Thursday, November 10, 2011

Can We Replay History?

After the kids' party games and the birthday cake came the action-packed Steve McQueen movie. My friend's parents had rented a movie projector. They hooked up the reel and let it roll. But the high point came later when they ran the movie backwards. Bullets streamed back into guns, blows were retracted and fallen protagonists recoiled into action. The mechanism that pulls the celluloid film forward for normal showing, can pull the film in the reverse direction, rolling it back onto the feeder reel and showing the movie in reverse.

If you chuck a round pebble off a cliff it will fall in a graceful parabolic arch, gradually increasing its speed until it hits the ground. The same pebble, if shot from the point of impact, at the terminating angle and speed, will gracefully and obligingly retrace its path. (I'm ignoring wind and air friction that make things a bit more complicated.)

Deterministic mechanisms, like the movie reel mechanism or the law of gravity, are reversible.

History is different. Peoples' behavior is influenced by what they know. You pack an umbrella on a trip to the UK. Google develops search algorithms not search parties because their knowledge base is information technology not mountain trekking. Knowledge is powerful because it enables rational behavior: matching actions to goals. Knowledge transforms futile fumbling into intelligent behavior.

Knowledge underlies intelligent behavior, but knowledge is continually expanding. We discover new facts and relationships. We discover that things have changed. Therefore tomorrow's knowledge-based behavior will, to some extent, be unpredictable today because tomorrow's discoveries cannot be known today. Human behavior has an inherent element of indeterminism. Intelligent learning behavior cannot be completely predicted.

Personal and collective history does not unfold like a pre-woven rug. Human history is fundamentally different from the trajectory of a pebble tossed from a cliff. History is the process of uncovering the unknown and responding to this new knowledge. The existence of the unknown creates the possibility of free will. The discovery of new knowledge introduces indeterminism and irreversibility into history, as explained by the philosophers G.L.S. Shackle and Karl Popper.

Nonetheless history is not erratic because each increment of new knowledge adds to the store of what was learned before. Memory is not perfect, either of individuals or groups, but it is powerful. History happens in historical context. For instance, one cannot understand the recent revolutions and upheavals in the Arab world from the perspective of 18th century European revolutions; the historical backgrounds are too different, and the outcomes in the Middle East will be different as well. Innovation, even revolution, is spurred by new knowledge laid over the old. A female municipal official slapped a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. That slap crystalized Mr Bouazizi's knowledge of his helpless social impotence and lit the match with which he immolated himself and initiated conflagrations around the Mideast. New knowledge acts like thruster engines on the inertial body of memory. What is emerging in the Mideast is Middle Eastern, not European. What is emerging is the result of new knowledge: of the power of networking, of the mortality of dictators, of the limits of coercion, of the power of new knowledge itself and the possibilities embedded in tomorrow's unknowns.

Mistakes are made, even with the best intentions and the best possible knowledge. Even if analysts knew and understood all the actions of all actors on the stage of history, they still cannot know what those people will learn tomorrow and how that new knowledge will alter their behavior. Mistakes are made because history does not unwind like a celluloid reel.

That's not to say that analysts are never ignorant, negligent, stupid or malicious. It's to say that all actions are, in a sense, mistakes. Or, the biggest mistake of all is to think that we can know the full import of our actions. We cannot, because actions are tossed, like pebbles, into the dark pit of unknown possible futures. One cannot know all possible echoes, or whether some echo might be glass-shatteringly cataclysmic.

Mistakes can sometimes be corrected, but never undone. History cannot be run backwards, and you never get a second chance. Conversely, every instant is a new opportunity because the future is always uncertain. Uncertainty is the freedom to err, and the opportunity to create and discover. 


  1. I love all freedoms. That of speech plus that of religion, even though they spit it out after they eat each other. The freedom to err is an unsuspected one, but maybe the most valuable of all. To err is human but to doubt systematically, with Descartes, Popper and Shackle, is close to divine.

    I believe that systematic doubt, falsification and unknowledge have translated and articulated themselves into the main principle of science, justice and journalism (and I would like to add religion), which is independent confirmation. First we make sure we have no power over our subject (independence). Then we try to understand it to confirm it, and confirm our own knowledge as a beneficial rebound.

    The problem is, that independent confirmation happens in laboratories, those we call laboratories, those that really are secluded situations in society like court rooms or those that make journalists feel like gods, determining fate or success not of their enemies and friends but impartially, if they have any idea of what they are doing. In a way we are all journalists, judges or juries and scientists, by the way. If not religious.

    Truth is independent confirmation, fabricated human history, the product of material and cultural reality into social reality. It is skewed by our inability to know what we sense(d) without unknowingly influence it into a bypass from independent confirmation or slipping into common, historical, power-distance relations again (Hofstede 2009, Mulder 1972). We have normalized interpersonal relations historically, either by adaptation to power in cronyism (dependent confirmation) or to distancing in groupsism (independent rejection).

