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Transcript of “A Crude Look at the Whole” by Murray Gell-Mann

Transcript of "A Crude Look at the Whole" by Murray Gell-Mann

18 July 2018

Murray Gell-Mann
Trustee, Science Board and Distinguished Fellow, Santa Fe Institute

This talk was given on 4 March 2013 at the conference, “A Crude Look at the Whole,” at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


It’s a pleasure to be able to discuss with this distinguished group the idea of a “Crude Look at the Whole”. I gave the talk with that title some years ago, under the auspices of the Pardee Centre for the study of the longer-range future at Boston University. There was a conference on looking ahead, and I was asked to give the keynote talk at the dinner. I would like to begin today by expanding on that the title, “Crude Look at the Whole”. Many of the points that I treat here, were discussed in my book, “The Quark and The Jaguar”, which I’m glad to say is still mostly relevant, even 19 or 20 years after publication.

Over the years, I’ve organized some meetings devoted to aspects of the longer-range future and I’ve seen how difficult it is to get most intellectuals to discuss future situations that are significantly different in some way from what we’ve already seen in the recent past or the present. As an example of reluctance to consider big changes, we might take the widespread failure to believe that the Soviet Menace came with an early expiration date. Usually the intellectuals to whom I refer end up talking not about major departures from present conditions but rather about relatively small ones now that’s not a bad thing to do but it’s not what we mean by peering into the longer-range future. Despite my limited experience, I was able to share some ideas with the scholars at that meeting and I’ll share a few of them with you.

Until now, a great deal of research and teaching in the sciences and the humanities, especially in universities, is confined to individual departments representing particular fields of knowledge, while specialization and then some specialization are inevitable and necessary desirable they need to be supplemented by research and teaching to transcend those sometimes narrow disciplinary boundaries. There are a number of institutions inside and outside of universities where such transdisciplinary activities are carried out. The Santa Fe Institute which I helped to found 20 years ago and where I now work is devoted entirely to such activities. There, the study of transdisciplinary problems by self-organized teams of people, originally trained in many diverse specialties is the rule rather than the exception. Similarities in connections among topics in very different fields are recognized and exploited. The participants may have started as experts in subjects from the physical sciences, life sciences, social and behavioral sciences, history, or the other humanities. They take part in discussions of all sorts of topics each team does include of course at least one real expert in the particular subject matter under consideration. If nobody knows anything, you don’t get very far.

I’ve often spoken in public about the need for such research and about institutional arrangements for getting it done. What I have to say this morning may sound similar, but it concerns a very different topic, so one has to listen very closely to hear the difference. That topic has to do with broad policy studies concerned with the whole future of the human race, and of the biosphere of our planet including the other species with which we share that biosphere. Here is the point the difference in considering any very complex system.

We naturally tend to break it up into more manageable subsystems, or aspects defined in advance, and to study those separately. Looking at the longer-term future we might divide the various issues into such categories as, take a particular list; military and diplomatic issues, foreign affairs, political issues, ideological issues, environmental issues, human health and wellness issues, family issues, demographic issues, economic issues, etc.

In each of these categories, there are experts who have built their careers around the issues involved and there are NGOs and government departments devoted to these. As a citizen you might join one of the NGOs. It’s natural and common to try to break up the world problematique, as some people call it. The difficulty is that understanding a nonlinear system, by putting together descriptions of various parts or aspects will work only if they interact weakly. So that the system, as a whole, is what’s called decomposable and that’s not true of the world problematique. It’s very far from being decomposable, and studying various aspects and trying to put those together into a complete picture is it’s not possible.

So in that sense there’s truth in the old adage, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, which sounds on the face of it to be wrong but, it’s not. Look at the list of categories we discussed; can we really separate environmental issues from those involving population growth?

I’ll answer it, no!

Can we consider these in isolation from technological change or from economic policy? No!

