A Round Trip Through Concept Space

by F.

Can human knowledge be conceptualized as a whole, in a nice metaphor? One method is reductionism, with its “stack” or “Russian doll” metaphor (everything reduces to physics). Here, I think, is another possibility:

It looks a little crazy, I know. Bear with me while we walk around it, clockwise.

We start at Mathematics. The most austere product of the human mind. It is logical, beautiful, yet doesn’t have to describe the world. It exists apart. Next we move clockwise to Science. Science uses the contiguous discipline of mathematics. But it applies mathematics to the world. (Or, if you prefer, it describes regularities in nature using the language of mathematics.)

Whether those applications yield anything humanly useful is another question, and so we come to Engineering: “technoscience” some call it. It is the application of current science to solve human problems.

Many human problems, however, are not technical; they are social. Hence we move to Politics, maybe the most human of all endeavors. Now we move to religion, which like politics is often irrational, but it has a social purpose many times. That purpose can be social control, cohesion, or emancipation. Yet there is also hermetic religion, almost solipsistic: it is about individual experience (picture the mystic in his cell). That begins to shade into art: the unconstrained creation of things (whether physical or not) that elicit a religious response in us.

Now we are moving up toward the top of the figure. We are between art and mathematics. What could that be? Philosophy. It shares with mathematics rigor and abstraction, yet it’s purpose is somewhat different. More like art or religion, in many cases. And then we finish at mathematics again. We’ve made a round trip through concept space.

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