Free Will: A Thought Experiment in Three Lunches – Part 1: Intro

I frequently come across asides on Free Will in articles, scientific or philosophical, that strike me as religious statements in the scientific drag.

Their core argument:

  • human behavior is composed of material mechanisms
  • material mechanisms can be modeled scientifically and predicted
  • therefore human behavior is determined
  • and, hence, Free Will is an illusion.

The author then generally goes on to explicitly clue us in on our delusion: the activity we engage in that feels to us like the exercise of Free Will is not…and the illusion’s time is almost up!

I disagree. I think Free Will is what it is.

I can explain the divergence using a little historical background. Descartes split the human experience into two components– the body and the mind– connected, if I remember correctly, by the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature is the classic ghost in the machine.

This is essentially a religious perspective with a separate severable soul.

As science claimed all phenomena as a single set of unified physical systems, the immaterial had to either be delegated to the illusory (the ghost isn’t real so how can its attributes be) or had to be reframed as a material process. Many things made the transition but folks tend to choke when trying to bring Free Will across.

My contention is that this is misguided and we need to follow the other fork in the road. Perhaps it’s the terminology that has tripped us up with free having a variety of meanings including, prominently, ‘unconstrained’ At any rate, I contend that ‘free’ will is exactly what it appears to be…the ability to make meaningful conscious choices.

Defining Free Will.

To restate, I contend that Free Will is a meaningful process that works exactly as it presents itself to us.

The basic unit, the monad of Free Will as it were, is the consideration of at least two options and a meaningful, i.e. non-illusory, conscious choice.

Free Will will be treated here as an emergent property of matter related to other mental phenomena such as intention, planning depth and prediction. (In most places where I use the term, I have capitalized Free Will to emphasize that I am working with this particular definition.)

This definition views Free Will as being composed of material entities interacting in chains of causality. And that means it is in some sense determined. The choices we consider, the motivation for choosing, the limits on our ability to work through options are all determined in the way that material process must be.

What I am contending is that, without that ‘Free Will’ component of our mental processes, we would not take the same actions. Snipping it out would radically change the process. Free Will as we experience it is precisely the physical process by which some action is guided.

To insist that Free Will has to be an unconstrained non-material process to be meaningful is residual religious thinking.

Part 2 is here.

My 2 cents on the compatibility of Science and Religion are here.

Free Will: A Thought Experiment in Three Lunches – Part 2: Models

A few notes on Predictability and Determination.

(Part 1 is here.)

We have learned over the last few decades that a process can be ‘determined’ as a physical processes but not necessarily predictable. Weather, for example, may be inherently unpredictable beyond a certain rough level of precision given the theoretical limits on computation using systems made of matter. Human behavior modeled as the interactions of humans within a given physical and cultural environment might be equally complex and hence only partially predictable.

Three models: is there no such thing as a Free Lunch?

I’ve found it useful to work through the following thought experiment to tease out the various threads of meaning that I commonly see operating in discussion of Free Will. More complex examples might ultimately be more nuanced but I think the gist of can be captured with a very simple look at three versions of lunch.


The constant – lunch.

1) Model 1: Direct. Imagine a buddy suggests lunch. I suggest a place. We meet for a burrito. This is simple meaningful behavior. I have made a choice to go add nutrition and some social interaction to my day. (This simple assumption will be called into question in Part 3.)

2) Model 2: Random. Imagine I now decide to add a randomizing element to the model above. I step outside the door and roll a 4 sided dice. Each of the 4 numbers is a direction and, if it is rolled, I walk in that direction to the next intersection. If a particular direction is blocked, I reroll until I get one that’s open. I do this until I have found a lunch spot. (My neighborhood is more or less a grid with lunch in all directions so this should work. As a failsafe, I limit this to 100 dice rolls and pack an emergency backup burrito.)

