Zarathustra, Competing Values, Complexity, Foresight

by John Holbo on August 3, 2016

[UPDATE March 21, 2021]: Looking for the latest On Beyond Zarathustra? It’s here. I’m updating old posts with outdated links.

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. Although jetlag is is the the more pressing concern.

Now I can get back to drawing Zarathustra! Which reminds me: a few pages went up a few days ago, yet I didn’t flog them here at CT. So: here!It may be a few weeks before I post more Z. It’s August, when an old philosopher’s thoughts turn to teaching and administrative tasks. Second, I think the thing may go down better in larger doses, i.e. more pages per episode. I like the weekly/semi-weekly format. Yet, two pages by two, the joke may be stepping on its own feet. Of course, explaining the joke makes it worse – but, as aforementioned, I am an old philosopher. At a certain point, explaining my jokes may be all that remains to me. (As happened to old Plato, one presumes.) In case you haven’t noticed, On Beyond Zarathustra tries to follow the actual text of Zarathustra’s Prologue. But I’m not exactly burning through it. Instead of making it shorter, for Seussification purposes, I’m making it longer. How Holbonic. But there’s a subtler consideration. (Isn’t there always, when it comes to reasons for one’s bad writing habits?) This is a double-parody – of Nietzsche and of Seuss. The people of the town ignore our hero, Zarathustra. They don’t know what to make of him. One hypothesis: his proposed transvaluation of values is so radical they daren’t conceive of it. But what if Zarathustra just plain tends to rattle on and spiral off, like Gerald McGrew, Marco, and Morris McGurk? What charms in a child may be baffling or irritating in an adult …

Enough with attempts to justify my authorial ways to man (in a gender neutral sense).

Before declining into a slurry of back-to-back action movies on the looong flight home I was reading more Kierkegaard stuff. I think this year – this year! – may finally be the one when I get to give a lecture entitled “Fact, Fichte and Forecast”. (We’ll see!) From a survey article in the Blackwell Companion to Kierkegaard:

Kierkegaard is generally critical of Fichte’s idealism, complaining about how abstract and contentless the Fichtean ego is. Still, it seems that Fichte’s idealism helped Kierkegaard break with an ontological description of the subject by focusing on subjectivity, including self-consciousness, reflection, act, will, and freedom. Kierkegaard went beyond Fichte by developing the category of existence and by stressing the situatedness and finitude of the existing subject. In this connection, he relies on the concept of facticity, a concept that was coined by Fichte (in his middle phase around 1800) and developed further by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, eventually becoming one of the most important terms in twentieth-century continental philosophy. While Fichte suggests that the subject “throws” or projects the world, Kierkegaard anticipates the Heideggerian idea that the subject itself is thrown (cf. Raffoul and Nelson 2008). Fichte stresses spontaneous freedom, whereas Kierkegaard emphasizes how facticity not only limits freedom but also makes it possible.

Hence my Nelson Goodman joke.

I got one more bit of real reading done before watching crappy crappy movies. I read this interview with Jerry Gaus about his excellent new book (which I was already reading independently), The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society. So here’s my question for you, which conveniently ties in with all that stuff Zarathustra is rattling on to the townsfolk about: plurality of value, conservatism, new values, unforeseen consequences. In the interview Gaus makes a point that is nothing distinctively Gausian, just generic Hayek (not that there’s anything wrong with that … unless it turns out to be wrong.)

The highly abridged version is that I believe that Hayek was right that social and economic orders are complex systems. As systems become increasingly complex, the consequences of our interventions become increasingly difficult to accurately predict. The study of past interventions, I think, bares this out. We are typically surprised at both the good and bad things that resulted. And Hayek was also correct that this implies severe limits on the efficacy of interventions by a central controller to secure social goals. Most people resist this, possessing an illusion of control. If we are near the levers of control of an element in the system we think we can control what happens to it.

Is this true?

As systems become more complex, the consequences of interventions become increasingly difficult to predict?

It’s not a far-fetched thought. To quote Ben Folds:

You get smaller as the world gets big
The more you know you know you don’t know shit
“The Whiz Man” will never fit you like “The Whiz Kid” did

Or we could wax nostalgic, courtesy of old Squid and Owl jokes.

