Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Kauffman 1: Everything is connected to everything else

This is the first in a series of posts taking as their theme Kauffman's rules.

The first thing that strikes you when you read eastern philosophy is how much closer the easterners came to what science has revealed than western philosophers, and particularly western religion. (This is not an original thought, as anyone who has read their Fritjof Capra will recognise.) Where the Buddha correctly noted the impermanence of the self (two and a half millennia before Dennett), Christianity focuses on the self as the locus of a "personal relationship" with the creator. The Buddha was way ahead of his time, because his notion of the person as an aggregate of incoming sensations is a fine model of what we consist of, and his insistence that we did not have fixed selves accords well with a strictly naturalist description of what we are (which of course I subscribe to, being all godless and stuff).

Capra noted that the similarity of the notion of an underlying, connected reality expressed by Laozi and other Taoists with the idea of quantum reality as one interconnected entity. Many models of reality exist, of course, because quantum theory gives equations, not descriptions, and a theory, or description, of the world is a model that is laid over the world so that we can see what fits and what pokes out, but the idea that everything is connected with and influences everything else is powerful, and explains well the nonlinearity that is a feature of quantum theory.

Another powerful idea, from chaos theory, is that small actions can cause huge changes. Everyone has heard the thing about the butterfly beating its wings in Beijing and causing a hurricane in Mexico, or similar. If we visualise the world and everything in it as a tightly woven cloth, with each thing a strand, tiny and insignificant on its own, we can understand this process pretty well. We pull the strand out. Perhaps it is a short strand and thin, so the cloth looks much the same without it. The cloth shifts a little but nothing much changes. Another strand might look the same -- short and thin -- but when we start pulling, we find that it was longer than we had thought, and the cloth begins to warp where the thread is missing. We begin to regret pulling on the strand at the point we realise that the cloth is no longer sound.

Of course, some threads run further than others, and some things are more connected than others. Formulations such as "everything is connected with everything else" ignore this, but it's quite true. When you study networks, such as the interwebnets, you see that some nodes in the network are much more connected than others, and some are barely connected at all. And I'm drawn in this context to thinking about village life in feudal times. I don't think it's possible to argue that a villager in Cornwall was connected with one in Anhui. They simply were not, except in the most extremely tenuous way: their lord might have been connected with a merchant who was connected with a merchant who was connected with another lord connected with the Anhui villager. But what the Cornish villager did would not affect the Anhui villager. Kauffman was trying to express that you could not change one part of a system in isolation, but his rule might have been better stated as "you never know what is connected with what". Which strikes me as much more true. Because very little happens in isolation, you cannot be sure which action will have a greater effect than you had thought. The Cornish villager might not spot some blight on his wheat, which his lord ate, killing him, breaking his connection with the merchant, who without his custom stopped importing a particular good, supplied by another merchant, who acquired it from a concession owned by the Anhui lord and I think you're getting the point. A tiny wrong move, whose outcome you could not foresee, can have enormous consequences. Maybe the Anhui lord begins a war because his finances have been hit by losing customers for the resources his estate produces. Maybe he is angered by the merchant and harshly punishes the Anhui villager for a small misdemeanour, and the villager, angry, punches his wife, causing her to fall over, miscarrying the child who would have...

Who knows? In any case, this is mostly why I bother discussing politics and morality with people, and think it is worthwhile to try to change minds, even though some feel it is pointless because you are not doing anything. You do not know which thread you are pulling though, and when all that is open to you is to pull the one you have your fingers on, well, should you then be criticised for not setting fire to the whole cloth or should you, perhaps fruitlessly, tug on the thread and hope that at the other end is a change for the better?


At 3:59 pm, Blogger Don said...

Keep tugging. But kryst you write a lot. Lots of spare time down there?

It will amuse you (or more likely bore you) to know I am reading Gödel, Escher, Bach but am unable to spare the time to read it fast enough to remember what the hell I read in the previous chapter a week earlier. This causes me to slide off into reading whatever's handy. Never the less, my poor appreciation of those eternal golden braids will have its effect, even if it's only noticeable on one of my mind's more distant continents.

At 4:20 pm, Blogger Arleen said...

But kryst you write a lot. Lots of spare time down there?

Shush, you! You'll make him think his audience is unappreciative. ;-)

At 4:35 pm, Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

I've always found the following tenet of great value in assessing value systems -

"Nothing is true, everything is permissable" - Hassan I Sabbah


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