Scarcity, Abundance and Control

Which is more natural, scarcity or abundance?  Nature is abundant in so many ways that it is hard to argue the opposite point, yet we are often told that it's the competition for resources that drives evolution and progress.  When we examine these issues more deeply, we discover that scarcity disappears as a driving issue.  In the book Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life, the authors argue that life and evolution aren't so much processes of competition and scarcity, but of maximizing the use of available energy (and resource) flows in complex interactions.  The classical picture of thermodynamics in a closed system running down towards equilibrium is a false picture.  Our system isn't closed; we are situated in a massive flow of solar energy that pulses on daily and yearly rhythms.  Furthermore, the classical picture doesn't really account for information flows and symbol processing.

According to conventional wisdom, evolution maximizes some fitness in a ruthless competition for resources.  Nature just doesn't work that way, and evolution is about the emergence of intelligence in systems of signs (semiotics).  The evidence for all of this isn't fully developed as a distinct field of knowledge.  In fact it spans many fields, and emerges as a kind of meta-field of systems and complexity.  Evolution can occur in any system that can accumulate information in physical symbols, and lead to complex and intelligent behaviors without any reference to conscious intentions or design.  I would argue that conscious intent is a late emerging characteristic of more highly evolved symbol systems.

Most physical scientists are still too distracted by their time symetrical mathematical models to understand the fundamental role of signs as active principles in the world.  You can't run a computation backwards unless you carefully select unconventional computation structures, and similarly, irreversibility of physical processes has its roots in information theory.  Maybe this is the wrong way around since thermodynamics came first as a mathematical theory, but math is a timeless domain of relationships, so the question of roots is based in relationship.

I am much encouraged by Lee Smolin's recent work that pretty much rejects the time reversible models of the physical world.  It brings the ideas of evolution and novelty into the philosophical bedrock of physical theory, and this is very refreshing.

The Myth of Progress

Backing up a little to look at why or how evolution might be directed, we need to examine the idea of progress in some depth:

Some scholars consider the idea of progress that was affirmed with the Enlightenment, as a secularization of ideas from early Christianity, and a rework of ideas from ancient Greece. The theory of evolution in the nineteenth century made progress a necessary law of nature and gave the doctrine its first conscious scientific form. The idea was challenged by many in the 20th century who argued that that destruction, as in the two world wars, could grow out of technical progress and belie the basic premise of the Idea of Progress. It remains a matter of debate among intellectuals.

It seems that many are interested in hitching their wagons to this idea, but if we are to exercise some intellectual rigor, we certainly have to question the idea that evolving systems, living or otherwise, are exhibiting goal directed behavior.  If they do this at all, it will be hard to find the bottom.  It will be turtles all the way down.

Before turning to the emergence of systems and how they can and do evolve, we need to acknowledge that the mythology of continual progress cannot be sustained.  The idea that we can do better, that there is progress to be made in social and political systems, in knowledge about the world is a positive force, but the more common form of this myth leads to some of the worst collective expressions in history.  The destruction of indigenous societies as a result of  Manifest Destiny can be traced, in a certain sense, all the way back to the special covenants of the Hebrew Bible.  Did not the Third Reich also come about as a development of this myth?  Any story of continuous progress in the sense of growth is impossible in a natural system.  History is filled with failed societies that grew beyond the limits of their local environments and paid no heed to the signs of a coming collapse.

History unfolds like an infinite story.  Natural history is so large that to put limits on it seems out of place.  Yes, our sun changes and will eventually use up its nuclear fuel in some spectacular way, and the universe as a whole will become so cold and sparse that it may no longer be able to support living systems, but the scope of this history is so vast in human terms that it may as well be infinite.  If humanity does not destroy itself by playing out our heroic myths on a grand scale, we will survive to write ourselves into the Book of Life for a long time to come.

Signals and Systems

A comprehensive development of the field of Semiotics is a necessary ground to this work.  Seen rightly, this field is a master field like Science, Philosophy, Politics, Mathematics, History and Evolution.  These master fields are not just fields of inquiry in their own right, but necessary tools for conducting any inquiry at sufficient depth.  This master science of sign and signification has not yet sufficiently penetrated common consciousness to be sufficiently considered common sense in more than a handful of communities, but it holds a solution to the mind/body problem as well as ancient differences between realist and idealist philosophies.

As an EECS student at MIT in the late 70s and early 80s and in lively discussions on the Internet before it broke onto the mainstream in the late 90s, I observed and participated in the dialog of Artificial Intelligence around agency and system that can reason about beliefs, desires and intentions.  Had I understood the broad claims for semitotics and the action or signs (semiosis) at that time, I would have had a different response to both the physical symbol systems hypothesis, as well as claims based on autopeotic systems theorys that symbol processing is not sufficient to form intentions.

