Feynman on Nature

Physicist Richard Feynman (MIT ’39) went on to do great things at Princeton and beyond, but here I want to focus on what Feynman’s work can reveal about nature, reality, and God. If conservatism properly understood concerns an acknowledgement and deep understanding of the complexity associated with nature, reality and God, the Feynman’s thoughts and comments on them are relevant. This post will feature three quotes from Feynman supported by three videos.

First, with regards to science, which takes place in three steps: “(1) Guess it, (2) Compute the consequence of the guess, (3) Compare to nature, experiment, observation. If it disagrees with experiment, then it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.” The notion of “consequence” falls out this observation in the form of experiment. For complex systems, like complex social systems, then the concept of experiment can get confounded because all relevant variables can’t be accounted for. In fact, some experiments can’t even be repeated. Nevertheless, thinking seriously about consequences if fundamental to the scientific process. This is often confounded with “scientism,” taking on the coloring of science to make one’s argument appear more legitimate and solid without the hard work and harsh discipline of performing rigorous experiments.

Second, “The game I play is a very interesting one, imagination in a tight straitjacket, which is this, that it has to agree with the known laws of physics.” It has been my professional experience that most of the time senior decision makers craft policy, they are not considering and integrating all the best information and knowledge available, what Feynman calls, “the known laws of physics.” Instead decision combine a toxic combination of selective facts, historical ignorance, and wishful thinking to create policies that are almost certain to fail. When I was a policy analyst, I was told to “stop admiring the problem! What can you do productively over the next 24 to 48 hours?” Does this really make sense if the larger policy setting is destined to fail?

Third, with regards to the Challenger shuttle disaster, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” To be completely honest, in today’s democracy-driven political environment, almost no attention is given to the complex reality necessary to design and execute effective policy. Instead, most of the effort is put into building the coalition necessary to pass and fund a policy — the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars as well as Obamacare come immediately to mind, but examples are legion. The problem is, persuasive and linguistically adapt politicians are expert as the public relations, but effective public policy requires a deeper understanding. When poorly designed policies are implemented, negative consequences obtain because, as Feynman says, “Nature cannot be fooled.”



The Big Complexity

I was recently talking with a colleague of mine about writing a book on conservatism because I think the time is right to revisit some long-standing ideas and concepts and shared with him the following quote:

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature. – Frank Lloyd Wright

He said I should write a thesis instead of a book. He’s a smart guy so I always listen to what he has to say, but I think in this case he’s wrong because the quote gets at a cluster of insights that are both nuanced and fundamental.

First, God, Nature, and reality are all things that are complex, inimical to the human experience, yet external to the human experience, which establishes the basis for the next observations.

Second, the complexity of this triptych among God, Nature, and reality, which I want to call The Big Complexity, puts it beyond the reach of human cognition to understand completely. Some understanding is possible through hard work, bur complete understanding is impossible.

Third, the way we humans choose to interact with The Big Complexity is fundamental to our politics. That is, conservatives try to understand The Great Complexity, which liberals (and there are lots of other labels one could use here) believe narratives or stories told to them about it. Needless to say, this interpretive intermediation, which is to say hermeneutics,  creates the opportunity for all manner of political entrepreneurship shenanigans.

Teasing out the consequences of these insights is a considerable task, but I think they help to make sense of our seemingly nonsensical politics.

First, the implied primacy of The Big Complexity (TBC, that is, reality) helps explain why conservatives think liberals are dim but liberals think conservatives are evil. Everyone is put in the position of not being able to understand TBC, and nobody recognizes that more than a conservative, so liberals are viewed with some compassion because everyone is somewhere on their walk with TBC, which is commonly called religion. Liberals, in contrast, construct narratives — in a process called philosophy — that are advertised as capturing and complaining TBC, and when this is shown not to be the case, the authors of these narratives become defensive and angry.

One current example of a philosophy is democracy, which Tocqueville points out takes over people’s minds to the extent that they don’t realize there is an alternative, like TBC. From the complexity perspective, democracy is just a decision-making device that’s almost completely orthogonal to God, Nature, and reality. People who have devoted their careers to understanding democracy will not appreciate the primacy of TBC.

Since the time of Tocqueville, the potency of the media and the narratives they transmit and portray has increased tremendously — from radio to TV, movies, and the internet — and has put many politicians in power and made many media personalities fabulously famous and wealthy. They too have little reason to support TBC. However, they would do well to appreciate that reality is that which continues to persist when you stop believing in it.

