Education and “Chaos”: The Example of Climate Change

Students will have heard on read descriptions of “chaos theory” which try to capture the phenomenon that a small change “here” or now might involve a mega-change somewhere else or later on or both. In other words, tremendous turbulence could arise from overlooked minutiae in some other region or domain. Chaos here does not mean lawless…it means lawful but in surprising ways, like a pendulum swinging from another pendulum where the laws of pendular motion are still in effect but the motions are “jumpy.”

This can be described as follows:

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos—states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization.

The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Texas.

Blaise Pascal (17th century) gives us the example of “Cleopatra’s nose.” Had her nose been longer, Pascal muses, she would presumably have not been so beautiful and this could have altered romantic entanglements and the behavior of rival Roman generals and world history might have moved along different pathways completely (recall Caesar and Cleopatra, the play).

All of this “strange science” applies to climate change.

In the Winter 2019/20 issue of Options, from the International institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA, Austria headquarters), there’s a short piece that shows you how climate change has such “chaos-type” features which could “turbo-charge” changes already expected:

Will Forests Let Us Down?

Current climate models assume that forests will continue to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at their current rate.

A study by an international team including researchers from IIASA, however, indicates that this uptake capacity could be strongly limited by soil phosphorous availability. If this scenario proves true, the Earth’s climate would heat up much faster than previously assumed.

(Options, Winter 2019/20 issue, IIASA, page 5, “News in Brief”)

Students should glimpse something here that points to a “deep structure.”
Climate scientists and climate modelers at this time are trying to re-examine and re-jigger predictions to include overlooked details that could add “chaotic dynamics” to the predictions. Knowledge itself is evolving and if you add knowledge changes and revisions to model ones, you have to conclude that even with this fantastic level of human ingenuity and scientific intricacy, we “see the world through a glass, darkly” because the facts, models, chaos math, overviews, are themselves in “interactive flux.”

Meaningfulness versus Informativeness

The Decoding Reality book is a classic contemporary analysis of the foundations of physics and the implications for the human world. The scientists don’t see that physics and science are the infrastructure on which the human “quest for meaning” takes place. Ortega (Ortega y Gasset, died in 1955) tells us that a person is “a point of view directed at the universe.” This level of meaning cannot be reduced to bits or qubits or electrons since man is a “linguistic creature” who invents fictional stories to explain “things” that are not things.

The following dialog between Paul Davies (the outstanding science writer) and Vlatko Vedral (the distinguished physicist) gropes along on these issues: the difference between science as one kind of story and the human interpretation of life and self expressed in “tales” and parables, fictions and beliefs:

Davies: “When humans communicate, a certain quantity of information passes between them. But that information differs from the bits (or qubits) physicists normally consider, inasmuch as it possesses meaning. We may be able to quantify the information exchanged, but meaning is a qualitative property—a value—and therefore hard, maybe impossible, to capture mathematically. Nevertheless the concept of meaning obviously has, well… meaning. Will we ever have a credible physical theory of ‘meaningful information,’ or is ‘meaning’ simply outside the scope of physical science?”

Vedral: “This is a really difficult one. The success of Shannon’s formulation of ‘information’ lies precisely in the fact that he stripped it of all “meaning” and reduced it only to the notion of probability. Once we are able to estimate the probability for something to occur, we can immediately talk about its information content. But this sole dependence on probability could also be thought of as the main limitation of Shannon’s information theory (as you imply in your question). One could, for instance, argue that the DNA has the same information content inside as well as outside of a biological cell. However, it is really only when it has access to the cell’s machinery that it starts to serve its main biological purpose (i.e., it starts to make sense). Expressing this in your own words, the DNA has a meaning only within the context of a biological cell. The meaning of meaning is therefore obviously important. Though there has been some work on the theory of meaning, I have not really seen anything convincing yet. Intuitively we need some kind of a ‘relative information’ concept, information that is not only dependent on the probability, but also on its context, but I am afraid that we still do not have this.”

For a physicist, all the world is information. The universe and its workings are the ebb and flow of information. We are all transient patterns of information, passing on the recipe for our basic forms to future generations using a four-letter digital code called DNA.

See Decoding Reality.

In this engaging and mind-stretching account, Vlatko Vedral considers some of the deepest questions about the universe and considers the implications of interpreting it in terms of information. He explains the nature of information, the idea of entropy, and the roots of this thinking in thermodynamics. He describes the bizarre effects of quantum behavior—effects such as “entanglement,” which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” and explores cutting edge work on the harnessing quantum effects in hyper-fast quantum computers, and how recent evidence suggests that the weirdness of the quantum world, once thought limited to the tiniest scales, may reach into the macro world.