If we cannot refer to goals (teleology), what then is the force that drives evolution?  We don't need to answer every question; we don't need a true comprehensive doctrine to find common ground.  What we need for Open Stewardship is some rules of engagement, and we will explore some of these below with reference to Rawls on public reason  liberal democracy.

Although symbolic representation may not be a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one.  The processing of signs, semiosis, pervade the universe to its very core.  Although Pierce himself dispared ever being understood on his deepest hopes for semiotics, that the world is made from signs, recent work of Deely and others has shown just how broadly this work can be interpreted.

I interpret the work of Flores and Winograd to be a critique of AI as it has been practiced, not for the ultimate possibilities.  The current paradigm is really only capable of delivering systems that enhance human intelligence, and do not lead directly to not human reasoners.  For that, these artificial systems would need to be independent autopoetic networks not ultimately dependant on human systems for their internal networks of signification.  On the other hand, autonomous artificial systems may hold this possibility and science fiction is filled with at least plausible descriptions of them.  I suspect we are a lot further from such possibilities than people think, but I would also suggest that fictional explorations are the synchronistic fodder for the eventual occurrence.

As stewards of the commons, there are innumerable tasks ahead of us, so why are we digging into these abstract subjects?  The answer is simple.  We have to first create a foundation to act from and ways of working that bring us to a new and different future.  There are many systems impacting on the commons that threaten the long-term viability of the system as a whole.  I speculate that in naturally evolved systems that it is possible for some form of runaway growth to favor the growth and persistence of autopoetic systems and processes that are parasitic to the whole, but that in the long scope of evolutionary history, these systems will eventually burn themselves out.  The human cultural commons holds the wisdom born of multiple expansions and collapses where the myth of progress has run its course to the ruin of the societies taken up in this sort of mythology.

When Rawls discusses public reason and the role of the comprehensive doctrines of various religious traditions, he introduces the idea of the reasonable comprehensive doctrine.  Those with a minority of their tradition may support a liberal respect for religious freedom, but the same tradition supports the establishment of a state religion when it is their own.  The unreasonable seek to impose their tradition on the whole in the moment that they achieve power whether that power is rooted in majority rule in a democracy or the autocratic rule of other political systems.  He introduces the idea of public reason as a practice of developing wisdom within democracy.

Comprehensive Doctrines and Public Reason

In the public sphere, it is necessary to find a way to resolve conflicts that inevitably arise between competing comprehensive doctrines.  The space of OS is broad, but in a different way than Rawls' concern for governance of the public sphere.  It includes the governance of open religious institutions, and does not have to resolve all possible conflicts in the public sphere.  Public reason is a response to the need to create a common ground for all, where OS is also concerned with the right architecture for a diversity of fields with different needs and structures.  Democratic ideals are a natural match with the broad concerns of public reason, but unless the people have the will and qualities to achieve justice for all, democracy devolves to a mob rule and a tyranny of the majority.

Is it even appropriate for an open field to have a comprehensive doctrine?  Ultimately open fields must be open to a paradigm shift, but between such shifts it is the task of stewards to describe a comprehensive understanding of the current state of affairs.  History shows that, whenever such an understanding becomes a doctrine to be accepted on faith, the authorities and institutions responsible will likely empower themselves politically to take retribution on those with the temerity to think differently.  If sanctions are limited to the ability to include or exclude persons and ideas from a particular circle of faith, so be it.  On the other hand, if members of that faith will not subject themselves to legitimate laws composed by reasonable agreement and public reason, they may seek other retributions outside the law on those they deem dangerous to their comprehensive doctrine.  We recognize the right of individuals and groups to decide for themselves what their limits of action and thinking will be.  Inappropriate limits may slow down the work and limit possibilities, but the laws of a just and reasonable society do not allow for one to choose the limits for another except in the interest of the common good.

What emerges is the idea that many, perhaps most fields, will have long standing commonly held understandings that may be considered as a comprehensive doctrine, but that in an open field these are not doctrinal.  They are not an enforced conformity, but mearly a common understanding of the current state of knowledge.  It is ironic that the Protestant Calvin is possibly responsible for the emergence of the idea of the separation of church and state in his persecution and the eventual execution of the genius Michael Servetus for heresy.

We are justified in concluding  that resorting to such extreme measures in order to propagate ones doctrines demonstrates a moral weakness, and that any tradition embodied of wisdom will not resort to such measures.  Socrates, perhaps the greatest historical advocate of secularism, demonstrates the idea of turning the other cheek and eternally mocks those who passed judgement on him.  Public Reason and Open Stewardship are ways of thinking that oppose with all their strength and purpose the possibility of the mob rule from a majority.

