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 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 …


Everything follows the path of least resistance

Epistemic status: feeling strongly I am onto something, but also confused how to apply it to all cases. I describe my ideas in my own words, and am not communicating them clearly. Given the strength of my claim, it’s probably wrong. But let me defend it anyway.

Everything follows the path of least resistance. And when I say “everything” I don’t mean “most things”, I mean everything.

People who are lazy are sometimes described as taking the path of least resistance. Of course, I agree (because I believe that everything takes the path of least resistance). However, this implies that hard-working, conscientious people are taking a more difficult path. They’re eschewing the path of least resistance. That’s wrong. Hard-working people have done at least one of both things, and probably both:

  1. They have made the hard path easier. Going to work an hour early has become habitual, or asking difficult questions when they are confused has become habitual.
  2. They have made it easy path(s) harder. They feel negatively about being lazy, are afraid of being judged, or simply don’t know how to be lazy. It’s not a habit.

Why does water flow downward and through the valley? It’s the path of least resistance. (And interestingly, just like habits, the more water has flown somewhere previously, the more likely this path will be the path of least resistance for new water).

Why do people when confronted with their own immoral behavior, often change their belief rather than their behavior? Because it’s the path of least resistance.

Why is it so hard to stick with very hard problems? Because it’s high resistance. Why have some exceptional research been able to really focus on the hard problems? Because they have made it easier, and have erected barriers to the other paths.

Why is it so hard to change organizations? Because sticking with habits is the path of least resistance. To change organizations, you must create resistance towards the current state of being and create believe that the change is not so hard after all.

Now there remain at least three questions:

  1. Why does everything follow the path of least resistance?
  2. Is there not random movement, not following anything?
  3. What about payoffs? Surely a hard path with a good payoff will be taken.

I think the answers to the questions are related to evolution. Yes, there is random movement. But everything faces a selection pressure: animals will mate, ideas will be spread. The selection favors the ones taking the path of least resistance, because they will be most successful: the most offspring, the most energy left to do other valuable things. Regarding the payoff, for people a higher payoff will make a path more attractive (thus lower resistance). For thing without intent, the expected payoff (probability of achieving * actual payoff if achieved) will determine attractiveness for large enough samples.

If I’m right, this has the implication that a global optimum cannot be reached without changing the landscape. You got to erect barriers to the easier optima, and pave the way to the global optimum. More practically, I think this can serve as a tool for understanding confusing phenomena: ‘why does X do Y?’ Because it’s following the path of least resistance. You then need to figure out what the other paths are, what their resistances are, and why they are higher.

I challenge anyone to show me an example of something not following the path of least resistance. I believe that if I understand the phenomenon enough, I can show it actually does.

In the meantime, I will think more about this. I believe I need to read more about evolution (in its abstract form, not necessarily biological evolution).