Can we think about the attempts to alleviate extreme poverty, without considering the unwise environmentally destructive projects, that are sometimes carried out in the name of that worthy cause? Can we discuss issues of global governance, without considering politics in the various countries and regions, well without treating the competition and conflict among different ideologies? If military and diplomatic policies fail, and mankind is plunged into a hugely destructive war, perhaps involving thermonuclear weapons, can our other objectives be attained? Of course not!

Isn’t economic growth threatened by the widespread prevalence of fatal or debilitating diseases? Can we separate questions about democracy and human rights? Again, no! And what if democratic processes bring to power elements of society hostile to human rights and to tolerance, or ones that favor environmental destruction or aggressive war happen? Think how Adolf Hitler took power legally before destroying the whole democratic political system in Germany, or think of Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia. Remember some people make fun of naïve idealism about elections with the slogan “one man, one vote, one time.”

While separate considerations of the various aspects of the world situation is necessary and desirable, it very badly needs to be supplemented by integrative thinking, that not only puts together the studies of various aspects, but also takes into account the strong interactions among them.

We have to get rid somehow of the widespread idea that careful study of a problem in some narrow range of issues is the only kind of work to be taken seriously. It’s really a widespread impression. Integrated thinking is relegated to a cocktail party conversation, and that really has to change. We face that situation in a great many places in our society including academia, and most bureaucracies.

Some of my remarks on this subject were quoted by Tom Friedman near the beginning of one of his books, I think it’s the one called The Lexus and the Olive Tree. He came to a similar conclusion through his career working for the New York Times. He was assigned to cover one set of issues, and then a different set, then a third set. Each time he was reassigned, he observed that what he was covering was intimately connected with what he had been studying earlier. No one had told him that that would be so. So besides the work on the separate categories, we must have in addition, the work of teams of brilliant thinkers, many of them specialists devoted to considering the whole ball of wax, the whole thing. It can, of course, be argued that this is too big a job for any group of people, no matter how talented, or erudite to do really well and that’s true. Of course, such an ambitious aim can be accomplished crudely, and that’s why I refer to it as taking a crude look at the whole. If we insist on perfection the whole thing is doomed from the beginning.

Now the chief of any organization—say, a head of government, or a CEO—has to behave as if he or she is taking into account all the aspects of policy, including all the interactions among those aspects. Remember, I’m saying “as if”. It’s not so easy, however, for the chief to take a crude look at the whole if everyone else in the organization is concerned only with a partial look. Even if some advisors to the chief are assigned to look at the big picture, it doesn’t always work.

Here’s an example, some years ago the CEO of a gigantic corporation told me that he had a strategic planning staff to help him think about the future of the whole business, but then members of that staff suffered from three defects; One, they seemed largely disconnected from the rest of the company; Two, no one could understand what they said; Three, everyone else in the company seemed to hate them. I checked with several people high up in that company and got the same response. For an integrative effort to succeed, some kind of simplification is naturally required. Certain things have to be treated in a cursory fashion, and others in more detail. But that process, what physical scientists like to call coarse-graining, cannot be accomplished through the categories established in advance. It has to follow from the nature of the world system itself.

Rather, the necessary coarse-graining should be discovered, than imposed. Think of the relation between weather and climate; it’s a fairly common consideration, but I’m not sure that people are aware of what they’re saying when they talk about weather and climate. No clear results will follow from trying to examine the weather at each little place on earth with short time intervals, while neglecting the strong interaction with other phenomena. But much can be learned from a study of weather, suitably averaged over space and time, and treated along with such things as ocean currents; the nature and quantities of atmospheric pollutants; and the variations in solar radiation. Such a study can be immensely rewarding, but it’s essential to find the right coarse-graining of the weather, and the other phenomena for obtaining a useful definition of climate.

