The moral implications of nonlinearity and emergence.

There are a few concepts I think it would help to take care of: The first is in the companion post here.

The other is described below; it just happens Dr. Neil Tyson tweeted about this yesterday:

It has often been repeated, and my experience bears this out, that the real trouble doesn’t come from what we know we don’t understand, but from what we think we understand but really don’t(3). If we had the right questions, the answers would soon follow.

There are so many people who study the subjects of human behavior: psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. How many of them would pretend to understand something of quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is just linear algebra, some complex variables, and the very general physical concepts of uncertainty and wave interference that require those mathematics. But waves interfere linearly: that is, they just stack. And the operators that appear in the equations of (non relativistic) quantum mechanics are just stand-ins for acts of measurement or transformation on the information of the state, and as required by the Schrödinger equation(4) act linearly.

But the behavior of the vast majority of the systems of the world, which do not submit to the simplifications and contrivances of a well designed physics experiment, is not linear. In living systems, the interactions between, and really it seems the integration of components result in a nonlinear relationship between small scale and large scale behavior.

The consequences of that nonlinearity are profound and confounding. Pen and paper analysis becomes useless for many questions, when no equation can be written down. The growth of systems implies its regime – the very rules it obeys – can change radically as its configuration traverses a complex and unknown topology, making computations and simulations necessary, though not sufficient to understand. These systems are very hard, yet the people who study these fields today do pretend to understand!

And now we must be honest: we, as humans, do not understand ourselves. The softer sciences have made progress, but it has been slow and groping, stymied by their being bound to the use of inferior, insufficiently rigorous tools. What knowledge they have gained is washed out by an ocean of biases, assumptions, and plain ignorance in the greater public, as a drive toward self-serving beliefs come into play particularly in human affairs.


 

And now to the proper subject of this post, and the reason I tagged it “Black History Month.” (I’d hoped to make more general comments, but this post is already too long and a specific example serves as well.) A few days ago this article appeared on the Atlantic from Dr. Adia Wingfield(1)(emphasis mine):

Progress has undoubtedly been made since the days of explicit segregation, and most white people no longer openly advocate for segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and offices. When speaking to researchers, many even argue that integration is important and necessary. … Despite laws prohibiting segregation…it persists on several fronts today.

Some of the most striking studies done on present-day segregation have to do with how it’s connected to the ways families share money and other resources among themselves. The sociologist Thomas Shapiro, for instance, argues that the greater wealth that white parents are likely to have allows them to help out their children with down payments, college tuition, and other significant expenses that would otherwise create debt. As a result, white families often use these “transformative assets” to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, based on the belief that sending their children to mostly white schools in these areas will offer them a competitive advantage. (These schools are usually evaluated in racial and economic terms, not by class size, teacher quality, or other measures shown to have an impact on student success.) Shapiro’s research shows that while whites no longer explicitly say that they will not live around blacks, existing wealth disparities enable them to make well-meaning decisions that, unfortunately, still serve to reproduce racial segregation in residential and educational settings.

Local decisions and actions have global consequences, not always the linear sum of the local, or even foreseeable from the local. This is the deeply nonintuitive part, the part people will fail to understand because it violates some vague assumption I might call ‘linearity of intent’, and because they really can’t anticipate that something bad could come from most people meaning well:

It is not actually necessary for people to be racist to reproduce a systemically racist society. (5)

This carries more general implications about the morality of actions, carried out locally, which have global consequences not directly foreseeable, but I will stick to this example specifically. There is a kind of transmutation that occurs through the nonlinear aggregation of people’s behavior, so that decisions which appear acceptable at the one scale grow to have dire consequences in the larger.

In this case it means that people doing their best by their children, by the fact of acting in a world in which whites enjoy disproportionate privilege, perpetuate segregation and the systemic oppression follows (6, 7). Hiring managers, acting without any racial intent of their own, reinforce the topology of social networks by selecting from a pool of applicants which comes to them with such bias already built-in (8).

It follows that we can’t assume our actions will not remain unaltered by their integration with the actions of others, and that the globally/systemically reproduced intent of the macroscopic system will be the same as the majority’s. Even worse: there are cases where emergence creates a system that behaves in ways that are directly opposed to the intent of individuals.

Without a better understanding of nonlinearity and emergence – and with a rigor that deprives us of safety in our preconceptions – I don’t imagine a solution to these problems can be found.

 

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  1. Two Atlantic articles about segregation and poverty. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/is-ending-segregation-the-key-to-ending-poverty/385002/?utm_source=SFFB, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/segregation-tomorrow/459942/
  2. WaPo article about whether more intelligent people are less racist. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/27/are-smarter-people-actually-less-racist/?tid=sm_fb
  3. I can’t find a proper attribution. It wasn’t Twain.
  4. And some basic “common sense” type assumptions…when all possible events are accounted for, their total probability is 1.0. That the position from which distances are measured should imply nothing about the prediction, and such.
  5. In 2014, I realized to my surprise how much sociologists had been able to learn; that this was not a foreign or outlandish concept to them, but some had already made this observation, ex.: Bonilla-Silva.
  6. Another very related example comes immediately to mind: it is not necessary that most police in a black community be malicious to do harm. It is only necessary that they be afraid, indifferent, ignorant, or any mix thereof.
  7. If many of our problems really do take on this form, can they even have a solution? I have heard that busing in an earlier era was actually closing the black/white achievement gap and undoing the evil of segregation before American’s more inveterate nature reasserted itself during the 1980’s. This American Life, 562.
  8. This was also discussed in the Wingfield article.
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