Knowledge and Uncertainty

Some issues that have been crying for attention

This essay started with some thoughts I had about the concept of decentralization in the modern world. I was focussing on this because I had a feeling that decentralization is a key idea closely related to what Sudbury Valley School stands for in the educational realm. The school firmly adheres to the principle that it has no prescribed curricular agenda at all; and we say that an important underpinning of this principle is the belief that, in the post-industrial world, every pursuit is in fact economically feasible, since the post-industrial economy, which is rooted in creativity, can accommodate an almost unlimited variety of pursuits.

We have had a problem distinguishing between some core ideas of the school when explaining ourselves. In the matter of the students’ freedom of pursuits, it’s not so much a question of trust, which we often stress. Trust comes into play most prominently when considering the political side of the school. When we say that the school’s operation is based on trusting children’s judgement, that’s a valid political concept. It has to do with how the community is run. But a critic can justly react and say, “You may trust children’s judgement as to matters that have to do with how they govern themselves in the community, but how can you trust their judgement when it comes to determining what they need to know to be economically productive adults?” The fact is, it’s not so much a question of trust when it comes to the educational side of the school; rather, it’s a question of our conviction that whatever they do in their childhood years, they are going to turn out alright. It’s more a matter of indifference than trust.

We have not adequately distinguished the two concepts in the past. And we have to understand that they’re often separate in parents’ minds, because even parents who say, “I am ready to trust my children to govern themselves,” are still going to worry about whether their children will turn out to be economically viable adults.

This concern parents have is tied up with economics, with planning, and with a whole series of other things that are going on in the world today. I have always felt that Sudbury Valley was breaking new ground in this area too. Indeed, for people to accept the school as an educational model it is essential that they understand what a post-industrial economy is really like, most especially that it is really indifferent, that it is really randomized. And this in turn has to do with the nature of the predominant post-industrial world view.

In the course of pondering these matters, I got an answer to a problem that’s been plaguing me for decades and seems to be completely unrelated—to wit, why did the Newtonian scientific system come into being? Why was it invented? What need did it fill? All scientific theories start with some world view that reflects the inner needs of the culture at the time. What I couldn’t grasp was what drove the world to accept Newtonian science. After all, people have been corning up with new world views and scientific theories all the time. But if you look at the history of science, you see that only a tiny number of these theories ever surface and gain serious attention. The question always is, why this particular set, and why did it surface at that time? Why did it survive? Why was Descartes popular at the same time? And what about the religious world models that flourished in those days, such as Calvinism? Did they have something in common? It turns out that all of these questions are related.

Pre-Modern Times

I shall have to start by looking at some of the essential features of the pre-modern world and how they relate to the world views that were current then. One of the dominating characteristics of pre-modern society was that functioning communities were small in extent relative to today’s standards. The limits were set almost wholly by the state of communication, transportation, and Information transfer. Only a certain number of people could effectively form a community. For us today to realize that Athens, at its creative peak, contained about 5,000 free adult males, is mind-boggling. Nobody would expect a town of that size today to produce anything nearly as significant as Athens did. The fact is that back then, cultural and social units that were effective were fairly small. So, for example, when it came to political entitles in pre-modern times, one never encountered a large country, certainly never a cohesive empire. We talk about the Roman Empire, but it was never anything like what the British Empire was in the 19th century. The Roman Empire at best was a collection of loosely related regions which had some kind of weak centralized fealty. Nor were there truly integrated states of any kind. The primary political unit of the pre-modern world, right up to modern times, was the city-state—the likes of Athens, Sparta, Jerusalem, Babylon, etc. or its cousin, the small principality. Whatever hegemony they exercised over their immediate neighborhood, through conquest, at most led to some kind of loose economic and political dominance.

Because the effective cultural world of any community in pre-modern times was small, the underlying scope of the world models that were created in pre-modern times was limited. Most models were orderly, coherent, comprehensible, and relatively stable. When you read pre-modern accounts of how the world works, what strikes you is that everything is in its place in the order of things. There is a sense of harmony, of order, disrupted only by a pervading sense of unpredictable disaster (a subject I have addressed elsewhere).

