Life has a limit but knowledge has none

“Your life has a limit, but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger.” Zhuangzi

If DRMacIver in Subsetting life can draw an analogy between the limited nature of consciousness / the human condition and how C++ programmers effectively know and use only a fraction of the C++ standard — a little subset of the possibilities — then I can do the same with Zhuangzi's warning and ... something. Thank you, David.

I have written on intuitionist mathematics and logic before, so today it's not going to be about effective computations being terminating ones, potential infinity vs actual infinity. No, let's talk about models.

I found this quote in a little notebook of mine, an entry dated 20 years ago. I had an actual habit of writing notes, long-winded streams of consciousness, full of philosophy and reflection; a note on the fleeting nature consciousness next to a bitter account of unrequited love; a seemingly never-ending search. I threw away most of those notebooks, but for some reason I kept this one and found it the other day while clearing out the basement.

A model is always a simplified image of something. That something is not necessarily "reality"; sometimes the thing that is simplified is just another model, or construction. When you make a model of anything, you leave out some parts (attributes) and retain others (Herbert Stachowiak calls this Verkürzungsmerkmal, or attribute of abstraction). Constructing models is key activity for the informatician, and I am glad that undergrads get exposed to Stachowiak's model theory (slides in German).

Any programmer engages in the business in creating models. Every data structure is part of a model, and data structures serve different purposes. What is right in one context is not appropriate in another. Premature optimization is the adapation of code (and frequently also data) for the purpose of optimizing the performance of some operation, often losing flexibility in the process, and making other operations slow or more expensive. Premature means it's not good and the implicit recommendation is that it is good to keep things general until you know what operations you need.

Let's not forget about consciousness and life. As a human, you need to make models, too. You need to understand and interact with your fellow humans, understand the consequences of your actions. This is not easy. For goodness sake, you need to understand yourself. What was it that made me throw those notebooks away?

There is this theory that there is only one consciousness. Carl Gustav Jung writes about this in Typologie, as a key pitfall that makes some introverts insufferable (I felt seen) since they tend to confuse their self and that universal consciousness. "One love" stands for universal love and respect for all beings, no distinctions. Religion literally means connecting your self with the One. The vedic religion talks about consciousness. You don't need to reach for religion for accepting a universality of the basic conditions and limitations in which consciousness and thinking occurs, though.

But not only life is limited, what each individual knows and is able to do with the knowledge they have, is limited, too. Every human is absolutely unique, not only in the various social or economic conditions they are born in, but also in their continued perspective. I like this opening phrase from Jean Piaget's genetic epistemology

GENETIC EPISTEMOLOGY attempts to explain knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, on the basis of its history, its sociogenesis, and especially the psychological origins of the notions and operations upon which it is based.

Piaget set out to study the development of children, and ended up with a theory of knowledge. Is it constructed models all the way down? Piaget classifies knowledge into three kinds, phyical, social and "relationships" which he calls logico-mathematical models. Why does he calls the latter thing "logico-mathematical"? I think because mathematics and to some extent logical descriptions of mathematics are used here as synonyms for a kind of knowledge where we are completely free to choose what we are modeling and why; at the same time the models are supposed to be consistent. We want to be sure that "they work", that they are good for something.

Now, the human condition isn't only about the subject. Different people have different models, so it is not unusual that programmers end up spending 50% or more of their time resolving their disagreements about models. True progress is when people learn something from each other, bridge differences, teach each other and enable others to overcome their limitations.

I don't know how I end up on taoism, but these are the "ten thousand things". Consciousness is not limited, but each individual slice of it is. And there are challenges and limits to collaboration, many of them stemming from social, economical limitations or preconceptions. Every individual does feel the need to belong; this is where rationality itself reaches its limits.

I am just going to end here. A lot of disagreements would be easily bridged if we made more of an effort to understand each other: what models, what limitations, what perspectives makes the people say what they say, do what they do. It is not consciousness that is limited; it is its manifestation in the individual — and sometimes just the willingness to take the perspective of the other.

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