Friday, March 8, 2013

Transdisciplinarity, Probability, and #etmooc

From time to time, I uncover a book that reshapes my thinking. Over the past several years, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus and Edgar Morin's On Complexity have done that for me. I find that my head is reshaped as I read and reread the books and then write about them, arranging the ideas that bloom like fresh flowers among the ideas that I already have, weaving together the roots underneath into a rhizomatic whole that forms my understanding. I'm reading a new book, Basarab Nicolescu's Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), which seems likely to rearrange my garden again, finding its place among the flowers.

I should probably write a post about this process of reading, writing, rereading, and rewriting. It is an open process. I am not so much looking for an answer, not even the correct answer, as I am looking to expand my territory, my garden. Think of Don Juan trying to teach Castaneda how to cultivate his garden. I am sometimes envious of those people who can find all they need in a single flower, one nugget of truth, one insight beyond compare by which they structure and live their lives, but for me, this is too simple a garden (think Cynefin simplicity here). One blight, and your garden is gone. I believe in complexity, and I recognize that this is an act of faith. I have no absolute argument that will convince those who cultivate a simple garden that my complex garden of many flowers is the way to go. I can say, "You can find a workable truth in a garden of many truths, enough truth to sustain you to the next truth," and they will reply, "Yes, but too many truths hide the Truth, and one only needs The Truth." We are both walking by faith, the only difference being that there is room for their flower in my garden, but there is no room in their garden for mine. Likely, we each think the other is the loser.

Still, as my son said to me recently, "Dad, don't trust anyone, trust everyone."

That's a probabilistic attitude that relies on the input and aggregation of many sources. A probabilistic universe has been a difficult pill to swallow for most people of the twentieth century. Einstein didn't want to do it. In a famous letter to Max Born discussing the probability at the heart of quantum mechanics, Einstein said, "He [God] does not throw dice." Maybe God doesn't throw dice, but probability is at the heart of quantum reality and chaos and complexity theories, and if my son's advice is any indication, then probabilistic thinking is slowing making its way into social consciousness after a century of science and math pushing it.

One of the key elements of both transdisciplinarity and rhizomatic education is probability. Probabilistic thinking should have changed everything, but society has been slow on the uptake. As Nicolescu says at the beginning of his Manifesto: "The quantum revolution should have radically and definitively changed our vision of the world. And yet, since the beginning of the twentieth century nothing has happened." Why?

Language is part of the problem. The quantum world has mostly been described in mathematical terms, a conversation most people can't follow. This is not a criticism from me, as I don't know math well enough either (I was actually pretty decent in high school math, but the haze of late 60s college life diverted my enthusiasm for it). As Nate Silver points out in his book The Signal and the Noise (2012), most people don't even understand the math behind everyday probabilities such as the stock market and batting averages, let alone the chaos of the weather. Quantum mechanics is way out of reach.

But mostly people don't accept the quantum world because it is just so damned weird. Nicolescu explains that quantum physics juxtaposes discontinuity, nonseparability, and indeterminism against the three pillars of classical physics (and the bases of most people's world view): continuity, local causality, and determinism. For most people, it is much easier to reject quantum reality than to rearrange what they find so obvious and reliable about reality. Most people become very hostile when you mess with their heads.

Continuity & Discontinuity - Nicolescu says that "classical physics is founded on the idea of continuity: one cannot pass from one point to another in space or time without passing through all the intermediary points" (10). Duh! Isn't that just plain obvious? To go from Monday to Wednesday, you must go through Tuesday.

Well, not in the quantum world where you can jump from Monday to Wednesday, and where it seems you can also go from Wednesday to Monday, still without going through Tuesday. Nicolescu says that Max Planck introduced the quantum to science: the idea that "energy has a discrete, discontinuous structure" (16), but then Nicolescu asks reasonably, "How can we understand real discontinuity? That is to say, how can we imagine that there is nothing between two points—not objects, nor atoms, nor molecules, nor particles, just nothing?" How can there be nothingbetweentwopoints? No space or distance? Not even time? If you are like me, you stand at the edge of those questions and you peer over into the abyss and you feel just a little nauseous.