Virtually all pre-modern world views share this characteristic, despite great differences in detail. They all share this aspect of being orderly on the one hand, but somehow having a place in them to account for the completely unpredictable nature of great upheavals. In order to accommodate extraordinary phenomena, pre- modern cultures create religions, which are, in a sense, their “supplementary physics”, their way of explaining why the things that seem so orderly most of the time and so understandable and so neatly in place, sometimes fall apart at the seams. They explain this by bringing in supernatural forces that are above the normal order of things. Such forces, for example, allowed for social mobility in the pre-modern world. People didn’t ever think of actively changing their social ranking. But they always knew that a shepherd’s son could become a king, that the gods could pluck somebody out of his fixed place and raise him up. That was always seen as a random phenomenon, of which the Bible, mythology, and legend have abundant examples. In its essence, social mobility is a violation of the order of things, due to the intervention of supernatural beings.

The Modern World

The pre-modern world model is neat; everything fits together. The social theory fits the scientific theory, and both fit the theology. What is it, then, that happens to change people’s perception of reality when the modern era appears on the scene? The great divide between pre-modern and modern times is a watershed of communication, in every sense of the term. This includes the great leap forward in the ability of Western peoples to transport themselves across the seas, which is a tremendously significant thing. One side effect of the ability of Europeans to cut loose and cross oceans was that a whole new continent was discovered, one they hadn’t previously encountered. The impact of the discovery of the New World was tremendous in the way it expanded people’s horizons. They referred to it all the time, in their poetry, their literature, their art, their politics. All of a sudden, a whole new region opens up, filled with new cultures, new artifacts, and a new land mass that people could go to, explore, and settle. Suddenly, people were exclaiming, “The world is bigger than we thought. It’s different. And we have the ability to travel through it at will.”

Virtually at the same time, you get the invention of the telescope, which has the same kind of horizon- expanding influence on a cosmic scale. Before that, the sciences of cosmology and astronomy were basically the same for all cultures. People dealt with the dome of the heavens, and felt an intimacy with what was going on there. With the invention of telescopes, people discovered the universe beyond. I don’t have to elaborate on this, as it has been commented on extensively.

Now, in addition to the idea that the universe is infinite, and the idea that the planet is much bigger than it had been thought to be, came the greatest communications invention of all—namely, printing, which makes it possible within a matter of a few generations to communicate ideas among people at a pace and in a quantity that was formerly inconceivable. Suddenly, ideas, which are the heart of all culture, can be shared almost instantaneously by a group of people that’s much, much larger than ever could be reached before. Real cultural exchange could take place, not just the circulation of one or two or ten or even a hundred manuscripts, but thousands and tens of thousands of copies, spread over continents.

This much I understood before now: what separates pre-modern times from modern times is the tremendous advance in communications that took place on several fronts in a couple of centuries. Within a relatively short period of time, there occurred a tremendous expansion in the horizons of people and a huge enlargement of the size of communities within which people could interact effectively.

But here is the key to a new insight. Ask yourself, “What does all this do to the underlying psyche of thinking people?” Clearly, it totally shakes up, even uproots, their limited, neat, orderly world view. In the historical equivalent of an instant of time, people can no longer make do with their traditional models. It’s like what happens when a native tribe in the middle of the jungle meets the Western world. It’s not just that they’re taken by the material goods or the technology. Rather, from time immemorial they’ve had a closed, stable, comprehensible model of the world, and all of a sudden it’s expanded beyond imagining. The underlying orderliness and compactness of it is gone.

What the human race faced, in the transition to modern times, is a tremendous sense of insecurity in the face of vast unknown realms that now had to be somehow comprehended. There were two possible responses to this crisis. People could simply despair of ever understanding the world; and there is a lot of despair in the literature of that period. The other alternative is to struggle mightily to comprehend. Indeed, the dominant drive that one can feel pulsing through the human race at the transition to modern times is the drive to reduce the newly discovered vastness to simple order. That’s the key—the deep- seated need for simple understanding, for the sake of intellectual and emotional survival. This is the task set out for the Newtons, the Gallleos, the Descartes, and all the other towering minds of the times. What they’re looking for is an economical number of underlying, fixed laws that govern everything and restore stability to the world order.

