Alchemy, NK Boolean Style
There’s an old joke about the philosopher Rudolf Carnap and his method of doing philosophy. According to the joke, Carnap’s method was to begin any philosophical investigation with the statement “Consider a formal language L.” As the good logical positivist he was, Carnap desired the precision inherent in formal languages. Unfortunately, precision has its price. Formal languages are not natural languages and the problems expressible in formal languages need not connect to actual problems in the real world. With formal languages the question ever remains whether they adequately capture the subject under investigation.
Appropriately modified, the joke about Rudolf Carnap can be retold about Stuart Kauffman and the scientific method he employs in At Home in the Universe. According to the modified joke, Kauffman’s method is to begin any scientific investigation with the statement “Consider an NK Boolean network.” Indeed, throughout At Home in the Universe just about every real-world problem gets translated into a toy-world problem involving NK Boolean networks. As with Carnap’s formal languages, NK Boolean networks have the advantage of complete logical precision. But they also suffer the disadvantage of losing touch with reality. And it is this disadvantage which ultimately proves the undoing of Kauffman’s project.Read More ›