Explanations of your favorite deep and meaningful ideas
March 4, 2013 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I still remember vividly the moment that I got the idea of entropy in information theory; I spent weeks seeing the world in those terms, and playing out the implications (as I understood them). Likewise Nietzschean "eternal recurrence" -- not just as a hypothesis about things repeating on a cosmic scale, but to see if the world and history can be taken as a choice, as something we can affirm. What are your favorite deep, rich, meaningful concepts to think with? (They don't need to be scientifically accurate, necessarily, or something you personally believe -- just things that offer the pleasure of understanding, for you.) Links to explanatory resources, or explanations in the comments welcome, or just names and starting points.

A few others that fill this space for me: the habitus in sociology, Stewart Brand's "shearing layers," the "distribution of the sensible," Hofstadter's "strange loops" ...
posted by the brave tetra-pak to Religion & Philosophy (32 answers total) 131 users marked this as a favorite
Most recently for me, Roko's basilisk. Which I think was via metafilter.
posted by pseudonick at 9:42 AM on March 4, 2013

Not that I necessarily agree with it, but the aesthetic theory in the first volume of Christopher Alexander's Nature of Order changed how I looked at architecture and designed objects for weeks after I read it. There's a list of his fifteen properties here and an excerpt here, but the book goes into considerably more detail.
posted by theodolite at 9:45 AM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

There are a few of these in programming:

The halting problem - deciding if a given arbitrary computer program terminates is impossible

The lambda calculus - with variable binding and substitution, you can build Turing equivalent machines(i.e. no need for explicit loops)

The Curry / Howard isomorphism - a computer program is a proof, the thing it proves is a system type.

In addition, learning about the algebraic properties of concatenative programming is fascinating(the juxtaposition of expressions denotes function composition)!

You can find great explanations of these on wikipedia.
posted by jalitt at 9:48 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Umberto Eco for me. His nonfiction, writing about semiotics and the way the mind processes, stores and recalls information always sends my mind swirling as i read. Kant and the Platypus ranks, for me, with Godel Escher Bach and just a few other books as truly mindbendingly deep.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:52 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Kant's thesis that space and time are only the forms of external and internal intuition, and that the thing-in-itself (that which is being intuited) may or may not have temporal or spatial characteristics. That is, we (not by choice, but in virtue of our limitations), "see" the "world" as temporal and spatial, but have no way of knowing whether it is actually so. In fact, it may be that none of the categories by which we understand the world are present in the world itself. (Presumably there is some kind of mapping from the thing-in-itself to our intuition, but then again, we can never know that.)

Also, the Tragedy of the Commons made a huge difference in my political perceptions.
posted by bricoleur at 9:58 AM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains a lot of what I see not just in teaching but in real life, especially people's tendency to ignore or dismiss scientific evidence. (In teaching, it needs to be applied with a lot more compassion than there is in the article I linked to.)
posted by alphanerd at 10:00 AM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Through meditation I really came to feel, understand, and start living the Buddhist idea - which parallels quantum entanglement - that all matter and energy is intertwined, that the air I'm breathing is inextricably linked to the air someone in China is breathing (therefore our lungs and their processes are linked, etc.).
posted by 3FLryan at 10:11 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wittgenstein's language-games blew my mind.
posted by kpmcguire at 10:16 AM on March 4, 2013

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, in which he argues that a) the humankind of prehistory and even early history experienced reality with a fundamentally different mind than our own current-day consciousness, b) these early humans hallucinated voices which instructed them in novel situations and made decisions for them, and c) the switch from unconscious/hallucinating mind to conscious/decision-making mind developed out of the figurative use of language.

I've never read something anything else that's simultaneously so plausible and so impossible.
posted by sleevener at 10:41 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

the connection between black hole entropy and the holographic principle

Briefly its the idea that since A) the entropy of a black hole increases with the surface area of the event horizon, rather than the volume contained within it, and B) the black hole has the highest entropy possible within a given event horizon that C) any information in any given volume of space can be entirely described by the information on the surface bounding that space.
posted by empath at 10:47 AM on March 4, 2013

The Butterfly Effect

When you're young and small and the internet hadn't been invented yet, the concept of a flapping wing in Taiwan causing a hurricane across the globe was a powerful eye opener to the concept of connections, causes and inter relationships where none might be immediately perceived.

