The Improvisational Universe

on August 29, 2010

A few months ago, I wrote about how each dominant partnership gives rise to a philosophy that attempts to explain all aspects of existence in terms derived from its two member visions.

In that entry, I focused on the philosophy of science-and-democracy, whose core belief was that everything in existence could be reduced to simple universal laws like those of physics, and I identified Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories as an epitomal early example.

I also suggested in passing that the philosophy of democracy-and-chaos, which arose in the 1980’s, was structured around a belief that “the democratic model of dynamic interactions among different interest groups” provided a better basis for understanding the universe than the mathematical formulas of science.

Since then, however, I’ve realized that I was mistaken — if only because any model based on “dynamic interactions” has to be an aspect of multiculturalism. The actual philosophy of democracy-and-chaos is both simpler and broader, and the best way I know to explain it starts with the Foundation stories.

When Asimov came up with the idea of “psychohistory” in 1941, the rigid determinism of early 20th century science no longer held sway. But it still seemed to him that it should be possible to predict future events on a statistical basis, and that even the course of human history must be as subject to precise calculations as the decay rates of radioactive isotopes.

Asimov dramatized this belief in the person of Hari Seldon, the founder of psychohistory, whose recorded image keeps showing up for centuries after his death to tell the assembled representatives of the Foundation the exact nature of whatever crisis they have just passed through and how they had resolved it.

Those representatives might have thought they were acting out of free will and making brilliant intuitive leaps to cope with the challenges before them — but from Seldon’s perspective, it was all inevitable.

Unsurprisingly, the Foundation’s faith in “Seldon’s Plan” soon degenerates into a form of religious dogma. And equally unsurprisingly, Asimov’s galactic history quickly took on a tone of fatalistic resignation, with one story in 1945 even being titled “Dead Hand.”

Asimov wasn’t the only one being afflicted at that time by a fear of getting locked in. The “romantic break” of the 40’s was reaching its climax, and the science-and-democracy partnership was starting to be widely perceived as limited and constricting.

The moment was ripe to kick over the traces and add a dash of chaos to the mix — but Asimov was slow to get the message. It was only at the insistence of his editor, John W. Campbell, that he reluctantly sabotaged Seldon’s Plan by introducing a random element, a psi-powered mutant with a determination to rule the Galaxy.

That was a very Campbellian device, and I don’t believe Asimov ever abandoned his own belief in a predictable future — but he didn’t have to. By the end of the 40’s, expressions of faith in the ability of chaos to frustrate scientific planning were popping up all over.

There were, for example, the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons, the first of which appeared in 1949. Perhaps even more tellingly, there was Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — which took shape between 1949 and 1952 and began to spawn multiple variations in the middle 50’s. (John W. Campbell was, predictably, an early enthusiast.)

Both the cartoons and the “laws” were initially taken as purely humorous — funny precisely because they were so absurd. A belief in scientific planning would remain an article of faith among the leaders of society through the 1950’s and 60’s, persisting even after the science-and-democracy partnership itself began to crumble.

That faith faltered only in the early 70’s, when it was progressively undermined by world events — the failure of the US to prevail in Vietnam, the oil shock of 1973, and the breakdown of the stable post-World War II economic system.

By the end of the decade, evidence was piling up that history is regularly the product of unforeseen catastrophes. There was the seizure of the American embassy in Iran in 1979 by a ragtag bunch of student rebels. There was the AIDS epidemic, which was officially recognized in 1981. And the announcement in 1980 of a new theory that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by a sudden meteor impact suggested that catastrophism was a rule of nature, as well.

This was precisely the period when the democracy-and-chaos partnership was being assembled, and the idea of a world in which unanticipated events are the norm became one of its founding principles. But the solution it offered was not to attempt to ward off crises in advance, but to adopt the flexibility of mind needed to surf the wave and come out on top.

The central insight of the philosophy of democracy-and-chaos might be described as a belief that the freedom to improvise is the only practical way to deal with a chaotic universe.

Or, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978) put it, “Don’t Panic.”

The perception that we live in a Murphy’s Law universe grew even stronger over the course of the 80’s and 90’s, to the point where the two most original television science fiction shows of a decade ago — Farscape and Firefly — were both notorious for the extent to which deliberate plans always failed and only desperate last-minute improvisations stood any chance of success.

During those same two decades, more serious versions of the same attitude took hold in a variety of fields.

As one example, it has come to be recognized — largely as a result of the VHS vs. Betamax wars of the 80’s — that technological progress is never a matter of finding the single optimal solution, but involves a kind of jostling for position among various good-enough approximations.

Biological evolution has come to be seen in much the same way — not as a striving towards some Darwinian goal of perfect fitness but as an improvisational process that draws upon available genetic resources to hack together whatever quick-and-dirty solution will do the job.

Human history has also been identified as a matter of making it up as you go along — and then codifying the best answers as a matter of settled law and custom.

I’ve even seen speculation that the laws of physics were not built into the universe from the start, but represent a kind of fossilization of best practices from some remote era when the fundamental nature of matter and energy was still in flux.

Faith in the improvisational universe is probably at its zenith right now, which may explain why the last vestiges of belief in 1940’s-style scientific prediction are finally being swept aside. Just this week, for example, two significant stories appeared. One reported the shocking news that the rate of radioactive decay — the original model for Asimov’s psychohistory — is not constant but fluctuates in response to solar activity. The other argued on technical grounds that if quantum entanglement is not governed by “hidden variables,” humans must possess free will as well.

I would expect to see a turning away from the improvisational philosophy over the next few years, however. Just as the 60’s counterculture rebelled against the sterility of scientific reductionism and the artistic minimalism associated with it, the next counterculture can be expected to reject the more careless and unthinking qualities of the philosophy of democracy-and-chaos.

But at the same time, other elements of the improvisational philosophy will endure — thanks in part to the influence it exerted on the development of multiculturalism and creative imagination in the 1980’s and 90’s, when those two emerging visions were taking on greater structure and coherence.

This closely paralleled the development of holism and multiculturalism between the late 30’s and the early 50’s under the influence of a belief in the universal applicability of simple physical laws. As a result of that belief, holism was pulled away from the vague notion that living organisms are simply “different” from non-living matter and was forced to develop a theory of living systems based on sophisticated feedback loops.

In much the same way, belief in the improvisational universe pulled multiculturalism away from an unquestioning veneration of tribal cultures and towards the far more focused concept that starting off with a variety of viewpoints is the best way to ensure an effective response to crisis.

But the changes that occurred to multiculturalism in the 40’s and 50’s — and to creative imagination in the 80’s and 90’s — were far more profound.

In the case of multiculturalism, the lesson of scientific reductionism that visible differences among human populations are the outcome of minute variations in their DNA led to a thorough debunking of the old myths of racism and provided the philosophical justification for desegregation.

In the case of creative imagination, the improvisational philosophy has had at least two major effects. It has demolished the old myth of isolated creators producing unique works of genius and has substituted a concept of creativity as a process of making something new out of familiar materials plus a spark of inspiration.

Beyond that, the improvisational concept of a universe that invents itself as it goes along has become completely fused with the visionary image of transcendent creative power transforming the world.

One expression of that fusion can be seen reflected in a common variation on Murphy’s Law which states, “anything that can happen, will happen.” This may look at first glance like a minor rephrasing of the original, but the implications are very different.

In the 1950’s, Murphy’s Law was a rueful acknowledgment that chaos will always defeat your expectations and drop anvils on your head. This new alternative might still be interpreted that way — but it can equally well be seen as a promise of transcendent wonder in a universe that holds an inexhaustible supply of marvels.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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