Vedral finishes by considering the answer to the ultimate question: Where did all of the information in the universe come from? The answers he considers are exhilarating, drawing upon the work of distinguished physicist John Wheeler. The ideas challenge our concept of the nature of particles, of time, of determinism, and of reality itself.

Science is an “ontic” quest. Human life is an “ontological” quest. They are a “twisted pair” where each strand must be seen clearly and not confused. The content of your telephone conversation with your friend, say. is not reducible to the workings of a phone or the subtle electrical engineering and physics involved. A musical symphony is not just “an acoustical blast.”

The “meaning of meaning” is evocative and not logically expressible. There’s a “spooky action at a distance” between these levels of meaning versus information but they are different “realms” or “domains.”

Education and Wittgenstein “Language Games”

It is instructive for a student to get a grip on the whole question of “language games” à la Wittgenstein, who says that these “games” (i.e., ambiguities) are central to thinking in general and thinking about philosophy in particular.

Let’s make up our own example and step back from the meaning of the preposition “in.”

The comb is in my back pocket has nothing to do with the “in” of “he’s in a good mood” or “he’s in a hurry” or “he’s in a jam or pickle” or “he’s in trouble.” Furthermore, in modern deterministic neuroscience language, a good mood is a footnote to brain and blood chemicals so that means that a good mood is in you via chemicals and not you in it.

Does the word “jam” here mean difficulty or somehow the condiment called jam? You don’t know and can never without more information (i.e., meaningful context).

Imagine we take a time machine and are standing in front of the home of Charles Dickens in London in his time say in the 1840s. They say he’s working on a new novel called Oliver Twist.

Someone says: a novel by Dickens is a kind of “fictional universe.” Shall we say that because Dickens is in his home (at home) in London (though in London is itself confusing since London as a city is not like a pocket to a comb or wallet) his fictional universe is “in” the universe which might be a multiverse according to current cosmological speculations? That’s not what we mean. The fictional universe of Dickens is a shared cultural abstraction involving his stories, characters, people absorbing his tales, his mind and our mind, books and discussions. A fictional universe is as “weird” as the other universe. The preposition “in” does not begin to capture what’s going on which is socio-cultural and not “physicalistic.”

We begin to intuit that everyday language which we use and handle as the most obvious thing in the world in constant use, is completely confusing once you look at it more clearly.

Einstein’s friend at Princeton, Kurt Gödel, looked into language as a logical phenomenon and concluded that it’s entirely puzzling that two people could actually speak and understand one another given the ambiguities and open-endedness of language.

A language-game (German: Sprachspiel) is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven. Wittgenstein argued that a word or even a sentence has meaning only as a result of the “rule” of the “game” being played. Depending on the context, for example, the utterance “Water!” could be an order, the answer to a question, or some other form of communication.

In his work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly referred to the concept of language-games. Wittgenstein rejected the idea that language is somehow separate and corresponding to reality, and he argued that concepts do not need clarity for meaning. Wittgenstein used the term “language-game” to designate forms of language simpler than the entirety of a language itself, “consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven” and connected by family resemblance (German: Familienähnlichkeit).

The concept was intended “to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life,” which gives language its meaning.

Wittgenstein develops this discussion of games into the key notion of a “language-game.”

Gödel saw that language has deep built-in ambiguities which were as puzzling as math and logic ones:

Gödel’s (died in 1978) incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modeling basic arithmetic. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics.

Take any simple sentence: say, “men now count.”

Without a human context of meaning, how would you ever decide if this means count in the sense of numeracy (one apple, two apples, etc.) or something entirely from another domain (i.e. males got the vote in a certain country and now “count” in that sense).

When you say, “count me in” or count me out,” how does that make any sense without idiomatic language exposure?

If you look at all the meanings of “count” in the dictionary and how many set phrases or idioms involve the word “count,” you will immediately get the sense that without a human “life-world” (to use a Husserl phrase), you could never be sure of any message or sentence at all involving such a fecund word.

One task of real education is to put these difficulties on the student’s plate and not avoid them.

Linguistics as such is not what’s at issue but rather a “meta-intelligent” sense of language, written or spoken as highly mysterious with or without the research into vocal cords, language genes (FOXP2, say) or auditory science and the study of palates or glottal stops and fricatives, grammars and syntax.

Seeing this promotes deep education (i.e., where understanding touches holism in an enchanting way).