Saturday, August 29, 2009

Evolving Utopia Preface


The time has come to reaffirm ... the God-given promise that all are equal...
Barack Hussein Obama Inaugural Address

In 2008 Barack Hussein Obama was elected President of the United States of America, and that restored in me a more positive view of the future. Not because I expected to experience a Utopia, but because Obama was willing to set precedents that would facilitate evolution into a Utopia.

Now, a year later, the establishment has realized the danger to the status quo that Obama represents and is desperately trying to destroy the hope that Obama represents to the rest of us.

Since it is easier to destroy than construct, their efforts may well result in the decline and fall of western civilization. The purpose of this book is to let us understand that while that isn't the optimum future; it isn't the worst thing that can happen, either.

In 1950 I had graduated from MIT and was drafted into a nuclear weapons laboratory during the Korean War. I worked in the civil service for a while before going to Columbia University to get a Ph.D. I had been doing some consulting while in graduate school, so I took a job with one of my clients. I left them and wandered around Europe for a few months. When I came back to the U.S. I spent a couple of years working at Yale and a another couple at SUNY Stony Brook.

Most of what I was doing was making it possible for other people to accomplish their goals, but aside from short-term scientific projects, little that I saw people doing made sense to me.

The professionals who dealt with human behavior figured that if you didn't have conflicts with what everybody else was doing you were sane, or at least normal, and if you did have conflicts it was probably your fault. They thought most people were doing pretty much what they ought to be doing, i.e., that normality was sanity.

But I couldn't bring myself to believe that things like the wars in Korea, or Vietnam, or Iraq, made sense. I didn't find it reasonable that some people would get millions of dollars for sitting around an office and others get a pittance for hard physical work, or were looked down on for having no work to do. That sort of thing was silly.

Since I wasn't comfortable living in a world that didn't make sense, I decided to figure out the reason why we were behaving in a way that didn't make sense. Whatever the reason, I thought it should somehow incorporate the notion of evolution.

That was my first serious barrier, because the orthodox view of evolution simply didn't work.

Pretty much since Darwin had proposed evolution in the first place we had been using Spencer's formulation: "Survival of the Fittest". That seems superficially reasonable but it doesn't offer any explanation for cooperation, and we do a lot of cooperation.

Darwin had initially proposed evolution as a process in which those ill-suited for their environment didn't have descendants so their collection of genes died out on the average. This is like the way a farmer manages a herd. He doesn't use "survival of the fittest" which would require killing all the animals but the best one; if he kills (or culls) any of the animals he starts with the worst. We can make this into a slogan by saying "The non-survival of the unfit". Unfortunately the end result of this process happening over and over for many generations is hard to think about.

In fact it was fifty years or so before the American physicist, Willard Gibbs, and the German physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, independently worked out a kind of mathematics which would make it possible to think about Darwin's idea. Unfortunately they didn't apply it to Darwin's ideas.

In the meantime biologists kept on using "survival of the fittest" as if it described what was happening, even if it didn't.

They still do.

While I was getting my Ph.D. at Columbia, I had attended lectures by Nobel Laureate physicist Tsung Dao ("T.D.") Lee that included his way of looking at the ideas of Willard Gibbs. His point of view made it easier to see what the mathematics represented.

A mathematician who I had run across at MIT, Norbert Wiener, had been using similar ideas to solve practical problems during the Second World War and, after that war, he applied Gibbsean thinking to the notion of feedback by inventing what he called "cybernetics".

One of his ideas that stuck with me was that when computers and robots were mature, nobody would be allowed to work unless they could do something better than the computers and robots. We see that happening now in offices: nobody is allowed to do arithmetic with pencil and paper, or keep records by writing in books, because it is a "waste of time" compared to what can be done with a computer. Wiener believed that eventually the same principle would be applied through the whole economy: nobody would be allowed to use resources to do anything that was a waste of time or effort.

Unfortunately we still regard some kinds of waste as a good thing. We regard the ability to waste resources as the primary indicator of status, so that the accumulation of tchotchkes or the effort by people to produce and maintain the tchotchkes, is regarded as a desirable aspect of civilization. I'm going to call that belief "tchotchkism".

"Tchotchke" is a Yiddish word that describes something that has no function except to be displayed to show that you can buy it. It can be as cheap as a keyring labled "Coney Island" or as expensive as a Rolls Royce limousine or a Fifth Avenue apartment. It can even be a corporation or a government agency. It is the ultimate example of waste elevated to being regarded as a "status symbol".

Our species could afford tchotchkism when there were only a few people it applied to; people like kings and dictators. It has gotten to be more of a problem since 1500.

The way tchotchkism affects evolution is that the principal characteristic of the most recent evolutionary era in human development, the industrial revolution, has been the upward mobility of a section of the lower middle class by the exploitation of a variety of technology. There was nothing wrong with that, except that the old elite certified their status by tchotchkism and the new elite had to adopt tchotchkism in order to fit in.

The way this would end would involve the upward mobility of the internal and external proletariat (mostly people of color) to equality with the middle class of the developed world. Then the entire global population would have to adopt tchotchkism and there aren't enough global resources to be able to do that.

This creates a crisis which is a significant problem because nobody realizes what the crisis is about. They just know there is some kind of crisis going on and it makes them upset.

