Jan 062005

What’s alpha all about, Alfie? Why are you boring us with this?

The great biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a little book called Consilience, in which he argued that it was past time to apply the methods of science — notably quantification — to fields traditionally considered outside its purview, like ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Any blog reader can see that arguments on these subjects invariably devolve into pointless squabbling because no base of knowledge and no shared premises exist. Alpha theory is a stab at Wilson’s program.

What kind of science could possibly apply to human behavior?

Thermodynamics. Living systems can sustain themselves only by generating negative entropy. Statistical thermodynamics is a vast and complex topic in which you can’t very well give a course on a blog, but here’s a good introduction. (Requires RealAudio.)

Don’t we have enough ethical philosophies?

Too many. The very existence of competing “schools” is the best evidence of failure. Of course science has competing theories as well, but it also has a large body of established theory that has achieved consensus. No astronomer quarrels with Kepler’s laws of planetary orbits. No biologist quarrels with natural selection. Philosophers and aestheticians quarrel over everything. Leibniz, who tried to develop a universal truth machine, wrote someplace that his main purpose in doing so was to shut people up. I see his point.

Not a chance. Anyway, what’s alpha got that we don’t have already?

A universal maximization function derived openly from physical laws, for openers. Two of them. The first is for the way all living system ought to behave. The second is for the way they do behave. To put the matter non-mathematically, every living system maximizes its sustainability by following the first equation. But in practice, it is impossible to follow directly. Living beings aren’t mathematical demons and can’t calculate at the molecular level. They act instead on a model, a simplification. That’s the second equation. If the model is accurate, the living being does well for itself. If not, not.

Sounds kinda like utilitarianism.

Not really. But there are similarities. Like utilitarianism, alpha theory is consequentialist, maintaining that actions are to be evaluated by their results. (Motive, to answer a question in the previous comment thread, counts for nothing; but then why should it?) But utilitarianism foundered on the problem of commensurable units. There are no “utiles” by which one can calculate “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” This is why John Stuart Mill, in desperation, resorted to “higher pleasures” and “lower pleasures,” neatly circumscribing his own philosophy. Alpha theory provides the unit.

Alpha also accounts for the recursive nature of making decisions, which classical ethical theories ignore altogether. (For example, short circuiting the recursive process through organ harvesting actually reduces the fitness of a group.) Most supposed ethical “dilemmas” are arid idealizations, because they have only two horns: the problem has been isolated from its context and thus simplified. But action in the real world is not like that; success, from a thermodynamic perspective, requires a continuous weighing of the alternatives and a continuous adjustment of one’s path. Alpha accounts for this with the concept of strong and weak solutions and filtrations. Utilitarianism doesn’t. Neither does any other moral philosophy.

That said, Jeremy Bentham, would, I am sure, sympathize with alpha theory, were he alive today.

You keep talking about alpha critical. Could you give an example?

Take a live frog. If we amputate its arm, what can we say about the two separate systems? Our intuition says that if the frog recovers (repairs and heals itself) from the amputation, it is still alive. The severed arm will not be able to fully repair damage and heal. Much of the machinery necessary to coordinate processes and manage the requirements of the complicated arrangement of cells depends on other systems in the body of the frog. The system defined by the arm will rapidly decay below alpha critical. Now take a single cell from the arm and place it in a nutrient bath. Draw a volume around this cell and calculate alpha again. This entity, freed from the positive entropy of the decaying complexity of the severed arm, will live.

What about frogs that can be frozen solid and thawed? Are they alive while frozen? Clearly there is a difference between freezing these frogs and freezing a human. It turns out that cells in these frogs release a sugar that prevents the formation of ice crystals. Human cells, lacking this sugar, shear and die. We can use LHopitals Rule to calculate alpha as the numerator and denominator both approach some limiting value. As we chart alpha in our two subjects, there will come a point where the shearing caused by ice crystal formation will cause the positive entropy (denominator) in the human subject to spike through alpha critical. He will die. The frog, on the other hand, will approach a state of suspended animation. Of course, such a state severely reduces the frogs ability to adapt.

Or take a gas cloud. “You know, consider those gas clouds in the universe that are doing a lot of complicated stuff. What’s the difference [computationally] between what they’re doing and what we’re doing? It’s not easy to see.” (Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science.)

Draw a three-dimensional mesh around the gas cloud and vary the grid spacing to calculate alpha. Do the same for a living system. No matter how the grid is varied, the alpha of the random particles of the gas cloud will not remotely match the alpha of a living system.

Enough with the frogs and gas clouds. Talk about human beings.

Ah yes. Some of my commenters are heckling me for “cash value.” I am reminded of a blessedly former business associate who interrupted a class in abstruse financial math to ask the professor, “Yeah. But how does this get me closer to my Porsche?”

The first thing to recognize is that just about everything that you now believe is wrong, probably is wrong, in alpha terms. Murder, robbery, and the like are obviously radically alphadystropic, because alpha states that the inputs always have to be considered. (So does thermodynamics.) If this weren’t true you would have prima facie grounds for rejecting the theory. Evolution necessarily proceeds toward alpha maximization. Human beings have won many, many rounds in the alpha casino. Such universal rules as they have conceived are likely to be pretty sound by alpha standards.

These rules, however, are always prohibitions, never imperatives. This too jibes with alpha theory. Actions exist that are always alphadystropic; but no single action is always alphatropic. Here most traditional and theological thinking goes wrong. If such an action existed, we probably would have evolved to do it — constantly, and at the expense of all other actions. If alpha theory had a motto, it would be there are no universal strong solutions. You have to use that big, expensive glucose sink sitting in that thickly armored hemisphere between your ears. Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty” fumbles toward this, and you “cash value” types ought to be able to derive a theory of the proper scope of law without too much trouble.

Still more “cash value” lies in information theory, which is an application of thermodynamics. Some say thermodynamics is an application of information theory; but this chicken-egg argument does not matter for our purposes. We care only that they are homologous. We can treat bits the same way we treat energy.

Now the fundamental problem of human action is incomplete information. The economists recognized this over a century ago but the philosophers, as usual, have lagged. To put it in alpha terms, they stopped incorporating new data into their filtration around 1850.

The alpha equation captures the nature of this problem. Its numerator is new information plus the negative entropy you generate from it; its denominator is positive entropy, what you dissipate. Numerator-oriented people are always busy with the next new thing; they consume newspapers and magazines in bulk and seem always to have forgotten what they knew the day before yesterday. This strategy can work — sometimes. Denominator-oriented people tend to stick with what has succeeded for them and rarely, if ever, modify their principles in light of new information. This strategy can also work — sometimes. The great trick is to be an alpha-oriented person. The Greeks, as so often, intuited all of this, lacking only the tools to formalize it. It’s what Empedocles is getting at when he says that life is strife, and what Aristotle is getting at when he says that right action lies in moderation.

Look around. Ask yourself why human beings go off the rails. Is it because we are perishing in an orgy of self-sacrifice, as the Objectivists would have it? Is it because we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, as the Christians would have it? Or is it because we do our best to advance our interests and simply botch the job?

(Update: Marvin of New Sophists — a Spinal Tap joke lurks in that title — comments at length. At the risk of seeming churlish, I want to correct one small point of his generally accurate interpretation. He writes that “alpha is the negative entropy generated by a system’s behavioral strategy.” Not exactly. Alpha is the ratio between enthalpy plus negative entropy, in the numerator, and positive entropy, in the denominator. It is not measured in units of energy: it is dimensionless. That’s why I say life is a number, rather than a quantity of energy.)