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What is true and what is real

13 July 2012, 11:01


Einstein said: “you must learn to distinguish between what is true and what is real”  Science is a relationship between what we can represent and think about what is actually “out there”; \its an extension of good map-making.  When we guess in science we are guessing about  approximations and languages, not guessing about the truth  and we are not in a good state of mind for doing science if we think we are guessing the truth.  This is not at all well understood outside science, and unfortunately some people with science degrees don’t seem to understand it either.    

There are, for example, very few interesting actual proofs in computing( The eminent programmer Don Knuth of Stanford likes to say, “Beware of bugs in the above code: I have only proved it correct, not tried it.”) We’d like to prove useful programs correct, but we either have intractable degrees of freedom or it’s very difficult  to know whether we’ve taken all cases into account. So9 a guess in computing is often architectural or a collection of covering heuristics.    

One guess I made long ago - and which does not yet have a body of evidence to support it - Is that what’s special about the computer is analogous to (and an advance on) what was special about writing and then printing.  It’s not the automating of  past forms that has the impact. As the media Philosopher Marshall McLuhan pointed out, when you change the nature of representation and argumentation, people who learn in these new ways will turn out to be qualitatively different thinkers. (and better thinkers), and this will usually advance our limited conceptions of civilization.    

This still seems like a good guess to me - but truth has nothing to do with it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  ALAN KAY Computer scientist Hewlett Packardlaboratories
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