What is real, what is useful and what can be done

I was talking to my daughter today about what is real, what is useful and what can be done. For example, mathematics is not real, but it is useful. The past is real, but you can’t do the past, you can only do the present. The future isn’t useful, because it is yet to exist, nor can it be done, nor is it real. Yet it is still important.

Mathematics requires on a level of abstraction to be able to count beyond 1. I have 1 left index finger. There are no more. If I decrease the specificity of my definition to index finger (dropping the left), I have two. If I decrease the specificity to finger, I have ten (we could be pedantic about thumbs, but we won’t, will we?). To use my fingers to count the tyres on the car, I need to abstract the tyres to a general concept and then use my fingers to symbolise the tyres.

At some point, we stop referring to fingers and tyres and just play with numbers. This allows us to create imaginary numbers, which have no actual analogue in the real world, yet allow us to calculate interesting things, whose solutions can be used in the real world.

So maths is pure, useful but not real.

The past is highly dependent on the observer, what is recorded and what is interpreted. While you can not change your past, you can change what you understand about the past. Especially when you realise that the past is not truly understandable, thus your impressions of it are only an abstraction of what really happened (assuming the past actually exists and we do not exits in a perpetual now). You can not act in the past, you can only have acted. So nothing changes the past except how you change what you understand of it. This only affects the things you do now, in the present, which can change your likely future. Now is the only time that is real, now is the only time you can act, yet all three (past, present and future) are important.

So who is my daughter? By weight, the cells with a mixture of my and her mothers DNA make up the majority of her, but counting the cells in her body, most of those are not that mixture of DNA, but rather exist mostly in her gut. Experiments on rats have found that the rats who are attractive to you depend on your and their micro-flora. The cells in their guts, not the physical appearance, or their actions. Change the micro-flora and you change the attractions. So who is really making the decisions?

Humans can be described as a spaceship for the micro-flora. The Earth could similarly be described as a spaceship for humans. Or is it the micro-flora? What if we are the micro-flora of Earth, and it has it’s own agenda and consciousness? We may be no more aware of it than the individual cells in our bodies are aware of the consciousness that we think of as ourselves. What if the Solar System is just a space ship system for the Earth, or what if the Galaxy is a spaceship system for intergalactic travel? And so on.

What is real? What is useful? What is important? What can be done, and where, and when?

Meaning vs Objective Reality

In a discussion with my daughter this morning, I pointed out to her that often we don’t know how things are as they are, but we know what they mean to us. I gave her two examples of that, pi and her.

I pointed out that we don’t know all of pi, since it just keeps on going (I’m referring to the number, not the letter), yet we know what it means. Generally people define it as the circumference of a perfect circle divided by its radius. The meaning is more important than the actual number itself. The square root of -1 is another thing that is more important for its meaning than it’s value. By knowing its meaning, we can use it. If we had to know exactly what it was, we would be stuck for both mathematical values.

My daughter is another good example. On the one hand, she is a compilation of sub-atomic atoms that are interacting with each other and the wider universe. We don’t actually understand all of that. We could also look at her as a mass of cells, which out mass the other cells that do not share her DNA. Yet if we look at her as a number of DNA cells, the quantity of cells within the being we name as her which share DNA with her mother and I are out numbered by the cells that have no common DNA. (Of course we could get stuck at this point if we waver off topic and consider what is her mother and what is her father).

Yet understanding who she is far out weighs the question of what. I said that who she is to me is different than who she is for her mother, which is different to who she is for each of her grandparents. Each of us defines her differently. There will be commonalities, such as female, young, kind, intelligent and sometimes self centred. Then there will be vast differences.

What is more important than who she is for each of us is who she is for herself. I also mentioned that at 38, I’m still trying to work out who I am to and for myself.

Sometimes I feel sorry for my daughter. It’s a hefty conversation to have on the way to school. After all, we started off doing some mental math times tables.