senses reregister, it is tempting to believe that complex patterns are governed by the same invisible hand. But could not the same patterns that gave rise to our existence also shape the behavior of the circuits of neurons that fill our heads? To be sure, how much of these patterns are real, how much are in our heads?

B. L. Nelson

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