    So we must lift the unknowingly biasing or rather distorting of social reality into one or the other political direction (cronyism on the right, groupsism on the left) and leave it at that. It may be what Milan Kundera called "the unbearable lightness of being" (1984), having it all up to you to decide (by independent confirmation) instead of the state (by dependent rejection which only the more powerful can do to the less powerful).

    Sorry if you feel I am abusing your blog but it is your own fault of being too inspirational. I will blog about it at my own residence (as well).

  2. I enjoyed your commentary. But the way I see it, the following quote from the blog conflicts with the principles of complexity/chaos theory:
    > "The existence of the unknown creates the possibility of free will.The discovery of new knowledge introduces indeterminism and irreversibility into history..."
    > Complexity theory, on the other hand, seems to imply that although we can't identify all the factors that contribute to a given outcome, and thus can't predict it, those factors nevertheless progress in a deterministic fashion. Presumably, that would include the advent of new knowledge. It's hard to find an opening for free will in that.

  3. Thanks for your comment Lowell. I am reminded of a beautiful metaphor by Ivar Ekeland:

    "Randomness appears because the available information, though accurate, is incomplete. Part of the information is withheld from us. ...

    "So, if determinism means that the past determines the future, it can only be a property of reality as a whole, of the total cosmos. As soon as one isolates, from this global reality, a sequence of observations to be described and analyzed, one runs the risk of finding only randomness in that particular projection of the deterministic whole. ...

    "These subsystems may exhibit randomness, even though the total system is deterministic. ... Like the queen of England, determinism reigns but does not govern. Its power nominally extends over vast territories, where local rulers are in fact independent, and even turn against it." Ivar Ekeland, "Mathematics and the Unexpected", pp.62--63.

    Well, if the Queen doesn't rule, then we are free!

  4. Yakov,

    Thanks for replying to my previous message. I hope I’m not burdening you with this delayed effort to clarify my understanding of your point about free will.

    My question is this: If randomness results from a lack of complete information, doesn’t that imply that it’s a quality of the observer rather than of the phenomenon being observed? Is it reasonable to assume that the facts, even those that govern an isolated sequence of events, are complete, though often incredibly complex and inaccessible?

    It’s true that the queen of England is not sovereign over the individual governing units of her former empire (or over the whole of it, as matter of fact). But from this perspective, Cause and Effect is more like an absolute monarchy, although it may appear to operate differently at different levels of analysis. In that case it would be our own limitations, rather than randomness or freedom, that impairs our often pathetic efforts at prediction.

    Lowell Harp

  5. Hi Lowell

    You ask a challenging question. Let me try a brief response.

    You wrote: "If randomness results from a lack of complete information, doesn’t that imply that it's a quality of the observer rather than of the phenomenon being observed?" In different terms, the question becomes: is randomness an objective part of the world out there, or is randomness a result of our ignorance. This is a very difficult question that philosophers and physicists have struggled with. A standard interpretation of quantum mechanics would say that randomness is real, "out there", a property of nature. QM would say that we can't know some things - such as the precise position and momentum of a particle - because these properties are simultaneously indeterminate. On the other hand, in the deterministic chaotic systems that Ekeland wrote about, randomness results from the observer's incomplete knowledge. The system itself is governed by a completely deterministic rule, but the observer cannot know all relevant facts, such as the exact starting conditions, and thus cannot predict precisely (or at all). In short, I don't have a conclusive or universal answer to the question.

    One thing for sure is that we are ignorant of many things that could, in principle, be known. Furthermore, I'm willing to assume that new things will become known in the future, that is, that discoveries will be made. It is by definition impossible to know now something that will be discovered tomorrow. These limitations of our knowledge are central in info-gap decision theory and its attempt to support rational decision making.

    It may be that, in principle, we can never fully know whether randomness is objective (out there) or subjective (a result of our ignorance). I discuss some ideas along this line in the post "The End of Science?" from 24 October.

  6. Subject and object are always intertwined. Objectively, we study the subject. Subjectively, we study the object. You can take the organism out of its environment, but you cannot take the environment out of the organism.

    To make sure which is which, we use methodology, making sure which variables are dependent and which are dependent, to determine effect as deterministically as possible. The unknown, I believe, is what is called "unexplained variance".

    This doesn't bother the methodology that was applied, itself. It just informs us about how much we still cannot explain or know. This is how we should meet incomplete information or radical uncertainty as well.

    Even if all that we believe we know were untrue, there is still the method of logic (methodology) that handles it that we are used to implement on all other occasions, successfully. And the residue, if not the unexplained, may now be the explained.

    Or as I see it, apart from the measurements of the sensing, the realizing and the valuing, if these are hardly known, there still are the counterparts of knowing, intuiting and trying that are all part of method AND object.

  7. Yakov,

    Thanks for your prompt and thoughtful reply to my query. I look forward to your next entry.

    Lowell Harp