It is also ironic that those who in their actions most oppose these developments in  American politics often employ individualistic and libertarian rhetoric to achieve what is essentially mob rule of an unreasonable and vocal minority.  They unwittingly serve the powerful elites who now dominate the field with economic hegemony.  They are seduced into thinking they are standing up to the liberals who want the state to dominate their lives while failing to recognize that it is not liberalism that they oppose.  Something else is missing in both parties that dominate in a duopoly, and that something is respect for free individuals.

Many who call themselves liberals only want to quiet dissent by handing out alms rather than righting injustice, and others who take the name conservative only seek to maintain the current balance of injustice.  The chattering class in politics and media work to gin up the debate to levels of unreason to prevent any possibility of a dialog where public reason might emerge.  We may forgive them their desire to control the masses they have deeply wronged for so long as they are driven by fear of scarcity.  What we cannot allow is for them to continue to control through the use of fear and artificial scarcity.  If the promise of the liberal vision of the founders and giants of political philosophy who, like Rawls, have faith in this vision is allowed to unfold, then we will truly live in an open and abundant future.

The Limits of the Reasonable

As an ideal to be strived for, Rawls cannot be beat. The trouble is that some few who hold power, often power that is not legitimate by the standards of public reason will continue to wage politics in an effort to defeat all attempts at reasonable reflective equilibrium.  Not that we should abandon the ideal of liberal democracy founded in public reason, but we should realize that first it must be won by defeating the forces of unreason.  Man as a reasoning animal is a construction of modernity, and doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, but we do have powerful brains that are programmed for survival.

The violent and the unreasonable have some advantages in a conflict as they do not care if others are harmed or if reason survives the battles, but the peaceful and the truthful have other strengths that are harder to recognize.  It is often observed that the difference be the so-called left and right in politics is whether they believe that people are by nature good or evil.  Until some relatively recent work in sociology and game theory, we have had to rely on anecdote and subjective reasoning to decide this issue.  I would also argue that there is much accumulated human wisdom that is embodied in human culture.  Rawls' term of comprehensive doctrine refers to a number of different types of cultural traditions, and, to the extent that they are also pragmatic philosophies and ways of living, they are the main carriers of evolved human wisdom as culture.  This goes for religious and secular traditions alike.

There is a lot of work that suggests that humans as a species are generally more cooperative than animals and that we have a built in sense of justice that we are predisposed to act on.  The work in game theory is suggestive of how evolution might select for altruistic traits because cooperating groups are much better at building shared wealth, and group selection can explain how these traits can survive and increase in populations.  Is it not reasonable to assume that similar selection processes would be engaged within and between social groups?  Over time more cooperative cultures would be advantaged in terms of shared wealth building and survival over ruthless, uncooperative and unreasonable cultures.

The deeper goal of this entire project, taking the form of book writing but more importantly a call to action and invitation to join in unconventional leadership and design of new social form, is to call into question the reasonableness of the liberal project.  Both sides claim this mantle of reason when it suits them, even as they use it as a cloak for corruption and violence.  In my long career as a systems engineer, I have noticed the it is rare that sufficient attention is paid to error and failure.  When corruption is so common in our political systems that we often cannot tell the difference between truth and satire, then all calls to be reasonable must be suspect.

When the laws are enforced with vengence on the weak while the powerful remain unpunnished, and the law itself is twisted into a tool of oppression and we find that what any reasonable person would call corrupt is perfectly legal as long as you are careful to avoid a few well placed legal traps, how can we expect any citizen to respect the law except out of fear of the potential of arbitrary punnishment?  We also note the strong potential that these traps are more often used as a tool of blackmail than of justice, and that prosecutions for corruption are often just another aspect of that systemic corruption.  Architects of legal systems need to go beyond the reasonableness called for by political philosophers like Rawls and take into account from the outset the possibility of error, failure and parasitism.

The Middle Way

We are not arguing that people are universally good, but neither are they universally bad.  In any polarity, both extremes are related through a deeper concept.  People can be and often are reasonable just as they are predisposed to be good.  On the other hand, just because a doctrine declares itself to be good and reasonable does not mean those declarations are to be trusted.  By their fruits you will know them.

The idea of scarcity is complemetary to the myth of progress.  Actual scarcity is a tool to create fear and to control the many in pyramidal power structures.  Between scarcity and abundance are the limitations of the actual.  Between the ideal and the real, the mind and the body are physical symbols and the processes of semiosis.