The Limits of Information

Shutterstock_knowledgeDaniel N. Robinson at The New Atlantis:

In attempts to account for distinctly human endeavors, explanations have a narrative quality. Thus, Jane’s aspiration to be a concert violinist accounts for — that is, explains — the many hours of practice expended over a course of years. Henry wishes to understand the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The story — the explanation — runs along these lines: Wellington, after the battle of Quatre Bras, moved his forces to Waterloo. The allied Prussians moved to positions drawing a large portion of the French forces away from Waterloo to Wavre. With Prussians attacking Napoleon’s right flank and Wellington attacking the center, Napoleon’s fate was sealed.

Try to translate these two explanations — for why Jane practices the violin, and for why Napoleon was defeated — into terms faithful to evolutionary biology or neuroscience or the concentration of potassium in the human body. Try again. Alas, the thing just doesn’t work. Now adopt the empirical stance and see if you can come up with a theory of any sort that, even if not complete, would still be adequate for explaining these events. This won’t do much for us either, for events of historical moment express the beliefs, skills, powers, and plans of specific persons who, if removed from the narrative, leave us with an entirely different set of events. No doubt, absent a properly functioning nervous system, Jane can’t even hold the bow of a violin. Absent the evolutionary roots and branches, there are neither armies nor nations. We might agree with all of this and, at the same time, acknowledge the unique, personal, individuated character of those responsible for the events in question. There could not be War and Peace had there not been a developed language. But there could not have been War and Peace had there not been Tolstoy.

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