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Friday, May 6, 2011

Analog or Digital?

A few months ago I considered entering an essay contest being run by a science magazine.  The topic:  Is the World Analog or Digital?

Then I realized that this was for someone much more experienced in Geekery than I am.  Perhaps a dissertation for a PhD in computer science or electrical engineering.  Yet it is an intriguing question whose answer may say a great deal about who we are.

The question presupposes some concepts from science:
  • Mass: matter and energy convertible.
  • Energy:  things happen, bodies move, change is.
  • Light: particles and waves.
  • Electromagnetism: sparks, electrons, neurons, sight, radio, TV, computers, and of course
  • Analog: "continuous electric current with varying intensities; and 
  • Digital: "packets" with numerical values ultimately formed by 1 and zero, on and off switches.
A digit is a finger.  And since we use our fingers to count, a digit by extension is a number.

Analogia in Greek means proportion from "ana," a preposition meaning "among" or "between", "by" or "alongside,"  and  "logos" meaning "speech" or "reason."  Analogy is taking one thing and comparing it or showing its proportion to another.  Something is analogous when it can be measured by something else. 

We are switching all our electric toys from analog to digital.  Computers are digital and as we use computer chips in our watches, our music and video recordings, our telephones, our pacemakers, our cars and planes, and our TVs, we give up our analog cables for digital ones. 

In an earlier blog, I contrasted the analogous mind from the univocal or literal or simple mind.  The analogous mind recognizes the role of imaging, comparison, and ambiguity in our understanding of our world and ourselves.

But the distinction here is different.  From neuroscience, we know that both the analogous and the univocal mind are also digital.  Like light itself, it seems that brain activity can be understood as measurable waves or as countable and interacting particles called neurons.  So is the wave vs particle understanding of the cosmos a demonstration of the limits of human knowing or of a fundamental structure of reality?  Or both--i.e. the limits of human knowing is due to this fundamental sructure of reality?

Yes, but so what?

While the distinction between analog and digital is different than that between analogous and univocal, I draw the same lesson.  Imagination rules. 

Language, art, religion, philosophy, science, math, all knowledge start in the imagination and, if judged to be true, end there as well.  The human experience is mediated through images.  The medium is the message.

We can refer to a pre-verbal experience as did Dewey and Merleau-Ponty and followers, but that is not a temporal before words and symbols and formulas, but the very unspoken, unattended background experience of ourselves in the act of encountering our world through those images.  So even our pre-verbal experience begins with imagination.  Digital bits make up words but prior (not temporarily) is the continuous modulating current of the analogous.

Analogous thinking (inference from particular to particular), it has been said, is the first order of thinking from which come induction (inference from specific to general--e.g. science) and deduction (inference from general to specific--e.g. logic or mathematics).  This is why Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge and really the driver of science and all knowledge. 

Digital world or analogous?  Both.  But imagination is first.

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