Non-determinism doesn’t mean you have any choice in the matter

August 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Tom writes pithily:

If it bothers you when other Catholics point out the objective evil in your candidates’ positions, then get better candidates.

This made me laugh, but it also raises an interesting psychological issue about voting: the fact that election outcomes are non-deterministic is one of the things that leads people to believe that they should consider the election outcome in deciding how, personally, to vote. But that is demonstrably irrational.

I think part of the psychology may stem from a false “commonsense” idea about random or non-deterministic inputs into a process. I remember many years ago arguing with a blogger about randomness and Darwinism (Hey, I found the discussion with Google! I am the commenter “Matt”). Here I take Darwinism to mean macroevolution by random mutation and natural selection as the primary efficient cause of the transformation of prokaryote world (when the only life on Earth was bacteria, according to fossils) into the world of wildly varied life forms we see today[*].

The commonsense idea is that because a system has varying inputs and varying outputs, it is possible to control the outputs by controlling the inputs. There are two problems with thinking about mass-scale democracy with universal suffrage in this way.

One problem is that the commonsense idea about systems is just false: the fact that a system has varying inputs and varying outputs does not actually mean that it is possible to control the outputs by controlling the inputs. That just depends on the nature of the system. We can design systems that take random inputs – required random inputs, without which the system will not function – and produce symphonies as outputs. People seem to think that vast scale elections taking place in the context of a culture are a simple system, where if only we can provide the right inputs we will get good results. But that is just an assumption: an assumption quite contrary to experience with the actual system situated in actual reality.

The other problem is that the system is stateful (link is just an example, I’m not suggesting that our elections follow a strict Markov model): that is, the inputs of tomorrow depend on the state of the system today, and the idea that the feedback loops can be non-destructively disconnected so we can drive the system in the direction we want is most likely false.

In summary, I think people need to consider the possibility that our system of governance is producing precisely what it is designed to produce, in a way which is highly resistant to the effects of attempted input changes; and to further consider what that implies.

[*] Evolution/Darwinism tends not to mean that anymore: Darwinism follows this process of proposing specific mechanisms, having those mechanisms discredited, and loudly proclaiming that those discredited specific mechanisms are just trivial details. Evolution itself is “established fact” until we try to pin down just precisely which facts are established and which are not. Evolution is Zen: the Evolution which can be concretely pinned down to specifics is not the true Evolution.

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