Understanding how things work is an obsession and a necessity of ours as a human race. We explain how things work by trying to link facts in a logical sequence that builds and demonstrates the understanding.
The linear logic that has prevailed for centuries as the only reliable formal tool of thought has encountered a few challenges lately. The surprising aspect is that the challenges are more substantial right now when we have more research data than ever before and which supposedly should help us solve many problems with the application of systematic thought. However, we are finding that the admirable logic that worked so well in the world of mechanics stutters when it comes to more fluid world of biology and social phenomena.
Industrial thinking taught us that if you break down the system into its smaller components we could explain how it works by figuring out the relationship between these components. This works when dealing with systems with low complexity. In that situation it is easy to confuse causality with reality, or facts with “logical” beliefs. That problem didn’t bother us too much, because the logic was sufficient and it worked. But in complex and dynamic systems, the confusion causes big problems. Johan Lehrer explains beautifully the modern paradox caused by the abundance of information in Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us. Oops, I used the word “explains”!
Gathering data and identifying correlations works up to a certain extent as a way of demonstrating causality. Until that extent is reached one can successfully use the expression “explain” as a form of describing causal relationship, but beyond that level the explanation is simply an illusory way in which our brain deals with complexity. It is a bit like Voodoo science. We are generating a huge amount of new information captured in digital format. The social synapsis that connects us in so many ways accelerates the creation process which will boost the pace of generating new information. Very soon, the digital information stored on computer systems around the world will surpass the total of information stored in the people’s brains of the entire global population. The social, economic, cultural and political consequences will be vast and impossible to predict.
When the world is too complex linear logic ceases to operate. We only have our own interpretations as good guesses of what happens. There may be a way to identify the boundaries between the two worlds (the simple and the complex), but I am not aware of any such method or theory. It is all blurry. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking concludes that entire universes with their distinct laws exist in the space created by the Big Bang. Laws don’t have to follow a linear system with which we are so familiar and they certainly don’t have to exist from the beginning of time. There are new laws and old laws. The laws that govern the social phenomena on planet Earth did not exist five billion years ago and we don’t know if they exist as such on other planets. The laws evolve; they change adopting new patterns accommodate behavioural discontinuities of systems in which the laws apply.
The difference between the realms of logic and non-logic thinking is similar to the difference between the art of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and Pablo Picasso. The first is a leading actor in the Renaissance movement dominated by the desire to bring the classics back to life by creating a perfect rational world. Painters have perfected the use perspective as a way of reflecting the reality. Rafael’s paintings are “perfect”. With attention to detail, Raphael produces studies of perfect world where the geometry is used to give the viewer a sense of linear depth. As an example, The School of Athens contains architectural elements based on semicircles and lines to give a 3D perspective that takes the focus of the viewer to a point of view in the centre of the painting. The image is symmetrical, with people occupying spaces in equal weighting and what seem to be important characters being placed in the middle. Even more mundane life moments with architectural elements in ruin are painted with careful choreographed perspective lines – The Virgin with the Veil (the thumbnail on the left) is an example.
Enter Pablo Picasso. In his early years he was a keen learner of the classics and his studies reflected that. Very soon that he broke with the tradition. His paintings challenge the order we have been trained to accept. The perspective is abandoned completely and when it appears it is only to be mocked. The faces of his characters have their parts represented in a multidimensional plan as if several views are painted simultaneously. For instance, The Portrait of Dora Maar is conceptually so different from The Virgin with the Veil. For the typical viewer it is hard to understand and accept Picasso’s art. I am not trying to argue for or against the style, but I am only observing that the rules for “liking” his art are different. For one, the viewer is an active consumer of the artistic product. The viewing is a personal experience and the viewer’s imagination plays a key role in determining that experience. Some may see beauty in the portrait of Dora Maar, and imagine a woman with passion, beautiful eyes and elegant figure. If you use the optical perception as educated by our traditional upbringing, the portrait doesn’t make sense at all. What are those hands and what is that double nose doing in there? What Picasso did though, was to multiply the possible interpretations of the visual design and create a variety of worlds based on individual rules. While Raphael seek to represent one view which was to be readily accepted by all the consumers of his paintings, Picasso created something which triggers different representations created in the viewer’s mind. Picasso captured the expression of our differences, zigzagged and opposed, while Raphael captured the essence of our common understanding, beautiful and uncontroversial. Picasso is “illogical” in stark contrast with the “logical” Raphael.
Let’s imagine the game of chess designed by these two maestros.
The classical chess game is a construct that lives in a perfect world of logic. Everything is known. There are a few rules and the number of combinations is discoverable, although it takes good computational power to do it. With our increasingly capable computers we should be able to calculate the perfect chess match in which the white and the black make the optimum moves based on a library of a huge number of possible scenarios. This is a game Raphael would feel comfortable with.
The non-logical world is one in which the game of chess is changes its rules and structure in unexpected ways. Imagine a chess board with a shape that changes with the temperature of the environment and the rules are slightly altered with each move. If you move the Queen from C4 to F7, the board will lower a corner of the board like melted chocolate extending the affected fields and the Knight can only move one field in a shortened “L” shape because of increased distances. This makes very difficult the analysis of scenarios based on past experience. The decision-tree algorithm becomes useless. A better strategy in this type of game is to experiment, see what changes occur, and based on that observation, decide the next move. Collecting data to identify correlation between temperatures and rules and aspect of the chess board will only give you limited understanding of the game. Perhaps over time, collecting large data, one could build a collection of patterns and use them as a guide, but never as a certain how-to recommendation.
The non-logical chess game suits the world of Picasso, a world in which each game is unique, never to be repeated where players influence the rules. A champion is one that has a lot of practice but has also ability to pick up new skills and has an open mind. In fact, this is a game where entire teams play together collaborating on making the best moves. Because of the many possible interpretations, a collective thinking, a sharing of ideas works best in understanding the evolving game. It is a continuous adjustment of strategy and interpretations that requires many brains working together to solve the puzzled created by each turn of the game.
If we think of creating software programs capable of playing the two kinds of chess, we would recognise that we need two different teams of programmers. The classical chess computer software requires massive calculations that are quite repetitive. The challenge is one of volume and ability to optimise the software to make rapid decisions by navigating through a large library of patterns. For the Picassonian chess game, the team is very different. Their programming must be fuzzy and social to allow for sharing opinions, experiences and expertise. The programmers must be creative and emphasize on the elements of sharing, collaboration and collective action. The outcome will need to be software that can learn and adapt through analysis of large data and parameters as the number of scenarios are practically limitless.