Science, Politics and Elegance

by Bruce Walker

Any historian of science understands that the underlying truth of the different disciplines within Physics is based upon simplification of observed phenomena into a more elegant explanation. Almost as soon as man became able to record events, he must have begun to give reasons for those events. If allowed endless complexity and countless special rules, any person who can create words can describe some science of reality.

Gods and goddesses provided an order for the universe of the very smart people in ancient Greece and India. The modern idea that a cosmology involving amoral polytheism is silly humbug relies entirely upon hindsight and lessons learned. Moreover, as philosophers like David Hume noted in the Eighteenth Century, the Cartesian Agenda, which was supposedly resolved by Rene Descartes' famous "Cogito ergo sum" (which is more accurately translated in the progressive tense "I am thinking, therefore I am"), really means nothing without assumptions like Time, Memory, and Universality.

Still, all of us, even the good-natured agnostic from Scotland, live in a world, or in a consciousness in which reality conforms to certain clear principles. Among these are the usual guidelines for modern physical sciences. The infinitely repeatable conformity of individual events in the Newtonian view have not really been replaced by the infinitely refined statistical conformity of populations of events in Heisenberg's quantum reality.

Why do we "trust" Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg - or for that matter Galileo? Copernicus, as most people know, did not present a Heliocentric formula for the motion of heavenly objects which predicted these movements with greater accuracy than what Ptolemy had offered. What Copernicus did give was the potential - if the calculations could be made more precise - of that elusive and treasured value in all searches for knowledge: elegance. Later hands worked out how the Heliocentric Theory worked, and it became more precise than the clever circles of the Egyptian Greek noble. Copernicus saw the path.

The study of human relationships should reflect the same elegance - if that study is a serious search for truth, instead of a pursuit of some other interest. Politics is undoubtedly the least elegant of all categories of human interaction. Consider the clumps of "stuff" it's intended to sort out: law, social relationships, economic systems, war, justice, definitions of polities, and manifestations of ephemeral types of "will" (popular, divine, historical, racial, and rational).

What is most striking about law and justice today? Almost infantile complexity and disorder. Unlike the Twelve Laws, unlike Solon - unlike even the 613 commandments in the Torah, or the injunctions of Jesus, or the imperatives of the Koran - "law" in modern states bears almost no resemblance to what "law" has meant when used by scientists or philosophers in human history.

Does this reflect the impossibly complex nature of human interactions? Hardly. Adam Smith, who considered himself an ethicist and social theorist much more than an economist, wrote in lucid text how human beings behave. His opus magnus was not An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but rather the earlier and more comprehensive book The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Adam Smith never believed in Homo Economus, and he fully understood the vast range of human thoughts and emotions. What his principle of markets did describe, however, was how the enormous number of human interactions that occur in any human society organize themselves into a comprehensible order.

What is astounding about this model is how well it has withstood the test of time. The mechanistic laws for macro-reality that Newton discovered morph into relativistic laws when mass, velocity, and time are pushed to certain limits. At the subatomic level, the laws of iron predictability melt into laws of probability that work consistently.

The market theory of consensual relationships, however, has never required refinement at all. It describes that small segment of human interactions involving money, goods, and services quite well. It describes the continuum of markets as well. Why do we earn money? Not just to buy "goods and services", but also to buy friendship, love, art, peace of mind, and a dozen other types of benefits that money is not supposed to buy.

Money is one medium of exchange between people, but there are many others in this continuum of markets. "To have a friend, be a friend" as the maxim goes. Indeed. Two paupers can have a marvelous and bustling interchange without money ever entering the picture. Monks in monasteries, or artisans working on a cathedral can have the same interchange, not only with the men around them, but with the future as well. Adam Smith understood all this, and he described the way that relative mutual benefit operates in all areas of human life, not just in the particular subset that deals with dollars. True elegance.

If human relations in economic, social, legal, cultural, ethical and other areas can be understood by the brilliant yet simple principles that Adam Smith expounded two hundred and fifty years ago, then why is politics so complicated? Why are we bombarded with pundits who assure us that their special insights are indispensable to rational decisions?

The answer is obvious: a substantial portion of the population in modern societies have a vested interest in power. Sometimes commentators mistake this vested interest as primarily monetary, but that is not correct. The creature comforts of people in these societies are so easily met that money and material goods are largely irrelevant.

The hunger is for importance, which in the eyes of the insecure is a genuine zero sum game: my importance exists only to the extent that your importance does not exist. Because only fools would surrender their self-importance and independence willingly, these power addicts must either make us fools, or make us believe that we are fools.

Manufactured and irrational complexity are the obvious means to that end. Cascading volumes of constantly changing laws, regulations, and judicial decisions insure that most of us remain "fools". These legal absurities are supported by new, strange theories of victimology or psychological disorders. This is not connected to science or any intellectual discipline - any more than druid sacrifices and voodoo rites are connected with intellectual disciplines - except to "explain" which people must be terrified and abused, and how those who terrorize and abuse are actually friends of their prey.

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