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R Allen Shoaf
R Allen Shoaf
EROTIC RECKONINGS, my second volume of poetry, can now be purchased from New Plains Press or from Amazon. My third volume, PIED-PIPER PHILOLOGY: LOVE WORDS is now available from Thinker Media: see the link below "Ebooks." I also publish my work at EROTROPE (http://erotropenet.ipage.com/).
 

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Curiosity: A Remedy for Dogmatism

Jul. 28, 2017 7:25 am
Categories: None

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Jimmy Soni, Rob Goodman

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017

ISBN-10: 1476766681 ISBN-13: 978-1476766683

Curiosity: A Remedy for Dogmatism

Every digital device in use today bears the stamp of Claude Shannon's genius. From cell phones to GPS to computers and many other devices, we can experience the contribution that this remarkable mathematician and engineer made to human life. As the authors of this new book on Shannon observe, the main reason he did not win a Nobel prize is probably that there was no exact category in the prize’s tradition in which to honor him. At the same time, as they make clear in their excellently written and thoroughly researched intellectual biography, practically everybody in the world who knew Shannon and his work also considered him worthy to be a Nobel laureate.

They also make clear that Shannon was a man never swayed by these kinds of public recognition. He was a very retiring, almost shy, tall and gangly man, whose delight was building models of his ideas with erector sets! This and related facts lie behind the main title of their book, A Mind at Play, since their thesis rises out of the conviction that Shannon's characteristic self-effacement and avoidance of the limelight harbored and protected his deep desire to experiment, to tinker, to build, to work out in materials as well as in thought the ideas and theories that he was pretty much constantly developing not only at work but practically every day of his life. An untroubled atheist, Shannon was an almost perfect synergy of top-down and bottom-up scientific investigation. The word the authors return to time and again is curious. Claude Shannon was obviously a genius, but more than anything else, he was curious.

In the manner of a first-rate intellectual biography, the authors not only recount the life of the subject but also his major ideas, how they developed and their eventual implications as they became applied. In Shannon's case, the major idea, indisputably, was what came to be called, after his famous 1948 essay, information theory. It is Shannon who theorized and demonstrated and saw become reality all around him that information is digital, logically reducible to 1 and 0. He depended on the work of many predecessors, all of whom he duly acknowledged, but it was Shannon who broke through and saw in its simplicity that the structure of information is the resolution of uncertainty out of the infinite welter of stochastic events in space-time. In this way separating the structure of the message from its content, whatever that might be, Shannon theorized and demonstrated that any message could be sent if reduced to binary code and transmitted across sufficient bandwidth with requisite redundancy. It is important to stress that this means just what it says, any message.

The revolutionary insight underlying this theory is that information is always a form of differential uncertainty. A coin with two heads, no matter how many times it is flipped, produces no information; a dogma, no matter how many times it is shouted (or how many are burned at the stake because of it), can produce no information (only ritual) because it is in its very essence a tautology, saying the same thing over and over and over again; you can go on flipping the coin as you can go on saying the same thing over and over again, but you will never get any information. Actual information consists in the resolution of uncertainty, the conversion of the random or stochastic into a form that can be codified and processed to produce results that are both new and repeatable. Note that repeatability is not the same thing as tautological iteration, or ritual; repeatable results go by another name, machine. The information that governs the machine empowers the machine’s predictable because repeatable results. Deep in the microprocessor, the gates open and close at the speed of electromagnetism to distribute 1’s and 0’s according to the code informing the microprocessor (a code is information purified to a purpose).

The foregoing is very much a layman’s paraphrase of what is ultimately a very powerful theory. In the words of the authors,

1’s and 0’s could enact the entirety of logic. 1’s and 0’s stood for the fundamental nature of information, an equal choice from a set of two. … [I]t was evident that any message could be sent flawlessly – we could communicate anything of any complexity to anyone at any distance – provided it was translated into 1’s and 0’s. Logic is digital. Information is digital. … As information theorist Dave Forney put it, “bits are the universal interface.”

Pages 160, 161

Over the course of some 15 years, most of them in the Bell laboratories, Shannon's insatiable curiosity, which led him to numerous experiments and frequent tinkering (as well as juggling and unicycle riding), compelled him to look at the question of information in radically new ways and to see what, to us today, may seem obvious but only because he saw it and showed it to us first.

