Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A (non)Definition of Depth

We’ve posted a number of reflections about the idea of “depth” in (especially) mathematics and related science (for the complete list of these, click here: http://worldofdrjustice.blogspot.com/search/label/depth ), without ever really defining the term.  And this, for a reason:

Two interrelated ideas that have been widely assumed to be unanalysable  are those of one scientific theory being deeper and more unified than another.
-- John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. xiii

The idea of theoretical depth has considerable importance in Popper’s philosophy of science.  “If at all possible, we are after deep theories.”  But he was pessimistic about the possibility of any sharp characterisation of the idea.
-- John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 188

And that, not necessarily for any ‘deep’ reason -- not correlating intimately with the intricacies of physics, say -- but much as it is hard to characterize sharply such multifaceted (or blobby) concepts as beauty or game.    And here, I must sympathize with the archetypal philistine of a hundred New Yorker cartoons,  genially conceding, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”   A mathematician or physicist may not be able to define depth in a way that would satisfy the notoriously finicky tribe of philosophers:  but he knows it when he sees it.  And smiles.

So, sorry, no necessary-and-sufficient conditions, nor even a rough-and-ready dictionary definition;  but anyhow, an epigram:

Whewell’s requirment that a deep hypothesis, one that gets hold of nature’s ‘alphabet’ as he put it, must enable us ‘to explain … cases of a kind  different from those which we contemplated in the formation of our hypothesis.
-- John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 190

(A similar metaphor, more popular since Whewell’s day:  a good theory must “cut Nature at the joints”.)


Hmm, now I’ve piqued my own curiosity.  How does a practicing lexicographer go about characterizing the term deep in the sense(s) of interest here?

Okay, for starter’s, a British one -- Collins English Dictionary (1979):

deep:  … (6) difficult to understand or penetrate; abstruse
(7)  learned or intellectually demanding: a deep discussion

Sense (6) is of no interest.  We went to some effort in this post (“A Dive to theDepths”) to distinguish depth from difficulty.  (For the list of posts re difficulty: http://worldofdrjustice.blogspot.com/search/label/difficulty .)   Sense (6) would be used by a lazy man, giving up -- “Too deep for me.”   Here he is not even using the word with its native literal resonance -- he could quite as well speak with poor Mr Tulliver, who often confessed that the world was “too many” for him.   Indeed, sense (6) might deserve one of those non-semantic/non-grammatical, sociolinguistic labels like “ -- Not in polite use”:  here,  “-- Not used in this sense by serious thinkers.”

Actually, by a twist of pragmatics, the phrase does get used by serious thinkers -- but typically as an ironic put-down.  Thus:

The towering 19th-century mathematician Hamilton  labored hard on his “Law of Hodographic Isochronism”,

but when he sent it to John Herschel (whom Hankins calls “the best-known and best-regarded British scientist of his time” [p. 134]), he got the reply:  You are fairly got out of my depth”.  (This was Herschel’s regular response when he did not have the time or inclination to follow Hamilton’s long analytical excursions.)
-- Thomas Hankins, Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1980), p.

And again, roughly a century later:  After presenting a rather absurd and convoluted, goalpost-moving series of proposals from Lakatos and Morrall:

I am out of my depth with a claim of this kind.
-- John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 334

Here he is being disengenuously self-deprecating;  and his reply is all the more biting.


A more general thought, though, on depth versus difficulty.   I almost wrote that the latter was “much less interesting” -- though really, that depends on your day-job.  If you teach primary school, you need not (ex cathedra) worry your head one bit about depth in our sense;  whereas you must ever be alert to the perils of difficulty.  To epigrammatize into a dichotomy:  Depth (again, in our privileged sense) inheres in the subject itself;  Difficulty is relative to the practical limitations of some species (be it human, chimp, or the poor fly stuck in the fly-bottle) when grappling with the problems in that subject.   Since the philosophy of this blog is Platonist, we have little interest in the latter (no intellectual interest;  though some emotional interest, maudlin or morbid, as here).

