Monday, August 08, 2016

Reality: It's Complex

Last Friday we left off with a reminder that liberals are stuck in an outmoded 20th century -- 19th century, really -- epistemology which ensures that what they want to happen will not happen (and that things they never imagined happening will happen). It's like trying to use a map of London to get around Paris. This is not a new idea. Hayek realized it 75 years ago, and von Mises before him:

"Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation" (Hayek).

Thus, before there was even an explicit science of complexity, Hayek had an implicit grasp of it:

"economists are increasingly apt to forget about the small changes which make up the whole economic picture" because of "their growing preoccupation with statistical aggregates, which show a very much greater stability than the movements of the detail" (ibid.).

A complex system is one in which "many simple parts are irreducibly entwined," such that "relatively simple components with only limited communication among themselves collectively give rise to complicated and sophisticated system-wide ('global') behavior" (Mitchell). Thus, you can't reasonably hope to change a complex system by attempting to manipulate the aggregate from the top down; to be precise, you can surely change it, but you cannot predict how the system will behave.

When politicians talk about high-level abstract aggregates such as "the middle class," it is not as if you can push a button that will result in a larger middle class in some linear manner. Remember, no one ever planned this "middle class," and if it had been planned, it would have never happened. Similarly, no one "plans" science. Rather, scientific progress is a result of the automatic coordination of thousands of independent scientific actors.

Think of global warming, which is beset by two major problems. First, it has never produced a model that can accurately retrodict the past, let alone predict the future. Second, the field itself is controlled from the top down by various state and transnational actors and interests. The science is not being permitted to evolve in the usual way, from the bottom up, but is constantly distorted by the interests of organizations such as the the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

My own racket, psychology, has been ruined by activists who seek to control it from the top down. I've been licensed since 1991, but today it is impossible to pass the verbal exam without making it past the Thought Police, who force one to accept certain Truths of psychology such as multiculturalism. Nor can you even think that any homosexual has ever become heterosexual as a result of psychotherapy. Vice versa is fine, but some things are absolute and Not to Be Wondered About. Curiosity is permitted only so far and no farther.

This book about complexity proved disappointing. It started off well, but bogged down in excessive detail. The most interesting thing about complexity itself is how the details become the system, i.e., how the trees become the forest. I hadn't read a book on the subject for about a decade, but it turns out that nothing has changed in the interim: no one has a clue. There are many theories, but they all have obvious holes.

A big part of the problem -- ironically -- is that they try to reduce complexity to some scientistic explanation, when that is the whole point of complexity -- that it transcends material science itself. No mundane type of scientist is comfortable with this realization, so they are barred from using the everyday tools of the Raccoon such as teleology, AKA future or top-down organization -- let alone the strangest attractor of them all, God.

In a way, complexity is the most astonishing fact of existence, for it is the necessary condition for every other astonishing fact, including astonishment itself. A complex system is one "in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution" (ibid) -- for example, in the brain.

Perhaps the problem is in the definition itself: it is assumed at the outset that there is "no central control," when in fact the cosmos may be filled with nonlocal attractors that draw the system from "above." Not only do I believe we live in such a cosmos, nothing and no one could ever convince me otherwise. In the absence of this principle, not only does nothing make sense, it is not possible for anything to make sense. In other words, the ultimate meaning of things transcends us. Any meaning we superimpose on the parts "from below" is just a local projection.

It is as if Mitchell searches for the meaning of complexity in something less than what the complexity points toward; she looks backward instead of forward, down instead of up. Which is fine for scientists, but not philosophers. It is what scientists do.

But again, we know in principle that there are strict boundaries around what science may know. If we pretend that science is epistemologically unbounded, then we either inflate science to a godlike status or reduce God to math and chemistry. Consider: "It was the understanding of chaos that eventually laid to rest the hope of perfect prediction of all complex systems, quantum or otherwise" (Mitchell). Not only are there more variables than anyone could ever know, the possible interactions between them are as close to infinite as we can get this side of creation.

Imagine trying to model something as complex as history. One measure of complexity is the amount of information necessary to describe the system. As it pertains to history, nothing less than the totality of history can describe itself. Indeed, think of the impossibility of describing the life of a single person, let alone the totality! You quickly find yourself lost in infinitude.

