Friday, June 12, 2009

Emergence vs. Control

I find it interesting that supporters of both Intelligent Design and unplanned evolution use complexity as support for their respective theories. One side claims that many biological structures are so complex that it is statistically impossible for them to have developed randomly. The other side says that many structures are so complex and imperfect that they could only have developed through unguided emergent phenomenon. Besides, some argue, some things are so bizarre that no designer would have planned them.

Putting aside the extreme arrogance of that last remark (the assumption that any nonbeliever can say what a Supreme Designer would think or plan), it is relatively safe to say that neither side of this debate has a demonstrably repeatable scientific test that can prove their theory. Despite their respective statistical models, no one can satisfactorily verify the guidance or lack of guidance of a superior design force in the development of biological structures. Belief in either direction is faith, not science.

There are still plenty of people around that hold to the creationist belief that God literally created the earth and all life on it in six 24-hour periods. Some Latter-Day Saints, extrapolating assumptions from LDS scriptures such as Abraham 3:4 and D&C 77, as well as various statements of church leaders of yore, expand this to six periods of 1,000 years each. Despite some interestingly framed arguments, this is not reflected in actual scientific findings.

Steadily fewer people buy this kind of rigid religious interpretation, accepting instead the idea that the earth is billions of years old. People are increasingly comfortable with the concept of emergent order in biological structures. Many that accept such modern ideas do not find their faith in God challenged by them. They reason that God could not be so limited as to be incapable of working through emergent phenomenon.

I also find it interesting that there are those in our modern world that staunchly stand on either side of the concept of emergent order in human activity. Some seem to claim, as far as I can understand them, that such emergent order does not exist and has never existed. Most seem to accept a degree of emergent order, but also feel that some (maybe much) purposeful design is desirable. Others carry their appreciation of emergent order to the extent that it seems to become a form of worship.

If I understand libertarian thought correctly, the basic concept is that natural order achieved through individual freedom and respect of others’ freedom is always more desirable than designed order that requires infringing on freedoms. Although individual results may vary, goes the claim, the naturally resulting order from such liberty will always be preferable to that produced by any system that involves coercion.

In his book The Price of Everything, GMU economist Russ Roberts describes a scene on a bay near San Francisco where a lot of seemingly disconnected birds are suddenly threatened by a hawk (pp. 20-25). The shore birds suddenly take to the air and act as a single unit to drive the hawk away, wheeling, flitting, diving, climbing, all with no particular bird calling the shots.

A few pages later (pp. 32-34), Roberts discusses what happened with the birds and why it is important. It is noted that even the Blue Angels couldn’t do what the birds did on the spur of the moment.
“You’d think that having someone in charge could outperform the spontaneous dance of the birds. But only if that ‘someone’ could grasp all the knowledge each bird has, find a way to process that information, and communicate the plan to all the participants quickly so they can do their assigned tasks before something else changes. Without that knowledge and without a way to communicate nearly instantaneously, the flock falls apart.”
Each of us possesses little tidbits of information that are particular to the circumstances in which we find ourselves at a given moment. No planner that is not omniscient could possibly direct how you should respond to whatever you will face in the next hour better than you can because only you have the necessary information to do so. Better information can help you make better decisions, but it is the height of arrogance to think that some ‘time use czar’ in a big population center somewhere could design the use of your time better than you can.

Now this thing can be taken way too far. Would it be appropriate to allow children to be entirely self directed? Should we allow criminals to be self directed? Or should we even have criminals? In real life, few libertarians think along those lines. Although many do think along the lines of whether it is appropriate to incarcerate people that have broken no other law than to use drugs we have decided to class as illegal. And some point to studies showing that self directed traffic flow is safer in some places than having rigid traffic rules.

It is also important to point out that libertarians in general do not argue against planning and direction in enterprises that involve the private resources of willing individuals. In fact, this is where planning is appropriate because those involved accept the risks and responsibilities of such involvement without being forced to do so.

Another viewpoint doesn’t necessarily deny emergent social order, but believes that it is always inferior to planned order. Emergent order, it is held, must be honed to achieve the greatest social good. In this view the individual is subordinate to the collective. Private resources don’t exist per se, since no one obtained anything entirely on his own without the work and resources of others. Each person, therefore, bears a lifelong debt to the collective — a debt that must be repaid however the collective decides.

Both of these groups are criticized as believers in a ridiculous utopia. It has been said of each of these ideologies that it could only work if all people were perfect. It is feared that pursuit of the libertarian ideal would produce chaos. Libertarians would counter that it would actually produce a better social order, but that it has sadly never been tried.

Conversely, it is feared that pursuit of the collective model would produce tyranny. Oh wait. It already has! Check out the good old USSR, China, Nazi Germany, etc. But, hey, how important is the murder of a hundred million people in the 20th Century when the good of society is at stake? Collectivists would argue that those experiments were impure. That brings us back to the utopia criticism.

Most Americans are somewhere between these extremes. They believe that each person has a responsibility to society and that government has a role to play in planning and forming society. But they also believe in individual liberty and freedom from oppression. The precise placement of these lines varies dramatically across the social landscape. This forms the basis for most of our political debate.

It’s actually easier to be a purist. Anything that doesn’t comport with the pure viewpoint is simply wrong. Everything is black and white. Being a realist where much is in the gray area and everything is constantly shifting is a much more daunting task. But that is the region in which most American thought resides.

No comments: