Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Progress or progress?

I feel like a renegade monk who has left his order or even his religion because of what he perceived as spiritual deficiencies, but who still has emotional ties and sympathies with that order, or at least the original spirit in which it was founded. The order I am talking about is the Religion of Progress, one of the most prevalent secular religions of our day, and yet one of which many of its adherents are not even conscious.

Besides searching my soul for alternative ways of looking at the world, I would like to have some rapprochement with the ROP, and in so doing create something akin to a reformation. I still resonate with the original intention of making life better for people. Unlike Luther who had 95 theses questioning the practices of the catholic church, I only have 4 theses, which I will summarize below and then go into more detail later:
1. The non-teleological nature of evolution
2. The recognition and study of tradeoffs
3. Measurement as a useful tool of limited validity
4. The long view of history

The non-teleological nature of evolution

Evolutionary biologists have realized already that biological evolution does not have any other goal besides reproduction. Sometimes certain traits produce better reproduction, but other times not. Certain traits work better for some species than for others. Sometimes and for some species such as our own, more complexity and higher levels of organization are better. Other times and for some species such as bacteria, less complexity and lower levels of organization are better. There is no goal of complexity in evolution.

The situation in social evolution is not as clear to most ROP devotees. Why the confusion in thinking that social evolution has a goal (e.g. more diversity, tolerance, equality, compassion, freedom, spiritual enlightenment, happiness, cars or what have you)? I think there is a confusion here between our values and evolution. The idea that something has a goal comes from us trying to optimize certain values and sometimes succeeding. But there is nothing inevitable about it or external to us and what we want, and nature or any transcendent aspect of it (e.g. God or Progress), is not obligated to give it to us.

That doesn't mean that our values are not important to us, as inspirations and heuristic strategies. It doesn't mean we don't try to optimize them and progress towards their realization. But it does mean we drop the capital P from Progress and think instead of how to progress towards our values.

It also means we don't confuse the local fitness optimum that history and we have chosen in our culture with a global optimum, or say that our fitness optimum is better than another culture, past or present. That is like saying that nematodes are better than bacteria, just because nematodes came later in evolution. We can't say nematodes are better because they are multi-cellular or have nuclei in their cells, because bacteria do quite well with single cells and no nuclei. We can't say we are better because we have internet and those poor "savages" only had face to face communication. We can't even say that more fitness is better, unless we agree that Might makes Right, that invasive species are good, and that invasive cultures like mainstream Islam or Evangelical Christianity are better than less invasive cultures like Judaism or Sufism, or monastic Christian orders that keep to themselves.

The recognition and study of tradeoffs

Second, we must recognize that nothing in nature shows perpetual growth. Things might grow for a while, but then either reach a steady state or decay, diminish, shrink or die. This includes organisms, species, civilizations, religions, technology, and ideologies. Why do quantifiable things not increase (or decrease) forever? There are 2 mathematical reasons:
1. The independent variable is a non-linear function of the dependent variable(s) and the second derivative goes negative. There is a point of diminishing returns, where more is not as better as it was before. Here is a cartoon of happiness as a non-linear function of hours spent at work.

2. Sometimes the previous case can be explained as follows: dependent variable is a weighted sum of other dependent variables, all of which depend on an independent variable. Whereas some of the dependent variables increase with the independent variable, some of them decrease. Here is a cartoon (the exact numbers are not meaningful, only the trend might be) of a model in which individual happiness is a sum of feelings of community and freedom. Feelings of community increase with increasing group rules (for a while, though we don't show their diminishing returns in this example), whereas feelings of individual freedom decrease with increasing group rules.

Here is the same idea applied to medical technology which gets better with more resources, and pollution/other environmental problems which get worse with more resources applied to technology.

And here it is again, this time applied to automation's effect on production efficiency, but at the expense of meaningful work, and ultimately happiness.

The following cartoon has a model of happiness that is the negative sum of socio-economic violence and direct physical violence. If we only look at direct physical violence, as Pinker did in his latest book (The Better Angels of Our Nature), we might think that things are improving for our species.