A few points —

  • This has made me significantly less predictable. One could build a probability map of my possible locations but my exact location could not be predicted with any further certainty. If our definition of Free Will is behavior that cannot be precisely predicted in advance, I’m free! Also, notice I could introduce random elements at any level of seriousness… from what I have for lunch to whether to have a child, say, or jump off the bridge. These choices would have a more or less significant impact on my personal life and potentially human history. Call it Schrödinger’s life planning.
  • At the same time, the process is completely a material processes.
  • Theoretically, I guess, one might even be able to predict the outcome of the dice rolls by modeling muscles, dice shapes, and air currents if one had the right tools and computing power (which may be, as noted above, outside the theoretical limits of computation on a material substrate.) This observation is, of course, irrelevant inside the experiment because I couldn’t make that prediction myself when assigning pathways to dice outcomes and hence exert deliberate or unconscious control of the process. At the level of my ability to shape the outcome, once I commit to the game, my movement is random.
  • The important observation is that this behavior is much much less meaningful than my actions in Model 1. If I don’t pack a backup, I may not get lunch at all.
  • This raises an interesting point, I think. It is possible that, in a certain sense, paths may be more meaningful the more predictable they are! Less predictability would mean a disengagement from the essential concerns of my existence or making sub-optimal choices. In Model 1, I could go for unpredictability and lunch somewhere else ditching my friend… and have a less meaningful lunch.

3) Model 3: The uber-rationalist. 


  • I have decided to attempt life extension via calorie restriction. Since I am very concerned with the calories in a meal, my aim is to get essential nutrients with a minimum of calories.
  • But, because both exercise and socializing are keys to long-term mental agility, I don’t want to stop my routine of walking out for social lunches.
  • To compensate, I have gone so far as to survey most restaurants in the neighborhood and have built charts of meals by restaurant rated by nutrition over calories. (This example would seem less outré to me if I hadn’t had a friend that routinely pulled out a scale and weighed parts of his lunch.)
  • My friend suggests Emily’s Spaghetti Shack. I suggest a sushi place a bit further down the street. We compromise on a Vietnamese place and meet for lunch.

Now, this outcome might be totally predictable, perhaps even more so than Model 1.

However, given the objectives I’ve set for myself, I am successfully exercising non-illusory Free Will to maximize meaning in my behavior. Meaning, in this case, is bringing lunch into line with a long-term goal and program.


It seems clear to me that predictability and meaningful choice are separate descriptive axes and the Free Will operates along the meaning axis. Predictability, or the lack thereof, is more or less irrelevant. In all three case, we’re dealing with embodied Free Will, i.e. ‘determined’ physical systems of particles interacting in chains of cause and effect. I don’t see a way to make that component illusory without ridiculous descriptive contortions.

Meaning of Meaning Pt 1 – Introduction


[[This is an experiment. Generally I write and edit and write and edit and edit some more and then publish. I’m working on this in public; parts will probably only be comprehensible to me while that’s happening..]]

I’ve been sporadically preoccupied with the big Why Bother questions since high school: What’s worth doing? Why bother to act? What justifies itself in the face of the imminent heat death of the universe. (Well, maybe not always the latter.)

This has lead through the decades to a slow motion analysis of the meaning of meaning.

My initial thoughts were shaped by three books I found in the paperback rack in my father’s drug store when I was a high school freshman: Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, RD Laing’s Politics of Experience, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

It should be obvious from what follows which one of the three had the biggest influence.

I will still argue that Jung is inappropriately dismissed as unscientific. His basic mechanism of the Self, particularly as elaborated by his collaborator Erich Neumann, is an auto-regulatory system, an explicitly compensatory mechanism, that kicks in when the personality becomes lopsided and fore-grounds and integrates needed but excluded and/or under-developed aspects of the person.

With that introduction. Here goes….

(Quick links: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Meaning of Meaning Pt 2 – Much Assembly Required

Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well. – Robert Lewis Stevenson

Intrinsic Meaning


Paragraph form: You are a bag of parts; much assembly required. That’s it. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. There is no guarantee that the bag of parts you received is optimized to fit together or even optimized to work at all. We have a cognitive bias to assume we’re a unity. (It is very likely that there’s a strong ‘instinctual’ force that seeks to bind us together. Unfortunately, that task is not guaranteed to be easy.)
Outline form: Starting set: Identity
  1. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. You are a bag of part.
  2. The upside, there is no one else exactly like you. Human beings are genetically unique even without elements of culture and personal biography.
    1. Probably. Estimates on the number of the human genotypes range from near 1 trillion to 70+ trillion unique possibilities. If you exclude non-viable combinations, I suspect that this number would drop singificantly. But, of course, the impact of culture, experience including birth order, etc, pump uniqueness back up.
  3. There is no guarantee this set of traits will work well for you; it essentially presents you with your unique bag of parts and assembly is left as an exercise. The more an organism is open to learning and culture, the looser the knit.
  4. We have a cognitive and emotional bias to assume we’re a unity. This may not be superficial but, particularly in the emotional component, may itself be an evolutionary mechanism aiming at knitting it all together.