More seriously, here’s the obvious class of counter-examples: systems that, as they complexify, don’t ossify into Old Bastards, á la Folds, but become complex also in terms of their reflexive capacities to get a handle on their own complexity. We could get all Hegelian or Kierkegaardian about it. Self as a relation that relates itself to itself and all that jazz. But that’s not what I have in mind. Just think about it practically. Computers are more complex than they used to be, yet not invariably less predictable in their behavior.

Resolved: US Presidential campaigns are more complex than they were 100 years ago.

Weird thesis statement, standing on its lonesome. Complex how? In what way? By what metric? But let it pass. In a sense it might be true. Modern life does seem always to be getting more complicated.

But is it therefore harder to predict the consequences of changes to our more complex system than it would have been a century ago?

Suppose some early 20th Century Nate Silver tried to come to predictive, data-analytics grips with the US Presidential election of 1916? Which was a real nail-biter. Suppose someone said: obviously it would (or should) have been easier to make predictions – or predictions about interventions – back then; life was less complex, including Presidential campaigns. Ceteris paribus.

This doesn’t sound right. There is no a priori reason why Whiz Man Harry Enten of today has to be some declined version of a truer Whiz Kid ancestor who nailed 1916 – or 1816 – or 16 BCE. For life was so much simpler then. Poll data was for crap back then.

Today anyone starting a business has to think globally, whereas our ancestors could maybe just look around town and see if there are enough unshod horses to support a blacksmith. Even so, I suspect opening a new blacksmith shop in 1616 was ‘riskier’, data analytics-wise – in most jurisdictions – than opening a new global business in 2016. International trade was way simpler in olden times. Not that many products from not that many sources. But sailing your ship to get spices to bring back home to sell was an incredibly fraught proposition, not just in terms of keeping the boat afloat (which is a complex systems problem – for what is the ocean?) Also, in lots of other ways. The internet would have been way convenient to traders in ancient times.

Medicine has gotten enormously more complicated as a practice, theoretical discipline, body of research, industry – and that’s without even getting into insurance. Obamacare was seriously very complicated, since it had to sit on all that. But, all the same, I don’t think it would be right to say that Obamacare was more likely to ‘backfire’, unintended consequences-wise, than any previous intervention in health care. A lot of people were studying the system very hard, after all, and had good information, limited though it was.

Would you trust more a new drug/procedure introduced today, or a new drug introduced 200 years ago? New drugs are likely to be more ‘complicated’ – in a sense. But, then again, that’s what the FDA is for.

Gaus says:

The two critical variables are the degree of complexity of the system and the radicalness of our planned intervention.

I guess I’d respond that we surely need at least a third variable: degree to which the complexity of the system is compassed, collated, collected, etc.

Now the rubber hits the road to serfdom, in Hayek terms. It would be hubris to say: hey, let’s try to build Utopia! We’ve got the internet, plus One World Government? There’s an app for that. Or there will be. That thing Marx said about fishing in the morning, farming in the afternoon, making art in the afternoon and criticizing at night? There’s probably an Uber app that enables the harmonizing of healthily plural social activity that will constitute end-state communism. (Uber! Even the name is German!) All this sounds pretty stupid, and it’s this style of rationalist overconfidence that sets Gaus off. And, before him, Hayek. But, all the same, it doesn’t seem right to say more complexity makes for less predictability. As a rule. It depends.

Two final thoughts.

Hayek is confusing because he hates on rationalism, rationalistically. Gaus, too, is kind of an anti-rationalist rationalist, what with his love of Sen-style models. (I don’t mind. I’m just sayin’.) Uber exemplifies the contradiction. In a sense, a system like that is a triumph of Hayekian insight over central planning. But the app itself is also an anti-Hayekian triumph: a brain at the center. Uber was constructed, rationally. It didn’t bubble out of the ground, or grow on a tree.

One reason why it’s hard to believe life is necessarily less predictable today – due to increasing complexity – is that, as Gaus himself says, social life is always complex, even in simple situations. Humans have to deal with weather, the earth and the plants and the animals – and neighbors. That’s so much. So complicated. How much more complicated is it, really, to have to deal with the IRS and the DMV and your health insurer? Well, somewhat more complicated.