We didn’t talk only about policy studies. Integrated thinking can be promoted by thinking about history in similar ways to what has just been recommended for policy studies. In fact, they sort of go together, and reflections on history can be very useful in considering what to do about policy. One trend that’s encouraging is the increase in popularity of big history. Instead of laughing at it being ridiculously over-ambitious. One can try to show some sympathy with people who try to study big history. When Arnold Toynbee just after the Second World War published a study of history, many of his colleagues were not very impressed with the 12-volume book. He could, of course, be criticized for making a mistake here and there, and describing the rise and fall of some 21 civilizations. And he could be lampooned for implying that it was all leading up to the founding of the Anglican Church. That’s perhaps going a bit far, but wouldn’t it have been more constructive to help correct his errors, large and small, and try to build on his pioneering effort, rather than merely making fun of it. I don’t mind making fun of it, but one should be able to do something else as well. I think I’d like to think that nowadays some critics might be more charitable.

Another encouraging trend is the increased tolerance these days of contingency, what-if history or counterfactual history, as respected historians are now engaging in the study of counterfactual history. Alternative scenarios for the future are like a branching tree, with major branchings at the special points, where chance has a huge effect or important transitions occur. One can try to estimate probabilities at the branchings. What are the possible situations and, roughly, what are their probabilities? Does thinking about such structures help us to identify occasions of great policy leverage with respect to the future?

Well, I like to discuss many of the issues facing the world, under the rubric of sustainability, one of today’s favorite catch words. It’s rarely defined in a careful or consistent way. So perhaps, I can be forgiven by attaching to it my own set of meanings. Broadly conceived, sustainability refers to quality of human life and quality of the environment not purchased mainly at the expense of the future. Sustainability is not restricted to environmental demographic and economic matters, but it also refers to political, military, diplomatic, social, institutional or governance issues. Ultimately, sustainability depends on the ideological issues and lifestyle choices. As used here, sustainability refers not only to sustainable population economic activity and ecological integrity, but also to a considerable extent to such matters as sustainable peace and global security arrangements, sustainable preparedness for possible conflict, sustainable democracy and human rights, and sustainable communities and institutions. All of these are closely interlinked in the presence of destructive war. It’s hardly possible to protect nature very effectively, or to keep some important human social ties from dissolving if huge and conspicuous inequalities are present. People will be reluctant to restrain quantitative economic growth in favor of equality of growth as would be required to achieve a measure of economic and environmental sustainability.

Very often, I claim that sustainability is intimately tied to the notion of restraining quantitative growth in favor of qualitative growth. We see that in mostly in wealthy countries, a lot of resources are devoted to quality, and that’s different that you a different situation from that of countries with very large impoverished populations, where the poverty cries out for quantitative growth. It’s hard to recommend a future in which growth is all qualitative when so many people are poor, but as countries achieve a certain degree of economic success, they can better afford to divert resources from quantitative growth to qualitative growth. At the same time, great inequalities may provide the excuse for demagogues to exploit or revive ethnic or class hatreds, and provoke deadly conflict. In The Quark and the Jaguar, I suggested studies should be done on possible paths toward sustainability. In this very general sense, in the course of the 21st century, in the spirit of taking a crude look at the whole, this goes beyond trying to estimate the probabilities of various likely scenarios in the future. Rather, one would look for more sustainable futures, even if they seem to have low probabilities. As we think of them as desirable, it’s worth studying desirable situations, that to which we can’t assign very high likelihood, but somehow, we can make them happen. I like to employ a modified version of a schema introduced by my friend James Gustave Speth. Gustave Speth who was president of the World Resources Institute and was later the head of the United Nations Development Program. He was, for a long time, the Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. The schema involves a set of interlink transitions that has to occur, if the world is to switch over from present trends toward a more sustainable situation. Well then, I have long comments on these various transitions, which I don’t think I should repeat here, but I can mention some of the names of these transitions. The demographic transition to a roughly stable human population worldwide and in each broad region; technological transition to methods of supplying human needs; and satisfying human desires with a much lower environmental impact per person at a given level of conventional prosperity that depends on technology.

