Monday, January 3, 2011

Trial and Error: the Quest for Cosmic Rationality

One of the wonders of life on planet Earth is the fact that it continues to thrive. Survival takes place at many different levels: genes, organisms, species, local ecosystems, and our global ecosystem. As scientists continue their quest for that elusive "Theory of Everything," (or TOE) let me offer my own TOE. I'll call it by its most familiar name: "Trial and Error," or TAE. There are two natural correlaries that follow from TAE: P1. "If it's broke, fix it." and P2."If it's not broke don't fix it." In a nutshell, this is how Mother Nature keeps the "ball of life rolling." Biologists call it "natural selection." It's also the basis for what I call cosmic rationality. Unfortunately, humans, both individually and collectively, routinely violate P1 and P2 and therefore undermine cosmic rationality. Here are a few examples.

We violate P1 when we know that "x is broken," we know how to fix it, it's not prohibitively expensive, and we just don't fix it. For example, I "know" that if I eat a lot of sweets, I gain weight fast, especially ice cream. I gained 3 pounds over the Christmas holiday, so how do I fix it? Well, if I'm rational I'll avoid eating sweets. That's the fix! But there are many hidden variables at work here. Suppose I keep eating a lot of sweets every day and don't look in the mirror, or step on the scales, and gain weight without realizing it? Then, another micro-fix is in order. Step on the scales once a week. But as Aristotle observed, we humans often "know the fix" but we unwilling or unable to actually "do the fix." Just because we know that "x is broken," and we know how to fix it, doesn't mean "we'll fix it." Nowadays, almost everything is broken and nothing is being fixed.

Now I know what you're thinking: "Well, Ron...what happens if we don't know how to fix it? My answer is simple: innovate. Try F1. If x "works perfectly" after trying F1, you've fixed it. Do not try F2, F3, F4, or F5 unless you have extra time, energy, and resources. If F1 works, but not very efficiently try F2, F3, F4, or F5. How many cookies a day can I eat before I start to gain weight? Or, how long will I have to walk to burn off those calories? If I discover, via trial and error, that I can eat 312 chocolate chip cookies every day, if and only if, I walk for 12 hours every day on a treadmill, then I'll have to decide whether those cookies are worth it? Or I may decide that I could eat 312 cookies one day a month if I exercise every day for 2 hours. Fortunately, I don't like to eat that many cookies in one sitting so that's not a problem.

So much for cosmic rationality at the individual level. How might it work at the collective, or communal level? We know, for example, that the city of Cincinnati is way over budget on it's public employee pension system. We also know why. Too many city employees (mostly policemen and firemen) pay too little into the system for too long and retired too early, pension administrators have done a poor job of investing funds, and politicians have been reluctant to raise taxes to pay for those cushy, early retirements. We also know the "micro-fixes." Make city employees pay more into their pensions, make them wait until they are 65 before they retire, hire competent pension administrators, and/or elect politicians that are willing to raise taxes on the rest of us, and/or execute a combination of these other micro-fixes. That a classic violation of P1 cosmic rationality.

The Cincinnati Bengals, obviously, need to be fixed again. Why because the "fix" that we tried a few years ago (building them a new stadium) didn't work. We'll be paying for that "non-fix" for a long time. In fact, the Bengals may be "unfixable." In a world ruled by cosmic rationality they would have been weeded out a long time ago by "creative destruction": the natural consequence of not fixing things! Five turnovers in yesterday's game! Of course you may ask, why did I watch to the game? I never said that I'm ALWAYS rational.

Now, back to the beginning. What about P2? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I like my teaching job. I get paid well enough, I like to teach, I like what I teach, I like my colleagues, I'm pretty good at it, I hate faculty meetings (but I don't go). Being an astute observor of cosmic rationality, I am not looking for another job. I don't even read the job listings in the Chronicle. Now that I'm back on my normal diet, my weight is going back down. It should level off at 173 by the end of next week. Henceforth, I won't eat a lot of sweets. Two cookies a day in the morning with two cups of coffee. That's about it. No ice cream. "If it ain't broke, I won't fix it." What about those city pensions? City counsel did not "fix" the system, therefore they continue to violate P1.

As for P2. I tried to find one thing that the city of Cincinnati does well enough that it ought not try to fix it. (I need help on that one!) Cincinnati does have several "fixes" in the works that address non-problems. Do we really need another transportation system downtown besides buses, taxis, automobiles, and foot. Do we really "need" an electric trolly car? Transportation is not broke, so don't fix it.

If the city of Cincinnati is a prolific source of P1 violations, the federal government is off the charts. Where do we begin: TSA, FDA, EPA, SEC, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the criminal justice system, infrastructure, schools? When everything is broke, and nothing is getting fixed, cosmic rationality goes on vacation, along with our diets.

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