21st Century Conservatism

I increasingly believe that true conservatism is essentially an acknowledgement of reality, which actually entails numerous implications. Looking as the arc of philosophical history, it has moved in three phases: (1) the religious phase; (2) the scientific phase; and (3) the complexity phase. The verge between religion and scientific has a long and rich history, which essentially defines modernity starting with Machiavelli (it can be argued) and them moving forward from there. Marxism and socialism have made pretenses to science, though in my opinion they’ve achieved only scientism — that is, the use of science-esque language to gain credibility.

The problem is that reality is complex, which philosophically i ground my arguments in Spinoza, Hegel, and Tocqueville. But the point is, with intelligence and study, the causality and consequences of social systems can be figured out pretty well. Moreover, modern, high-performance computing can be used as a cognitive prosthetic to better understand these consequences.

Returning to scientism, traditional science in terms of physics et al. is somewhat limited in terms of its causal complexity, especially insofar as the outcomes are predictable, which was part of the appeal for Marxist scientific pretensions. The problem is that real-world social systems are more complex than can be addressed by traditional physics style science. The causal chains and the temporal scales are just too long — which is to say complex — which introduces the messiness of statistics and heuristics.

Nevertheless, workable assumptions and conclusions can be made that allow for a reasonably accurate analysis of consequences and outcomes, which has traditionally been the role of religion. After all, Jesus himself said that a tree is known by its fruits (Matt 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45), which states that conclusions can usefully be drawn regarding the outcome of social processes.

Gordon Fee, in his How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth uses philosophical techniques to examine the Bible. Fee makes a distinction between philosophy and religion, essentially arguing that philosophy concerns the creation of simple models while religion aspires to a cognitive and social framework that is more encompassing.

More operationally, which is to say less philosophically, I’ve spent lots of time thinking about the workability of proposed policies, which is what conservatives do. Contemplating consequences is the heart and soul of conservatism. if you’re going to commit time, money, and lives to a policy project, it just makes sense that one should think carefully about the likely success of the policy.

Here’s where complexity starts to come into play. All policies have both winners and losers, and its tough to tell who they might be before a policy is implemented. Moreover, the implementors of a policy might be incentivized to portray a policy differently than the way it is likely to work out. Performing an honest policy analysis in such circumstances might actually provoke a reaction from those selling the policy.

The most politically significant example of this is socialism.  Hayek did a nice study of its likely consequences, which provoked a highly emotional response from Fabian socialist Herman Finer, which was little more than affect and accusation. My professor Charlie tried to camouflage socialism as democracy with the argument that instead of having a committee or Soviet make decisions, instead have the people vote on important issues. This seemed problematic to me because the potency of centralized modern media would just move the decision-making from committee to committees once-removed through voting. As you might imagine, this resulted again in affect and accusation.

To conclude, modern technology, in the form of high-powered computation, can help us better understand the causality and consequences of complex social systems. However, that same technology in the form of radio, movies, TV, and social media, can so shape and distort  people’s understanding of the world that traditional, “realistic” notions of cause and effect no longer obtain. This cognitive distortion has limits however because of reality, which does not go away even when people stop believing in it.

MIT (0) Hanging with SEALs

Based on some work I did at DARPA, I was invited to work as a quantitative analyst at the Special Operations Command in Kabul. It was a long way from home, and there wasn’t much to do beside work, lift weights, eat, and sleep. The schedule was pretty intense as we worked seven days a week, 10-hours days with half-days supposedly on Friday and Sunday. As we used to say on Friday, “Only two more working days ’til Monday.”

Put people in a stressful position though and they’ll find ways to unwind. I would try going to sleep around midnight after a long and stressful day, and my roommate Ryan would show up for whatever reason totally wired. “Hey, let’s go to the DFAC and get midrats!” Midnight rations, or “midrats,” at the Dining Facility, of “DFAC”, is for people who have to work the night shift and usually consists of nothing but chicken fingers, pizza, fries, etc. I would be exhausted, but Ryan would usually be able to talk me into it. If you going to go all the way to Afghanistan, why not experience all it has to offer?

