Friday, January 25, 2013

A Mobius Model of Reality

The sciences, both physical and social, attempt to understand reality by first breaking it into parts, and then studying each part, each aspect, individually.  This is the method of analysis.  There is much to be gained from this method of enquiry and understanding, as the current state of our technology readily attests to.  This method, however, also has its limitations and its built-in blind-spots.  It can lead us to conclusions about the nature of reality which are incorrect, despite their being based on apparently logical foundations.

Imagine that two people, Mike and Maya, are confronted by a very large mobius strip.   It's so large, in fact, that they can't even see the whole thing from where they're standing. 

Mike says to Maya, "Weird.  I wonder what that thing is?"

Maya responds, "You know, it kind of looks like a big mobius strip to me."

Mike: Mobius strip, what's that?

Maya: It's something I heard about once.  It's a form that only has one side and one edge.

Mike: What?!? That's ridiculous!  How is that even possible?

Maya: I don't really understand the details, but I'm pretty sure it is possible and that this is one of them, just a really big one.

Mike: Well, how about we test out this little hypothesis of yours?  Obviously this thing is too big to consider all at once, but we can cut sections out of it and examine them.  If we look at a bunch of sections, we should be able to get an idea about the whole thing, right?

Maya: I don't know if that will work or not.

Mike: Why not?

Maya: I can't really say for sure, it just doesn't feel right to me.

Mike: Whatevs.  If you don't have any other suggestions, I'm going to start studying this thing one section at a time.  We'll see how many sides this "mobius strip" really has.

[Mike pulls a pair of scissors out of his pocket and begins cut sections out of the strip]

Maya: Why do you have a pair of scissors in your pocket?

Mike: Because this is a hypothetical situation.  Are you gonna help me or not?

Maya:  I think I'll let you handle this one.

Mike: Fine. [begins to examine the pieces of strip he's cut out]

Mike: Maya, come here and look at this.  I've got all these pieces here and every single one of them has two sides and four edges.  How is it possible to take a bunch of two-sided things, put them together, and come out with a one-sided thing?

Maya: I don't know how, but I still think it only has one side.

Mike: Think whatever you want. I've studied the matter and I can tell you, every piece of this thing has two sides, therefore the whole thing must also have two sides.  I don't know what a "one-sided form" even means.  Sounds like superstition to me.
The problem here is obvious.  The only way to directly verify that a mobius strip has only one side and one edge is to trace along its entire length, but in our hypothetical situation that is not possible.  So Mike tries to test Maya's claim through analysis, i.e. by breaking the whole down into its constituent parts.   But while this might be a good way to understand a car engine, say, it is not a valid way to understand a mobius strip (or at least not a valid way to answer the question of how many sides it has).  The act of analysis itself ensures that the incorrect conclusion will be reached.

The whole must be understood in terms of the whole, not in terms of the individual parts.  Inasmuch as the sciences claim to provide a comprehensive worldview, a perspective on the whole of reality (or at least to be working in that direction), their methodologies will ultimately, necessarily, lead them astray.

Someone may say to them, "Life and death are one," and they will respond, "Nonsense! Life is one thing and death merely the absence of life.  Your statement is meaningless and you are obviously a superstitious bumpkin!"  Another person may say, "There is no difference between rich and poor," and they will say, "Ridiculous! The rich live in palaces and buy yachts for their yachts, while the poor must scramble and scrape just to pay the rent.  You have no idea what you're talking about."

But they are trying to understand the whole through analysis of the parts.  The knowledge that they have gained by analysis is valid and true, but there also exist truths that cannot be had through analysis.  Denial of those truths is known as "scientism": the superstitious belief that the whole of reality can be understood through scientific analysis.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Like Paint...

Commenter hermanas left this little gem in the comments section of this morning's post on Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism blog:

Like paint, ideology conceals a multitude of sins. Including criminal intent.

So of course, being a painter and an inveterate purveyor of metaphor, I couldn't help but flesh this thought out.  Here's my response:

Society, then, is like a wall, “sins” are like imperfections on the wall, and ideology is the paint that supposedly covers up those “sins.”

But as any (good) painter can tell you, a coat of paint doesn’t actually hide imperfections. In fact, it can make them more apparent. If you really want a beautiful wall, you have to spend a bunch of time scraping off all the imperfections first. Good painters spend more time scraping and sanding than actually painting. Only lazy painters neglect the tedious task of preparing the surface and just slap a coat of paint on it.

So, for purposes of the metaphor, if we want to end up with a “beautiful” society, we need to first spend a lot of time scraping away imperfections, i.e. removing all the crime and corruption, the systemic fraud, the captured regulators, etc. Only after we’ve done all that can we justifiably cover the whole thing with our preferred color, i.e. ideology.

But if we get lazy and just throw the ideology on without first concerning ourselves with the pre-existing flaws in society, we just end up highlighting the flaws and actually making them worse. So if we try to throw our “efficient markets” ideology on top of a system rife with informational asymmetry and manipulation, we only end up worsening those problems.

Like paint before it’s been applied, ideologies are pure. The world, OTOH, like all surfaces, is full imperfections, contradictions and paradox. Different ideologies are like different colors of paint, each pure, each unique, and each just as valid as any other. The problem arises when, mesmerized by the beauty of our preferred ideology, entranced by its pure, perfect hue, we become over-anxious and try to apply it to society before society has been adequately “cleaned up.” The results are predictable. If you stand back a bit and squint your eyes it looks OK. But if you put your glasses on and stand a little closer it just looks like absolute crap.

