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Murray Gell-Mann: A Crude Look at the Whole

by Howard Silverman

Some notes from a 2005 talk by physics Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, who was at the time a visiting professor at Boston University's Pardee Center:

Alternative scenarios for the future are like a branching tree, with major branchings at the special points where chance has huge effect or where important transitions occur. …

Let’s employ a modified version of a schema introduced by my friend Gus Speth, who was then president of the World Resources Institute, which we helped to found together. The schema involves a set of interlinked transitions that have to occur if the world is to switch over from present trends toward a more sustainable situation. …

One: the demographic transition to a roughly stable human population worldwide and in each broad region. … Two: the technological transition to methods of supplying human needs and satisfying human desires with much lower environmental impact per person for a given level of conventional prosperity. … Three: the economic transition to a situation where humanity is living not so much on nature’s capital, but mainly on that interest of that capital. … Four: the social transition to a society with less inequality. The institutional transition to more effective means of coping and conflict and with the management of the biosphere and human activities in it is number five.

In studying all these transitions that we've listed, it's tempting as in the other situations we've discussed to break up the study and investigate each aspect, in this case each transition separately, but again that's clearly the wrong approach. The transitions are very strongly linked to one another as we saw, and if they do occur in the foreseeable future say in this century, they will happen in closely connected ways. So we have as usual to take a crude look at the whole and allow the necessary coarse graining to emerge and not try to impose it.

We human beings seem to be moving, although gradually and with many, many disheartening setbacks, towards supplementing our local and national feelings with planetary consciousness that embraces the whole of humanity – and also in some measure the organisms with which we humans share the biosphere. The studies that we are discussing will certainly involve a mixture of scenario writing and computer modeling.

The striking feature of anything involving computer modeling is the trade off between detail and transparency. … The way to improve the transparency of model is to set it up so that many of the assumptions and parameters can be altered at will. Many people can then come and play with those features in different ways, moving the leavers around, changing the assumptions, changing the parameters. If conclusions survive that kind of treatment they are likely to be fairly robust. …

The most important caveat for any simple model of a complex system is not to take it too seriously. If conclusions from studying the model are applied to policy issues, the warning must be even sterner. You may cause great harm if you take it too seriously.

On many occasions as everyone knows, very evil consequences have ensued from the application of over simplified scientific or even worse pseudoscientific models to matters of policy. A famous example of course is social Darwinism in the nineteenth century. ... One of our visitors to Project 2050 suggested wisely that models be used as prostheses for the imagination. That seems to be the best way to handle them: aides for the imagination. In that role they can be extremely valuable.

Let me close by a remarkably relevant quotation with a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay: “Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts. They lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill is daily spun; but there exists no loom to weave it onto fabric.”  

Tags: science

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