The essential nature of their pursuit gives it away. To be sure, pre-moderns wanted to reduce everything to “one underlying principle”. But by that they meant one fundamental kind of matter from which everything is made. It didn’t bother them, however, that in every realm of reality there are different sets of operating rules. They didn’t feel the least compulsion to think that everything should work in the same manner, because they didn’t need to: their world was orderly; it was small; it was comprehensible. But when the modern era blew the lid off pre-modern stability, the drive now became to unify and simplify as much as possible—to bring order out of threatening chaos. Newton looks for one simple set of laws that explains the motion of the planets and the motion of the moon and the motion of bodies on earth. That’s what modern-era physicists search for: universal laws that apply to matter and forces throughout the cosmos. That’s a deep psychological need; it provides the only way they can hold on to a hope of understanding this complex world. If a scientist came along and said, “I’m going to create a new physics with 3,000 laws governing 3,000 different conditions that I’ve catalogued,” people wouldn’t give him the time of day. It didn’t satisfy the need of modern world models.

This need for simplicity, unification, and predictability is what makes modernism, at its heart, secular. The essence of the modern ideal is that man can understand the world without invoking the supernatural, without introducing an extraneous factor that threatens to reduce everything to chaos again. What develops is a tension between people who say you can’t understand the world this way and people who say you can. The ones who say you can call themselves modern, and the ones who say you can’t are looked at as vestiges of the past. This is where the modern clash between free will and determinism takes shape, a conflict that is basically one between religion and science. There’s no way to bridge this gap, because either you have the deterministic world of science or you have a world in which there’s a certain amount of randomness introduced by some supernatural factor.

All of modern scientific thinking proceeds during the 17th to 20th centuries to look for simple, underlying laws that are modelled on the laws of physics. That’s why science has such a universal appeal. Science is like a dike, constructed to withstand an ocean of ever more expanding horizons. When new discoveries were made—such as phenomena of electricity and magnetism, the first thing scientists sought to do was embed them in the ether, to turn them into manifestations of known principles of mechanics. And when they failed to succeed in doing that, they looked instead for comprehensive, simple new laws that embrace all the phenomena. The whole of physics is focussed on the quest for unified laws of nature.

Let me turn briefly to economics in this context. The same considerations lead to the industrialization of the modern era. Once you visualize the world as a machine, you can suddenly start visualizing machines everywhere. Historians have often wondered why the ancient world wasn’t mechanized to a far greater extent than it was. Many surviving ancient texts are full of examples of machines; for example, they knew about steam turbines. So why weren’t they used? Pre-moderns were such intelligent people, and they obviously were brilliant technologists. They built roads, aqueducts, dams, just about whatever they put their minds to. But they didn’t feel a need to introduce simplicity everywhere. They didn’t feel that the world was that complex. It didn’t bother them. The whole drive towards mass culture, towards building machines that conquer this, that and the other thing, is all in line with the underlying view of the universe which says that man can understand by simple laws and simple methods how everything works. If you have a key to understanding how everything works, you can apply it to every feature of your life. So you end up building machines everywhere, and you try to build a mechanistic science of economics, and of history, and of sociology, and anthropology—where the word “science”, in every area of endeavor, means the reduction of everything to mechanical causes and mechanical operation. That’s the underlying need. Because the world modern man encounters is so big, that’s the only way to comprehend it. Thus the stability of the pre-modern times is replaced by the rigidity of modern times. And that gives humanity an anchor—peace of mind.

