Wolfram Science Group
Phoenix, AZ USA
Registered: Aug 2003
First just to be clear about who is speaking, where - in the previous, the qualified comparison to Plato is something I said at NKS 2003 in response to a question. The bracketed reference to Hegel is not me speaking, but somebody else reacting to my comment.
If one looks only for single points of similarity, one can find numerous previous thinkers that agree with this or that NKS point. Each also will have differences. Which are viewed as important is a matter of judgment. Obviously the whole NKS point of view is not found in any one predecessor, or they would have said, way back when, what in fact has only been said recently.
That said, here is something of a "reading list" of previous philosophy points that one might relate to NKS.
Whitehead and "process philosophy"
Pierce relating logic to form and ontology
Hegel for dynamic formal structure
Leibniz on interrelated information, complexity from simple laws
Descartes on thinkables (math-like reals), also "vortices" as analogs of network "tangles"
Scholastic realism on math-like formal entities
Augustine on apparent free will with (absolute) foreknowledge, but not for us
Lucretius on complexity from underlying simples, analogy to language
Plato on reality of formal patterns, generating both reals and thoughts
Pythagoreans on underlying math-like primitives
Any number of idealisms that relate things to thoughts
There are also less systematic prior references or analogies. Historically there have been many more or less confused ideas one can relate to universality, or to imagined significance of this or that formal system, linguistic or numerical based. Thus various neo-Platonic, neo-Pythagorean, Kabalist or Hermetic "thought". Which are less independent than some might suppose, but instead have influenced each other, as syncretic literary aftereffects of limited prior philosophical points. Is any one of these the same as NKS, or its basic thought? No, not really.
With some of the more solid philosophy subjects above one will get no more than a loose analogy, or one or two sensible points that are also found in NKS. The more sensible among them, to varying degrees, point away from themselves toward mathematics.
One can just as easily run through a list like that and pick out specific differences, that mark each of the above as different from the views presented in the NKS book.
For example, Whitehead's process philosophy wants to find an intermediary between realized things and abstract thoughts, in the area of dynamics. But "privileges" time in doing so, in a way NKS patterns can, but need not (compare abstract graphs vs. time evolution of CAs). Experiences in Whitehead's sense are also more thoroughly phenomenal (appearences). Otherwise put, NKS patterns are more nearly just structures, posited as "out there".
Or in the case of Pierce, the hot new formal development in his era was continuum infinities as developed by Cantor, while universality was as yet undiscovered. So he winds up tracing many things to continuity, where NKS emphasizes discreteness.
Or with Hegel, the sort of dynamic formal structures he is thinking about are vastly simpler and more uniform than arbitrary NKS formal systems. Although he is associated with it, he didn't come up with the developing formal system idea anyway. Most of it is already there in Fichte, and there are some predecessors clear back to the middle Platonists (as Hegel himself is aware, e.g. in his Logic or his history of philosophy).
Leibniz had monads and also invented binary numbers, but every monad is unique and he wants real infinities of them, point-like rather than enumerably discrete as we think of it today. Augustine wants not just wills apparently free to us but in some sense really free yet foreknowable, which is a "stronger" sense of it but perhaps a more contradictory one. Idealisms may be compatible with NKS thinking about formal patterns, but NKS does not entail idealism since it is also compatible with "realist" formalism, generating thoughts from real formal patterns rather than the other way around.
As a matter of history, each of these is an interesting case, where the question is just what and how much previous thinkers made from points they saw already, when other bits were missing or wrong or have a different position on this or that question.
But is one going to learn NKS from the study of a single one of them? No. To learn NKS one must study NKS, especially the characteristics of the formal systems themselves. By all means look at these things too, for ideas or to understand the history of thought. When you know how to think, they are things worth thinking about. But to train the mind to see things, start with the formal systems themselves.
Suitably generalizing from the math of his era to include simple programs in ours, I'll give Pierce the last word -
The highest kind of observation is the observation of systems, forms, and ideas. No other exercise I know of is half so good for strengthening this faculty as the study of pure mathematical theories, and practice in making ourselves such theories. I would not advise any man to go without reading Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit', but in my opinion as a discipline for the mind it is almost immeasurably inferior to the study of mathematics. - CS Pierce
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