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THE TROUBLE WITH BIG NUMBERS

§ August 26th, 2009 § Filed under Chapter 07: The Trouble with Big Numbers § Tagged , , , § No Comments

Can you grasp living in a world of infinite events? Credit: NASA Goddard Flight Center Image

Can you grasp living in a world of infinite events? Credit: NASA Goddard Flight Center Image

            Earlier, before leaving the gym, I found that See Do had a bit more on his mind. For the rest of my cardio workout he talked openly and casually, and expressed some frustration with the limits of the human mind, particularly with large numbers. He said that most people can only really conceive of numbers up to about ten. And some of us, much less than that. After ten, we need to use crude abstractions or work with the abstract symbolism of mathematics. We work with and believe in these abstractions because they work unfailingly, but we are limited in being able to actually conceive of and think in real, large numbers.

            He explained how this makes it difficult for us to get a real and true understanding of how the world works. Every time we try to think in any complex way we are forced to simplify the concepts down to a smaller number of ideas. These simplified concepts can’t completely capture or convey what is really happening. And we run into problems when the concepts we’re trying to explain are things that keep moving and changing and can never adequately be contained in any single solid concept.

            He explained how we simplify vast things and think that this new, simplified abstraction is the thing we are observing. But that the complexity and the vast interactive and changing nature of the universe gets so often overlooked. All around us the world is continually changing faster than our abstractions can keep up. We seek the snapshot, the distillation, the formula, but the Universe is none of those things. And as a result we so often miss the point, stepping right by many great and available truths. We avoid the vast, seeking something tiny that our minds can digest. Ultimately, it is the human handicap.

            He explained how the Universe is vastly more complex than our minds can apparently handle. How in any second there are so many important things happening that we are content to ignore. We can be told by science that they are happening. And we can express awe that they are happening. But we can not quite grasp the impact of living as part of this world of infinite events.

            He said “If you can’t truly understand a number larger than ten, how will you understand infinity?”

            We know that in a fraction of a second the DNA inside our cells can be unzipped by an RNA molecule. The billions of molecules that make up our genetic code are cut in half and the other half is replicated with near perfect accuracy from the molecular soup inside the cell.

            This all happens in a heartbeat. Literally. And constantly.

            And it happens in billions of cells inside our bodies. How can we actually conceive of this? In particular, how can we conceive of this in a world where everything is connected to everything else. And where the notion that there is any gap at all, either of time or of space, is a complete illusion?

            Our minds can’t begin to keep up.

            And this is just the beginning. Inside every atom are countless wheels within wheels. Our science has only scratched the surface. It is a long way down. An infinitely long way.

            And it is an infinitely long way up. We stand and look out into the night. And see what? Or rather what can we comprehend of what we see?

            But it’s all there. Important, critical events are happening right this moment, at every scale. And we hang between these infinities, barely aware.

            And keep in mind that much, much, is in fact invisible to us. Radio, air, heat, for starters. Our human senses are crude, blunt instruments. Consider that passing light is completely undetectable by you, yet you swim in an infinite criss-cross sea of this energy. The amount of raw, moving energy that is between your eyes and these words would be dazzling if you could understand it. Science sees some of it, catalogs it, but doesn’t come near any unified understanding.

            He then explained that “Often, faith is man’s way of dealing with truly large numbers.” When our capacity to comprehend is overwhelmed, we see these big “random” events as “acts of God.”

            This is a difficult statement. And somehow I understood when he said it that he meant it as no global criticism of man’s need to have faith in a higher power, but rather that he was referring to aspects of a our understanding of certain events, particularly events that are outside the average person’s scope of knowledge or conception.

            I struggled with this.

            He went on to explain that if we could conceive of everything connected, instantly and purely, without any simplifications or abstractions, we would see how the world moves.

            Sometimes he says things that I don’t understand. I try, but I can’t yet get everything. He says he will be patient and that I don’t need to worry. More will come.

            — continued

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