4:25pm

Mon August 20, 2012
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

When We Mistake Our World

We mistake our world.

With an arrogance born in part of science's triumphs since Newton, in part of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, modernity, we mistake our living, human world.

More importantly, we mistake our humanity and how we might better come to live with one another as our globe, with its dozens of civilizations, rushes together.

Let's start with Newton. More than any other single mind, Newton taught us how to think. I've posted on this before, I know, but it warrants repetition. We remain Newton's children.

With his famous three laws of motion, Newton taught us how to understand the motion of billiard balls on a table. He taught us that we'd need to measure the initial positions and momenta of the balls — ie, the initial conditions. He taught us to measure the shape of the table — ie, the boundary conditions. And he taught us to then write the three laws of motion in differential equation form, then integrate those equations to derive the past and future motions of the balls as trajectories.

In other words, Newton gave us the tools to see reality as the "entailed unfolding" of the universe. This view remains the cornerstone of classical and even quantum physics — our fundamental concept of reality.

But I have come to believe that Newton is wrong — at least when it comes to the living, evolving world.

I made this argument in January, in a paper I co-wrote with French mathematicians Giuseppe Longo and Mael Montevil of the Ecole Polytechique in Paris, which was published in Physics ArXhivc. The paper is a tough read, I admit.

But I think we show that applying Newtonian thinking is wrong when it comes to the evolution of life and — even more certainly — the evolution of the economy, law and culture. No laws predefine this evolution.

This evolving system creates its own possibilities of becoming. As I blogged before, the invention of the Turing machine enabled — but did not cause — the mainframe computer, which enabled — but did not cause — the invention of the personal computer, enabling the invention of word processing, enabling file sharing, enabling the Web, enabling selling on the Web, enabling Web search engines like Google and social media tools like Facebook.

We think we live in a web of cause and effect. We do. We also live in a web of enabling opportunities that may or may not be seized, and the living world, biosphere up, unfolds in a different way, creating ever new possibilities of becoming.

But these possibilities often can't be stated ahead of time. No one foresaw Facebook when Alan Turing did his work in the first half of the 20th century. Nor can we foresee all the possibilities of the evolution of life.

Life is not a well-formulated, complex optimization problem to be solved. We do not know all the variables that may become relevant.

Science is my life, and it is wonderful. But science will not ultimately know everything.

In the world of modernity, our values have become badly deformed. Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" has replaced "integrity, generosity, and courage" as our First World cultural ideal. Modernity does not serve our humanity well, although it does offer enhanced standards of living. We are reduced — to price tags, cogs in an economic system making often useless products in the name of forever GDP growth on a finite planet. The bankers corrupt themselves and our government. Our government does not yet realize that its better job is to enable, not command, to "garden," to coach, to enable the creativity of its peoples, here and around the globe.

Enable us for what? I think to "live well-discovered lives," where we cannot say ahead of time what we will discover and co-create, we of 30 civilizations rushing together around our globe.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.