Paragraph form: Meaning is a human activity. We act as if it is a discovery and, although it presents itself as found, it is built not found. Meaning is fundamentally a social construct and, if all goes smoothly, it provides reasonably stress free guidance to the individual. If that fails, the individual is forced back upon whatever resources they have or can discover.

Outline form: Starting Set: Meaning.

  1. Meaning is a human activity; not a property of the ‘external’ world.
  2. There are both individual and social components to meaning construction. There is not necessarily a single system.
  3. Meaning is most easily constellated by the ‘tribe.’ This can be authentically in the individual’s best interest…we are fundamentally tribal animals…but it is also the mechanism where our energy is re-purposed for other interest’s projects.
    1. In a narrow contexts (a company, a battle) connection and progress constellate out in a way that easily can provide direction.
    2. (From a certain perspective all meaning might fit this description.)
    3. Corporations succeed by harnessing this tribal energy.
    4. Games provide a parallel with simple goals and clear conditions for their achievement. Every game can be considered an experiment in social engineering.
  4. ‘Individual’ meaning is a different process and is frequently driven by the failure of social meaning.
    1. Social meaning as a determining force for individuals can break down either through cultural collapse or shift or through a strong mismatch between the individual and the surrounding culture.


Paragraph form: Apparently clashing values are a problem only if they lead to contradictory impulses to action. There are often schisms through our belief systems. Some derive from personal biography, some from our culture, some from the nature of our species or any embodied being in a context of forward moving time and physical space. It is only when we find ourselves actively on both sides of a schism, that we are challenged. It is only then that we are given the opportunity to seek/forge deeper meaning. There is, of course, no guarantee that our solutions will be totally successful.

Outline form: Contradiction:

  1. Our individual and cultural value systems are frequently riddled with apparently conflicting values.
  2. An apparent conflict between parts is not necessarily a conflict.
    1. Take two ideas as an example. ‘The King is generous’ and ‘The King is cruel’, considered as being in opposition are no particular problem unless the impulse “Kill the King” is added to the mix. Now one belief supports and one opposes the action. Until a contradiction is activated, it is not necessarily a contradiction at all.
  3. In my experience, our belief systems are riddled with similar contradictions.
    1. Some of those could be considered personal, some cultural, some existential.
    2. The personal contradictions imposed by the demands of job, family, etc, tend to need resolution first with the cultural following similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  4. Contradictions might be unresolvable.
    1. They might be based on accurate observations of a complex phenomena
    2. The world might not only be stranger than we understand but stranger than we can understand. Our contradictory descriptions, no matter how rigorously developed, might be the best we can do with an limited tool set. Modern physics might be an example of this problem.
    3. There is a tendency to retreat from the painful context that might force a search for individually-driven meaning generation into cheap social meaning, e.g. games, work, spectator sports, etc.

(Quick links: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4)

