virus: A Submission for your Philosophy
Mon, 15 Jan 1996 09:09:50 -0700

Since the time of the builders of the first ziggurats by the founders

of the Mesopotamian city-states, or perhaps even before, political

organization has reflected a peoples' understanding of the way the world is

organized. Those ziggurats themselves, along with the pyramids and other

structures that followed, from those of Egypt to the Mayans and the Khmers,

were themselves architectural metaphors for the structure of the universe.
By building models of the world-mountain at the center of the

universe, and placing the ruler in the same position as the chief of the

gods, these people demonstrated, illustrated, and legitimated their rule. As

our understanding of nature has changed, so has our understanding of society.
In Europe, royal sovereignty was explicitly modeled after the

Christian understanding of the role of God. A King ruled and guided his

subjects just as God ruled and guided his believers. Both church and palace

again modeled and demonstrated this understanding, which was an excellent

system for a ruler who preferred that his subjects not question his rule, as

the faithful would not question the will of God.
The political revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

in Europe explicitly drew their ideas from the scientific revolution against

Christian cosmology that preceded them, from Galileo and Copernicus to

Newton. Social thinkers like deCartes, Hume, Hobbes, and Locke were applying

the same methods to thinking about organizing human society and political

systems as had contemporary scientists to the study of the world, and both

had similarly revolutionary consequences.
Our understanding of physics and cosmology has progressed enormously

since Newton. Einstein's Theory of Relativity is only one small part of that

progress. Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, the development

of Quantum Theory through the work of dozens of seminal geniuses including

Max Plank, Erwin Schroedinger, Neil Bohr, right up to Richard Feynman's QED

Theory, the development of the computer beginning with the theories of Jon

von Neumann and Allan Turing, and most recently the work on Chaos and

Complexity Theory led by Murray Gell-Mann, Stuart Kauffman, and others at the

Santa Fe Institute, have all given us a new and more accurate understanding

of natural and physical processes. The amazing thing is that even though the

application of these theories to social and political theory is more obvious

and transparent that is the earlier connection between cosmology and

governance, there has been no similar application of this understanding

across fields. This is because either through ignorance or willful

misunderstanding, political and social thinkers have been unwilling to make

the connection.
There is a great irony in this failure. I have read in many contexts

how often social scientists -- economists, sociologists, psychologists, etc.

-- have sought to grant their specialties the same status as the "hard"

sciences, most notably physics. They have believed that they could attain

this status if their sciences were as mathematically precise as physics, with

its clean, elegant formulae such as Maxwell's four equations describing

electromagnetism, or the ubiquitous E=mc[CDN1]2. What has happened instead

is that physics -- and biology and chemistry and other subfields -- has moved

beyond simple linear formulae and recognized that the world works through the

action of nonlinear, local, algorithmic processes that are much closer to the

statistical models used in the "soft" sciences.
The hard sciences have move closer to the soft, rather than the other

way around.
So, you ask, what does this mean for political theory, or for the

practical problems of running a government? Are we supposed to model society

after the way nuclear particles interact in the core of a star? Well, not

exactly, of course, but we can use the same principles, the ones that I

outlined above, but that you, the reader, skimmed over because the words were

so unfamiliar.
What it means is that local rules can create global order. It means

that everything, from elementary particles to populations of species, follow

not rigid, universal rules, but general, often statistical guidelines for

actions. It means that the world is a much more complicated place than we've

yet given it credit for.
Let's be a little more specific, and work our way through this.
Richard Dwarkin, in his The Selfish Gene, has shown how optimum

Evolutionary Stable Strategies for populations of a species are not,

according to the principles worked out be Jon von Neumann in his Game Theory,

rigid, single reactions to stimuli. The most effective ESS for a species as

a whole is a mixture, with statistical probabilities that vary with the

circumstances, of reaction and strategies for living.
We can translate this into political terms simply by saying what

should be obvious but apparently isn't, that no one single strategy or theory

for dealing with the world is the best for every person in every situation.