Complexity is, I am aware, a topic that has not wholly utterly failed to attract any students whatsoever, before this post. So if you have suggested readings, you might do me the courtesy of not wrongly assuming I wrongly assume I am absolutely the first person ever to think thoughts in this vicinity. You might even take into account that I’m quoting an informal interview with Gaus, rather than some passage from his book, expressing his most tightly-constructed arguments. (But you will, in the end, suit your own psychic needs, I’m sure.)

Are there useful, general things to say about whether life is getting more complex, hence unpredictable (hence interventions should be more modest)? Might it be, to the contrary, that our capacity to compass complexity keeps pace, so it’s a wash? Or maybe the information age makes some interventions vastly more rationalizable, even as the matter to be rationalized hugely complexifies?

The worst movie I watched on the plane was either this one, or this one.

Since, as aforementioned, it’s the time of year when professor’s thoughts turn to syllabi, if you have a colleague looking for a good Plato text, maybe you could recommend mine. If you think you could do that in good conscience. You can at least tell them the PDF’s are free. That’s definitely true.

UPDATE: Comments were turned off. Weird. Fixed now.

Also, maybe we could express my question pseudo-scientifically, like so. What matters is not complexity but the ratio of grasp of complexity to degree of complexity. In olden times, the ratio might be expressed: (not much)/(a huge amount). In modern life, the ratio might be expressed: (quite a bit)/(a vastly huge amount). The question is: which is more?



Kevin Cox 08.03.16 at 4:15 am

Complex systems are remarkably simple in their interactions. They consist of many autonomous entities interacting peer to peer. The interactions are simple. I give you a wave you give me one back. The sum of the interactions and how they in turn interact with other interactions makes things complex. We can work together well – most of the time – while ever we allow autonomous entities to remain autonomous. When we try to exercise control over other entities, then things become unpredictable.

To understand this, I suggest reading “In Search of Certainty: The Science of our Infrastructure” by Mark Burgess.

You might also take a look my blog where I discuss practical outcomes from applying this view of the world. Things like “Knowledge the Magic Pudding of Wealth”.


Consumatopia 08.03.16 at 10:16 am

It’s not necessary for a central controller to be able to predict the outcomes of their interventions–if Obamacare failed, then it could have been repealed or replaced with something else. (This is *politically* difficult in our system of checks and balances but that sort of complexity is entirely artificial.) Trial-and-error works for the central controller as well (and as badly) as it does for all the individual elements.

That’s not to say that central control is possible in conditions of absolute chaos. Like, if there was a serious possibility that a long standing government program could, suddenly and without warning, result in the collapse of the medical insurance system tomorrow morning, so that we all wake up on Thursday and rue the day that LBJ signed Medicare, then, sure, planning would be pretty much impossible, though it’s not clear that individual agents in such chaos would find any more success.


Lee A. Arnold 08.03.16 at 1:19 pm

The short answer is, the idea which you attribute to Hayek is only one possibility for a complex system; it is not a “systems law”.

It is also possible for the whole complex system to go into habituation and maladaptation, until it forces a radical re-ordering upon itself, or else goes extinct.

There is only one book, so far as I know: Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity provides the necessary preliminaries to understanding this, (and perhaps even seeing it coming, within the cognitive constraints). The book is about the tools of thought which we necessarily use to think about this stuff. The prose is very simple, deceptively simple: the understanding is a million light-years beyond Hayek.


Yankee 08.03.16 at 4:36 pm

In natural evolved ecosystems, complexity is driven by independent actors struggling to create niches for themselves, ok? The result of a lot of local competition is that it is rather difficult to make any changes. Until the next massive external disruption, which arrives with very unpredictable results (“punctuated equilibrium”). Designed systems, it would depend on what you are designing for. Eg, in the interest of public safety, modern automobile designers have put a lot of work into complex suspension systems, resulting in very much enhanced controllability over the road. OTOH builders of NASCAR vehicles just want their cars to compete, so they are deliberately working at the edge of the driver’s ability to control them, and they are in no way suitable for the public roads. For the political/economic cases of interest, not only is the vital incentive to go faster than The Other Guy, there is an incentive for active disruption so as to enable picking up the shattered pieces. As Uber.

