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Neal Stephenson speaks


Neal Stephenson, a personal favorite and author of Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and the (slightly disappointing) Baroque Cycle trilogy that was set in the seventeenth century talks about technology, geeks and politics in this freewheeling interview with Reason Online.

One thing I did like about the Baroque cycle was the incredible amount of interesting information it contained on scientists I knew little about. Stephenson is the unquestioned king of covert edification – a joke here, some pun there, a little bit of explaining and lo! You've actually learnt something, without realizing it. And nowhere is this talent more obvious than in the Baroque Cycle. Wilkins, Hooke, Leibniz and Newton were all characters in the books, and they were treated with typical Stephenson irreverence – making them seem almost human. Wish he wrote my science textbooks.

This excerpt is a loose summary of the broad themes underlying the Baroque Cycle.

The initial surprise was that Leibniz had done so much computer-related work so early. I got that from George Dyson's Darwin Among the Machines. When I began to read about the period, I was surprised by the sophistication of the Amsterdam stock market and the complexity of the Lyonnaise financial system. But the greatest single surprise for me was the welter of ideas contained in [Robert] Hooke's Micrographia. Hooke talks about an incredibly wide range of topics in that volume.

One is how we ought to define thinking - what is intelligence? He cites the way that flies are drawn to the smell of meat, which seems like intelligent behavior. But then he cites the counterexample of a trap that kills an animal. To a primitive person who didn't know that the trap had been invented by a person, it might seem that the trap itself possessed intelligence and will. Of course, this isn't really the case; it's just a dumb mechanism reflecting the intelligence of him who created it. But, Hooke says, who are we to say that a fly isn't just a more complicated mechanism that is designed to fly toward the smell of meat? In which case it isn't being intelligent at all, only reflecting the intelligence of the Creator.

The final surprise I'll mention is that Leibniz's system of doing physics, which is based on fundamental units called monads, has got a few things in common with the modern notion of computational physics, or “it from bit.” Furthermore, Leibniz's rejection of the concept of absolute space and time, which for a long time seemed a little bit loony to people, enjoyed a revival beginning with Ernst Mach.

One could argue that people like Leibniz and the others were able to come up with some good ideas because they weren't afraid to think metaphysically. In those days, metaphysics was still a respected discipline and considered as worthwhile as mathematics. It got the stuffing kicked out of it through much of the 20th century and became a byword for mystical, obscurantist thinking, but in recent decades it has been rehabilitated somewhat.

At bottom, anyone who asks questions like “Why does the universe seem to obey laws?” or “Why does mathematics work so well in modeling the physical universe?” is engaging in metaphysics. People like Newton and Leibniz were as well-equipped for this kind of thinking as anyone today, and so it is interesting to read and think about their metaphysics. Seventeenth-century chemistry may have been rudimentary, and of only historical interest today, but 17th-century philosophy is highly developed and still interesting to read.

Link through Amit Varma's Middle Stage.