Meaning of Meaning Pt 3 – Building Soul

Building Soul

  1. Given the context of “some assembly required” and likely contradiction and internal conflict, it is reasonable to hypothesize a system that works to knit together and harmonize the components of human personality.
    1. Jung hypothesized this specifically and called it the archetype of Self.
    2. Jung’s Self had the power to channel conflicting components towards synthesized whole. His interest in the mandala reflects an interest in systems that put many components into a patterned whole.
  2. Confronting our contradictions, we generally work from the personal ‘down’ into the collective. Unless your culture is in the midst of a open crisis, the demands of our personal biography trump cultural schisms. Once the personal is reconciled, however, the cultural issues come to the fore.
    1. The downward movement is what Jung called Building Soul and he defines the Soul as a organ of the psyche that gives depth by connecting the individual to deeper collective currents.
    2. The division between personal and collective is, of course, complex and multi-layered…and somewhat arbitrary. The personal is simply an instance of the collective and the collective is the sum of the personal. Conflicts and contradictions do not exist in the abstract no matter how abstractly we work with them. They are always embodied.
  3. When our personal contradictions span emerging or existing cultural divides, the work to heal and harmonize can gain significant additional intensity (often painful intensity) but, also, the work to heal and harmonize can feel powerfully meaningful.
    1. Jung and Campbell described this as the Hero’s Journey
    2. The first stage is often individual crisis and confusion. The present is in some manner intolerable but the future is clouded and the hero must depart from the known world and seek the vision or tools or guidance that allows him/her to move forward.
    3. This is the most individual form of meaning generation: the puzzles are often collective (contradictions in our culture), occasionally individual (warring traits) but the solutions are always sparked by individual blood, sweat, tears, and imagination.
  4. Jung’s Individuation vs Cambell’s Hero’s Journey
    1. Jung focuses on the introverted side: internal contradictions (generated by either personal contradictions or the ‘introjection’ of cultural divides) are resolved into awareness. Hero stories are about that process.
    2. Campbell focuses on the extroverted side. Some rupture sends the hero out to triumph and return and revitalize the culture.

(to follow – Extrinsic (tribal): [[under construction]])

(Quick links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4)

Meaning of Meaning Pt 4 – Personal Note

My own tale of a life disrupted and rebuilt and the roots of my fascination with meaning, myth and story are told on my story-trading site, OutInUnder:

My Life in Stories: Intro to the ‘Story of Stories’ Conversation

My Life in Stories: Lessons Learned

(Quick links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Privacy Pt 1: Youth Wants To Know

UC Berkeley Sit-in with scattered nudity
Discussion of privacy on the Internet, and, in particular, in social media, hit a local maxima a short time ago in the nym wars on Google+ against a background of increasing public concern.  Pronouncement by pundits and officials, some informed and most ignorant, rocks steadily on. None of that had pushed me to add my 2 cents to the mix.

What finally took me over the edge was hearing yet another 20 year old explain that his generation doesn’t have the same concern for privacy that we old folks so quaintly maintain. The implication is that, because they’re from a younger generation, the young are better adapted to current conditions.

There is another possible explanation, however. It follows.

First, let me get my on geezer persona.

Allen Ginsberg's Exorcism of the Pentagon

Now there, youngsters, I’m from a generation that routinely showed up naked in public and engaged in such low profile activities as chanting to levitate the Pentagon. This was dropped onto an America barely emerging from the 50’s and massively less receptive to living publicly. Nudity was performance art aimed at letting some sunlight into the cloister.

Allow me to assure you that my concerns are not an attachment to some arbitrary, bygone, meaningless convention like, for example, not ending a sentence with a preposition. They are, instead, the result of years of observation and balanced analysis…primarily of the government. More on that later.

You kids may have a different concept of the value of privacy but that concept is not different from the concept I held as a kid. Experience, one of a few advantages of aging, has made me wiser.

I’d argue that privacy concerns come down, not to how you feel about living in public, but how you feel about powerful institutions– governmental organizations, primarily, but any institution large enough to have significant information gathering resources–being able to have easy access to your life’s details.

I think providing that access is dangerous.

Rather than get into point/counter-point or personal biography, I’d like to perform a thought experiment.

Draw a axis of government benignity. Start in, say, Amsterdam and end in Pyongyang. Route it through 6 or 8 cities you think span the spectrum of openness. (Let’s pick Berlin, Beijing, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Moscow, San Francisco, Tehran, Istanbul, and London for the purposes of this experiment.) Put them on the axis wherever you think they belong. Now, imagine yourself in living a Amsterdam. Assume you and your tribe share thoughts, interesting books and websites, music, purchases, shops and restaurants via a social media or two. Sometimes you flirt; sometimes you trade ideas and opinions; sometimes you blow off steam.

(Exclude for the purposes of this experiment the information streams created by your cell phone and credit card.)

Move the slider along until having all that information public becomes a significant threat to your well-being…until you cross a line where your behavior is now suspect and where simultaneously you have revealed who you associate with and much of your daily routine. If you get comfortably all the way to Pyongyang, you need to get a life. Commonly you’re in danger of loss of income, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, or disappearance at some point midway along the line for any of multiple reasons.