All of our arguing over ideologies amounts to this: screaming at one another over which color of paint is better (which is ridiculous, since this is essentially a matter of taste), without first having addressed ourselves to scraping, sanding and stripping all the dirt and grime and detritus off the wall we intend to paint. Regardless of who wins the “color war,” the end result is going to be a shoddy looking piece of work.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Here's what I'm reading today:

IV. The Vision of Local Stock Exchanges

Throughout most of this country’s history, securities were issued by local companies based in specific states, were traded on stock exchanges within each state, and were regulated by each state. Some state exchanges were efficient, honest, and successful, while others were sloppy, corrupt, and uneconomic. After the Great Depression hit, Congress stepped in to place the entire industry under national supervision. Mindful of the principles of federalism, it established a two-tiered regulatory regime—a national system, overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for the creation and trading of stocks across the country, and state systems, overseen primarily by state regulators, for the creation and trading of local stock within a given state.

For a number of understandable reasons the state systems largely fell into desuetude. The priority of most companies selling stock was to get as much capital as possible from as many investors as possible, irrespective of where they lived. Creating stocks tradable on national secondary markets offered greater demand for the stock, greater liquidity (that is, the ability to have ready cash to buy and sell the stock), and greater opportunities for profit from the secondary trading of the securities. But the possibilityof local stocks and local exchanges has been, and remains, firmly embedded in U.S. law. It’s a sleeping giant.

Every now and then a story comes along that reminds us of the existence of the state systems. For example, when Ben & Jerry’s first issued public stock, it was basically a statewide offering. You had to be a Vermont resident to buy or sell the securities. Subsequent stock issues by Ben & Jerry’s, however, were conventional national offerings. Gradually the company lost its tether to Vermont and ultimately was purchased by Unilever in a hostile takeover.

The prevailing view is that it’s difficult and expensive to do any of the five essential pieces of successful state stock exchanges—to create local stock, to sell it initially, to evaluate it, to trade it, and to assemble it into diversified portfolios. It’s worth mentioning that historically these same tasks confronted investors interested in larger companies. But throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries new financial intermediaries emerged, making it possible to restructure companies so that they had tradable stock shares, to evaluate the worth of shares, and to exchange shares on various public stock markets. My point here is that we already know how to do these tasks pretty well. Now we need to apply our know-how to the local companies.
~Michael H. Shuman, from Local Stock Exchanges: The Next Wave of Community Economy Building
I like this idea, although I would prefer local bond exchanges, rather than stock exchanges, since I think stocks are ultimately a rent extracting device. A system like this could be used to create a funding mechanism for worker-owned co-ops, which is one of my pet causes, and it could also conceivably be combined with an alternative, local currency to create a truly local economic system! Exciting...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Alternative Theology, Lesson One

Diptherian Ontology: The Orthodoxymoronic Position

First Assumption: nothing comes from nothing.

This is a denial of the concept of creation ex nihlo. The natural extension of this concept is that anything currently existing has necessarily existed in a previous time period. Things change form, change state, rearrange themselves in multiple ways, but in some sense the same “things” exist now as existed at the beginning of the universe. Anything that exists or comes into existence has necessarily been created from some thing or things that already exist, and so even the Big Bang, the supposed beginning of our universe, must have originated in some thing which had existence prior to it. That infinitesimal point-particle that exploded into what we now know as our universe did not come from nothing; it was not created ex nihlo. Nothing comes from nothing*.

Physicists cannot look back further in time than the Big Bang, they cannot see what may have come before it, since the very fabric of time itself is wrapped up in that tiny particle. But just because the mathematics that physicists use to look back in time breaks down at the moment of explosion, it does not follow that there is nothing beyond that moment to see, nor that other methods of looking might not yield more satisfying results.

First Conclusion: we have always existed and will always exist.

Nothing comes from nothing, and we did not come from nothing either.

It happens every so often that water falls, of its own accord, from the sky. Of course, the water doesn't just come from nowhere, it comes from clouds which are composed of water vapor. And that water vapor just didn't happen either, it came from evaporation off of lakes and oceans. And those lakes and oceans didn't come from nothing, they are created and maintained by rivers and streams which, of course, get their water from the rain, which every so often falls from the sky.

In all of this, the water molecules themselves remain ever the same and always exactly what they are. In certain states they are perceptible to our senses and useful for our purposes, while in other states they are imperceptible and therefore useless to us. Nonetheless, they remain forever themselves, unchanging.

In the same way we ourselves change state and move from imperceptibility to perceptibility and back again, perhaps more than once, but we ourselves never change. Being and non-being are themselves two different states through which we, and everything else, moves. Any thing, any entity, may exist in the state of potential (non-being) or the state of actuality (being). The entity itself remains unchanged regardless of it present state. The unenlightened on these matters view birth as a beginning and death as an end, but this view, as we have seen, violates the First Assumption. Nothing comes from nothing.

*It may be objected that the discovery of “quantum foam,” i.e. of particles popping into and out of existence on the quantum level, proves the reality of creation ex nihlo. The Orthodoxymoronic view, however, holds that these particles are, in fact, not popping into and out of existence but rather moving back and forth between our dimension and one abutting or overlapping it. Regardless, even if the particles are popping into and out of existence, existence itself is merely one form of being, as is explained below.