It means that there are circumstances when laizze faire economics is not the

most optimum, when simple self-interest on the part of each actor in a

society or an economy is not the most productive in the long run (as has been

demonstrated time and again by computer models of variations of the

Prisoner's Dilemma Game).
On the level of chaotic systems, we can now know that turbulent

systems are inherently unpredictable. When John Sununu stated that he

"understood" the physics of the predictions of global warning, and was not

satisfied that the predictions were sufficiently precise and certain, he was

using an outdated understanding of both physics and engineering. He was

asking for the equations to be as simple and linear as the equations an

engineer uses to calculate loads on a bridge. What he refuses to recognize

is that the equations he was asking for are themselves merely approximations

that engineers use for convenience sake, and that they can -- as when a

bridge is broken not by exceeding it's load, but by a harmonic stress wave --

be unreliable. Sununu also does not understand that weather is a chaotic

system, and therefore inherently not subject to the kind of syllogistic,

mathematically precise prediction that he was asking for. It served his

ideological ends to ask for a precision that cannot be attained; it serves

the survival needs of the rest of the population to dismiss him altogether.
Thinking about a society as a complex emergent system of algorithmic

agents would lead us to conclude that government is not always the answer,

nor always the problem, but only one among many actors whose role balances

out the power of others, just as those others balance out government. It

also means that while the power of just reward for efforts is necessary for

the stimulation and growth of a society (we have just witnessed the collapse

of that great experiment in command economy called the Soviet Union as a

demonstration of this), the unrestricted practice of "winner-take-all" in an

economic system can be just as unstable in the long run (I would submit that

we are just now seeing this principle demonstrated in American professional

sports, and that we saw this principle demonstrated in the behavior of the

investment sector of the economy when the Reagan administration removed all

regulations in the 1980's).
It would also let us admit that the law of unintended consequences is

almost at the level of a "law of physics"; unavoidable. Thus we would be

able to recognize that reforming any part of the social system is a lot more

complicated that we have been willing to admit up to now. For instance, in

reforming the health or welfare system, we could see that evolution is a

better method than reinvention. Political reformers have always suffered

from the sin of hubris; the belief that they can foresee all the consequences

of their policies. That's not hubris; it's silly.
Clinton's -- or rather Ira Magaziner's -- big mistake in trying to

reform the U.S. health care system was this hubris. They believed that only

by reinventing the whole system could the system be reformed. They haven't

learned that social systems, just like the weather, are chaotic, which means

that small changes on the edges of the system can have disproportionately

large consequences. They didn't realize that all the actors in the system

act locally, and that is the point to concentrate on when designing any of

the small reforms. They also cannot admit to the American public that they

truly do not have the whole answer, that it is, indeed, better to make small

fixes, to "tweak the dials," rather than to promise to fix everything for all

time, which they can never do.
Politics itself is a complex emergent system, which is why all the

many efforts to reform it, to take the power of money out of it, to try to

remove the undue influence of "special interests" from politics, have failed.

The world is smarter than the reformers. More accurately, individual actors

can see the consequences of their individual actions much more clearly than

can anyone trying to predict the global outcome of acts throughout an entire

system for all time. It's impossible, but it's what voters, encouraged by

politicians, expect.
Just as physicists have shown that the universe has no center, so

have the most successful and dynamic innovations in recent history been those

that have developed without central control. Examples are the Internet

global computer communications system, and the amorphous movements that

sprang up throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and brought down

those centralized systems faster than anyone could possibly have imagined or

After Newton demonstrated the unity and predictability of physical

forces, writers used as their favorite metaphor for the way the universe

worked the new mechanical gadget that was then revolutionizing work and life.

They said that the universe was a "clockwork mechanism," and applied that

metaphor to labor, economies, and all their lives. That was a vast

improvement in understanding over what had come before, but now we know

better. The universe isn't a clock; it's a computer. If we really

understand that this metaphor restores -- or rather at last establishes --

unpredictability, even free will, to our lives; if we apply this

understanding creatively rather than (you'll pardon the expression)

mechanically to dealing with social and political problems; if we allow

ourselves to see the creative advantages that each of us gain from losing

control of the world around us; then we can reap the benefits the this

metaphor offers to our lives.
The world is the way it is, and will always be unpredictable and

endlessly creative. Our choice is to fight that, or ride the wave.

C. David Noziglia
Wellington, New Zealand

"Blessed are those who have no expectations,
for they will never be disappointed."
Kautiliya Shakhamuni Sidhartha Gautama Buddha