All of the preceding examples are calls for empirical research, to make the cartoons into actual graphs, to find the functional dependence of the various dependent attributes. The real world will be more complicated than these cartoons suggest, not just in the functional dependence of the attributes, but in their number, and in the number of independent variables. Surveys and other means of extracting data are needed. Numerical data analysis techniques are needed.

Even if Pinker is right in identifying the causes of decreasing physical violence (I don't know if he is, I will look at his data and decide), it would be wrong to conclude that we should pursue those causes, because those same causes could be increasing other forms of violence, or decreasing things we value like a connection with nature and each other.

Here are some more dependent attributes (in the form of questions) that need to be considered before rushing off in any direction where Progress blindly leads us:
Are we more empowered to make political decision? Are we feeling more connected to each other?  Are we able to share resources (what is happening to commons?) How many native cultures are getting destroyed?Is diversity decreasing?Is  topsoil lost?, Is pollution increasing? Ugliness, decreased health, flooding?, are we feeling more or less connected to nature?
Do we have a way to express our gifts in the world more or less? Are we more compassionate, intelligent, or just more literate? Are we more well-rounded?

You might have noticed in these cartoons that there is no single best way to add up the two conflicting attributes. In the examples above they were added with equal weights (both negative in the last example), but what or who determines those weights? They vary from individual to individual and society to society. Sometimes they are hardwired, and sometimes subject to individual, or societal choice. If they are hardwired then empirical research is needed to determine these coefficients. But if not, another approach is needed. Which brings us to the next point.

Measurement as a useful tool of limited validity

Not everything can be decided based on measurement. Some things are decided based on gut feelings, values, experience or non-numerical thinking.  Once we decide on relative values of various quantities, we can measure them in order to understand them better, and also try to optimize their weighted combined utility.
These might be called the descriptive and prescriptive functions of the empirical method.  In either of these cases measurement is useful as an input to optimization or satisficing (and satisficing can be shown to be a special case of optimizing a utility function so we won't refer to it further). But let's not forget that different people and different cultures will choose  (either consciously or not) different coefficients in their utility function. And sometimes we might reconsider our coefficients especially if we feel there is something wrong with our well-being, or the future well being of our descendants, or other cultures or species. Which brings us to our next point.

Taking the Long View

As we saw previously, the empirical method has a descriptive and a prescriptive function and we can easily mess up both of them. We can mess up the descriptive aspect if we only look at a small sample, for example in a time series. Here are some examples: If we only look at the 20th century, we would conclude that infinite growth in energy extraction is possible. We would need to look a bit further into the present, or use our foresight to extrapolate into the future, as some petroleum engineers have done to see that this is false, both empirically and logically (the latter because we only have a finite amount of petroleum or coal and there are diminishing returns in ease of extraction, and because solar is a much less concentrated form of energy, requiring more material resources than are available for continuing the trend of energy extraction based on petroleum and coal).

Same goes for economic growth, or the use and prevalence of reason and foresight. If we look more carefully into the present we will find diminishing returns for all these.

And if we expand our view into the past, as the cartoon to the right shows, we might see something like cycles that have to do with the rise and fall of civilizations, which we missed due to our unfounded belief in constant growth (of what we think we like) or decline (of whatever we think we dislike).

We can mess up the prescriptive function of the empirical method, if we are wrong in our assessment of the coefficients going into a utility function, either because we made certain unwarranted and unconscious assumptions (like economic growth, technological growth and tolerance have the only non-zero coefficients), or because we do not understand our nature very well, then we will progress towards non optimal values of the utility function. In the case of happiness this means increasing misery. Here is a cartoon depiction of this for when one considers the only non-zero coefficient to be the one for production efficiency, vs. equal coefficients for production efficiency and meaningful work. In the first case one continues to increase automation (presumably until one feels miserable enough to stop), in the second case one stops increasing production efficiency at the sweet spot.
A special case of messing up on the prescriptive function of the empirical method is due to our nature to discount the future relative to the present, also known as addiction. Benefits in the present get a coefficient much greater than costs in the future.

