Thursday, April 11, 2013

physics and psychophysics

reading papers on "information integration theory" lately. up to this most recent one - barrett and seth, PLoS-CB 2011 - i had an okay grasp on the math, but now i'm considering skimming. the first author of this paper is a theoretical physicist by training, so i don't feel too bad that i can't quite take it. feeling a little bad led me to this train of thought:

in my field of psychophysics we use mathematics to describe human behaviors, with those behaviors driven by simple physical stimuli. some psychophysical models can be rather complicated, but the more complicated they get, the less realistic they get, because so to speak they inevitably start biting off more than they can chew. for example, channel theory is a bunch of mathematical objects, but they have to be fit to particular contexts. even a simple psychophysical rule or law involves constants that vary from person to person, from apparatus to apparatus.

no one in psychophysics should fool themselves into thinking that they can someday come down to a simultaneously correct and meaningful mathematical theory of whatever phenomenon they are studying, because every phenomenon is an artificially isolated part of a much more complicated whole, and the ways that the circumstances of the phenomenon can be varied are nearly infinite. but thankfully, no one in psychophysics does, i think, fool themselves this far; we recognize that mathematics is a good tool for getting a handle on what we are studying, at the same time that what we are studying is clearly variable in ways that we can only hope not to approximate too poorly. for us, mathematics is an operational description of what we're studying.

in physics, on the other hand, they have things down to the level where you will hear physicists talk about mathematical objects and physical phenomena as more-or-less the same thing. quarks and bosons, gravity and magnetic fields, are things that are only really understood through mathematics. my knowledge of physics mostly comes from reading feynman and hawking, and watching random lectures (and once having been a physics undergrad, briefly), so it's not like i have anything like an up-close viewpoint of the physicist's perspective, but i think this viewpoint is plainly very popular. john wheeler talked about the root of all reality being information, which is only a mathematical construction as far as the human mind is concerned - obviously he felt the isomorphism was close enough to make this sort of claim.

apparently, for physicists to achieve this nearly perfect mathematical description of physical reality, the mathematics had to get pretty complicated. so, when you read a paper by a physicist on a topic that you feel like you should have a good handle on - you're a psychologist, the topic is consciousness - you have quite a bit of difficulty in parsing his descriptions, even though you realize that he's not talking about anything approaching the sophistication of string theory or QED.

so.. i'll go back and give it another 20 minutes, maybe make it another half-page. also, tomorrow night i'm having an MRI of my neck, to check for dissections in my carotid arteries. fun fun fun.

(only now did i realize that this topic would have been perfect for a new dialogue.. maybe i will recast it?)

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