I wanted to grow up to be a butterfly.
posted by infini at 11:17 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Selfish Gene was my introduction to Sociobiology, also called Evolutionary psychology.
posted by hollyanderbody at 11:25 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In 2009, there was an interesting question here: What are the simple concepts that have most helped you understand the world?
posted by James Scott-Brown at 11:34 AM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Perhaps too simple to belong here, but when I read Goethe's statement "Each man sees what he carries in his heart" my eyes/mind/heart were opened. Over the years the compassion that this simple idea offers has made me able to actually listen to other people, instead of constantly labeling them 'right' or 'wrong.' It has also helped me understand why I think so strongly about some things and not others.
posted by kestralwing at 12:11 PM on March 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

Inspired by kestralwing, I'd like to add the phrases that really influenced me in my turbulent teens and twenties.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

posted by infini at 12:44 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Occam's razor. My favorite corollary is "If you can't tell the difference, there is (probably) no difference."
posted by Bruce H. at 12:46 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

This isn't a complicated theorem that finally made sense or a spiritual enlightenment story, so I'm not sure it's entirely what you're looking for, but I will never forget the moment I had as a child when I realized that no one was privy to my thoughts, and that I could think whatever I wanted in total privacy.

I was laying in bed at night, before falling asleep, and I was practicing swearing, trying out different combinations of words and enjoying the thrill of being naughty. After a few moments of this delicious bad word indulgence, I became afraid that I was going to get in trouble--after all, using bad words wasn't allowed.

And then the realization came to me out of nowhere--no one, not my parents or my teachers or anyone else, would ever be able to pry into my head and learn about my thoughts. I could use all the swear words I wanted in my head, and no one would ever know! I could mouth off at my parents with impunity as long as the words never actually made it out of my mouth! I could indulge myself in all sorts of thoughts that I'd be horrified and embarrassed to share with others, totally free from judgement or shame.

Understanding that my mind was 100% my own, private and protected and completely free from scrutiny, was one of the most extraordinary things I've ever experienced.
posted by jesourie at 1:23 PM on March 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

Michael Pirsig's idea of Dynamic Quality as an eternal undefinable essence, with basically the entire universe as static patterns of quality is one that has stuck with me. He lays it out in Lila.

While it's not technically original (Henry James and Taoism are two obvious referents) the way he explains it is so clear and obvious it seems undeniable as an explanation for science, religion, life, the universe and everything.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:03 PM on March 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Statistical overfitting with respect to learning.
Kahnemann and Tversky's Heuristics and Biases approach.
Read Impro two or three times, that book is filled with them.
The Lacanian idea of the real.
posted by curuinor at 3:05 PM on March 4, 2013

The idea of thick description as explained by Clifford Geertz.
The idea of grace by faith.
The presentation of self as explained by Goffman.
All three at different points in my life changed the way I thought about the world and about my self.
(plus what infini said)
posted by SyraCarol at 3:07 PM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Peter Principle
Parkinson's Rule
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity
posted by jasondigitized at 6:22 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of my best, geeky memories of college is waking up the day of a huge chemistry test and having the basic theory of photons/light/energy click into understanding. I walked around all day just marveling at how it worked. There were some other moments like that but how light works was really cool.

Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene" was also really cool in that way. Evolution is so awesome and incredibly intricate and even though I knew that, the book made me really understand.
posted by raeka at 7:26 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really like the word / homophone set 'space.' Spes (Latin) means 'hope'; space, in math, space is possibility; in dance, space is what gives art meaning. And -- dum spiro, spero -- while I breathe, I hope -- all these nice thoughts.