When I was a student in England in the early 70s, I heard Tolkien lecture about his life, including his career in the university and education in his time. Of the many things he had to say, one in particular struck me then and remained with me throughout my 43 years in the classroom as a teacher of language and literature myself. He lamented the absence of genuine curiosity in his students. I learned myself, between that day in 1972 and my retirement last year, that his lamentation was and is justified and painfully true.

Curiosity is precious. It is one of the few defenses humanity has against dogmatism and its feckless, febrile, and strident rehashing of the same thing over and over again, which continues to fail over and over again, because the powerful blame the failure on the poor and helpless so that they can continue to aggregate even more power to themselves at the expense of the poor and helpless, thus ensuring the continued failure. An authentic curiosity, such as characterized Claude Shannon, is increasingly rare in our world because of dogmatism and the obscene wealth that funds its attacks on the people, the ideology ultimately of totalitarianism (whether it's Galileo or Einstein, totalitarianism always hates authentic curiosity). Daily now we read that great nations of the world – Canada, France, Germany, England, and others – are welcoming American students and scholars who are increasingly finding it impossible to live and work under the Trump tyranny. I invite those who have elected to read my brief account of A Mind at Play to ask themselves what good it could possibly do, or what devastating harm might possibly result, if America continues to drive away from our shores, our universities, our labs, our fields, our hospitals, thinkers and experimenters of the stature of Claude Shannon. Is this the America we want to bequeath to our children?

Predictably dogmatists will attack my review and most likely dismiss the book and its subject, even as they benefit and profit from the curiosity of men and women, who more than anything else acknowledge with Aristotle that "all men naturally desire to know."


 
Thomas J Donegan
August 3, 2017 at 6:09 pm
Curiosity, Dogmatism are they really antipodes?

Hi Allen!

Is dogmatism really something which inhibits creativity, thinking, inventiveness et al? I'll bet Claude Shannon is pretty "dogmatic" in accepting a state of "nonbeing" and the state of "being." Or you may prefer the state of "on" and the state of "off." Likely he was a dogmatist in logic, and in whether a logic gate is considered "set" or "reset." Mathematicians, logicians, physicists - and all natural scientists - are quite dogmatic in many things e.g., the calibration of instruments by which they measure... And I'm willing to bet that if you have an automobile and find that you need new brakes, you'd prefer the dogmatic mechanic over an avant-garde mechanic... Dogma? The "scientific method" cannot be demonstrated scientifically to be valid - or true - it must be dogmatically believed to be an effective tool for the acquisition and advance of knowledge. As it is there are useful dogma's - advancing social interests and social comity, and there are dogma's whose embrace are inimical to the individual and to society. The educated should dispassionately discern one from the other and do their best to steer society towards the useful, and away from the harmful...

Take, care, Allen!

Best wishes!

tjd

Thinker's Post
R Allen Shoaf
August 3, 2017 at 7:56 pm

The scientific method demonstrates itself to be valid every time it intentionally and deliberately, non-dogmatically, discredits an experiment, having learned from a failure that a better, a more accurate, a more revealing experiment is needed -- hence the discovery of the atom at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, which required decades of revision, or the ongoing testing of quantum mechanics, or the constant recalibration of measuring devices to greater accuracy, contrary to your claim. This is not dogma. It is as far from dogma as it is possible to get. Dogma does not "correct" beliefs. It murders those who disagree with the "beliefs," burning them at the stake and torturing them. I acknowledge falsifiability and verifiability as the twin guarantors of knowledge, as distinct from murderous dogmatism. The surgeons who have four times preserved and extended my life are not dogmatists: they are scientists of health and well-being who care for the patient, not for dogmas -- any revision that will save a patient's life is preferred over whatever assumption might have been mistakenly made before all the evidence was in.

Bob Butler
August 3, 2017 at 8:57 pm
Very insightful juxtoposition of the scientific method to dogma in seeing that the scientific method can be just as effective at discrediting experiements and the resulting beliefs while "dogma does not 'correct' beliefs. It murders those who disagree with the 'beliefs,'"
Thomas J Donegan
August 3, 2017 at 9:54 pm

Hi Allen!