Decades ago, some of us pointed out the obvious fact that a measure of environmental impact, say in a given geographical area, can be usefully factored into three quantities multiplied together so you get an identity. The three factors are; population, conventionally measured prosperity per person, and the environmental impact per person per unit of conventional prosperity. So the last factor is the one as we just said that depends particularly on technology. Its technological change that has permitted today’s giant human population to exist at all. While billions of people are desperately poor, quite a few others manage to live in reasonable comfort due to advances in science and technology, including medicine. The environmental costs have been huge, but nowhere near as great as they may be in the future, if the human race does not exercise some foresight. Technology, if properly harnessed, can work to make the third factor, the one that depends on technology, as small as can be practically arranged, given the laws of nature. How much the prosperity factor can be increased without damaging the environment depends to a considerable extent on how much is squandered on the first factor. Mere numbers of people are evidence that the beginning of the technological transition has started to show up in many places.

The economic transition to a situation where humanity is not living on nature’s capital, but mainly on the interest on that capital is very important. Let’s live on nature’s interests, not nature’s capital. Imagine a visitor to a little New England village who notices an old man walking down the street, a man whom everyone shuns. Children run away at his approach, people cross the street to avoid meeting him. The visitor asked his host who is that and, why is he treated that way. The answer is “Oh, that’s Eustace Barnwell, he dipped into capital”. But the human race is using up capital and not just dipping into it. We are mining fresh water in places like the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. That’s, by the way, why President Obama insisted on changing the route of the Keystone pipeline, if it is ever to be approved, because it was running right by the Ogallala Aquifer. We’re wiping out gigantic forests at an almost unbelievable rate. We’re depleting many of the world’s fisheries. We’re using up clean air by polluting it. The economic transition, I said this already, can be described as one in which growth in quality gradually replaces growth in quantity, while extreme poverty which cries out for quantitative growth is alleviated. By the way, analysts are now beginning to use realistic measures of wellbeing that depart radically from narrow economic measures, by including mental and physical health education, and so forth. Happiness has become a serious subject of study by scientists, philosophers, and medical practitioners. In fact, many different kinds of people are seriously studying happiness. You remember that the former King of Bhutan talked about how his government was interested in was gross national happiness, not some narrow economic measure. Some of us are thinking of sponsoring a conference here in a year or two on happiness looked at in the modern way. It may be that some holy new insights can emerge.

Well I think I will leave the rest of these transitions to our discussion. What I wanted to do with this introductory talk was simply to get us into the general field. The rest of the transitions need to be thought about, but we don’t have to enumerate them here. Well, what we should do though, is look around the world for some examples of people trying to study aspects of a “Crude Look at the Whole”. What kind of progress is being made on that important task? Are there places? Are there schools of thought? Are there universities? Are there businesses? Are there arenas somewhere, where the crude look at the whole is being taken? Are there groups of people who are taking a crude look at the whole seriously, especially in connection with sustainability in the broad sense?

I think we have to look carefully for signs of this kind of thinking. It is too early for it to show itself in a dramatic way. We’ll have probably have to dig it out from amongst the various things that people are considering, but it might be worthwhile it might have a really worthwhile effect to, to start to do that. Are there places where the “Crude Look at the Whole” is taking seriously enough, so that people are making progress on it? There are a few examples of at least lip service to it. For example, people who think about what’s called world systems analysis such as Emmanuel Wallerstein who spent some time at Yale. Another man named Richard Robbins. Their works do not impress me particularly because it starts out from Marxist criticisms of capitalism, and goes on to criticisms of Marxist criticisms, but it keeps its roots somehow in the soil of Marxist critique, and I don’t find that particularly illuminating. But at least they’re trying to do something that’s integrative. Are there other examples? What about world modelers? I understand there’s a whole class of people who are thought of as world modelers, but I’m not really familiar with what they do, but here in this distinguished gathering, I’m sure there are several distinguished people, who can help us with this search to see what kinds of look crude looks at the whole are being taken today that might indicate something about the practical courses in such thinking for the future.

Thank you.