Wednesday, 21 February 2018

From the world of science to the social world


Lent 2018: Day Eight

From the world of Newtonian physics (working out trajectories of planets) and quantum mechanics (working out positions of subatomic particles), Stuart A. Kauffman moves on through the non-entailing, unprestatable laws of biological evolution, to the human world of economics, politics - art even.

Newton is prestatable. We know where Venus and Mars are tonight, and where they'll be ten years from now (although all those tonnes added to these planets' mass by Mankind might have some detectable long-term effect). We can observe the positions of those subatomic particles (but only if we actually do the observation - otherwise all we can do is speculate). The future evolution of the biosphere - entirely unprestatable.

The human world is not bound by entailing laws. Take economic theory. As we all know, the global financial crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was not something that economists forecast. Yes, some individual economists got it broadly right, but there was no consensus, such as that among astronomers who can forecast the next Transit of Venus in just under 100 years' time to within a day's accuracy. "We cannot mathematize... the evolution of the economy," says Kauffman. The same goes for political polling, or for seeing what uses we will find for a newly developed technology.

He touches on game theory, citing the famous prisoner's dilemma - cooperate or defect. Here, I'd take issue with Kauffman - over millions of rounds of playing this game, there is an optimal outcome. Cooperate with them that will cooperate with you, but defect on those that defect on you the very moment they do so - and continue to do so until the very moment they return to cooperation. [I wrote about this here in the context of international relations.] While the rule has been proven, what is difficult to define is 'defect' (A colleague leaves a mess on your desk? A friend insults you. A neighbour throws a brick through your window? A criminal steals your car? Murders your family?) and to define the response (Measured? Proportional?) Games have rules, but those are not the same rules as those that govern the motion of a body in space.

Unexpected consequences intrigue Kauffman as they show just unprestatable is the unfolding of human society. Every new law will have a loophole that the legislators did not expect. That is what lawyers are for. "Unprestatable new loopholes open unprestatable new opportunities and thus enable, but do not cause, new actions, strategies and behaviours. Laws both constrain some actions, yet enable other, often unforeseen, actions with unforeseeable payoffs. "No one designed English common law," he says. It evolved.

Kauffman shows how the chain of Actual->Possible->Actual->Possible unfolded from Alan Turing's first mathematization of 'mechanical computation' in 1933, to the world's first computer, ENIAC (1946), to mainframe computers; the invention of the microchip enabled computers to shrink in size and increase in power; word processing came along as the 'killer app' that would make the personal computer a household product; file sharing enabled - but did not cause - the world-wide web; the possibility of selling goods on the web enabled eBay and Amazon; the web also enabled social media to come into existence, and the increased power of mobile telephone allowed browsers to to move to smartphones.

"History unfolds into the possibilities it creates, new Actuals enabling new Possibles, enabling new Actuals." But this process is messy, sprawling, interwoven, confused. "We must live into the future and make it, structured by our past, yet not fully knowing what it is that we enable as we enable it," says Kauffman.

This time two years ago:
Music, mysticism and the human spirit

This time three year:
My first Pendolino journey 

This time four years ago:
Poland's universal panacea

This time five years ago:
Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

This time six years ago:
Lent starts again

This time  seven years ago:
Art Quiz

This time eigh years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time nine years ago:
The beauty of winter
[some of my finest winter photos]


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