But this does't stop the left. Think of Marx's crude reduction of history to a clash of class interests. It reminds one of an aphorism: A vocabulary of ten words is enough for a Marxist to explain history.

Come to think of it, a unifying principle that emerges from Levin's previous book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, is the idea that conservatives respect cultural and economic complexity, whereas the left imagines it can produce better systems by the imposition of top-down control.

And now that I think about it, like Burke, this may be one of the unifying themes of Don Colacho's aphorisms, i.e., respect for complexity and skepticism toward the linear psycho-political schemes of the left and their unintended consequences:

The difference between "organic" and "mechanical," in social facts, is a moral one: the "organic" is the result of innumerable humble acts; the "mechanical" is the result of a decisive act of pride.

The error lies not in dreaming that secret gardens exist, but in dreaming they have doors.

The left's theses are trains of thought that are carefully stopped before they reach the argument that demolishes them.

Revolutions have as their function the destruction of the illusions that cause them.

The modern state is the transformation of the apparatus which society developed for its defense into an autonomous organism which exploits it.

Propose solutions? As if the world were not drowning in solutions!

Legal freedom of expression has grown up alongside the sociological enslavement of thought.

Social problems cannot be solved. But we can ameliorate them by preventing our determination to alleviate just one of them from aggravating all.

A man is called a liberal if he does not understand that he is sacrificing liberty except when it is too late

Liberty is indispensable not because man knows what he wants and who he is, but so that he can find out who he is and what he wants.

Human warmth in a society diminishes by the same measure that its legislation is perfected.

The devil can achieve nothing great without the careful collaboration of the virtues.

Society's most serious ailments usually come from the imprudence with which they are treated.

Reason, truth, justice, tend not to be man's goals, but the names he gives to his goals.

Hell is the place where man finds his plans realized.

The cause of the modern disease is the conviction that man can cure himself.

One could go on and on...

21 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

A big part of the problem -- ironically -- is that they try to reduce complexity to some scientistic explanation, when that is the whole point of complexity -- that it transcends material science itself.

I'm reminded of this article about lichens being a symbiosis of three lifeforms, not just two. They are naturally trinitarian, it seems.

8/08/2016 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

A see that Fareed Zakaria is calling for mandatory voting. Again the attempt to force a top-down law in order to manipulate the system.

8/08/2016 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

An idea so terrible, only a leftist could have come up with it.

8/08/2016 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

It occurs to me, top-down control doesn't even happen within a single human body. We can consciously do things to affect our respiration and heartbeat, for instance, but most of the really critical systems have nothing to do with us, and for good reason. Imagine a man charged with all the details of maintaining his own functioning for even a moment, much less a lifetime! And yet we think we can control systems a million times larger than ourselves. Such hubris!

8/08/2016 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

"Imagine a man charged with all the details of maintaining his own functioning for even a moment, much less a lifetime!"

As someone who has just shoveled a lot of money into innumerable home improvements ("zeal for my house shall consume me"), a list that only seems to grow, as attention to one thing means inattention to another, which then breaks, requiring more attention -- this sorta hits home. The whole post hits home.

8/08/2016 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Just managing diabetes is a full time job! I have to do consciously what a normal body pulls off automatically. The other day there was a link at Happy Acres that made a really important point: that it requires a high level of intelligence to manage diabetes, which is the real reason it is such a killer. There is no top-down medical solution to this problem, because no one else can manage if for you.

8/08/2016 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

It is interesting that our left and right brains seem to be adapted to linearity and complexity, respectively. Certainly a big part of spirituality is developing a wider angle vision of the whole...

8/08/2016 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Leslie said...

This is also why universal education is a failure. When schools were locally controlled in neighborhoods, and everyone knew everyone and their mother, it sort of worked. The top down management of something so complex has been a disaster, so much so, that it seems intentional. Dumbing us down..

8/08/2016 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

The whole educational establishment was developed with the express view of turning men into machines for machines, i.e., from the organicity of the farm to the rigidity of the factory floor.

8/08/2016 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

...the cosmos may be filled with nonlocal attractors that draw the system from "above."

We deal with angels, unaware.

Speaking of angels, I am especially taken by Don Colacho's "The devil can achieve nothing without the careful collaboration of the virtues."

