Monday, 30 November 2020

The Number of Things

Virginia Wilderness by Angelo Franco 2018
by Thomas Scarborough

What is the number of things in this world?

It might seem a trivial question—as to whether there are millions of things, or quintillions, or perhaps an infinite number.

Philosophers haven’t been much concerned. The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell asked simply, ‘What things are there in the universe?’ while Socrates, in the 5th Century BC, asked ‘How many things are there which I do not want?’

The scientist Richard Colestock summarises the attitude of many today: ‘What are you going to do with this answer once you have it?’

While philosophers have, in various ways, given much thought to things, and sorts of things, the question as to the total number of things in the world has been largely overlooked. It has been of little interest to them how many things there are, outside any given field.

Yet it matters a great deal. There are core problems of philosophy which cannot be solved without deciding it.

Firstly, the total number of things is not fixed. This is due partly to the constant proliferation of 'things', as old scientific disciplines are refined, and new ones emerge. The linguist Geoffrey Leech observed, ‘In a language like English, new concepts are introduced in large numbers day by day and week by week.’ And pass out of the language, we might add.

There is, too, no end to the ‘things’ we can create in our minds: for instance, clouds with noses, or dogs which wag their tails, names which start with a ‘J’, and so on indefinitely. Strange as some things are, they are nonetheless things—and we may even treat them mathematically if we please: ‘Ten head-over-heels in five days is two head-over-heels per day.’

Above all, the number of things in this world is unthinkably large. I stand on a hilltop and look down on a city. I see one-hundred-thousand homes—which is 10^5. An insect flies before my face. It is one of ten quintillion on the planet—or 10^20. I take a breath of fresh air. It contains ten sextillion molecules—or 10^22. In fact, the classes of things alone are unthinkably many.

All such things, I may further relate to other things—across time and space, and sometimes, in startling ways. In fact, the relations between things far exceed the number of things.

We may say, therefore, that the number of things in the world is for all practical purposes infinite. John Locke used the phrase ‘almost infinite’. We might use the word boundless. We are not able to determine their bounds.

What then does it matter?

The number of things, and the number of relations between them, enables us to assess their extent or range—and with that, what powers we have in understanding and controlling our world. This has everything to do with our behaviour.

It applies above all to what we shall call ‘negative ethics’. While positive ethics tells us what we ought to do, negative ethics tells us what we ought not to—in this case, transgress our limits.

Knowing the number of things, we may be guided by a deep sense of humility and inadequacy. We shall avoid tendencies towards total control. Not least, there is the overwhelming number of things in our environment, and their complex relations. They lie far beyond what we can understand or control. When we have understood this, we may approach our environment more kindly.


Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for this interestingly novel approach to the topic of environmentalism.

Being an incurable reductionist, my mind tends to pivot to the number of atoms in the observable universe when prompted by notions along the lines of ‘the number of things’. The number often cited is 10^80 — an order-of-magnitude estimate, subject to a whole bunch of rounding, I assume!

With that triviality out of the way, a more important matter relates to this closing statement: ‘[T]here is the overwhelming number of things in our environment, and their complex relations. They lie far beyond what we can understand or control’. Sounds unhopeful; but maybe it isn’t.

Which leads me, then, to this question. If the number of things and their relations are ‘overwhelming’, which we ‘can’t understand or control’, what do those frightful admissions augur for our successfully doing anything knowledgeably and responsibly so that ‘we may’, as you say, ‘approach our environment more kindly’?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith, for a perceptive reply.

The implication is that to restore nature, we need to leave nature alone. Biologist Edward Wilson has proposed that we protect half the planet as a 'first, emergency solution' while we figure things out. But are we capable of figuring things out?

I had the privilege of an exchange with Holmes Rolston on this, 'the father of environmental ethics'. His position: 'We are quite capable of understanding enough [to] survive in a sustainable biosphere.' Yet if we cannot understand enough, which my post implies, it is not through understanding that we shall survive. It is through letting nature be nature.

Many consider that we are the 'stewards' of nature. Here, there is an interesting twist in the Torah (Genesis 1). God gave 'every plant yielding seed' to humanity, and 'every green plant' to the rest of creation. What does that division mean?

Martin Cohen said...

For some reason, this post reminds me of the debate over intelligent life, or indeed 'complex' life, or indeed… life.

There is apparently a number to be put on the chance of non organic elements combining to from organic compounds. This is the stuff imagined as flashes of lightning hitting swamps in a primeval world. he point is that the odds are so high against the molecules forming the new 'organic' compounds that it would take many billions of years to happen. On this implausiblity another number is added which is the chance of a cell acquiring a nucleus. Anyway, it all gets very complicated but the gist is that the odds are so much against life, that it is possible Earth is the only place in the universe that it arose! And so, the connection to the blog, at least in my mind…

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Martin. There's an example where numbers might lead to conclusions. What my post seeks to do is take a bird's eye view across all the things and relations which exist, and see whether any conclusions can be drawn from that. The answer is yes, we often act as though we had finite things before us when it is not like that at all.

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