The Post-Industrial Era

The key to post-industrial thought is what starts happening in the late 19th century and early 20th century, especially in physics. It’s natural that physics was the first system of thought to emerge from mechanistic determinism, because physics is the science that is always looking for the simple and most comprehensive laws, and therefore is the first science to crumble under the pressure of complexity. What happened was that as physics matured, it started broadening its horizons. Having figured out to its satisfaction how two or three bodies move, or later how ten bodies move, physicists sought to understand how very large numbers of bodies move—for example, how a gas made up of trillions of molecules behaves. Before long, physicists realized that the effort to reduce such systems somehow to the same type of understanding that exists for small systems wasn’t succeeding. They just couldn’t do It. It was beyond their capability.

Eventually, the idea that started taking shape in the second half of the 19th century was that for very complex physical systems, you’ve got to start applying a whole different mode of thought called “statistics”, which is rooted in the notion that the system must be viewed as inherently random. To deal with this concept, a new form of mathematics was developed, with its own hypotheses, its own set of operations, to address the question: “What if I assume that a system has components that behave randomly? Is there any kind of order that I can create to overlay the randomness?” That’s the fundamental question of statistics. The underlying assumption is randomness. That’s very important to understand. The assumption of statistics is that the underlying behavior is unpredictable, is random. What people who developed statistical mathematics started doing in a very ingenious way—almost like pulling a rabbit out of a hat—is go from this assumption to the development of amazing patterns of order emerging from the chaos.

This whole idea posed a terrific problem for physicists when it first came into being. They understand that they were dealing with a paradox, and they struggled mightily with it—almost like the conflict between free will and determinism. Physicists constantly asked, “How can it be that a system that is deterministic in its essence, where every body moves according to fixed laws, can only be dealt with through tools that are based on randomness, which is the very opposite assumption? How can this be? How can laws derived from the assumption of randomness explain phenomena that are inherently deterministic?” And for this question, there was no satisfactory answer.

Now, that was the first opening, but it was still just an opening. The world view still held on to the rigid predictability of everything, but it had the problem that, when dealing with large numbers of objects, in some manner the assumption of randomness works, and gives results that conform to reality. Things were sort of in limbo at the time.

The real break with the modern world view came with the introduction of quantum mechanics a few decades into the 20th century. Again, we see physics meeting a deep need that is surfacing. What’s driving physicists is the problem of how to get out of their limbo. With the model of statistics in the back of their minds, they already had the beginnings of a way out of their dilemma. Additional difficulties, too intricate to discuss here, added to their woes when dealing with ultra-small bodies the sizes of atoms and molecules. The final resolution occurred through the emergence of a group of people who adopted a model based on the idea that the essence of the world is unpredictability and randomness. We’ve now come full circle. The pre- modern view holds that everything is fairly neatly packaged, but has a random component that can’t be accounted for, which is “supernatural”. The modern era does away with randomness and assumes everything is a machine, everything is predictable, because that’s the only way to fill the need to understand the vastness that suddenly opened up before modern man. Now, in the post-modern era, we start by saying, “Everything is random by nature. Nothing is fully predictable. No matter how much information I have, I can’t know precisely how a body will move from one minute to the next. The only way I can even begin to comprehend anything about the universe is through the use of statistical approaches that create some kind of order out of the underlying chaos. So we no longer have the dichotomy of pre-modern times, between the natural and the supernatural. Nature is now seen to be inherently unpredictable. With the aid of tools we’ve designed to understand unpredictability, for the most part we can detect systems of order in the mass of randomness. But we always must realize that built into Nature is unpredictability, the knowledge that anything can happen at any time.

Now, just as in the transition from pre-modern to modern times, the new world view took a long time to get accepted, so too now the post-modern model is just beginning to spread from physics to other domains. It hasn’t displaced the modern world view yet in the minds of the masses of humanity, or even of most intellectuals. Most economists are still looking for bona-fide strict laws of economics. Most sociologists are seeking laws of sociology. Most politicians are still looking for “scientifically valid” methods of national socio-economic planning. And in education, the idea of a curriculum is a perfect example of a modern concept that is still hanging on.