Of course, you say, you’re not in Pyongyang but near Amsterdam on the line…safe perhaps in San Francisco with me, and these concerns aren’t appropriate. Or are they?

At issue? These media are primarily built here but deployed globally. What seems benign locally becomes a tool for the police state with a slight shift of context. Regardless of local comfort, our systems would better be measured on a global yardstick.

Specifically, as the creators, early adopters, critics and evangelists for these systems, we have responsibility to take predictable consequences quite seriously as we design, create, implement, and sell. We are building history, brick by brick, and broad current flow through us and our shapings.

We need to take that seriously.

At least now and then.

It will be of general benefit if we lay down cover for our brothers and sisters that are under genuinely under siege. Perhaps they want to practice Qi Kung in Beijing or discuss their Armenian heritage in Istanbul…or draw political cartoons in Amsterdam.

The issues aren’t necessarily easy to engineer. We need to wrestle, for example, with the interface between criminality and dissent, and the interplay of persona and authenticity. But it’s up to us to do that rather than ignore complexity and the likely paths into the future. I have some ideas that might help in this discussion. Probably you do, too.

I’m urging us to design and discuss privacy in a wider scope–spatially, temporally, morally–and remove it from a discussion of personal preference.

In Brian Eno’s terms, we need to think in a broader here and a longer now.

Privacy Pt 2: Python Politics: the Economics of Knowledge Accumulation
Privacy Pt 3: Is there an Engineer in the house?

PS – A few notes in passing.

The US is not necessarily a safe haven.

Consider in light of the recent National Defense Authorization Act. Or police raids to preemptively undermine protests at the 2008 Republican convention:

You may not be a Judi Bari (they arrest you and search everywhere you hang out after someone bombs your car) or organizing widespread protest in Minneapolis (the show up the week before and take all your stuff) but note: systems integration is changing the game for law enforcement everywhere. It might not be J edGar Hoooover you need to worry about but some local middle-aged portly DA with too tight shoes, a sullen teenager, a nasty mortgage, and a depressed spouse that’s pissed off because some 20 year old is driving a car that costs his yearly salary

Finally, here’s a bit of gratuitous Chuang Tzu – the topic is gathering up treasures for thieves :

Privacy Pt 2: Python Politics: the Economics of Knowledge Accumulation

clothed man arrested by naked guys
“A constricting snake like a boa or a python kills its prey by suffocation. It uses the momentum of its strike to throw coils around its victim’s body. Then, it squeezes. Every time the prey exhales, the snake squeezes a little more tightly. Soon, the victim can breathe any more.” ref

Essentially, then, constrictors kill not by crushing but by taking in the slack and not giving it back. I view this as relevant to the topic at hand.

History: the Internet Wants to Be Free.

We seem to have generated a cultural lock-in that demands a free Internet. This is the result of a combination of factors: successful initiatives, ideological leanings (sometimes based on the semantic ambiguity between free as unregulated and free as without cost), and significant self-delusion.

There is a component of this freedom that is real. The freedom exist in a commons collectively built and shared. It exists in the group effort to build standards and protocols to connect us and to share and display information. It exists in the collection of individual visions, not always mutually compatible, that maintain and extend this effort. It exists in our ability to design technical hacks to undermine systems of control.

Wikipedia is a good exemplar of this Internet.

Beyond that, it’s not free at all.

Our vision is embodied in components all of which have both capital and maintenance costs.

The initial freedom was built on simple design hacks and the low bandwidth required to move text around. It sat on top of large computing projects in academia and government and survived on crumbs snatched off the table. You might have to pay a bit for your hook to the the infrastructure but content was provided mostly without cost. This was the world of bulletin boards, irc, usenet groups, email, text based MUDs.

This model has been extended with increasing elaborate ‘free’ content and services: Google, youTube, Flickr, facebook, Pandora,  Spodify, Twitter and so on. Meanwhile, temporary successes in the paid model, eg AOL, generally seem to erode back to free.

This apparent continuity masks a simple fact: the old model didn’t scale. We benefit from increasing costly products. A new funding source…advertising, of course…by and large pays the bill.