Social systems (like NASCAR headquarters) function to limit such creativity, confining actors to appropriate niches, protecting stability and allowing growth of large systems. Which large systems are (potentially) more functional, safer and more efficient, than simple systems when they work, and leave a larger hole in the ground when they fail.

Chaos theory is relevant (“arbitrarily large response to arbitrarily small stimuli”) : all real-world systems are chaotic at the margins.


Lawrence Stuart 08.03.16 at 4:57 pm

I’m very much warming to your Zaraseusstra . I had my doubts that the Seussian visual language could support Nietzsche’s rougher bits, stuff like menace and sense of danger. Seuss seems too round, too soft, too cuddly. Sure, there are heights and depths, but there’s always a billowy cloud to soften the fall.

But, for example, your twisting snakes winding upwards with the signs stuck in their throats are quite … nausea inducing. They really capture the vertiginous effect of the text. It’s very nicely done.


SusanC 08.03.16 at 5:22 pm

Given that the reference is to Hayek, I presume that Gaus’ argument is going to propose markets as a solution. But I don’t think the “complex systems” argument is going to support that conclusion.

Economists’ arguments that markets work (e.g.Efficient Market Hypothesis) tend to assume a system, whose behaviour is very simple and predictable.

Let’s see: we take this (hypothecated) very large, complex system with lots of non-linearity, delays in feedback etc. The we add a market mechanism. Model this like some kind of servomechanism added to the original system, as in control theory. What’s going to happen? Convergence to a stable value? Wild unstable oscillation? Chaos (as in the formal sense of chaos theory)? It’s anyone’s guess…


Lawrence Stuart 08.03.16 at 6:37 pm

I am wary of your Gauss/Hayek frame of reference.

Mechanical and biological metaphors work for understanding systems, I know. But they tend to diminish the import of human agency (whether through notions like systemic evolutions brought about by the logic of the system, or ‘punctuated equilibrium’ which ‘arrives’ from outside). Human acting is devalued, and starts looking more and more like system generated ‘behaving.’ Or it arrives, mysteriously, from somewhere.

As an antidote, I’d propose … tada! … analysing systems like a text. Where bio or mech analyses both overvalue form (though the bio ones tend to be less scleroticaly inclined), textual analysis has to accommodate the text as, in some sense, a forma formans. ‘Form’ is a noun always modified by a verb. Form is not simply an object, an Ancient of Days, vatic in the attic.

Anyway, if you are interested in this sort of ruminating on form, check out Angela Leighton’s wonderful book _On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word_.”


John Holbo 08.03.16 at 9:50 pm

“But, for example, your twisting snakes winding upwards with the signs stuck in their throats are quite … nausea inducing.”

Thank you kindly! I am worried myself that I won’t be able to make Seuss harsh enough at a certain bloody point. But Seussian style supports some very disturbing intestinality, among other serpentinate and psychosexual potentialities. That gets you some ways.

Thanks for the good comments.


ZM 08.08.16 at 11:11 am

“”We are typically surprised at both the good and bad things that resulted. And Hayek was also correct that this implies severe limits on the efficacy of interventions by a central controller to secure social goals. Most people resist this, possessing an illusion of control. If we are near the levers of control of an element in the system we think we can control what happens to it.”

Is this true?
As systems become more complex, the consequences of interventions become increasingly difficult to predict?”

I think one of the points about recognising complexity is recognising that there are multiple levers of control, at different levels, and able to do different things .

I haven’t read much Elinor Ostrom, but I know she co-authored a book that was a meta study of collective action theory and field research, and the book’s conclusions were that the most accepted theories of collection action were not actually true to what was happening on the field.

On the field they found that often there were multiple scale interventions, and people would organise to govern common pool resources reasonably effectively at the small and medium scale without central control. The book also found that there was more cooperation on the field than that the most accepted theories proposed.

I guess what I am trying to say is that you don’t need to be either in favour of control by central planning, or in favour of some Hayek style individualism, there are a lot of different scales where complexity is governed, which are neither central or individual.

Comments on this entry are closed.