The need to introduce some kind of order into an enormous national population is what underlies a curriculum, social planning, and industrial planning. It’s a typical modern world view, which insists on trying to reduce something as complex as a national economy to simple terms. By contrast, the essence of the post- modern world view lies in the new concept that physicists understand and that the world is just beginning to get a glimpse of in every other area—namely, that a world view which starts with randomness has more power to explain more things than a world view that doesn’t. That’s the bottom line.

Who knows what will happen a hundred years from now, what new psychological needs will surface then and what new world views will be created? But for now, the notion that underlying reality is a randomness which cannot be governed by strict laws is the essence of the post-modern world view. And that’s what we’re appealing to at Sudbury Valley when we eliminate the idea of a curriculum. We’re saying that the very essence of life should be viewed through the looking glass of randomness.

Randomness, Creativity, and Value

These considerations have implications across the economic spectrum. For example, let’s look at the concept of “productivity”. The way economists use the word today, it’s a perfect example of an industrial measure. What they do basically is measure total dollar output, and divide by man-hours of work. Now, the notion of productivity makes sense only if you can assign a value to what people produce. Indeed, that’s the starting point of economics, which is essentially the study of value. So underlying the concept of productivity is the idea that you know how to measure the worth of what a society produces.

In the industrial markets that dominated the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth century, this made a certain kind of sense. There were a limited number of products and services offered, and most were produced in large numbers. They attained a value through a statistical process averaged over a mass free market. The result was that valuation gave the appearance of being more definite and comprehensible than anybody really had a reason to think if they had looked behind it. What economics never even tried to deal with was the essentially random nature of the concept of value, one of the chief causes of which is the unknown future worth of what’s being produced.

Let me see if I can explain this through an example. Let’s say you have a new invention and you start a company. The first year you’re just putting together your ideas, making your business plan and trying to go out and convince people to pay attention to you. You’ve worked an entire year, but you haven’t sold a single thing. What is the value of your first year of work? What has been your productivity? Suppose you go to the investment market and say, “This is the idea that I’m working on. Will you put money into me?” Often, you get money. From the investor’s point of view, what you’ve been doing has a value and that value depends on how you present it, what kind of a person you are, what your record is, and how investors conceive of the future of your idea. In other words, the value of your output has a random creativity factor which classical economics can’t even begin to deal with, and which the actual free market economics acknowledges in a tentative manner. From the point of view of a post industrial economy, the creativity factor is the key value; and the hallmark of a post industrial economy is the unpredictability of what’s going to surface from one day to the next. This is true even in domains that seem to be industrial by nature. We don’t know where automobile design is heading. We don’t know what they’re even going to be made out of. We don’t know where ceramics are heading. We don’t know where biology is heading. We don’t know where medicine is heading. We don’t know where genetics is heading. You look at any area of our economy and you’d be a fool to predict where it’s heading five, ten, or twenty years from now. It’s all open. And if somebody comes to you and says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in twenty years there will be a computer the size of a watch that has more power than today’s mainframe computers, you wouldn’t even blanch at that anymore; that’s something you can conceive. A lot of things you can’t imagine today are going to happen too.

The essence of the post industrial economy is the randomness of the underlying values that are going to be associated with it. Increasingly, people are recognizing the immeasurability of the value of creativity. In this country, especially, we place tremendous emphasis on that. We’re constantly backing crazy, inventive entrepreneurs, and praising them, making them into national heroes. That’s why Sudbury Valley School fits the post modern era so well, because it reflects an outlook that starts with randomness. The school is saying that this is the nature of the world of today and tomorrow; and any outlook that is based on predictability, on planning, on trying to put everything in its place, is gone for good. We’re on the cutting edge of this transition. The world view that does the job today is the world view that starts with randomness at its root. There’s no room for determinism, there’s no room for a mechanical model. What you expect from the post modern world is that statistics will prevail and that, for this reason, the population as a whole will fall into fairly understandable patterns. But over and over again, there are going to be radical exceptions, people sticking out, people doing unusual things, and these are as likely as not to lead to the great advances of the future.

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