Black box reality

Would you be so kind as to undertake a little basic math? Take the idea of a “black box”, “a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs . . . without any knowledge of its internal workings”, and combine it with the concept of a “fractal”, a structure whose dimensions replicate upwards and downward in scale. What do you get? One answer is what Venkatesh Rao calls “the unreasonable depth of reality”:

“Reality just has such mindboggling depth of mindless detail you can keep modelling to infinite weariness.

It just never ends. No matter how much artifice you impose on a piece of reality, 9/10 of it is still left, showing up as territory noise in your knowing map.

And knowing is so fragile. Poof and you’re liminally entangled in unfactored reality again.”

So, perhaps it’s not so much turtles all the way down (and up) as black boxes all the way from the quantum to the cosmic?

Now, you may be wondering what consequences this black-box-reality has for you, or me, or anyone else. Well, simply put, it affects the very essence of how we live. Enter the Father of Fractals, Benoit B. Mandelbroit:

“…consider two ways of looking at the world: as a Garden of Eden or as a black box.
The first is cause-and-effect, or deterministic. Here, every particle, leaf, and creature is in its appointed place, and, if only we had the vast knowledge of God, everything could be understood and predicted.

…How realistic is that? We cannot know everything. Physicists abandoned that pipedream during the twentieth century after quantum theory and, in a different way, after chaos theory. Instead, they learned to think of the world in the second way, as a black box. We can see what goes into the box and what comes out of it, but not what happens inside; we can only draw inferences about the odds of input A producing output Z. Seeing nature through the lens of probability theory is what mathematicians call the stochastic view.”

Seeing the world as a black box means abandoning the godly tools of cause and effect for the very human tools of trial and error. It requires the abandonment of the pursuit of omnipotence and the assumption of aggressive tinkering. Easy to say, harder to do. Especially when the human mind is primed to weave deterministic narratives from the threads of existence.

Yet, this tendency towards narrative creation is just one pitfall in the trial-and-error approach to life. The other, our inability to design sound reality experiments, is just as, if not more, harmful.

Above, Mandelbrot describes a black box which transfigures input A into output Z. Reality ain’t so simple. Typically we’re forced to interact with multiple black boxes at once, all being fed a large number of inputs at the same time and all kicking out a large number of outputs. Consider a typical social situation, a party.

At a party you have multiple people, all with their own black boxes—specifically, a brain and a mind and all the accompanying intentions, expectations, traits, desires and fears. As well as that, there is the relationships between each and every person, there is the influence of the environment the party takes place in—the music, the food, the drink, the spatial layout of the room or building, the weather—and there is the absolute total of their individual and collective history.

Look closely and a simple social gathering becomes an immense collection of black boxes processing input and producing outputs in ways that we can’t at all fathom.

To further deepen the fog of FUD just created, consider this extract which is pulled from the Wikipedia page for “design of experiments”:

“In its simplest form, an experiment aims at predicting the outcome by introducing a change of the preconditions, which is represented by one or more independent variables, also referred to as “input variables” or “predictor variables.” The change in one or more independent variables is generally hypothesized to result in a change in one or more dependent variables, also referred to as “output variables” or “response variables.” The experimental design may also identify control variables that must be held constant to prevent external factors from affecting the results. Experimental design involves not only the selection of suitable independent, dependent, and control variables, but planning the delivery of the experiment under statistically optimal conditions given the constraints of available resources.”

Does the creation of a sound experiment appear conceivable in any real-life situation? What is the use of abandoning cause-and-effect for trial-and-error if it is beyond our capacity to even create a trial from which we can accurately derive error?

The obvious retort to all this is the observation that, despite our un-knowledge, we still make it through such situations. People interact with other people all the time. We seamlessly slip from home environment to workplace to social situation, day in and day out. We make mistakes and we go on—sometimes—to correct them. We act and reflect and after enough cycles we adapt in a way that seems to work.

That I do not dispute. No, what I take issue with is the idea that we can grasp reality with anything resembling certainty. It’s understood that science, as a whole, is a process of falsification and what is considered as scientific knowledge is simply what we know to be least wrong right now. But that often fails to filter down to the level of the individual. Even the person who asserts that he knows nothing is still confident of knowing that.

This seems like epistemological nihilism. It isn’t, really. It is more a confession that my faith in humanity’s ability to know what it knows has been severely shaken in the last few years. And with our transition into a society whose complexity is in danger of surpassing the power of our individual and collective intellect, I can’t see that faith being rebuilt.