Even our language gets in the way of the concept. To say there is nothing is to say something, but apparently not even nothing is between two quanta. This is monstrous, and this is why we need mathematics, which it seems can say such things more easily and precisely. So what does it mean to accept even the possibility of discontinuity at the heart of the Cosmos?

Local Causality & Nonseparability - Discontinuity upsets our usual notions about causality, or local causality, the only kind of causality most of us accept. As Nicolescu explains local causality, "All physical phenomena are necessarily comprised of a continuous chain of causes and effects: each cause at a given point corresponds to a nearby effect, and each effect at a given point corresponds to a nearby cause. Thus, two points separated by a distance, perhaps of infinite length, in space and time, are nevertheless linked by a continuous chain of causes and effects: there is no need at all for any direct action from a distance" (11). Again, duh! A causes B, which causes C, which causes D. Everyone knows that, right?

Well, no, apparently not. People who work with quanta know that "quantum entities continue to interact no matter what their distance from one another" (17). Thus, if I understand this correctly, A can cause or affect D without the intermediaries B and C and regardless of the distance between A and D. In other words, I think, no matter how much distance we put between two quanta, they are never separated, and we need no intermediary quanta to explain their interactions. This sounds like magic and miracles, and the modern, rational mind doesn't like it. However, some ingenious scientific work, resulting in Bell's Theorem (or here), says that this is the way the quantum world works.

This seeming contradiction does not deny local causality but reveals its inadequacy and expands our sense of causality to include what Nicolescu refers to as global causality, which refers to the causality (both formal and final) of the system on its constituent parts. I'm assuming here that any entity or event is a part of a system, or a node within a network, to use network terms. Local causality explains the entity or event as a result only of immediately preceding and proximate entities and events, ignoring the causal effects of the system, or network, as a whole. I think of local causality as the push toward an entity or event and global causality as the pull, though I don't know if this image is defensible in any scientific sense. Maybe it just helps me visually to distinguish the two.

As Nicolescu notes, we commonly try to capture this global causality in the phrase the whole is greater than the sum of its parts which hints at some effect that we suspect is there but usually find mysterious. It isn't mysterious. The system exerts a pull on its constituent parts, causing them to be and to behave in ways they otherwise might not. This causal pull is not immediately proximate, but it is no less real. For instance, we know that social context (the system or network) exerts enormous pull on the behavior of individuals (think students in a classroom, and then introduce a gerbil or Facebook to that space). I think this is global causality, and it leads us to the problem of determinism.

Determinism & Indeterminism - Nicolescu says that "the laws of classical physics are determinist laws. … The equations of classical physics are such that if one knows the positions and the speed of physical objects at a given moment, one is able to predict their position and their speed at any other moment in time" (11). A final, duh! Of course. Isn't this how we send people to the Moon and bring them back? or draw plans for bridges and make them work? or teach students the multiplication table? Uh-oh, maybe not that last one, but why not?

Nicolescu explains that when we introduce discontinuity, nonseparability, global causality, then we are left with quantum entities that are impossible to localize "at a specific point in space and in time. In other words, it is impossible to assign a specific trajectory to a quantum particle" (19). Which renders indeterminate the basis for all reality. So everything is just blind, random chance? No, says Nicolescu. That question comes from our classical mind which still relies on continuity, local causality, and determinism. Nicolescu explains it this way:
The indeterminism that rules on the quantum level is a constituent, fundamental, irreducible indeterminism that signifies neither chance nor imprecision. … It is certainly impossible to localize a quantum particle or to say which specific atom disintegrates at a precise moment, but this by no means signifies that the quantum event is an accidental event, owing to a play of the dice … Quantum randomness is both chance and necessity, or, more precisely, neither chance nor necessity. Quantum randomness is really a constructive gamble, which has a meaning—that of the construction of our own macrophysical world. (19)
So Einstein was correct that God does not throw dice, though perhaps not correct in the way he intended. Probability lies at the heart of every entity and every event, but not as random chance, rather as a constructive gamble. Okay, you might concede, this is how quanta work, but I'm going to Disney World next week, and I will make that happen. No sooner do you say that, than a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and a hurricane emerges on the Florida coast next week to ruin your plans. As Nicolescu points out, chaos and complexity theories have extended the indeterminism of the quantum universe into our world. Sorry about your plans.

