Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The philosophical summing junction

We spent a happy hour or so, tossing around the question of who to save in the event of nuclear war; not that we anticipate needing a plan of action, but rather as a challenge to the concept that philosophy is a method of clarifying and solving problems. I attempted to draw the exchange to a close by suggesting that in our 60 minutes of vigorous thought and discussion we had produced between us an almost complete answer to the question of how to proceed. Someone else said he scored it "philosophy nil, chaos 100". Clearly I had failed to make my point. Here (below) I try again, giving myself a bit more space.

In the discipline of electronics and analogue computers there is a concept that goes by the name of 'the summing junction'. It functions (in my head) as follows: The junction has 2 inputs and one output, such that the output is the algebraic sum of the two inputs. If one input is at +5v (relative to the earth rail) and the other is at +2v then the output is at 7v. You get the idea? (If one was at +3v and the other at -4v the output would be at -1v.)

In my head it is a simple matter to conceive a summing junction that had 100 inputs and one output, but which worked in exactly the same way; or 1000 inputs. You might ask how a single output number like -1, or  +42, could be the answer to a question like "what should we do?". Agreed. But, if one of the inputs says 'go in this direction' and another says 'go in this other direction' then the summing junction tells us a direction in which to go. So, some of the inputs could be 'act selfishly', 'act altruistically', 'be pragmatic', 'be political', 'be Darwinian'.

It is easy to think of 2 vectors in a plane. If they were of equal magnitude, one pointing north and the other pointing east, the resultant would point northeast. It is easy to see that we can extend this to 3 dimensions; adding an equal vector vertically upwards would produce a resultant that pointed northeast but upwards at an angle of 45º (I think; well, that will do for now anyway.) Not so easy, but just about convincing, would be the contention that 100 different dimensions could be handled in the same way; there would be such a thing as their geometric or logical resultant. (Up or down in the 'moral' dimension, left or right in the 'political' dimension, soon/late, near/far, ordered/random, the prudent dimension, the possible, the Benthamite, the Nietzschean; whatever!)

We spent an hour tossing ideas into the ring. Some ideas led to the conclusion 'pick survivors at random', some said 'protect your family', etc, etc. It is hard to state the answer, but I submit that it is quite easy (now) to see that the answer is a complex function, indeed a type of sum, of the arguments (and emotions) advanced.

Though to state the answer is difficult, I suggest that there is available a complex and delicate piece of machinery that can function to some extent as the multi-dimensional, vectorial, summing junction just postulated; like a gold-leaf electroscope but more complicated and more sensitive. All that you require is a pair of ears connected up to a brain, and a tongue. Ideally, one would collect a bunch of these together in one place and let them interact for an hour or so, until the 'resultant' steadied. For delicate or 'high definition' work the tongues might need to be calibrated on white noise, in case they were not of equal loudness; so also the ears, and the brains! 

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