Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 9

Games Theory Breaks DownMuch of the theory behind the 1980s free market revolution depended on the notion of human beings competently making ‘rational’ and ‘selfish’ decisions in favour of their own socio-economic well being. But there is rationality and rationality and there is selfishness and selfishness. It is clear that human beings are not just motivated by the desires guiding Adam Smith’s invisible hand. If the cognizance of politics fails on this point then those other motivations, some of them like the forbidden planet’s monsters from the id, will one day pounce from the shadows and surprise us. And the consequences can be very grave indeed.

The story of the Waco siege gives us insight into some of the more perverse perceptions and motives lurking in the human psyche, which if summoned have priority over the need to maximize one’s socio-economic status or even the need to self preserve. The perverse altruism of the Waco cult members was neither accounted for nor understood by the authorities dealing with the siege. No doubt the latter, with all good intensions, wanted to end the siege without bloodshed, but they appeared to be using the cold war model. They tried very hard to offer incentives to get the cult members to defect, using both the carrot (safety) and the stick (cutting off supplies and making life generally uncomfortable with psychological pressures). All to no avail. Even when the senses of the cult members were assaulted with tear gas and their lives threatened by fire they did not budge from the cult’s compound. The authorities reckoned without the cult’s perverse loyalty to David Koresh who by this time was claiming Son of God status, and was fathering ‘Children of God’ through the cult’s women. That’s nothing new either: Akhenaten, 3500 years before Koresh, thought and did the same, as have so many other deluded religious leaders. The irony of it! The socio-biologists have a field day on this point!

If anything the measures taken by the authorities stiffened the resolve of the cult members who saw in these attempts the very thing Koresh warned them of. Koresh had succeeded in reinventing, once again, that well known cognitive virus that ensures that its hosts interpret any attempt to get rid of it as a sure sign of the presence of Satan. Hence, all attempts to dislodge the virus have the very opposite effect and simply embed it more deeply in the psyche. Thus, like the efforts to wriggle free from a knotted tangle or the struggles of a prey to escape the backward pointing teeth of a predator, the bid from freedom by the most direct path only helps to consolidate the entrapment. The only way to untie a difficult knot is to slowly and patiently unpick it bit by bit.

Cold war games theory failed at Waco on at least two counts: Firstly the rationality of cult members was based on a false view of reality – they saw the authorities, a-priori, as the agent of Satan and Koresh as God’s savoir. Secondly the selfishness of the cult members was not that of looking after themselves. The greater selfishness was embodied in a loyalty to Koresh and his viral teaching. In the face of this the incentives and disincentives offered by the authorities were worse than useless. It never occurred to them that here were a group of people that were prepared to go for a “Darwin award”. (

As our society faces other issues where religion looms large, such as Iraq and Islamic terrorism, we may find that Smith’s invisible hand provides no solution.
To be continued....

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 8

Complex Adaptive Systems
The Santa Fe institute is an affiliation of largely male academics seeking to the spread the theoretical net as widely as possible - especially into the domain of human society and complex systems in general. The theoretical holy grail is to write equations encompassing all that goes on under the sun and thus arrive at a preordained order which once captured means that theoreticians can retire declaring their work to be done. The universe is then a museum piece embodied in a few equations we can muse over, knowing that if we crank their handles they will churn out the answers. They will thereby encode all secrets and mysteries, thus making them no longer secrets and mysteries.

Thank God that’s not true. Even granted that physics contains catchall equations, those equations are very general and not specific. Moreover, our current physics, with its appeal to the absolute randomness of quantum fluctuation suggests that endless novelty is encoded into physical processes. As Sir John Polkinghorne points out in his book “Exploring Reality” the chaotic tumbling of the asteroid Hyperion is maintained by the underlying perturbations of quantum fluctuations. The motion of Hyperion is forever novel.
John Holland is and was a pioneer in the field of genetic algorithms. His work (amongst that of others) has revealed a close connection between learning systems and evolution. Both processes ring the changes and lock in successful dynamic structures when they find them. These structures select themselves because they have the adaptable qualities needed for self-maintenance in the face of the buffetings of a world in restless change. In evolution those structures are phenotypes adapted to their ecological niche; in learning systems they are algorithms encoding successful models of the world thereby allowing their host organism to anticipate aspects of that world.

In his book “Complexity”, Mitchell Waldrop tells of John Holland’s lecture to the Santa Fe institute. He describes how the theoreticians listening to Holland’s lecture were gob smacked as Holland delivered a home truth – there aren’t any final equations (apart, perhaps from some very general physical constraints) because reality is exploring the huge space of possibility and is therefore delivering endless novelty. That endless novelty can’t be captured in a specific way in some catchall theory. In fact there is really only one thing that can cope with it – learning systems like human beings – or as Holland calls them “complex adaptive systems”. These are systems that are themselves so complex that they have the potential to generate an endless novelty, a novelty that matches or perhaps even exceeds their surroundings. Thus, these systems are either capable of anticipating environmental novelty or else at least able learn from it when it crops up. There are no systems of equations capturing everything there is to know about complex adaptive systems or the environments they are matched to cope with. Therefore it follows that apart from God Himself there is only one system with a chance of understanding something as complex as human beings with all their chaotic foibles, and that is another human being.

To be continued.....