I was saved because I never believed in my own virtue.

8/08/2016 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Good point:

Just as

"Back in the day, the rich could easily demonstrate their superiority: they might have a Vermeer on the wall, but you didn’t. They had a chamber orchestra -- you didn’t. But with cheap replication, anyone can afford a Vermeer print, anyone can buy the music they want for a song. In such a situation, you pick a marker that nobody really likes: one that marks you as different and special…. Modern art instead of Rembrandts,"

So too, liberals

"adopt political ideas that are obviously stupid -- because only a truly refined person can understand their subtle justifications…. Any lout might think that race exists and partly explains what people are like -- only a sophisticate could steadfastly deny his lying eyes."

8/08/2016 01:21:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

"Not only are there more variables than anyone could ever know, the possible interactions between them are as close to infinite as we can get this side of creation."

I recall reading that in Darwin's day, it was common among the scientific crowd to think that the cell was just a blob of uniform goo. Now we know and keep discovering it is quite complex. And seeing the diagrams and animations of what goes on in there and each item's purpose, you think: of course! it must be so!

It seems reasonable then to think that complexity in the cell and atom and so on is infinite, and if so, would mean possible interaction would be infinite also. But of course I don't know.

Why do you stop short of saying possible interactions are infinite?

8/08/2016 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I guess you'd say that it is "relatively infinite" because absolute infinitude is reserved for God. It is, however, a reflection of God's infinitude on this plane.

8/08/2016 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Interesting thing about complexity is that it is not located in any thing, but in the space -- the relations -- between things. That too points to a trinitarian metaphysic in which God is relationship and not substance; or "substance-in-relation."

8/08/2016 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. the Sailer article, it reminds me of a history I read recently about royal purple. Made from the glands of thousands of snails, the dye apparently had a singularly unpleasant smell. This became part of the appeal: it was something rare, fairly useless, and almost completely repugnant to normal people: instant status symbol. A bit like ambergris, come to think of it.

8/08/2016 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Thanks, Bob. That makes sense.

8/08/2016 04:18:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"Last Friday we left off with a reminder that liberals are stuck in an outmoded 20th century -- 19th century, really -- epistemology which ensures that what they want to happen will not happen (and that things they never imagined happening will happen). It's like trying to use a map of London to get around Paris. This is not a new idea. Hayek realized it 75 years ago, and von Mises before him:"

The 19th or 20th century? That seems to give them a bit more credit than they deserve, doesn't it? Well,sure,they formally reverted to it in the last few centuries, but it's not as if they discovered or built that outlook to begin with. It's more like they got ahold of a 2,000+ yr old epistemology, refinished it with a more marketable veneer and flipped that old house for the buyers maker of our time. The Babylonians would have totally 'got' their disintegrated complexities. True,they wouldn't have gotten why we've rejected the revelations that made that incomprehensible chaos into One Cosmos, but they would've understood why they couldn't see unity in all that quantity.

8/08/2016 09:46:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Gagdad said "A see that Fareed Zakaria is calling for mandatory voting"

Hey,it worked wonders for Stalin and Sadam, what's not to like?

8/08/2016 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger Wanda Sherratt said...

Indeed, think of the impossibility of describing the life of a single person, let alone the totality! You quickly find yourself lost in infinitude.

I think that was the conclusion of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" - that the most insignificant moment of life is so filled with beauty and meaning that the only way we can live through it is not to notice it:

I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look
at one another.

(She breaks down sobbing.
The lights dim on the left half of the stage. MRS. WEBB disappears.)

I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.
Take me back up the hill to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners . . . Mama
and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking
. . . and Mama's sunflowers.
And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for
anybody to realize you.

8/09/2016 07:42:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I often think that when I look at my son -- like "this could be the best moment EVER, and it's just flying past."

8/09/2016 07:44:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Wanda that's lovely. Thank you.

I have reached the point, the past few years, where I rarely take pictures anymore, particularly of the kids. Not that they aren't photogenic; there is just too much the camera can't capture, and I know that while I'm struggling for whatever image I have in mind, I'm missing their moment. Instead, I trust it all to God, because I know nothing He loves is ever forgotten. Their sweet little faces and voices have a place in eternity. It is enough for me.

8/09/2016 11:52:00 AM  

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