The best nights were the ones when a group of NAVY SEALs were sitting around. If there was some guy we knew, we’d sit down and try our best to get them telling stories, because crazy stuff always happened to them. One night, they were talking about a firefight they got into but they weren’t even sure with whom they were exchanging fire. “We couldn’t figure out if it was Chechens, smugglers, Taliban, locals or what. It was weird, but at least it broke up the day.”

A regular Army guy overheard our conversation and couldn’t help but be a little starstruck. He incredulously asked, “Are you guys SEALs?” One of them replied, “Yeah, but it’s a job like any other.” Then he surprised me by saying, “You want to know what’s really impressive? This guy got his PhD from MIT.” The Army guy asked, just as incredulously, “You went to MIT?”

I couldn’t have been more surprised because: (1) I had no idea how this SEAL knew I had gone to MIT, and (2) I didn’t get my PhD from MIT, and I had explained that to my colleagues multiple times, but still the belief persisted because with degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, and international relations, my background was such that I should have graduated from MIT, but I didn’t. These essays explain my experiences in graduate school to help provide insight into how the academy and politics work and how they might not work the way most people think. Specifically, I examine how the reputation and promise of MIT differ from what I actually experienced.

MIT (10) Why is Complexity Controversial?

Graduate students tend to talk about famous professors, and few are as famous as Nobel Prize Winners. This story is about Herb Simon, who got his PhD from the University of Chicago in decision sciences, a combination of social science, computer science, and experimental psychology, which explains why he won his Nobel in economics. For the awards ceremony, Simon learned Swedish to give his acceptance speech, which for me is just showing off. I saw him just once, sitting next to my PhD adviser on a panel at the American Political Sciences Association (APSA).

This story was told to me about Simon long after he had died. One day, Simon was visiting a university, and afterwards some graduate student was tasked with driving him to the airport. They’re driving along, the conversation was waning, the student was trying to think of topics to discuss, so he asked Simon about his Nobel. Somewhat surprisingly, Simon was angry about it. Specifically, he was mad because the award felt to him like a lifetime achievement award, and it felt that way because his ideas had not permeated or been inculcated by the political or policy professions. It is worth considering why this is so. That is, why is it that fundamental and correct insights into the complexities of social systems might be rejected?

A couple of theories present themselves. First, Simon puts forward the theory of bounded rationality, which states that people make decisions based on few and certain data, and when they are stressed, they make decisions on even fewer and more certain data. The problem with bounded rationality is that is places limits on ambitious political entrepreneurs. That is, Simon’s theory states that there are limits to how much information any person can process, which places limits on hierarchies, hierarchical organizations, and decision-making. It also forces decision making, and thus power, to be distributed, which does not sit well with the politically ambitious who seek ever greater amounts of power.

Second, bounded rationality posits an external “reality” about which the human mind cannot know everything and that actually places limits on human action. Moreover, the complexity of this external reality creates “resistance” to policies so they don’t achieve their intended results. The expression, “the devil is in the details” captures this external reality, but God is in this reality and these details too. The goal then should be to understand as much about this external reality to policies work out more predictably and better policy outcomes can be achieved.

However, that’s not the way it works in big-time professional politics. Instead, ever more personnel, time, and money is spent trying to achieve policy goals that need not necessarily be impossible but probably are. Simon observed that important policy questions are always controversial, and there is an inherent clash here between those who study the problem so that it encompasses multiple positions and those who advocate for a particular position, which the former being more cognitive and scientific but the latter being more emotional and accessible. Controversy tends to emphasize emotion, and the potency of the modern media has perfected the art of stoking emotion to a high-art — especially in a democracy with voting — so while advanced computational techniques are available to better understand complexity and policy, the incentives for doing so are not significant.


MIT (9) Computation as a Policy Lens

Here I want to talk about something that is completely obvious to me but seems to not be obvious to everybody else. When I studied computational theory in computer science school, there was some question as to why we were doing so, and the reason given was that we needed to understand the bounds of the possible so we understood as engineers what classes of solutions were impossible and didn’t waste time attempting them. Although it’s been a while since I studied it, Turing-style computational theory is based on combinations of simple if-then-else propositional logic but it quickly is revealed that you can’t tell if a program will stop, which is called the Halting Problem, or what the shortest path is through even a medium complex set of stops, what is called the Traveling Salesman Problem.