We also tend to discount things that worked well in the past because we haven't experienced them and because they might be associated with other things that didn't work very well. But there is no logical connection between the medieval apprentice system and the medieval sanitation system. We can have the first without the second. This is maybe the converse of not seeing tradeoffs. Is it possible that we could adopt some of the things that worked better in the past, but still keep some of the things that work better now, assigning coefficients to each?

Here are attributes that I give higher coefficients than
1. high tech healthcare:
Will settle for midwives washing hands during childbirth, hygiene, family doctors, village craft-produced anti-biotics, early 20th century medicine, and eastern medicine. Lifespan should not be affected, and might actually increase, since most of the increase in lifespan is due to poor hygiene affecting early childhood and birth deaths, and environmental toxins and stress might decrease.
2. Internet and phone communication:
These are about satisfying the need for community, but this can be satisfied better if there is a physical community nearby.
3. Internal combustion engine transport:
Bicycles and horses. Possibly steam engines run by solar thermal.
4. Appliances that provide touch-button comfort:
I'd rather cut and split firewood than press a button to stay warm. Bake bread in a wood fired oven than a breadman. Plant trees for shade and have a pond nearby to dip in when it gets hot, rather than air conditioning.


  1. I like the analysis... and agree with the general drift of the preferences expressed at the end. Point 3 ("measurement as a tool of limited validity") is the point that i think is particularly difficult (especially in our time). Point 4 seems to be an attempt to address the problem of 3 but, unsatisfactorily, imo. Not that i disagree with any of it. But i feel that pt. 3 is an issue requiring subtle and deep thought to see through to the heart of. I myself haven't yet managed to articulate my feelings/thoughts sufficiently to my satisfaction regarding this problem, which is why i'm commenting, hoping for further probing into this area of things. Some people see me as an irredeemable rationalist because of my belief in the power of language and reason -- when properly understood and used. But the important understanding in this respect, still, i think, is understanding their limitations. Your point 3 looked at this from what i consider a quite "practical" angle. Of course we can make mistakes in a great many ways. But the truly difficult issues in this regard lie still deeper, imo. My 2¢, for what it's worth.

    1. By point 3, you mean the limited usefulness and validity of measurement? And can you tell me who you are?

  2. quote: so... yes.

    Who am I? No one, really. I dislike the fact that every comment and posting one makes on the internet is saved forever, so i don't generally comment at all unless i can do so anonymously. A disincentive that probably few websites take into consideration and even fewer people (like me) constrain themselves by. So, what do you think? If it can't be measured it doesn't exist? :-) The map is not the terrain?

    1. I was just curious if I knew you and was guessing who you could be. Of course there are things that exist that can't be measured or are not useful to measure. But it is fashionable to believe that everything should be measured and subjected to statistical analysis. I think some things that are impossible to measure can still be quantified and modeled mathematically and that this can be useful. Sometimes the result is something measurable, for example with wave functions (not measurable) in quantum mechanics that yield probabilities (measurable). Some things may not even be quantifiable, or they may be after we have already chosen them (such as values), based on faith, reasoning out consequences, and preference.

  3. No you don't know me. I agree with all you say but what i wanted to get at was something deeper... the psychology (but it's more than psychology) that leads us to quantify the world instead of apprehending it in a different mode. There's a quote that i do _not_ wholly "agree" with, but does sort of point towards this:

    Those... who call for more intellectual depth, more spirituality, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren't bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies, something is situated in our own heaven of images and conceptions within us
    and above us, where an increasingly large part of our lives is lived. The limits of that which cannot speak to us -- the unfathomable -- no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.

    -- Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian writer)

    1. How do we understand something without the intellect? Or do we merely feel it with some other part of ourselves and acknowledge its existence and refer to it with the intellect, but not understand it? Are you referring to things like love or awe or joy or whatever triggers them?