Google is the exemplar, here.

Which brings us to the common wisdom: if the product appears free, then you’re the product.

The true coin of this transaction is information about us individually and collectively.

The economics of targeted advertising is pretty simple conceptually. Information is gathered on you to give you advertising you’re likely to respond to. Or perhaps to provide you a more tailored service that will make you more engaged and hence bring you to the advertising more frequently.

With Google this was an add-on that went from humble beginnings. Now the business plans of start-ups are often designed specifically to elicit information. Products are built around data mining and targeting advertising.

We gain significant benefit from this model and here we, perhaps, become complicit.

 This march toward greater public visibility has generated other elements of common wisdom which are more suspect.

You often hear the following: “Privacy is dead. Things are different than in the past. We need to get over it and adjust to new realities. Privacy is already fairly illusory therefore upset is unjustified; just look at the targeted direct mail of the past” And so on.

To my mind, an appeal to the hopelessness of implementing change regardless of that changes desirability somehow lacks punch. We live in a world that’s changing all the time. We live in a world in which an improved technical solution or compelling idea can turn things upside down in considerable less than a decade. And we are inventing that technology every day.

There is a danger that I think it is our responsibility to recognize and attempt to address.

My argument is —

  1. There’s an unremitting economic pressure to create a higher and higher resolution picture of you, what you do, and what you might potentially consume.
  2. We’ll hit a point (and are there already in some locations) where you’ll stand out as suspicious by not being transparent. Given this fine grained picture, not being highly visible will become increasingly suspicious. The blurry individuals then stand out as very likely criminals or revolutionaries.
  3. The most likely to succeed in hiding from scrutiny behind a false front is the deliberate criminal with a carefully constructed public identity. The most likely to fail is the accidental revolutionary…the well meaning public citizen that is compelled to move into some sort of rebellion.

Here’s the NYRB on Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi:

Fang’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern.


Let’s return to a police action in Minnesota cited in the PS to Part 1.

I suspect that these raids proved highly effective in disrupting the protest and that it would have been less so had the naive folks raided been up to actual criminal activity and taken steps to keep backup materials and tools hidden away somewhere. In other words, if they had been the folks that justified a disruptive police action then that action would likely have been ineffective.

Is there an Engineer in the house? How about an ESL Instructor?

We are building, brick by brick, a consolidation of power through an increasingly  fine-grained consolidation of data. We live in a world where a major portion of the US security apparatus has disappeared behind a curtain and is accountable, apparently, mostly to themselves. And a world where the idea of individual political rights to speak, meet, and organize are not widely acknowledged. The result of that intersection creates a problem that is not, I think, insignificant. The constraint on oppressive regimes has often been reach and we, in our work on information technologies, are eliminating some significant constraints.

What’s the solution? Is there one?

Privacy Pt 1: Youth Wants To Know
Privacy Pt 3: Is there an Engineer in the house?

Asabiya Part 1: Introduction

Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is one of my favorite sort of books: those that dig into my thoughts and continues to influence them by providing a perspective to work with…or sometimes against. I find his analysis of the patterns of history intriguing and I believe he throws a light on our political landscape.

This will take on much of the flavor of a book report. In fact, it will look much like a bad book report in which I substitute long quotations for my own reactions and analysis. So be it. There is a direction. I am building to an open ended point…some questions I find interesting… which does contain the seeds of a thesis but tries not to narrow down to too fine a point. My format will be to add a skeleton of an outline to frame up material from the book and then add some observations that spark off Turchin’s work.

  •  The anchor for Turchin’s analysis is social cohesion.

Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences

  • Social cohesion => successful societies. Essentially, the groups that do the best job of cooperating are the most successful in competing with other groups. Turchin’s interest is in the creation and collapse of historical empires and he proceeds in his analysis by gathering case histories.

“Generally, in a struggle between two groups of people, the group with stronger norms promoting cooperation and the most people following such norms has a greater chance of winning.

  • Inequality erodes social cohesion. Successful societies have, in the past, built empires which then erode social inequality leading to the eventual collapse of the empire.

