Goodness theory

By Hal McKenzie  

Jan. 28, 2003

Several science articles that have appeared on the Web lately suggest that an air of almost religious fervor is sweeping the scientific world. With the application of computer science, also known as cybernetics, to biology, physics, and social science, scientists are in effect coming to grasp the reality of a supreme intelligence behind the universe, i.e., God.

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine makes it very plain in his Nov. 12 article entitled “God is the Machine.” The subtitle is, “In the beginning there was 0. And then there was 1. A mind-bending meditation on the transcendent power of digital computation.”

He writes that scientists, in the new field of “digital physics,” are beginning to see the universe as a giant information processor in which our brains are in effect microprocessors networked within the cosmic mainframe where every interaction between every thing, from atoms to galaxies, is a “bit” of information based on the binary code of 0 and 1. This recalls the ancient Oriental concept of a world made up of relationships between yin and yang, or positive and negative, subject and object.

These bits make up a universe made up of information, not of “matter in motion” as the Marxists believed, leading to a view of nature as essentially incorporeal – dare we say spiritual? “The spooky nature of material things is not new. Once science examined matter below the level of fleeting quarks and muons, it knew the world was incorporeal,” Kelly writes. “What could be less substantial than a realm built out of waves of quantum probabilities? And what could be weirder? Digital physics is both. It suggests that those strange and insubstantial quantum wavicles, along with everything else in the universe, are themselves made of nothing but 1s and 0s.”

Kelly then waxes Biblical. “From this perspective, computation seems almost a theological process. It takes as its fodder the primeval choice between yes or no, the fundamental state of 1 or 0. After stripping away all externalities, all material embellishments, what remains is the purest state of existence: here/not here. Am/not am. In the Old Testament, when Moses asks the Creator, ‘Who are you?’ the being says, in effect, ‘Am.’ One bit. One almighty bit. Yes. One. Exist. It is the simplest statement possible.”

In a more recent article in the New York Times (Jan. 25, 2003), Emily Eakin writes about the excitement surrounding network science. She cites several books about network theory “where network science terms and concepts are invoked with near religious fervor.”

Network science has practical implications in, for example, fighting terrorism, developing ad campaigns and finding the best way to combat AIDs. Perhaps, however, the “religious fervor” displayed by network scientists and digital physicists comes from a greater dream: science’s Holy Grail, an understanding of basic natural laws that would give scientists the ability to engineer a better society.

The belief that man could build a better world through science is as old as Plato’s Republic – or as recent as communism, which failed catastrophically, bringing about the most virulent concentration of evil the world has ever known, which survives today in Stalinist North Korea. Communism failed because it was negatively biased and materialistic, hence the name “dialectical materialism.” It saw class warfare as the engine of human progress and denied any larger reality than matter, which not only contradicts modern science, but in effect rationalizes the darkest side of human nature. As Solzhenitsyn said, “There have always been evildoers, but communism is the first ideology to justify evildoing.”

What if scientists were to actually get it right and come up with a theory that justifies good-doing? In the movie “A Beautiful Mind” the brilliant mathematician John Nash wins the Nobel Prize with his invention of “game theory,” actually a mathematical formula or algorithm, which is applied to such things as resolving labor disputes and handling city traffic. What we need is “goodness theory,” an algorithm than can be applied to bringing billions of human beings all over the world out of the misery, suffering and injustice that they suffer in ever larger numbers.

This might sound farfetched, but such a theory has already been foreseen in science fiction, which has an impressive record of describing things that actually come true later. The late Isaac Asimov, the most prolific science fiction writer in history, wrote a series of novels called “The Foundation Trilogy” in which a brilliant scientist, Hari Seldon, develops a method of computation called “psycho-history” that can predict historical events with a high degree of accuracy. In the first novel in the series, Seldon knows from his computations that the current democratic society will degenerate into a dictatorship followed by thousands of years of war and turmoil. He also knows exactly what needs to be done to shorten the coming dark age and reduce human misery. The established leaders, however, are loath to give up their habitual ways to follow his prescription. So Seldon and his followers establish two foundations, one public and the other secret, to guide mankind along the optimum path.

This might seem to be a pipedream, considering the complexities and seemingly intractable problems of this world, but scientists often discover that even the most complex realities have a way of reducing themselves to simple laws. There is, for example, an article in the Albuquerque Tribune by Sue Vorenberg entitled “Scientists say life moves in fours.” She quotes Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Geoffrey West as saying that “the number four plays a key role in how all life on earth takes shape.” His studies focus on how metabolic rates between small and large animals change by increments of four, but he intends to expand his studies to larger processes.

“The four should actually be thought of as three plus one – and there are three dimensions of the space we live in,” West said. “In the competition for growth in these networks, they fill in the available space. It’s as if in trying to fill all space, life behaves as if it were operating in four spatial dimensions.” West implies that that we are, in fact, living in four-dimensional space, or space-time as Einstein put it. Actually, there may be more dimensions than that. Paranormal events that seem to defy scientific explanation could be a result of a dimensions outside space and time. In order to formulate a comprehensive goodness theory, scientists will have to take those dimensional links into account, in the process becoming even more “theological.”

Scientists are always looking for that “magic bullet” or formula that can solve human ills without much effort. A recent Reuters story said a pair of British researchers actually worked out a formula for happiness. The article says they “worked out a simple equation to quantify happiness that could put an exact figure on the emotional state. After interviewing 1,000 people, the researchers – a psychologist and a self-styled ‘life coach’ – concluded that happiness equals P + 5E + 3H,” where “P stands for Personal Characteristics (outlook on life, adaptability and resilience); E for Existence (health, friendships and financial stability) and H represents Higher Order (self-esteem, expectations and ambitions).”

The problem, of course, is always execution. Science knows the optimum nutritional requirements of the human body, but how to deliver those nutrients in sufficient quantity to starving people, or on the other hand help the obese eat properly? Likewise, even if we know precisely what makes people happy, how do we relieve them of the habits and conditions that make them miserable, for example alcoholism, drugs, crime, poverty and so on? Goodness theory, how matter how accurate and compelling, would never be easy to implement.

It would, however, provide a useful tool for those brave and compassionate souls who are already devoting themselves to doing good with little more than faith in ancient scriptures to guide them. While religions have historically played a divisive role, everyone respects the miracles that science can perform, even those whose worldview is magical and medieval. Science speaks in a universal language, creating a global consensus built around realities that are plain to everyone, except of course for the odd crackpots like the Flat Earth Society. Goodness theory could become a new pedagogy in Christian seminaries, Buddhist ashrams, Jewish yeshivas and Muslim schools, supplementing rather than replacing core beliefs.

I can hear the complaints already from free-spirited souls who would say that goodness theory would simply provide another weapon for self-righteous busybodies to impose their morality on those who prefer to keep their sins and vices. I think, however, that what historian Arnold Toynbee called “mimesis” would be the likely transmission belt of the new theory. This is the process by which a creative minority adopts a vision and a way of life that others see as superior to what they have, so they mimic it until the way of the minority becomes common wisdom. Science at its best doesn’t coerce or even persuade, but creates a fait accompli that most find beneficial and choose of their own free will.

Hal McKenzie (1948-2010) was the first editor of 

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