When studying politics and policy at MIT, it seemed to me that the complex social systems we studied were far more complex, less structured, and less specified than computer programs, and yet policy makers and planners made all kinds of heroic assumptions that invariably came not to pass. This was especially true for radical theories and policies, and by that I don’t mean to treat socialist, communist, or social justice-oriented theories pejoratively; I mean that making large and significant changes to any system tends to generate unexpected results. Engineers therefore make only small system changes and checkpoint the system so they can always return to earlier states if something goes wrong. Policy makers cast aside such caution and always endeavor to make the biggest and most radical changes, and when policy objective are not achieved — which is almost always the case — they ensure there’s somebody to blame, like the people who gave them the data on which the policy is based. As they say, there are no policy failures, only intelligence failures.

One of the key qualities of human cognition is that it is bounded in measurable and predictable ways. As the Nobel Prize Winning economist Herbert Simon said, “People will not do what they cannot do,” and they cannot track large numbers of variables in a complex system — either technical or social — and make accurate predictions of how the complex system will behave in the future. High-performance computers generally and models and simulations (M&S) specifically are better at doing that. Finding ways to combine boundedly rational human cognition and computer-based M&S to improve policy is an ongoing area of research.

Ultimately, the accurate prediction of consequences is at the foundation of morality. As Jesus said, a tree is known by its fruits (Matthew 7:15-20 and Luke 6:43-45). As social systems become more complex, accurately judging their behavior and modifying them effectively and predictably will become increasingly important. The new field of computational social science has begun to apply computer-based techniques in the academy, but their application in applied policy areas has been comparatively slow.

MIT (8) Tocqueville

Juliette and I ended up taking Tocqueville together at Harvard, which was the most wonderfully indulgent class ever. Imagine an entire class of reading just Tocqueville — Democracy in America, Souvenirs, Ancien Regime. It was all terribly fun if you’re into graduate school: taking the T to Harvard Square, walking through Harvard Yard, and then spending few hours talking about Tocqueville.

Spending so much time discussing a single author however is, to a certain extent, indulgent, so it is fair to consider what makes Tocqueville worth the effort. I became aware of the philosopher Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville though Bill Moyers’ PBS series “A World of Ideas,” and many of the intellectual mentioned him — I specifically remember Tom Wolfe — so Tocqueville seemed worth studying because he touched on something so fundamental that he remained relevant today. My own personal interest was methodological: that is, how did Tocqueville work, and what was it that allowed him to make such incisive observations and comments?

First, Tocqueville employed literary techniques to study social processes, specifically he wanted to compare and contrast America’s successful, “conservative” revolution with France’s unsuccessful and radical one. Tocqueville did this by traveling around America, talking with people, taking notes on what he saw and heard, and then interpreting them through his considerable intellect and education into insightful prose. In the 1960s and 1970s, this application of literary fiction techniques to analyze non-fiction topics took was dubbed “New Journalism.” This technique stands in contrast to more systematic and logical forms of philosophy that, while there may provide a certain level of analytic utility, they are always too simple and simplistic as compared to the complexity of the social systems that they’re analyzing.

Tocqueville’s methodology merits extended study due to the prescience and accuracy of the analysis. It’s been a while since I read Tocqueville, but two stand out. First, Tocqueville pointed out that America was a country on the trajectory of ever-increasing equality. He didn’t say ever-increasing equality was right or wrong; he simply noted it as a fact and attempted to tease out its consequences. Second, Tocqueville predicted that the US and Russia were destined to tangle geopolitically as the former contended against nature (and God) and the latter against humanity. With predictions like that, the method behind Tocqueville’s predictions should surely be studied, appreciated, and if possible, learned. Third, Tocqueville said controversially — though somewhat accurately — that democracy was antithetical to excellence.

Since then, the politics of complexity has become a topic of interest, because reality is complex. However, the politics of complexity is controversial because achieving success in politics depends on making complex topics simple and easy to understand. If this is done well, then it helps the young to work better and be better in society. However, this process of simplification and information transmittal opens the doors for manipulation, misinformation, and propaganda. The media age in which we live with photographs, magazines, radio, television, and movies distorts the public mind and the decision-making processes of individuals. The potency of these media-based narrative techniques provides a natural and ongoing temptation for those who seek to influence the public for their own private gain. The narrative-based methodology of Tocqueville, properly understood, might potentially provide a necessary palliative for the 21st century’s confusing information cacophony.