I hear the voices out there chastising me for that title. They are saying that policy making needs to come a mastery of the facts. This is the third in my series of diaries talking about the new way some of us have come to understand our world based on books by the late Robert Rosen and others. The first A new series: Books that will help you see the world anew. Introduced the basic thesis that our present day problems have their origins in the way our modern world view evolved. I make reference to ideas of Robert Maynard Hutchins that Rosen uses to introduce his book Anticipatory Systems. The second installment "Hard" science vs "soft" science and the humanities. is devoted to thoughts of Rosen from the introduction of his later book, Life Iself: A comprehensive inquiry into the nature, origin and fabrication of life. In this installment I focus on the need for the breaking down of a set of related dualisms about the relationship of science to the humanities and how this sheds light on problems within science itself. In fact these problems within science have cycled back into the broader realm of discourse about the world in an insidious way. I will say as forcefully as I can that this latter point will be the focus of our quest to see the world in a better, more effective way. In this, third installment I will begin with this idea from Anticipatory Systems (AS). He is explaining the way he came to make the contribution that is that book while a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
It might be wondered why a natural scientist such as myself was invited to spend a year at an institution of this kind, and even more, why the invitation was accepted. On the face of it, the Center's preoccupations were far removed from natural science...I had () intellectual reasons for accepting ...My professional activities have been concerned with the theory of biological systems, roughly motivated by trying to discover what it is about certain natural systems that makes us recognize them as being alive...I am persuaded that our recognition of the living state rests on the perception of homologies betyween the behaviors exhibited by organisms, and characterizes them as being alive...The study of biological organization from this point of view was pioneered by my Major Professor in my days as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Nicolas Rashevsky (who, through no coincidence, idolized Robert Hutchins). Rashevsky called this study "relational biology", and we will have much more to say about it...In any case, one of the novel consequences of the relational picture is the following: that many (if not all) of the relational properties of organisms can be realized in contexts which are not normally recognized as biological... or what is more germain to the present discussion, they may be realized in the context of human activities, in the form of social, political and economic [my emphasis]systems which determine the character of our social life.Thus, here in the beginning of a major work is a promise that has only been partially fulfilled. The principles Rosen is developing are principles that have a special character. They are general beyond the context in which they were exposed to us and they are based on a recognition that the way this has been all done up to now has some serious flaws. Read on below and we will venture forth to capture this promise.
Let us begin by seeing what Rosen had in mind:
...I perceived the common thread running through these issues and others under intense discussion at the Center, and it is a thread which I might have guessed earlier. As I have noted, Hutchins' great question was: what should we do now? To one degree or another that was also what the economists, the political scientists, the urban planners and all the others wanted to know.However different the contexts the contexts in which these questions were posed ,they were all alike in their fundamental concern with the making of policy, the associated notions of forcasting the future and planning for it. What was sought in each of these areas was an effective technology of decision making. But underlying any technology there must be a substratum of basic principles; a science, a theory. ...This was the big question I posed for myself.If you are not impressed by this you probably should not read on. (But I strongly urge you to do so anyway). I found it impressive the first time I read it so many years ago and it is even more impressive now. It is hard to begin explaining the total relevance of what he said to what we need right now. If it is not clear to you that we have people out there who operate in total disregard for such a principled way to approach the heavy responsibilities they have taken on as policy makers, then you need to look again. Please forgive me if that sounds like a challenge, but it is. I hope to convince you that we are in a kind of vacuum now. The evidence seems quite clear to me for about half our nation and its "leaders" would qualify for mental illness help by my standards and I think most of yours too.
It is time to get beyond the preliminary ideas motivating this series and to get on to more substantial matters. I would love to linger among these ideas, but we need to get on with the real job, namely to show that such a "theoretical" (that word can be misleading because of the bias against theory we have already discussed and that Rosen discussed at in much greater detail than we have here) basis for understanding how we make decisions, how we construct our myths and how we create the "frames" (Lakoff)" that set the tone of the political discourse we engage in actually come to be in the way we function as thinking beings. The word "anticipation" was the word Rosen chose to attribute a capacity of making our actions try to fit into what we think is coming. We are "anticipatory systems" and the issue becomes one of maximizing the ability to anticipate.
Here is the bottom line:
... the basic theory that must underlie the technologies of policy making in all these diverse disciplines [my emphasis] is the theory of modelling, the theory of the relationship between a system and a model of that system.And again I can "anticipate" a well known reaction to those words...Oh no! Not ANOTHER theory of modelling! No, this time it is different. This time we are going to examine how our mind works in the context of model making because that is what every mind that "anticipates" does. You don't have to draw pictures or write equations or even write anything down. You are still making models all the time! My dogs know how to make models. When I put on my coat they begin to get excited and very actively demonstrate that excitement. Why? Because rightly or wrongly we soften our leaving them alone with a treat. That has converted leaving time and separation time into treat time until they finish those treats and are there alone. Why should they get so excited? Because their "model" of how the world is constructed associates the two of us leaving together (It does not happen unless we both are leaving together)with those yummy treats!. I could give plenty of other examples but you must have plenty of your own.
If you understand this idea you already have a good bit of the explanation for why we are where we are today in policy matters of all kinds. Policy makers use models to anticipate the future. They almost certainly do this unconsciously, at least in part. I say that because even if they have a formal set of predictions, they still have a lot of unconscious baggage tied to it.
So we need to know more about what Rosen discovered about the models that anticipatory systems use. That will lead us into some interesting territory. It will also lead us into something that I can only "anticipate" for the moment. It leads into the fact that Rosen modeled the way we make models. And that leads us into a key reason why reductionist science has left us with needs it could not fulfill. Because if we are going to allow us to model our way of making models we are definitely getting into something called "circularity" . This is one of many "forbidden" topics in science done the old, limited way. It is also a key feature of real world complex systems! Stay tuned as we proceed.
The fourth installment will take us forward into the new ideas in Anticipatory Systems Be ready to look at your own thinking process for that is the object of study among others. Knowing yourself better is always a worthwhile venture.