Is dogmatism really something which inhibits creativity, thinking, inventiveness et al? I'll bet Claude Shannon is pretty "dogmatic" in accepting a state of "nonbeing" and the state of "being." Or you may prefer the state of "on" and the state of "off." Likely he was a dogmatist in logic, and in whether a logic gate is considered "set" or "reset." Mathematicians, logicians, physicists - and all natural scientists - are quite dogmatic in many things e.g., the calibration of instruments by which they measure... And I'm willing to bet that if you have an automobile and find that you need new brakes, you'd prefer the dogmatic mechanic over an avant-garde mechanic... Dogma? The "scientific method" cannot be demonstrated scientifically to be valid - or true - it must be dogmatically believed to be an effective tool for the acquisition and advance of knowledge. As it is there are useful dogma's - advancing social interests and social comity, and there are dogma's whose embrace are inimical to the individual and to society. The educated should dispassionately discern one from the other and do their best to steer society towards the useful, and away from the harmful...

Take, care, Allen!

Best wishes!

Dogma does not "correct" beliefs. It murders those who disagree with the "beliefs," burning them at the stake and torturing them. Hi Allen!

A dogma may be as you describe i.e., "It murders those who disagree with the "beliefs," burning them at the stake and torturing them." - and it seems you like to conflate the dangerous dogma's many Muslims hold to be true, with dogma's in general, which is rather dogmatic of you! Dogma's do not murder people do! But dogma's are necessary to advance knowledge as well e.g., the dogma of "fatalism" prevented the Chinese, and the Greeks - and any pre-Christian culture from producing methodological science. This fact is delineated by Stanley Jaki PhD (Father Jaki taught Physics at Seton Hall University; he possessed PhD's in Physics as well as Theology) in a number of books, viz: Science and Creation; The Purpose of it All; The Road to Science and the Ways to God; Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem; Bible and Science and about 35 more. Once the fatalistic God concept (dogma) was exchanged for a rational God whose Creation reflected that rationality, along with a chronologically beginning to end i.e., a reality/universe that was not trapped in eternal cycles, the middle-ages produced John Buridan who midway through the 14th century laid the predicate for Newton's laws of motion (see Bible and Science pages 103-108). Thus, we repeat exchanging the dogma of an irrational gods and fatalistic universe for a rational God and a developing/unfolding of the universe provided the impetus for modern science. So dogma's are not only as you narrowly describe them

Dogma's are things we hold to be true e.g., that the "laws of physics" are held by physicist dogmatically to hold consistently throughout the universe, and not simply proximately to our planet, solar system, galaxy, and such a belief cannot be proven scientifically. The principle of non-contradiction must be held dogmatically as representing reality in all cases/instances; the quantum physicist Bohr, thought that the principle-of-complementarity demonstrated an instance where the principle of non-contradiction is violated, or does not hold, but of course Bohr was confusing his model with that which is. The edifice of thought falls with the demonstration that the principle of non-contradiction does not universally hold; until such time we must hold - dogmatically - that it does.

The scientific-method is just like the principle of non-contradiction in the respect that it must be accepted without scientific proof (on faith) to be valid in all cases, but to suggest that the method is not dogmatically held to be a valid tool to advance scientific knowledge, is to suggest that the method itself is a product of science, and can be demonstrated scientifically to be valid (that proof would be an exhaustive proof, whereby every instance imaginable where the method could be employed would need to be demonstrated as valid); it cannot be demonstrated by science and therefore it must be accepted - dogmatically - as valid. Proofs are much more rigorous that demonstrating something holds many times, a proof requires the rigor of universality...

Allen the scientists and doctors that have saved your life will come to abandon practices that they believe (dogmatically) to be beneficial to patients; such is the history of science, such is the nature of humans. Once upon a time physicists held there was an ether which accounted for the interaction of objects in space over great distances; psychiatrists once employed the practice of trepanning, which they dogmatically believed to be advance the heath of their patients... Science is rife with dogma's old and new...

I do agree with you that some dogma's lead to horrible human acts; the Nazi's believed Darwinism justified murdering any that may corrupt the blood of the Aryan; they believed dogmatically - with the aid of a particular read of Darwin's theory - an amalgam of "science" ideology, religion, and a whole lot of evil; dogmatically, but science played a part.

I will close with this: I once wrote a paper on the Mayans and Rousseau's "noble-savage" and the peroration stated something like: "Moderns scan past civilizations searching for Rousseau's noble-savage, but try as they may, they only uncover savages; which is what humans devolve to when they allow their passions to rule."

Have a good night Allen!

Cheers!

tjd

Thinker's Post
R Allen Shoaf
August 5, 2017 at 8:52 am

"The edifice of thought falls with the demonstration that the principle of non-contradiction does not universally hold; until such time we must hold - dogmatically - that it does" (tjd).

