Saturday, March 29, 2008

Reductionist epiphanies

I sometimes troll the libertarians at Overcoming Bias, but there's a lot of insightful stuff there. A recent post on Fake Reductionism was particularly good, I thought. It dealt with the varying emotional experiences related to reductionist explanations, and it inspired me to write down this long-simmering thought.

Maybe it's peculiar to my own thinking, but I have over the years had a number of experiences which I call "reductionist epiphanies". These are moments when all of a sudden I understand some phenomenon that previously either has mystified me, or that I've simply taken for granted. Generally the answer to the mystery becomes so glaringly obvious that I can't quite remember what it was like to not have that understanding, but enough of my previous state is left around that I can at least recall the fact that I had a thunderbolt of revelation.

The suddenness of these insights seems to be a product of having large chunks of knowledge that were previously separated suddenly come together in a more powerful, unified whole. There's an almost audible feeling of pieces clicking into place.

Anyway, here are three questions which have rather simple and elegant answers. Probably you already know what they are. In case you don't, I'm not going to give it away so you can have the pleasure of revelation when you figure it out.

  • How does a computer translate instructions into action?

  • Why are there three primary colors, when light is a continous spectrum of wavelengths? How does the three-dimensional representation of color used in computer displays map to color as a one-dimensional wavelength?

  • What makes a gene dominant or recessive? 

The answer to the first question is one that anybody with a CS or EE degree learns in the classroom, but because I had a fairly broken and twisted route through higher education I managed to miss this, and instead figured it out on my own -- an entirely more satisfying experience, so I'm grateful for that.


mnuez said...

Yah, I know what you're talking about, both with regards to Overcoming Bias (where I'm routinely censored) and the epiphanic feeling of discovery. I've had such experiences myself and have been attempting for the past few minutes to relate one of them in this space. Not satisfied with my efforts in attempting to properly convey the extent of the experience, I'll be forgoing the details for the time being.

I'm pleased to see you blogging by the way.


mtraven said...

Thanks! Feel free to post your unsatisfying notes, what else is the internet for?

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