Friday, September 01, 2006

Fractal Philosophy- Quantum Politics

The twentieth century saw a revolution in the understanding of science. The classical models of physics gave way to a new set of insights based around the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. In both physics and in mathematics a fundamental uncertainty has been discovered. The questions of the mathematical state of chaos- the so called fractal geometry- that have been described by Benoit Mandelbrot indicate that the consequences of given events may move in highly unpredictable directions. Conventionally, these insights have been applied to systems, including such complex interactions as the creation of galaxies, or the meteorological system of Earth.

However, applying the science of uncertainty to systems of human behaviour has seen much slower progress. Yet such application seems appropriate- it is already being used in economics analysis and politics bears several key characteristics of a fractal system.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book “Fooled by Randomness” has a profound insight: that humans perceive their behaviour as part of a symmetrical world when, in fact, it is highly non symmetrical, as a result, humans are extremely bad at making accurate predictions and the more detailed the prediction, the more likely it is to fail. This insight has profound implications when considering political ideology. In particular it increases the systemic risk of mathematically chaotic outcomes to given decisions- this helps explain the fact that financial bubbles, for example, occur more often than is generally forecast. It may reveal that profound political instability is also a greater threat than has been predicted by classical political thinkers.

I have also noted another insight about social development that has come from James Burke, who has talked about the increasing connectedness of historical innovation. Historical development seems to take the form of a random walk, yet although being driven by isolated events, it has created increasing connectivity over time. This is despite the fact that few, if any, individuals could truly understand the path that their actions would lead to. Historical change has increased the interconnectedness of science, politics and culture. This increase in possible connections accelerates the process of innovation, but in highly unpredictable ways. Burke poses the question of what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly change itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.

Hitherto, we could conventionally divide up politics into the discourse of political principles and the creation of a specific policy platform. The insights that are beginning to emerge from this new science of uncertainty, as applied to politics, seem to indicate that the time has come to abandon the classical approach at least as far as policy formation is concerned. The idea that any given policy can have highly predictable outcomes is clearly not born out by events. The only predictable thing about policy outcomes is that they are highly unpredictable.

However, one particular insight is that the collective of a system is far more predictable in aggregate than any individual feature in a system. Essentially if we are limited to systemic prediction and that detailed prediction is structurally inaccurate, then the key for political leadership is going to be the question of structural limits to the system and not the false god of detailed policy outcomes. Thus, the implications of this new science of causation make it more critical to define core principles. This is why the system of political discourse matters more than specific policies.

Most politicians have failed to understand this central failure in the ideology of political systems. Political leaders continue to act upon the basis of a discredited classical political model, without addressing the new world of quantum politics. Those systems that were the most closed- the authoritarian systems, especially Communism- were those who collapsed first. However, all current societies, however open they may be, are going to face considerable challenges over the course of the next century. Open societies may have some advantages, but repeated policy failure in democratic states is discrediting the political class and undermining trust in the system. Meanwhile, increasing interconnectedness may increase the potential instability of human society. Information Technology increases in sophistication to a point where malign use could undermine all personal privacy and liberty. Without defining the limits in this new world, the threat of a greater tyranny than we have ever known could grow to a dangerous level.

The work of Hayek and Popper contains some recognition of the centrality of uncertainty. They recognized the critical limits on what information may be accurately inferred (predicted) in detail and came to the conclusion that liberty requires the retrenchment of the state. It is time for the general political discourse explicitly to face up to the real challenge of quantum politics.

The key to the success of new political discourse will be the retrenchment of the state and increasing openness of society. We need to understand too that the implied determinism of quantum politics does not end individual freedom of action, As David Hume has argued: while it is possible that one does not freely arrive at one's set of desires and beliefs, the only meaningful interpretation of freedom relates to one's ability to translate those desires and beliefs into voluntary action.

The challenge for citizens is to try to understand the limitations of these new conditions, and then reinterpret the traditional model of democracy in a way that preserves genuine individual liberty and not just the empty shell of democratic institutions. In the continuing battle against tyranny we have met the enemy -and it is us.

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