War – What is it Good For?

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War what is it good for - Springsteen

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

You might know the song — either the original Edwin Starr 1970 version or the Springsteen cover — so good it made the infamous Clear Channel post-9-11 no play list. You might click the images or the links and have a listen — put you in the mood.

Owlcation provides the textbook explanation that wars are fought for economic or territorial gain; to further religious or nationalist interests; for self-defense or revenge; because of civil strife; or to bring about revolution. Those are rationalizations — things politicians and academicians say after the fact — but whether war is good for any of that is another issue. And it takes rare honesty to say we need war because it’s good for medicine, science, technology innovation, the economy, and the advance of civilization generally — all of which has been said.

Medicine

“For some historians, the Great War and the Second World War together form an ‘age of catastrophe’ or even one single war with a long break. The First World War also inaugurated a profound change beneath politics, in a realm largely hidden from journalism or military and political history. The Great War remade the human body itself.

“The doctors who identified this new human body saw an organism that organises itself, regulates itself, integrates itself, yet was extremely brittle. It was marked by fragility buried under the skin. It shattered easily, even worked against itself. The great number of injured and maimed bodies enabled doctors to create new kinds of medicine, physiology and psychiatry.

“Hints of this new conception of the body were present before the war, but when tens of thousands of soldiers returned with visible and invisible injuries, disordered hearts and broken psyches, it forced medicine to change too. Triage efforts on the battlefield had been sped up and regularised, and the entire front had become something of a giant medical laboratory for testing ideas and therapies. Many soldiers who, just a few decades earlier, would have died of their wounds now survived them. All of this changed the nature of the relationship between surgeons, physicians and psychiatrists, and patients. With survival, previously unknown pathologies emerged. The way in which medical scientists talked about the patient changed: they now described the patient’s body as an integral whole….”

The Maimed And The Healing:  The Casualties Of The First World War Brought A New Understanding Of Human Fragility And Wholeness Aeon Magazine (Dec. 13, 2018)

Science, Innovation, And The Advancement Of Civilization

“Were he alive today, the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christiaan Huygens might tell us we’d be fools to think that ambitious undertakings in space can be achieved without massive military support. Back in the 1690s, as Huygens thought about life on Mars and the other planets then know to populate the night sky, he pondered how best to foster inventiveness. For him and his era, profit was a powerful incentive (capitalism was as yet unnamed) and conflict was a divinely endorsed stimulation of creativity:

It has so pleased God to order the Earth… that this mixture of bad Men with good, and Consequences of such a mixture as Misfortunes, Wars, Afflictions, Poverty, and the like, were given us for this very good end, viz. the exercising our Wits and Sharpening our Inventions, by forcing us to provide for our own necessary defenses against our Enemies.

“Yes, waging war requires clever thinking and promotes technical innovation. Not controversial. But Huygens can’t resist linking the absence of armed conflict with intellectual stagnation:

And if Men were to lead their whole Lives in an undisturbed continual Peace, in no fear of Poverty, no danger of War, I don’t doubt they would live little better than Brutes, without all knowledge and enjoyment of those Advantages that make our Lives pass on with pleasure and profit. We should want the wonderful Art of Writing if its great use and necessity in Commerce and war had not forc’d our the Invention. ‘Tis to these we owe our Art of Sailing, our Art of Sowing, and most of those Discoveries of which we are Masters; and almost all the secrets in experimental Knowledge.

“So it’s simple:  no war equals no intellectual ferment. Arm in arm with trade, says Huygens, war has served as the catalyst for literacy, exploration, agriculture, and science.”

Accessory to War:  The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang (2018)

The Economy

“[In February 2009, just after the Great Recession of 2007-2008,] an international group of economists, officials, and academics met under the auspices of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society to discuss how the world might manage to emerge from its worse-than-usual financial crisis. The Center’s director, Nobel Laureate in economics Edmund Phelps, argued that some financial regulation was called for but stressed that it must “discourage[e] finding for investment in innovation in the non-financial business sector, which has been the main source of dynamism in the U.S. economy.” What’s the non-financial business sector? Military spending, medical equipment, aerospace, computers, Hollywood films, music, and more military spending. For Phelps, dynamism and innovation hand in hand with capitalism — and with war. Asked by a BBC interviewer for a “big thought” on the crisis and whether it constituted “a permanent indictment of capitalism,” he responded, “My big thought is, we desperately need capitalism in order to create interesting work to be done, for ordinary people — unless maybe we can go to war against Mars or something as an alternative.”

“A vibrant economy, in other words, depends on at least one of the following:  the profit motive, war on the ground, or war in space.”

Accessory to War, Tyson and Lang

Personally, I’m with the song’s last stanza —

Oh no, there’s got to be a better way
Say it again, there’s got to be a better way.

More coming up.

Emergence

 

murmuration

One fine afternoon autumn day I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action — specifically, a “murmuration” of birds, which is created by “swarm behavior,” which in turn falls in the category of emergence.

Emergence explains how the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The term is widely used — in systems theory, philosophy. psychology, chemistry, biology, neurobiology, machine learning — and for purposes of this blog, it also applies to cultural belief systems and the social institutions they generate.

Consider any culture you like — a team, club, company, profession, investor group, religious gathering, political party…. As we’ve seen previously in this series, the group’s cultural sense of reality is patterned in each individual member’s neural wiring and cellular makeup. But no one member can hold it all, and different members have varying affinity for different aspects of the culture. As a result, each member takes what the others bring “on faith”:  the group believes in its communal beliefs. This faith facilitates the emergence of a cohesive, dynamic cultural body that takes on a life of its own, expressed through its institutions. .

That’s emergence.

To get a further sense of how this works, see this TED Talk that uses complex systems theory to look at how the structure of the financial industry (a transnational cultural body) helped to bring about the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Systems theorist James B. Glattfelder[1] lays out a couple key features of self-organizing systems:

“It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

“And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.”

In the end, he says, there’s an innate simplicity to it all — “an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.”[2] He compares this outcome to the inevitable polarized logjams we get from clashing cultural ideologies:

 “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Trouble is, we seem to be predisposed toward ideological gridlock and dogma. Even if we’ve never heard of emergence, we have a kind of backdoor awareness of it — that there are meta-influences affecting our lives — but we’re inclined to locate their source “out there,” instead of in our bodily selves. “Out there” is where the Big Ideas live, formulated by transcendent realities and personalities — God, gods, Fate, Destiny, Natural Law, etc. — that sometimes enter our lesser existence to reveal their take on how things work. Trouble is, they have super-intelligence while we have only a lesser version, so once we receive their revelations, we codify them into vast bodies of collected wisdom and knowledge, which we then turn over to our sacred and secular  cultural institutions to administer. We and our cultures aren’t perfect like they are, but we do our best to live up to their high standards.

We do all this because, as biocentrism champion Robert Lanza has said, most of us have trouble wrapping our heads around the notion that

“Everything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head. We are not just objects embedded in some external matrix ticking away ‘out there.’”[3]

In our defense, the kind of systems analysis that James Glattfelder uses in his TED talk requires a lot of machine super-intelligence and brute data-crunching power that the human brain lacks. We’re analog and organic, not digital, and we use our limited outlook to perpetuate more polarization, ideological gridlock. and dogma. Culture may be emergent, but when it emerges, it walks right into a never-ending committee meeting  debating whether it has a place on the agenda..

Next time, we’ll look at what happens when emergent cultures clash.

[1] James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund. and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager.

[2] Here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain the murmuration I watched that day.

[3] From this article in Aeon Magazine.