From that perspective, sense (7) is also disappointing.   A subject itself (such as algebraic geometry or M-theory) cannot be called “learned” (i.e., learnèd):  that epithet might only be applied to whoever is gassing on about it.  “Intellectually demanding” could be applied either to a subject or a particular discussion or presentation thereof.  And that quality might be due to anything from the intellectual limitations of the audience (“The concept of evidence is too intellectually demanding for Trump voters”)  -- thus, back to sense (6) -- to an (overly) condensed presentation on the part of the lecturer, to actual depth inherent to the subject (and which would still be apparent to an angel, who understood the subject perfectly well).   Thus, neither sense goes far towards elucidating what mathematicians mean when they refer to a “deep result”.


Curious now whether my old alma-mater Merriam-Webster  did any better, I looked it up in their Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition),  I found something quite different.
First, their treatment of the geospatial, ‘literal’ sense of the term, from which all others ultimately derive, is unexpectedly rich and reticulated (I almost wrote:  “deep”), containing sub-subsenses like

deep  1 b (1) : extending well inward from an outer surface <a ~ gash>

(That is the sort of distinction you come up with when you are working from a generous deskful of carefully chosen citation-slips, rather than copying other dictionaries  or pulling the definition out of your butt.)

But then things sort of fall apart.  The sense “difficult” is not treated as a top-level numbered sense, as in the Collins, but as a subsense of a sense not defined save as the sum of its (rather disparate) subsenses:

deep  3 a : difficult to penetrate or comprehend : recondite < ~ mathematical problems>
3 b : mysterious, obscure <a ~ dark secret >
3 c : grave in nature or effect <in  ~est disgrace>
3 d :  of penetrating intellect : wise <a ~ deep thinker >

along with several more lying well off our axis of interest.   And oddly, despite all the careful hair-splitting, nothing really corresponding to Collins’ (7).

Thus, we still have come no further towards our goal.


The subject of depth, unlike that of mathematics, or Christianity (or oahspe),  tends not to attract disquisitions of the “What  is ….?”  sort.   We tried our hand at one for math (here), basically coming up with little more than a florilegium of blind-men-and-the-elephant stabs at it, for the overly general definiendum mathematics itself;  more fruitful was the task of characterizing topics within mathematics, like affine connection or topology, since here (at least for the former example) the definer’s intention is more in the nature of targeted enlightenment  than an after-dinner speech :  the result was a nice bouquet of epigrams.


Back to Depth vs Difficulty.    

(1) A deep remark or insight  is associated, not with presenting difficulties (as in Collins sense (6) ), but -- quite the contrary -- with resolving them.

A humble but poignant case  has been recounted here (Induction/Recursion), where a problem that had seemed difficult (to New Jersey third-graders, back in the complacent days before the impact of Sputnik  had filtered down to elementary school) -- that of multiplying multi-digit numbers -- suddenly became transparent, under the impact of an insight which (relative to what we had learned so far, most of it from the Mickey Mouse Club) might qualify as (qualifiedly) deep

(2) Above, we made something akin to an actio/actum distinction between difficulty and depth (human activity vs. the subject itself);   yet now we may make an additional distinction, on the same -- human -- side of the Platonic/psychological divide.  You might call it horizontal/vertical,  syntagmatic/paradigmatic :  judging words (concepts) by the company they keep.


Let us recur to that subsense in Webster’s Colleagiate,  3 b : mysterious, obscure”, and consider the idea of  deep as it appears in company with that of being hidden:

The mind is in a sad state, when Sleep, the all-involving, cannot confine her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffers them to break forth, affighting this actual life, with secrets that perchance belong to a deeper one.
-- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark”

(I.e., a deeper, hidden something, that somehow itself  amounts to a “life”.)

And from a mathematical physicist:

It is indeed true that we can prove, from this kind of Euclidean argument,  that squares, made up of right angles, actually do exist.  But there is a deep issue hiding here.
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 28

Namely (tying in with cosmology):

His fourth postulate asserts the equality of all right angles.  … In effect, the fourth postulate is asserting the isotropy and homogeneity of space.
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 29



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