But the economic aspect of the crisis does make widespread tchotchkism difficult to maintain. As it becomes harder to maintain it will start to become "bad taste" although it hasn't reached that point yet. We still take tchotchkism for granted.

The election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States and de facto "Leader of Western Civilization", is opportune. His point of view, as expressed in his inaugural address, is consistent with the evolution of human society, and the current crisis, by making existing institutions unstable, offers an opportunity to progress to the next evolutionary stage without a general anarchic collapse.

However, until most of us share Obama's ideals we are vulnerable to the fear of the elite establishment that they will lose status. The elite is desperate to maintain tchotchkism so they can maintain status.

If that is combined with upward mobility for the non-elite it will have the result of the traumatic decline and fall of western civilization. The Republican Party is committed to tchotchkism, but many Democrats think of themselves as being in the same social stratum as Republicans, so they are committed tchotchkites as well. That means that the legislative program that results from a compromise will be based on tchotchkism and that will guarantee a decline and fall.

In the long view the collapse of Western Civilization wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing because the core idea of certifying status by the ability to waste is obsolete; but if we are not able to replace that core idea by gradual reforms the trauma of collapse may do enough damage to require generations of recovery. That would be a waste of evolutionary time and effort. We need to look at the future carefully to see if we can avoid a traumatic collapse.

The notion of describing a possible better future, or "Utopia", is common enough, but the notion of projecting our past into the future mathematically is unfamiliar enough to be controversial. Liberals prefer to believe that we can tinker with laws and regulations and otherwise remain like the present indefinitely and conservatives prefer a return to an imaginary "Golden Age" in the past; so that the natural changes associated with social evolution always catch us by surprise.

That is why we do not understand our present situation. We have evolved in a consistent way to the present crisis but we are unable to see that because the theory of evolution is in a mess. It is stuck between two incorrect points of view: Spencerism and Creationism.

Darwin originally proposed a theory of evolution based on the notion that the unfit members of a species would not survive to have successors. We can characterize that as "The Non-survival of the Unfit" (or, in an alternative format, "The Survival of the Just-Barely-Fit and Fitter").

Unfortunately, this involved thinking about the behavior not of individuals but groups of individuals, because most of the time most of us survive to have descendants. The branch of mathematics necessary to think about this kind of many-body problem, which we now call vector and matrix analysis, would not be invented by Willard Gibbs for another 50 years after Darwin's time.

Darwin therefore adopted, as a workaround, Spencer's suggestion of "Survival of the fittest". That is not a description of how evolution really works, because it refers to a situation in which only one individual survives and the rest of a species or social group die off without descendants. It does have the advantage of being mathematically simpler and easier to think about.

Spencer's idea also supported the condition of hierarchical social stratification, so it was acceptable to social elites and academics.

Spencer's doctrine is not consistent with common sense, however, so most ordinary people in the United States do not believe that educators and politicians are better than they are. Unfortunately the only alternative they are offered is a primitive religious myth. When we want to develop useful technology we find that science works better than mythical explanations so practical Americans aren't comfortable with myths. Most people are left unconvinced by anything.

In order to get a rational description of what is going on we have to return to Darwin's original formulation and use Gibbs' mathematics to understand its consequences. This will be difficult for the academic bureaucracy to accept because they are not trained in mathematics. Eventually they will learn enough to understand how evolution works.

There is a philosophical difficulty.

The use of vector and matrix algebra has made modern physics possible, but there are certain deep philosophical problems that create difficulties when it is used in other sciences than physics. In physics it doesn't matter if we assume that "the observer" can perceive what we humans can only imagine. This creates paradoxes but those paradoxes don't affect the results of physics experiments.

They might affect the results in the case of human behavior, so it was necessary to allow the hypothetical observer in the "gedanken" experiments to have powers that suit the nature of the observations, qualities we would otherwise consider "godlike". This was always implicit in the argument, but ordinary scientists didn't like using the word "God" so they didn't make it explicit.

Extraordinary scientists had no such inhibitions, so that Einstein said "God may be a rascal but He is not a gambler". I think my argument might have reconciled Einstein to Tsung-Dao Lee's presentation of quantum mechanics.

In particular, this approach resolves the famous paradox of Schrodinger's cat; but it does so at the cost of the ability of religious practitioners to manipulate God. It will make human history and evolution consistent, but it will make the practice of religion more difficult.

In addition to resolving evolution and religion, this approach permits a gender-independent Oedipus complex, provides for a synthesis of Freud's and Chomsky's mind-models and, most importantly, shows that the Utopia implicit in Obama's rhetoric is a reachable ideal. In other words it not only opens up a new and hopeful direction for a science of human behavior, but provides a scientific basis for politics.

It is at that point that Obama's views provide a key to a utopian future. His views implicitly provide a logic for that Utopia and, whether or not he accomplishes all that he would like to, he will have established precedents that will be taken for granted in the future.

As an example: he may not establish a regime of universal health care because the Republicans may convince us that we "cannot afford it", i.e., that only the rich deserve to live healthy lives. But that merely shifts the question to how we can go about affording it, and makes its eventual adoption inevitable.

But a revolutionary new science with revolutionary practical consequences will be intensely controversial. That's why I have tried to make this an explanation that can be understood by any reader willing to consider new ideas.

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