Monday, July 6, 2015

The Dream Of The Fundamental Law Of Human Behavior: WTF?


One of the trends in modern thinking that really mystifies and annoys me is the dream of the simple fundamental law of human behavior. What is up with that?

In fact I'm mystified and annoyed both by the credulity -- the belief that there is a simple fundamental law of human behavior -- and also by the desire -- the hope that there's a fundamental law of human behavior. What kind of person sees humanity this way?

I mean, it's one thing to think we're like overgrown mice -- the kind of animals whose behavior might be well understood through a massive data-oriented approach with mazes and observational studies and NHS funding. Though I've always had my doubts about the fruitfulness of this style of thinking, I don't find it alienating. I mean, in some ways we are like overgrown mice. I understand the appeal of an animalistic self-conception.


But the dream of the simple fundamental law seems to requires seeing humans not as overgrown mice but more like ... I don't know, planets or something. Large, inanimate bodies whose movement through space and time can be charted with trigonometry and laws like F=ma.

What kind of person wants to see humans -- wants to see themselves -- this way?

In a recent Facebook Q and A, the physicist Stephen Hawking asked Mark Zuckerberg which of the big questions in science he most wanted to know the answer to. Zuckerberg said, reasonably enough, that he was interested in questions having to do with people, like how they learn.

He then went on to say this:

"I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is."


He's surely not alone with his dream. But WTF?



For one thing, why think there's a law like this? While it's true we have some simple fundamental mathematical laws in physics, the fact that such simple laws work is widely regarded not as commonsensical but rather as a kind of miracle.

In 1960, Eugene Wigner wrote a classic article "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science." Toward the end, he says:

"The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve."

If it's a mystery and a "miracle" that mathematics works so well in describing things like planets and F=ma, why would you think it'll work in the same way for people, who seem so complicated?

But for another thing, why is this someone's fantasy or dream? I don't even get what's appealing about it. Suppose you did find some law like that. Now you see humans not just as part of the machine of the universe, but as a predictable part of the the machine -- a part you could use a pencil to work out where we're going from where we've been.

What's to like? Suppose you did find some basic law, so that what seems like the vast multiplicity of human feeling and culture and motivation, what looks like the incredible fabric of life, it really all comes down to the X factor. You go about your day, and instead of seeing kindness and anger and art and food and cooperation and conflict and music and flirting, you say smugly to yourself, "well, sure -- but it's really X, X, X, X, X, X, X, and X."

Who can see this as a dream come true?

3 comments:

Janet Vickers said...

I don't want to see human nature that way but then I'm not a military strategist or economist or a well educated man who feels that life-giving and nurturing elements are resources to exploit and manipulate.

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