No. This is a disastrous and murderous mistake. "Until such time" we "must" hold ONLY that we DO NOT KNOW. Any dogmatic assumption, any whatsoever, inhibits further effort to know. It comforts you to seem superior with your cynicism and calvinistic hatred of human striving, I know. But the scientist does NOT say, I hold such and such; he says, I DON'T KNOW and must search, relinquishing ANY dogma that fails as the search proceeds. This is a world-building difference in attitude, the difference between a hating and hateful dogma of human depravity (to which obviously you subscribe) and a will to ask what energy may reveal about the universe.

I am content now to turn my life and mind away from your nihilism.

Thomas J Donegan
August 5, 2017 at 10:59 am

Hi Allen!

I just got home from work (work 3 shifts, and am on the midnight shift), and so my response will be short (I'll provide a lengthier reply later...). I had begun a reply to you and Bob Butler; I didn't see his post the other day as I hurriedly responded to you, before I went off to work... But mid-nights tend to "slow" me down...

Allen any and all fields of knowledge treat the principle of non-contradiction as an axiom, and must. It cannot be proven true! If it is false then it is both true and false simultaneously! Most people would call that insanity. Both you - and Bob Butler - have a very narrow and tendentious understanding of "dogma;" dogmas murder nobody! And as an aside, Chesterton says (paraphrase): 'There are two kinds of people, those that knowingly embrace dogmas, and those that embrace them unknowingly.'

The original meaning of "dogma" is: "philosophical tenet," and thus both the principle of non-contradiction and the scientific method, are dogmas in the broad understanding of the term... i.e., they are "tools" assumed true so as to be utilized to advance knowledge...Note that if you think that the scientific-method is falsifiable, then you must be able to state the conditions under which it can be shown to be false e.g., Einstein's General Theory of Relativity may be falsified by place 3 satellites in space (at considerable distance, but within the gravitational field influence of some heavenly body...) and using mirrors and laser beams to form a triangle; if such were done (Lord Eddington just waited for a solar eclipse), and the triangle contains 180 degrees then the theorem would be shown false. One need do perform the experiment, one only needs to describe a condition of falsification; by the way the criteria (as all criteria validating science) is philosophical, not scientific!

People embracing certain "dogmas" may murder people, and certainly have murdered people, but the dogma in-and-of-itself is not responsible; it takes a host human, or group of humans that then murder others... As I have already stated certain dogmas advance human kind e.g., "that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights..." There a quite a few dogmas in Jefferson's claim, and they ameliorated, but did not perfect, the human condition...

One of the most dogmatic (in the narrow sense of how you use the term "dogma") claims that I have ever come across is: "No. This is a disastrous and murderous mistake. "Until such time" we "must" hold ONLY that we DO NOT KNOW. Any dogmatic assumption, any whatsoever, inhibits further effort to know. It comforts you to seem superior with your cynicism and calvinistic hatred of human striving, I know."

To hold that nothing is certain - agnosticism - leads eventually to despair, as individuals and as a species.

With this statement: "I am content now turn my life and mind away from your nihilism" you seem to join Paul Duginski in not quite understanding that "nihilism" is the rejection of absolute codes and creeds and to intimate that any correlation between mind - and other - is capricious and illusory, because there isn't any God i.e., intelligent ordering principle transcending, and causing that which is... As I pointed out to Paul, what follows is either the true nihilist - the Greek stoics - fell silent, since anything they'd utter would be purely ephemeral and therefore ultimately meaningless, or one becomes the hedonistic nihilist with despotic designs i.e., Machiavellian.

I will write you a lengthier note later Allen (not necessarily today), but this statement of yours??

"It comforts you to seem superior with your cynicism and calvinistic hatred of human striving, I know. But the scientist does NOT say, I hold such and such; he says, I DON'T KNOW and must search, relinquishing ANY dogma that fails as the search proceeds. This is a world-building difference in attitude, the difference between a hating and hateful dogma of human depravity (to which obviously you subscribe) and a will to ask what energy may reveal about the universe."

I don't think I've ever "hated" anybody (to hate is to will another bad fortune, and is derived from an ill-will... I'm with Socrates: "It is a greater evil to perpetrate injustice, than to suffer injustice." But as I said, I'm off to bed!

Best wishes Allen!

Take care, cordially!

tjd

 

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