Level 2 chaos, risk communication, and faith

Reading time: 4 minutes.

In communities which value reason and evidence, atheism is the norm. The core reason seems the rejection of faith. There is no evidence of God and there are more plausible theories for why the world is as it is (e.g. evolutionary theory, Big Bang). Yet, theists remind each other that it is important to believe anyway, to have faith.

Faith is an odd concept in the paradigm of rationality and truth-seeking. It seems the opposite of the most common definition of knowledge: well-justified belief. But, faith has been dismissed too quickly; it still has a role to play.

When I read the wonderful book Sapiens, the concept of level 1 and level 2 chaotic systems stuck with me. It has been especially memorable because I haven’t encountered these terms anywhere else. This surprises me, because they make a useful distinction.

Roughly speaking, a system is level 1 chaotic when approximate knowledge of the system’s configuration does not yield approximately accurate predictions. Beyond a certain time horizon (called the Lyapunov time) too many divergent paths are possible and predictions become near impossible. At a certain scale, the weather is a good example. Specific weather forecasts generally become inaccurate beyond 2 weeks. Or sometimes, as a learned when I visited Blackpool, beyond 2 hours. Apparently Blackpool’s weather is extremely chaotic!

A system is level 2 chaotic when, besides the properties of level 1 systems, predictions about the system also change the system itself! The stock market is a great example. When I predict the price of an asset to rise in the future, I am going to buy it now. This signals increased demand, which causes prices to rise. It becomes really complex when I base my expectations on other people’s expectations (instead of the underlying asset value). Almost every social system is level 2 chaotic, because knowledge tends to affect the behaviour of people. In one way, this makes level 2 chaotic systems harder to predict, because it’s even more complex. In another, it is easier. When a system is sufficiently chaotic, predictions will have significant influence on the outcome. Humans, of course, have caught on to this a long time ago. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a common motif in classical stories, and politicians frequently create policies that create or exacerbate the need for the policy (e.g. the War on Drugs). However, a prediction can also reduce the likelihood of something happening (in complexity terms: a negative feedback loop). When I work on the risk assessment of global catastrophes, I sure hope to create a negative feedback loop!

Why does this matter? First, predictions should be communicated carefully. When we predict that there is a 5% risk of global catastrophe in the next 100 years (NB: made-up number!) it should be clear that this is, conditional on a certain set of actions. The IPCC, for example, uses ‘business-as-usual’ as one of its conditions. Second, the role of expectations in complex social systems should be acknowledged. If we fear a technology race towards a dangerous advanced technology, that creates the very dynamic we fear. Everyone now wants to be first. In innovation studies, it’s consensus that the dominant design (i.e. the design a technology converges on) is not predetermined. Instead, the dominant design is influenced by the expectations of companies and their future customers (and the expectations of the companies about the expectations of the future customers – see how complex this can become?).

Let’s return to faith as a tool for the reason- and evidence-based communities. In level 2 chaotic systems, faith works. Sure, it doesn’t work 100%. But personally believing that you will succeed at a project can make you grittier. Collectively believing that people will support each other in times of disaster can foster cooperation. To effectively create social change, we should not ignore that faith is useful. Even if blind faith is not.

Finally, allow me to philosophize about faith and God. Through the lense of social constructivism, concepts and knowledge don’t exist objectively ‘out there in the world’, nor are they completely arbitrary. Instead, we create concepts by collectively ascribing meaning to something. When talking about something sacred, it seems people often fall back into the objectivism/nihilism camps: either the sacred is from ‘out of this world’ or it doesn’t exist. But we can create the sacred. This doesn’t mean that God exists, but something sacred can. And hey, just because God doesn’t exist yet doesn’t mean that God will never exist! Maybe if we just believe …


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