A too-cute exposition of the halting problem: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/loopsnoop.html
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:03 AM on March 5, 2013

Foucault and the power/knowledge nexus. Related, critical discourse analysis.
posted by a.steele at 7:51 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say all of these are deep but they've "transformed" me or whatever:

-Bakhtin and notions of the carnivalesque, and the idea that humor, particularly humor about the body, is inherently politically transgressive
-a bit related, Turner and the idea of universal cross-cultural need for periods of liminality (I celebrate holidays with a lot more gusto than my atheist husband, that's for sure :b)
-the idea, I hate that I forget whose it was, of ritual being the "knife edge" of religion, as opposed to the "handle" or dogma--people tend to frame it like dogma/"the story" tells you what ritual to follow, but it's possible it's the other way around, that ritual drives people to then tell just-so stories to justify said rituals (and that those rituals are more physically driven needs--the example back in the day was ritual cannibalism among the Aztec as being due to a nutrient deficiency)
-yes to Geertz's thick description; this was huge for me as well
-Kant yes, a million times yes. The only way dogmatic religion and conventional morality was ever made remotely palatable in a convincing, using-my-brain-not-fighting-it way.
-Gramsci's reformulation of Marxism (and eventually, transculturalism) made a hell of a lot more sense to me than the straight-up version, whoo boy
-Standpoint theory. Eventually wrote a paper on it connecting it to the adoptee's experience of family, etc., and I think it works just as well with any "non-traditional" family unit living in the context of being Other.
-Margie Profet's reframing the scientific approach to women's reproductive bodies as not broken or unnecessarily complicated or a hassle (morning sickness, periods), but evolutionarily sound as any other living creature's physical instruments. Even if she wasn't right the fact someone was fucking willing to change the tone of the whole thing was really important to me.

Then it devolves into a lot of super-straight-up-pomo-101-theory-whore stuff. Foucault (power being the primary driving force of all interaction, how cultures index things mattering) and Lacan/Irigaray (the body matters even where you don't think it should) and Baudrillard (simulacra), and more old skool, Douglas and contamination, and all that. So. Guess I'm predictable.
posted by ifjuly at 8:42 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Walter Benjamin's notion of the mystical power of language too, but maybe that's too woo-woo for most people. I think he's really good at evoking it in the midst of explaining it (similar to the feminine l'ecriture writers' approach-by-illustration) in works like "A Berlin Chronicle." Anything that gets to that notion of how sketchy and something-distinct-and-just-as-beautiful remembering or taking in the world is compared to "the world itself" (if there can be such a thing). And anything where that translation as an entity unto itself is illuminated and celebrated and picked apart (Nabokov was good at this, yet could make it look so easy as to almost disappear).
posted by ifjuly at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2013

Another vote for The Selfish Gene! I understood evolution (and biology overall) so much more deeply after reading that book.
posted by mskyle at 9:01 AM on March 5, 2013

Stuart Kauffman's arguments for the likelihood of emergence of order from disorder in At Home in the Universe and The Origins of Order.
posted by sapere aude at 9:46 AM on March 5, 2013

Finite vs Infinite Games
...a finite game is played with the purpose of winning (thus ending the game), while an infinite game is played with the purpose of continuing the play...

for instance, the finite game of debate vs the infinite game of dialog.
posted by storybored at 4:35 PM on March 9, 2013

Also, the 2011 annual question on Edge.org (the subject of a FPP on the blue), was what scientific concept would Improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
posted by James Scott-Brown at 4:56 AM on March 25, 2013

James Scott-Brown, a book actually came out of that Edge question, called This Will Make You Smarter. I think it would be a great gift for a high school aged person who may not be familiar with many of the kinds of ideas as in this thread.

In any case, the concept that small population size decreases the influence of natural selection decreases and the influence of genetic drift increases really changed the way I think about biology. To paraphrase, directional changes in gene frequency due to differential survival becomes swamped by random changes in gene frequency due to sampling error in small populations. Especially as it pertains to long-lived small-population'd animals such as ourselves, this is a really powerful idea. We face much weaker selection than bacteria, so we are the exact opposite of "more evolved." I guess along with it my view of the world was really skewed (heh) when I first internalized the basic notions of statistics; the power and meaning of a normal distribution and standard deviation; understanding why some things are linear, logarithmic, or exponential.
posted by Buckt at 7:24 PM on March 26, 2013

Ugh, awful typos. "the concept that small population size decreases the influence of natural selection increases the influence of genetic drift really changed the way I think about biology" is what I meant to say.
posted by Buckt at 5:07 PM on March 27, 2013

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