The phase of the secular cycle also determines the trend in social and economic inequality—whether it increases or decreases. This aspect is of particular interest because of the corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate, which in turn underlies the capacity of societies for collective action

  • Turchin uses history as his laboratory and makes the following points about contemporary politics:
    • One can’t necessarily generalize his pattern of empire going forward. We may be in a post Imperial world (witness the EU vs historically warring states in Europe.)
    • But one can understand the development of historical societies and something about current societies since they are the result of their history.
    • Turchin uses Italy as an example because it provides two matching societies:
        • North Italy vs South Italy  – He makes the point that, if Italy was divided between north and south, we would have one of the best and worst performers in Europe.

      The disparity in economic development between the Italian north and south is striking. Today the south is rural and poor, whereas the north is urban, industrialized, and wealthy. Few people realize just how well off the Italian north is, because when we see economic statistics for Western Europe, they are typically broken down by country, rather than by regions. Italy as a whole is in the middle of the pack, but its northern regions, such as Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, are at the very top of the list. The overall rank for Italy is pulled down by its poor Mezzogiorno.

        • He sees this disparity as rooted in societal function vs dysfunction
        • First,  he cites a study that took a sustained look at possible measures of social cohesion

      In 1993, Robert Putnam published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. “Social capital,” as Putnam explains, “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” 

      How can one measure “institutional performance,” that is, how well regions are governed? Asabiya (or social capital) is the key. However, capacity for collective action is a complex, multifaceted property of society, and therefore we cannot expect a single way to measure it perfectly. Putnam and his co-workers, however, came beautifully close. They chose 12 indicators, ranging from measures of operation efficiency such as bureaucratic responsiveness and budget promptness to a quantification of services provided to the public, such as the number of daycare centers and family clinics.

      When Putnam and co-workers finished estimating the institutional performance for each Italian region, they saw a remarkable pattern. There was very strong north-south gradient in how well regions were governed. The regions in the Po Valley such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia were consistently at the top of rankings in institutional performance, whereas southern regions, such as Campania (the region around Naples), Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian boot), and Sicily were at the bottom.

        • Putnam’s study is a picture of effective function but the flip side is a picture of dysfunction

      Well before Putnam, and even before the Italian experiment in devolution of powers to regional governments, anthropologists knew that something was wrong with the society of the Italian south—the Mezzogiorno, as it is known in Italian. A particularly interesting study is that by the American anthropologist Edward Banfield, who spent a number of years in a southern Italian village during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, he published a book detailing his findings, The Moral Basis of the Backward Society. Banfield describes the extreme atomization of the southern Italian society, in which all cooperative efforts are limited to the smallest possible societal unit, the family. Relations even to such kin as cousins, and sometimes even grown-up siblings, are rife with distrust and lack of cooperation. Community-level cooperative efforts are virtually impossible. Banfield called this type of society “amoral familism,” and defined its basic philosophy as this: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”

        • Turchin believes the root of this society lies in the far past in Roman slavery.

      Millions of slaves, captured during the wars of conquest, flooded Italy during the second century B.C. Because slaves had no human rights, and legally could hold no property (in practice, some masters allowed them to accumulate funds to buy themselves out of slavery), their presence in massive numbers made the Roman society during the late Republic even more unequal than is usual in pre-industrial states

      The distinction between slaves and freemen is perhaps the most extreme form of social inequality. Thus, widespread slavery must be a very corrosive influence on the society’s asabiya. In fact, empirical evidence shows slavery has a deep, and lasting, negative impact on “social capital.”

      It was, thus, the rise of inequality and especially of its ugliest form, slavery, that began corroding Roman asabiya during the second century B.C.

      …southern Italy—the core region of the defunct Roman Empire—was an asabiya black hole.  <> Peninsular Italy, including Sicily, remained an asabiya black hole from the collapse of the Roman Empire to this very day

  • He does not, of course, believe that southern Italy remained a static society. He believes that it is a damaged and ineffective one. One that has never managed to heal itself from a persistant legacy of poverty, feud, and bad government.
  • With the issues phrased this way, it’s hard not to draw some parallels to the US. That will be the topic of contemplation next post. For now, here’s something that caught my eye recently and sparked this whole train of thought

You are looking at a map of violence based on an analysis from an NGO, the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney Australia. Red is bad. Blue is the best. The rest range in between, color coded as you’d expect.