July 12, 2005

Living in middle world.

Richard Dawkins:
"Middle world is the narrow range of reality that we judge to be normal as opposed to the queerness that we judge to be very small or very large."...

Our brains had evolved to help us survive within the scale and orders of magnitude within which we exist, said Professor Dawkins.

We think that rocks and crystals are solid when in fact they were made up mostly of spaces in between atoms, he argued.

This, he said, was just the way our brains thought about things in order to help us navigate our "middle sized" world - the medium scale environment - a world in which we cannot see individual atoms.
Of course, that's true. Try as I might, I cannot realistically think about very large and very small things. I do try. I understand the concepts, but I know what I'm picturing in my mind is still stuck in the middle and nowhere near the truly large and the truly small that exists out there and in there.


chuck b. said...

Who says you should think about the very small or the very large "realistically"? Or , perhaps, what do you mean by realistic?

I'm a working scientist and I would characterize most of my thinking as abstract.

Realistic thinking is for finances, diet, politics, etc.

Ann Althouse said...

I mean to have an accurate mental picture. When I picture an elephant or a fly I picture the size realistically in my head. I can't picture a galaxy or an atom however. Not realistically.

chuck b. said...
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chuck b. said...
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Steve Dispensa said...

I've always been fascinated by this sort of analysis. The same holds for temperature ranges (we're not that well suited for anything outside of 0 to 100), and even more fascinating to me, the tiny band of spectrum that shows up to us as visible light.

If you believe that evolution always gets it right, it must mean that the most interesting, relevant stuff happens in middle world. Otherwise we'd have evolved to deal with big/small world too/instead.

Simon Kenton said...

Take a look at


for a journey down the span from 10^22 to 10^-10. It does give a mental picture.

Though this particular demonstration is not ideal for making the concept manifest, the universe is stiff with pan-scalar repetitions, as for instance a spiral galaxy, a hurricane, a tornado, a whirlwind an eddy.

You can speculate, not without tantalizing evidence, that the universe is a hologram. But, "'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so...."

Kathleen B. said...

"If you believe that evolution always gets it right"

could you elaborate on this Steve? how does evolution "get it right"? Evolution is the propegation of randomly developed traits that assist in procreation and survival of decendants. It is not teleological. Or are you saying that it is?

Slac said...

Of course, that's true. Try as I might, I cannot realistically think about very large and very small things.

No. This is only "true" to the extent that you give up on it. It takes a great deal of work to have a good mental picture of the very large or small.

For example, one has a much clearer picture of the Earth, its size, environment, etc., when one views it personally from space. This example is significant because our ability to do this is dependent on our growth in science and technology. Dawkins is attacking the extremes of our current progress and saying it's not good enough. Well, duh.

So far, our scientists have succeeded very well in getting a mathematical picture, which is a vital part of the "whole" mental picture. It's very difficult and time consuming, but interestingly enough, we're getting better.

Richard Dawkins is the same man who championed the "selfish gene" and has distracted behavioral science from important investigations, namely on how species develop the ability to work cooperatively and how they advance such behavior. His thinking is centric and pre-Copernican.

His expertise, also, has demonstrably little application in this area. And he even admits it tacitly -

He concluded with the thought that if he could re-engineer his brain in any way he would make himself a genius mathematician.

Well, Richard. Why don't you blame your biology and not your volition for why you don't succeed in mathematics and technology? Oh wait, you just did.

What's most important is that his emphasis on evolution as a limiting factor in front of our advancement of the physical sciences is downright risible. Evolution, as Kathleen said, is propagation. Unless the scientists are having sex, evolution has no place in this argument.

You should not pay much attention to this, Ann. And please forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but if you are genuinely interested in getting an accurate picture of the very large and very small, law is not the right profession.

HaloJonesFan said...

Slac: Does the term 'internet male' mean anything to you?

Ann Althouse said...

Slac: I'm more interested in relating to middle world, and lawproffing is working out quite okay for that.

Slac said...

halojonesfan: What?

Ann: I'm sorry if that last statement came out a little terse. I just find Dawkins very regressive and discouraging.

The "middle world" is only "middle" to us today. It's like saying "middle east," really. Travel some, open up your understanding about the world, and the description doesn't apply anymore. Unless you say that humans evolved with limit of only seeing the world from the prime meridian, which is utterly ridiculous, and only accurate from a purely nominal perspective.

DirtCrashr said...

A good place to get the Massive vs. Tiny scale, is out in the desert. Stand there and see: off across the Mojave are mountains far away, at your feet is sand, nearby is a rock the size of a three-story house, which could be a pebble or a grain of sand. When night falls the sky lights up like nowhere else and the stars and distance of space is nearly either levitating or crushing - it's a good place to actually feel the push and polarity of massive scales.
Even just driving it, Hwy 50: you look at your map and the road is a dead-straight line to the horizon, then past the map-fold it takes a slight turn to the right, maybe twenty degrees or whatever, from 12 O'clock to 2 O'clock. You look up and see the road going straight away and away, straight into the distance, and way-way far up there you see a bend - and it takes a half-hour to get there.
Maybe that is what's-up with the whole 40-days-in-the-desert thing; you've got distance-and-size, the temeperature-range, and even light-and-dark: it's painfully bright in daytime and when night comes darkness crashes down.

DirtCrashr said...

Oh yeh, and Scales of Velocity, the desert can get you up to speed on a long straight road until you just stop accelerating and you blast along at whatever the car or bike will do. After adjustment to skimming along like that at 130 or better, slowing down to 65 feels like you could just get out and push to go faster. Maybe it's more noticeable on a bike, but speed also accentuates the Mph/Kph Euro-scale difference, might lead you to think they like to count high just to impress...