Thursday, December 01, 2005

Beyond the capacity of human minds?

What an entertaining book! I very much enjoyed reading Complexity although at times I felt too much drawn into the personal life stories of the “great wise men of Santa Fe” – especially when it came to who dated whose daughter and whose parents participated in sit-ins. I eventually had to stop reading sitting at Houston airport laughing away at p.206 (“Langton hooked up with another group of psychologists who were studying social interactions among short tailed macaque monkeys […]. The problem, unfortunately, was that the humans on the primate center staff were entirely too similar to their subjects.”) because a woman who I had talked to on my previous flight gave me a very questioning look and I did not want to feed the stereotype of the crazy psychologist any more.

I was very much fascinated by how Waldrop introduces the reader to complexity theory and emergent properties by presenting how the field itself emerged as a result of the interactions between real world problems and a number of scientists and researchers. Also, the history of this emerging science directed my thinking back to Fleck. The origin of scientific knowledge is not the individual mind. Great ideas are not born in an isolated laboratory in a moment of utmost inspiration. Instead a change in scientific paradigms, a new line of research or a synthesis of several fields are slow processes initiated and sustained through the interactions between individuals. These individuals form – in Fleck’s terms – a thought collective. For the case of Santa Fee Institute, Waldrop shows that the individuals that were brought together in this endeavour had been working on or thinking about complex systems in one way or the other in various fields and over various time spans. Some of them had communicated their ideas but, as in the case of Brian Arthur, some of them had not been aware of the fact that so many others were playing with similar ideas. In line with Fleck, Complexity also shows that within the thought collective a certain thought style has to prevail to make the development of a new theory possible at all. Santa Fee institute created such a thought style by bringing together scientists and researchers who shared, at some level, certain basic ideas. This combination made it possible to look at real world problems in a new way.

Waldrop’s history of complexity theory also ties in with the approaches of Lave and colleagues. Persons, and their interactions with one another and the world constitute knowledge. Maybe this is why Waldrop so extensively portrays the vitae of the persons involved and their interactions with one another. In doing so, he situates the processes at Santa Fee institute and beyond in a larger context showing that science does not happen in a vacuum but is instead a truly situated activity.

As much as I was fascinated by the idea of complexity, a question remained for me. I remember a conversation I had maybe a year ago with a very good friend of mine. We argued in a good natured sort of way about the predictability of certain phenomena, such as the exact outcome of rolling a dice or the behavior of an object in a “chaos bowl”. While at that time both of us had not the slightest knowledge about complexity theory, I was arguing that some systems are not predictable with whatever means. Whereas he on other side was arguing that every system whatsoever could be predictable, and if only we had all the knowledge possible about this system and the computational power we could predict its behavior from moment to moment. This is where my question comes in. Does Waldrop, i.e. the researchers he refers to in his book argue that complex systems are not predictable at all because they are in a constant state of change and readaptation? Or is this just a surrender to the fact that as human beings even with the most enormous computational capacities imaginable we could not come to the insight necessary to make such systems predictable? Let us assume the following thought experiment. If we could hook up two chess players to some sort of machine that would allow us to “read their minds” and we could feed this information into a computer with the appropriate capacities could we predict the course of that game of chess? Just a thought experiment, as I said, but does anyone have an idea? Or is this question like the one about what lies beyond the edge of the universe?

One last question, does anybody know which role Waldrop himself played in the history of Santa Fee Institute? I have not read the whole book, so forgive me if this question is answered in a later part of the book. But I am really curious what allowed Waldrop such insights and from which point of view he approached the story.


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