My latest review for Law & Liberty:
We also need to be aware of the essential ways that simulations give a sense of overconfidence in technology. Leaving the temporal scope of the book and moving more freely through time, going back at least to Turing and the creation of the first computer—we find the first simulation of human thought performed by a discrete-state machine. The brain, of course, is not a discrete-state machine. But it does simulate one (though not as efficiently) with startling results. So what a computer actually does is simulate an organic entity which is itself in the act of simulating. The scholar Roberto Calasso tells us that this mistaking of the brain for its act of simulating is what’s known as the closed vessel problem.
The closed vessel problem is conceptually simple. Every model of reality, whether it be a computer program, architectural plan, or map, is necessarily imperfect. By virtue of existing within reality itself, the model can never capture the full heft of the real. A model of reality expresses, in a simplified way, the world outside of itself, while reality contains the model as well. No matter how accurate a rendering of, say, the human body, in being constrained by its materials, some part of the real thing will always remain elusive. Reality is too rich to allow itself to be perfectly captured in any rendering, model, or experiment. Remarking on it in her notes, Simone Weil wrote, “Essential contradiction in our conception of science: the fiction of the closed vessel (foundation of every experimental science) is contrary to the scientific conception of the world. Two experiments should never give identical results. We overcome it through the notion of the negligible. But the negligible is the world…” In other words, going back to Francis Bacon, power is a sort of knowledge, but it’s purchased at a cost: the rejection of the full variety of life itself.
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