Monday, March 06, 2006

Optimization for the chaos of free will

Originally uploaded by cgoblemoblo.
VB3 - Rationalism vs. Religion : Optimization for chaotic agents

In his book "Voltaire's Bastards", John Ralston Saul is critical of highly specialized bureaucrats. The complaint is that they have highly rationalized solutions that work well within their sphere of control but fail miserably when applied to external areas where they have no control and cannot rationalize conditions.. Specifically he believes that a lack of understanding and involvement with the gritty aspects of the outside world lead to the disasters of rationalized idealism.

The technocrats of our day make the old aristocratic leaders seem profound and civilized by comparison. The technocrat has been actively - indeed, intensely - trained. But by any standard comprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization, he is virtually illiterate. One of the reasons that he is unable to recognize the necessary relationship between power and morality is that moral traditions are the product of civilization and he has little knowledge of his own civilization.

VB page 110

As I continue to think about the role between science and religion, this paragraph seems particularly apt. Science specifically focusses on context independence. One's personal perspectives should make no difference on the results expected. While we may be tempted to assert the universality of religious experience, personal perspectives certainly matter. How necessary is a knowledge of one's own "civilization" when dealing with questions involving free agents?

One of the signs of a dying civilization is that its language breaks down into exclusive dialects which prevent communication. A growing, healthy civilization uses language as a daily tool to keep the machinery of society moving. The role of responsible, literate elites is to aid and abet that communication.

VB page 110

Certainly Saul seems to be mixing in a bit of hyperbole here. Growing civilizations have no need for complicated language because progress isn't limited by how good, sustainable, or effective ideas are, only how quickly one can move on to the next project. Because of this, growth is rarely sustained. Either the foundations are too wobbly, or competition eats up resources and revenues. Nonetheless, the idea that "language" (in the abstract sense) is a key in preventing rationalism from losing touch with the real world is reasonable.

One of the complaints about organized religion is that it can often be out of touch. Of course, Saul would say this is also the case with anything technocratically oriented. They are very precise, but fail to adequately accommodate external factors. Rationalism (and idealism) only works under homogenous conditions, or when control can be used to make things function as if they were. In this light, it is interesting to take a look at Jesus' example.

Most of the records of his ministry revolve around his interaction with common people. He certainly had great disdain for the rationalized technocrats of his time. While he proposed idealized solutions, his focus didn't seem to be one of sophistry. They seemed to revolve around interaction. While some may disdain theologically adaptable religions because of the amorphous way they avoid rational study , one really has to wonder if this isn't a good way to deal with chaotic based moral issues?

If absolutes don't exist, rationalism can never completely handle the changing conditions caused by chaotic free will. Since it resists prediction, dialogue with those exercising chaotic free will would be necessary input. In this way, chaos is manageable on a short time frame. As much as I love science, it specifically removes itself from any sort of dialogue with the agents it studies. The lack of a feedback loop may make it impossible to fully comprehend or describe the chaos of human interactions. On the other hand, religion, while poor at objective study, may be well suited for these tasks.

It is a unifying force, optimized to concretize abstract relations. It gives people a very good common sense feel for what is communally right and wrong. In this sense, religion functions as a vehicle for maintaining contact with chaotic agents. Jesus' example with average people may have significance beyond charity. Religion may be more of an inclusive tool that facilitates dialogue, feedback and communal growth than as a tool for rationalized discovery of theological ideals.

It isn't surprising that the modern manager has difficulty leading steadily in a specific direction over a long period of time. He has no idea where we are or where we've come from. What's more, he doesn't want to know, because that kind of knowledge hampers his kind of action.

Instead he has learned to disguise this inner void in ways which create a false impression of wisdom. Voltaire had a genius for deflating the credibility and thus destroying the legitimacy of established power. His weapon was words so simple that anyone could understand and repeat them. Genius, unfortunately, is something which can't be passed on. Voltaire did however introduce an auxiliary weapon which was perfectly transferable. Skepticism. It was a useful tool when applying common sense to the unexplainable mysteries of established power. Skepticism was something that most men of average intelligence. It was to become the great shared tool of the new rational elites.

But it is virtually impossible to maintain healthy skepticism when power is in your hands. to do so would require living in a state of constant personal conflict between your public responsibilities and self-doubt over your ability to discharge them. Instead the new elites rolled these two elements together into a world weary version of skepticism which is what we know as cynicism.

VB page 112

Of course cynicism lets one choose what to believe. It facilitates "self justifying or violently efficient" beliefs. Religions certainly are highly susceptible to this. It provides leaders with access to tremendous power. It provides them with the tools to form rationalized systems that even hand picked "fact finding" commissions could never match. We try to mitigate this by selecting leaders who are very self sacrificing and thus less susceptible to power. However it is interesting to note the historical role prophets have played. Largely acting outside the system their calls to repentance and claims of authority have a nasty habit of destroying rationalized edifices that creep into organized religion. In this sense, what practical religion may need is not tighter rationalism to facilitate philosophical or perhaps even scientific vindication, instead, it may need tools to prevent such overly specialized rationalism. A focus on practical morality, especially one that accommodates dialogue with chaotic free will seems to be a good way to avoid overly precise structures, power, and domain specific results.


Clark Goble said...

Who counts as a technocrat? After all a lot of technocrats seem extremely well educated about a wide variety of subjects. Are we talking the tech folks of various sorts (IT, science, etc.) or the more banal stereotypes of managers in business?

Eric Nielson said...


I like your ideas here. Wish I had more time to think and comment.

chris g said...

Good question. It seems like Saul's definition is rather circular. In practice it seems to be someone whose ideas work very well in controlled environments, but don't in more open ones. I think the best analogy would be a superbug in a hospital.

He certainly seems biased towards a liberal education, but I again I think the main point is that systems should be developed that suceed in a nitty gritty world, not in an antiseptic one. Thus intelligence isn't a decidIt was quite interesting comparing this take on things to Kaplan's views of NCO's in Imperial Grunts. They pretty much amounted to the same thing. People on the grond who deal with logistical approach to problems are usually pretty sucessful.

Clark Goble said...

One of your sentences got cut off.

"Thus intelligence isn't a decidIt was quite interesting comparing this take on things to Kaplan's views of NCO's in Imperial Grunts."

What were you saying?

I agree reading it in light of those arguing for decentralized highly intelligent workers, like Kaplan and the modern military, is interesting.

chris g said...

I had actually thought I had edited that out. Whoops.

I was going to mention how intelligence per se isn't an overly good predictor of how well ideas work in the real world. Pragmatic application seems to be the ticket. Intelligence certainly helps, but highly specialized intelligence may not matter all that much in practice. Look at the Iraq gas turbine generator problems from Science Friday.

Sometimes trying to get things too perfect means everything falls apart.

chris g said...

Thinking through things it seems as if problems occur as we recombine specialized information.

The way we deal with science, we usually assume that putting bits of information back together isn't a problem. This is because most worthwhile knowledge is context independent. However recombination seems impossible without some sort of human input (or judgement). Thus the application of fact seems subject to chaotic influence.

I think you take similar lines with yor ideas on linguisitcs and interpretation. I am guessing you would say that specialized information can usually get combined without too much interference. While there are many cases where this is true, combinations certainly seem to propagate error or uncertainty at a rate that can encourages precise but innacurate answers.

As for who this applies to? I think it applies to people who plan on precision but don't account for uncontrolled disturbances. Precision is obviously highly efficient, but it requires constant managing. Idealistic ideas are highly unstable because of their small domain in which they work.

I can tell you don't agree with something though.