Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hooray for nonsense and apathy

Have you ever noticed the portion of something you don't need, but it comes with the part you wanted? Perhaps you came to realize it was necessary after all? For example, in a basic biology course when you come to the section on population genetics everyone learns about Hardy-Weinberg. It's based on the binomial equation you may have learned if you took a course in algebra. The gist of it is this - it tells you what the allele and genotype frequencies (the genetic composition) of a population should look like if the population is "standing still" in terms of mutation, selection, genetic drift, etc. A question that students often ask is: If we are studying population change why focus on an equation that assumes a lack of change? It is because it gives us something to compare a population to - a yardstick to see just how far from stasis a population really is. It turns out that understanding lack of change is important even for those who presume that constant change is the rule (and more importantly the reality). This kind of illumination by contrast is an ancient topic, often spawning debates asking whether good can exist without evil, light without darkness? Are opposites better defined as degree of presence or absence? Can their be pleasure without pain? And on it goes.

So what do nonsense and apathy get us?

In the analysis of information and communication, we see that to allow for a adaptive "language", we need to have some kind of consistency in structure as well as flexibility. Human language, for example, is not confined by a permanent one to one relationship between a specific sound and a specific meaning. Moreover, the identity and order of sounds can convey additional layers of meaning to a specific sound or word. Yet within a given language the correlation of sounds to meanings in the singular form are consistent for long enough periods of time to permit shared understanding, while the flexible context of combining multiple sounds/words together allows for originality. We can discuss things past, present, and future, distant and local, even real and non-real. That which makes sense and that which is complete gibberish. Hence nonsense in our conceptions as well as in our communications is the cost of being in the sweet spot between a totally closed system with a limited or fixed capacity for conveying meaning and a totally open system where nothing at all is stable enough to allow meaning to cool and take shape. Like a malleable piece of wax - you don't want to become too stiff but you don't want to melt. That is, nonsense is a reflection of the degree of randomness needed for creativity intelligence.

In a similar way, so too is apathy the byproduct or co-requisite of the will, of agency, of conscious choice. This is distinct from simply resting or other similar (lack of) activities found in many mammals in addition to humans. Boredom, likewise, is an acute lack of interest in our surroundings - a lack of sufficient stimulation for the sense of quality or value. Nonsense, apathy, and boredom are not objective states but are part of a perceptual array for detecting and measuring differences. In fact, without these things as a null reference we might lack the ability to perceive meaning, choice, or value. Biologists do not need believe that a genuine population level genetic stasis is literally possible for a particular locus in a specific biological population in order to use Hardy-Weinberg. Similarly, just because we experience nonsense, apathy, and boredom it does not follow that the universe must be similarly pointless, listless and bland. In fact, if we are good at detecting/experiencing meaning, choice, and value, then they are likely important aspects of our universe.


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