The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Current Affairs ... History ...

I just started watching another DVD “Great Course” from The Teaching Company, “Chaos” by Prof. Steven Strogatz. Pretty good so far, although I’m only half way into lecture 3 (of 24). However, Prof. Strogatz said something in lecture 2 that kind-of worries me. He was speaking about Sir Isaac Newton and how Newton’s laws once implied an entirely rational, predictable, understandable world. I.e., an orderly “block universe” where the past, present and future are all just aspects of an already-determined “block”; i.e. where everything has always been pre-determined. Of course, Newton’s ideas eventually developed into and were superseded by scientific concepts allowing for, even requiring randomness, contingency and unpredictability; i.e., “chaos”.

However, back when Newton was very popular amidst the educated class, the United States of America declared their independence, and a few years later wrote a Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was one of the key authors of those documents. And as it turns out, Jefferson was a big fan of Newton. So big that he used some Newtonian concepts in the Declaration of Independence. Strogatz gives a few examples of wording reflecting the notion of an orderly, rationally acting world; e.g. “truths” that are “self-evident” (akin to Euclidian geometric proofs), and “causes” that “impel” separation from previous governments.

OK, the Constitution is a bit more “nuts and bolts”. Still, the D of I states the philosophy behind it. The Constitution is a blueprint to “form” a union and “secure” blessings. Still pretty deterministic, still quite Newtonian. Today, you can still find politicians and commentators who hail our Constitution as the best roadmap for government ever created by human-kind, and the light into the future. They imply that it will still be so in a hundred years. And I hope they are right.

However . . . the world has changed quite a bit since the D of I and Constitution were written. Back then, the world was a simpler place. And simple systems tend to be relatively orderly and predictable. However, when systems become complex and interwoven and interdependent, as our world is rapidly becoming, the potential for chaotic side-effects increases. Black swans appear more and more frequently. Is our Constitution ready for that?

I don’t have an answer to that, and I definitely don’t know what would be better. All I’m saying is that the US Constitution worked magnificently for us for around 200 years, and provided a blueprint for many other nations during that time (serving most of them quite well too). But in the past 25 years or so, the world starting going thru some really big changes, changes that the Founders wouldn’t believe. They lived in a Newton-like world of predictable causes and effects; today we live in a complex “cloud” of “emergent phenomenon” based on probabilities and “strange attractors”. Big and unpredictable deviations happen more and more often. And the USA seems to be struggling quite a bit with that, in terms of economics, foreign relations, politics, etc. Our leaders are hitting buttons that once worked, but don’t seem to be having the same effect anymore. Can we get our mojo back? Or is our blueprint out of date?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:02 pm      

  1. Jim, You are certainly right that we are on the verge of a new “revolution” or “age”–as in the “industrial revolution” or the “information age”. As usual, I am off on my own tangent: I’m thinking not so much in terms of the constituion as of the economy. But I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that first the economy changes, then everything else follows–basically the “follow the money” idea. So in that line of thinking:

    The shift in buying habits of so many people–online versus actually going into stores, the shift of so many people selling online as to setting up businesses, etc. Even the push of large companies to have bills paid online is another form of such home-based economic activity. Spread these forms of doing business around enough, and we will eventually have an entirely different way of doing business.

    I’ve been thinking myself that we may end up, economy-wise, going back to the times when the home was the center of economic life, when a Master took on apprentices who eventually became journeymen, who hoped to become Masters in their own right, take on apprentices, etc.

    How will such an economic system work if such a shift actually becomes the case? How will such changes eventually affect our constitution? Or will our constitution be just fine the way it is?

    Another phenomenon that captures my attention is the surge in the Middle East for “freedom”, that word that seems to be tossed around with only a vague sense of what all is implied in the term. How will the spread of “freedom” in the world affect those who have had it for quite some time? Specifically, I think of Europe as a whole more than the U.S. as they are more affected by Middle Eastern immigrants wanting to keep their “old ways”, so to speak.

    There’s no doubt we are in a changing world. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 13, 2011 @ 9:33 am

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