We've all heard the story about the flapping butterfly wings, but most, I think, dismiss it. It's too silly to say with a straight face that flapping butterfly wings can cause a hurricane, and if you are limited to local causality, then you are certainly correct. If, however, you expand your thought to include global causality, then you can see how even the most trivial of local causes can be amplified (or dampened) by the enfolding system through a global causality from which emerges events such as hurricanes that are totally disproportionate to the local causes such as flapping butterfly wings.

By the way, I think it's good to keep in mind that global cause can both amplify and dampen local causes. We usually say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but perhaps we should say that the whole is different than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it's less. This is particularly relevant, for instance, in the case of irregular heart beats, when some local cause is upsetting the rhythm of the heart, and the heart system itself works to dampen that cause, returning the heart to a more regular beat. Of course, global cause isn't always stronger than local cause, and sometimes you just have a heart attack.

I think this probabilistic way of thinking is profoundly changing education. Most people still want a simple education (simple in the Cynefin sense) in which THIS + THAT leads necessarily to an A. Such a mechanistic, factory approach to education worked just fine in a mechanistic culture based on the three pillars of classical science, and we cannot forget that mechanistic education worked so well for so long, just as classical science did, and still does in many ways. We can easily understand why so many long for and call for a return to basics, by which they usually mean a mechanistic education based on rote memorization, drill and practice, and the transfer of authoritative knowledge from expert to novice. In her blog Linking and thinking on education, Joanne Jacobs quotes a call by Naomi Schaefer Riley to improve education by returning to basic writing:
Professors (the good ones, anyway) complain that students begin every answer with “I feel.” This is emblematic of a certain self-absorption combined with postmodern fuzzy thinking. . . . Every paper turned in during the first year of college should depend entirely for its argument on the writings and thoughts of others without any reference to the student’s personal experience. The writing should include a general thesis backed up by specific quotations or examples from third parties. The only way to make eighteen-year-olds into intelligible writers and speakers is to force them to look beyond themselves.
That was damned good stuff that built the great cultures of the 1950s. Unfortunately for the 1950s, the quantum world is slowly oozing like the rhizome into public consciousness. And yes, from the perspective of the simple realm, postmodern/quantum thinking seems quite fuzzy and random. It isn't, though; it is complex and rhizomatic.

In a lecture A New Culture of Learning presented as part of TVO's Learning 2030 series (Oct. 28, 2012), USC Communications professor Douglas Thomas notes that his students have a very different sense than he does about what constitutes reliable knowledge. In the terms of this post, Thomas' students take a more probabilistic approach to knowledge and authority. Thomas says that in his day he believed anything he read in The New York Times or heard from Walter Cronkite because they were vetted, authoritative sources, but that his students use a different approach. They hear something on Twitter, they check that against Facebook, then Wikipedia, then Google, then whatever other sources they have to hand, and they triangulate all their sources to arrive at a probable truth. They have turned "knowledge from a what into a where", as Thomas says in his lecture. They don't want to memorize what from an authoritative source; rather, they want to know where to find information. In Deleuze and Guattari's terms, they want to map reality (cartography). As Siemens says in his seminal article Connectivism (2004), "Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed)." Even know-where is slightly misleading: know-wheres is more accurate. Which, as Thomas notes with some chagrin, helps explain our students' confusion about why we teachers hate Wikipedia so much. We teachers want single, authoritative, deterministic sources. Our students prefer many, probabilistic, indeterminate sources, of which Wikipedia is one, just as we teachers are.

So don't trust anyone (even your teacher), trust everyone (including Wikipedia), and welcome to the rhizome.

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