The Illusion In Our 'Habit Of Control' : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Enablement is "bottom up", generative, non-algorithmic and invents and enables its own future possibilities into which it flows.
NPR logo The Illusion In Our 'Habit Of Control'

The Illusion In Our 'Habit Of Control'

We in the First World, largely the West, live with a Newtonian illusion of "control" and "optimization." It is time to examine our habit of control for, while it can work at times, this habit dangerously mistakes the reality of the world we live in and co-create.

The famous "fog of war" descends on us all in most of our endeavors. We wrongly think we know ahead of time the relevant variables that will emerge, that these variables can be pre-stated, controlled and optimized. As Asim Zia and I put forward two posts ago: General Motors-style planning of the 1950 variety does not work.

We need to find a different, more creative approach to a world we will always only partially know but must act within. I believe a habit of wise enablement, so profoundly different in its bottom up methods, and so profoundly different in its capacity to enable that which we cannot yet see or say, must begin to replace partially — and marry — to our habit of control.

Am I right? I think so. In previous posts concerning our incapacity to pre-state the biological evolution of Darwinian pre-adaptations, I make this point, both for the evolution of the biosphere, where we need not consider human intent, and our econosphere and human life. Recall: A Darwinian pre-adaptation arises in evolution when a causal consequence of a part of an organism of no selective use in the current environment happens to become of use in a different selective environment, is selected and typically a new biological function arises.

I repeat my oft-told case of the swim bladder in some fish — a sac partly filled with air and water whose ratio tunes neutral buoyancy in the water column. Paleontologists believe the swim bladder evolved by pre-adaptation, (with no concept of foresight in evolution), from the lungs of lung fish. Water got into some lungs, a sac was now present with air and water, poised to evolve into a swim bladder.

Now I repeat my three questions: 1) Did a new function come to exist in the biosphere? Yes, neutral buoyancy in the water column. 2) Did the swim bladder change the future course of evolution? Yes, new species of fish with swim bladders, new proteins, new adjacent possible empty niches — for a bacterium or worm could evolve to live only in swim bladders. 3) Now the big question: Do you think you could pre-state all the possible pre-adaptations only for humans? Stop and try. Feel your mind going blank? We all agree we cannot carry out this task. Why? Well, how would we pre-state all possible selective conditions? How would we pre-state the one or many features of one or many species that might jointly become pre-adaptations? It seems we cannot. This incapacity seems related to the fact that the potential selective environments, and all potential uses of features of organisms, are indefinite in number and not "orderable," so no effective algorithmic procedure can list them all.

Now watch the natural magic of enablement: Did natural selection act to tune the swim bladder to success in a population of fish? Yes. Is the swim bladder, once it exists, a new adjacent possible empty niche? Yes, a bacterium or worm might evolve to live only in swim bladders. But did natural selection act to create the new adjacent possible empty niche that the swim bladder, once it evolved, constituted? No! No selection acted to create the new adaptive possibility, the new adaptive opportunity, that the existence of the swim bladder enabled. In fact, the biosphere is creating, with no selection, the very possibilities enabling its own future evolution.

The first conclusion is this, and it is profound: Not only do we not know what will happen, we do not even know what can happen. But we cannot reason about what we do not know can happen. Reason is an insufficient guide for living.

But in turn, we cannot plan and optimize with respect to that which we do not know can happen. Cases? Who foresaw the Web and Facebook when the computer was invented in WWII? Who foresaw cars, roads, an oil industry, motels and suburbanites needing cars in 1850? How stupid would a business plan be that attempted to optimize with respect to novel goods that were and are totally unforeseeable.

Yet the reigning theory in economics, competitive general equilibrium, a beautiful mathematical theory, pretends, contrary to history, that one can pre-state all present and future "dated contingent goods" at any moment of time, then optimize given preferences, a probability distribution over the dated contingent goods, and utility functions for each of us.

True? No, a wonderful non-starter in the real world. We cannot optimize with respect to relevant variables that we cannot pre-state, or know can happen. Control and optimization is often a profound illusion, intellectually misguided.

The second profound implication is that evolving life, and human life, creates the very possibilities of its own future evolution. Our real life enables what it becomes. We typically cannot pre-state and surely cannot control what is enabled that we cannot pre-state. This un-pre-statable enablement is our real world. We never talk about it. It plays no role in contemporary science.

Agent Based Models Are Of Limited Use

In the last post, Zia and I argued that the current vogue of agent-based models are very interesting, and we are deeply familiar with their uses. But they are not a salvation. There are two basic reasons. First, agent-based models require for each agent a "strategy space." This may be fixed or, more optimistically, evolve in a pre-stated but larger strategy space by some algorithmic search processes akin to the genetic algorithm. But real life confronts and solves the famous frame problem of computer science, which algorithms cannot solve, also discussed in the last post. In short, the frame problem is this: Given a set of objects and properties, each with "affordances" "is a", "does a", "needs a", "has a", the issue is whether we are quananteed that the solution to a novel problem is deducible from this finite list of affordances. The answer is no.

Note, in brief, that embodied organisms evolving also solve the frame problem, as in the evolution of the swim bladder. Humans also solve the frame problem, often trivially. This is powerful evidence that humans are not algorithmic, a point I stress in my article: Answering Descartes: Beyond Turing, in press in The Once and Future Turing: Computing the World, and online republished by ECAL11.

The Habit Of Enablement

If we not only do not know what will happen but do not even know what can happen, how better can we make our way than the illusion of the habit of control and optimization over pre-stated variables, utilities and probability distributions, which often just is wrong and fails?

The answer is right before us: We really do enable the possibilities we become, just as evolution does, without selection in evolution, often without foreknowledge or intent in human life. How did Silicon Valley create the plethora of new goods and wealth that could not be foreseen? We all know the answer: Very able people co-created a generative and enabling environment, along with capital and entrepreneurial risk, and invented together, creating and enabling as they did, an ever-changing adjacent possible into which they invented further as new opportunities were enabled.

This, our most recent American success story exemplifies a deep truth: We make our way not knowing what can happen by enablement far more than the illusion of control at local, national or international levels. As Asim and I posted: One World Government? Not So Fast! It will virtually certainly suffer the illusion of control and optimization. More power corrupts and, following Lord Chesterfield, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Enablement is bottom up, generative, non-algorithmic and invents and enables its own future possibilities into which it flows.

Do we need top-down laws and regulations? Of course, in part because those very laws constitute enabling conditions which enable widespread innovation in commerce and life. But we need to understand wise enablement, wise enabling laws and develop a new widespread habit of enablement in place of the often entrapping, deeply inadequate, habit of Control.

I do not think we have thought very much about wise enablement, and must. Our United States Constitution, with its crafted balance of powers, is wise enablement. For my part, the finding by the Supreme Court that corporations as legal persons can exercise political free speech by contributions to our political process is supremely unwise enablement, distorting that crafted balance of powers.