BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Ervin László’s (1991) The Age of Bifurcation [Part 1]

31 January 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Here, we have to separate the wheat of chaos theory (bifurcations) from the chaff of political self-interestedness, just as when reading certain older texts from anthropology: we may take the empirical observations while rejecting the interpretations of those observations. László’s summary on the state of environmental degradation (in 1991) for instance contains heaps of solid information, but he presents this data as a justification for intervening anew and now with chaos theory—he seems to care about these things more as a point in his argument than for the issues themselves. How do we guard against the unintended undesirable uses of ideas?

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this already, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Ervin László’s (1991)[2] The Age of Bifurcation [Part 1]

Of Ervin László, one of the more visible characters in the world of integral theory—a philosophy promoted by Ken Wilber that began as a transpersonal psychology but now “seeks a synthesis of the best of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern reality”[3]—Gidley (2007)[4] has this to say:

A major distinction appears to be that László (2007)[5] builds his general evolution theory in a more formal, systematic manner. He claims that he built significantly on the theoretical traditions of Whitehead’s process theory, Bertalanffy’s general system theory and Prigogine’s non-linearly bifurcating dissipative structures (164). Wilber’s process appears to have been much broader and more diverse—but perhaps less systematic—gathering together as many theorists in as many fields of knowledge as he could imagine, then arranging them according to the system that he developed—which he calls an integral operating system (2004)[6]. Another difference is that although they both appear to use imagination and intuition in the construction of their theoretical approaches, Wilber does not make this explicit whereas László  does (18, italics in original).

I note that Gidley, as President of the World Futures Studies Federation when she wrote the above, may have a partiality to László’s ostensibly more scientific approach, given that the this book itself comprises part of the World Futures General Evolution Studies Series. All the same, it remains rather fair to accuse Wilber of a very pronounced tendency toward fuzzy thinking while Laszlo prefers to wrap his fuzzy talk in harder sounding science terms.

Even so, all of this points to the forefronting of politics and ideological disputation that we will see in the opening chapter (discussed below). In other words, no “neutral’ discussion of ideas goes on here but gets implicated in its politics.

This framing in the background, the basic approach here involves the attempt to incorporate chaos theory, in a broad sense, or non-equilibrium dynamics (in the physical world) to a broader analysis in more domains. Thus, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Ilya Prigogine (1991)[7] notes:

Ideas about the role of time in natural science have changed radically. One may recall the Heisenberg paradigm expressed in quantum uncertainty relations. This was indeed a fundamental step: quantum mechanics was essentially the first science to be forced to give up the deterministic description. The process was difficult. Einstein, for example, was opposed to the statistical character of quantum mechanics; in one of his last papers he wrote that uncertainty applied only to the microscopic problems described in quantum mechanics; in the macroscopic world, he was certain determinism continued to be the rule. On this point the developments of the last few decades do not support Einstein’s belief (ix).

This dignifying statement by a world-class scientist notwithstanding, integral theory (whether by László or Wilber) does not concern (only) the physical world but the social world as well, so that if Wilber loses in empirical verifiability, the greater objection to his work hinges on its explanatory vapidity. However, it may yet prove even more misleading, if not dangerous, that what László gains in terms of explanatory terminology—borrowed in its way from Whitehead’s process theory, Bertalanffy’s general system theory and Prigogine’s non-linearly bifurcating dissipative structures—he loses in terms of its empirical applicability in the non-physical (i.e., social) world.

This may sound merely too clever by half. In introducing the concept of bifurcation (lucidly enough) in his first chapter, he concludes with an vacuous fantasia that willy-nilly slaps the notion of bifurcation onto historical circumstances:

In the last forty years, there have been two great waves of such flow-triggered bifurcations. Both were acclaimed as humanistic and long overdue reforms, and both proceeded from praiseworthy motivations. Yet both encountered unexpected problems and had entirely unforeseen consequences. The first of these waves unfolded under the aegis of “decolonization,” and the second under that of “glasnost” (9).

Three major objections arise from this. First—and technically the least of the objections because it involves the lowest stakes, but in another the most severe objection, because it rightly calls into question the very premises of the attempt that László wants to make here—the relevance and application of the term bifurcation here remains so vague and diffuse as to have no explanatory force whatsoever. Quite literally any crisis or historical development one’s gaze turns to could get labeled a bifurcation in these terms.

Second, and much more seriously by comparison, concerns László’s choice of examples—he has already emphasized the Russian revolution (but not the French), the collapse of Weimar Germany (but not the US depress), and the Maoist revolution in China; “similar instabilities have rocked Cuba, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Angola, Iran, and the Philippines” (8).

One can hardly miss the odor of orientalism that chooses to emphasize these examples, and especially decolonization and glasnost while overlooking the various “bifurcations” unleashed upon the Western hemisphere by US/Anglo/Israeli neoliberal economic policy—the revolutionary heavings-off of which we have lately witnessed in the various Arab Springs, in Chavez’s Venezuela, and Morales’s Bolivia, just to highlight three examples. One may read Klein’s (2007)[8] Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism to see the contemporaneously parallel viciousness of capitalism during the same period as Soviet Russia to fill in the ideologically historical gap that László omits to mention.

Third, and this stems from the second objection, the characterizations and descriptions of decolonization and glasnost want to describe stresses on the systems but don’t want to talk about where those stresses originate. In the domain of decolonization, which I have more information about, the intentionally destructive withdrawal of the colonialists following their bitter ouster made them typically act in very bad faith toward the former colonies. In South Africa, for instance, while attempting to negotiate in good faith for a good government, former politicians engaged in secret economic negotiations that helped to critically harm the new South African economy and government. In Poland during the time of Solidarność—a case László does not mention—once again, neoliberal forces secured a betrayal of the progressive and humanistic vectors developing at the time.

To leave these sorts of factors out of any analysis of a historical circumstance, and to talk as László does as the example below illustrates seems very dubious: once decolonization

opened the floodgates[,] global flows of information, technology, trade, and people caught the unprepared newly liberated people in a disorienting and disrupting vortex. With but few exceptions, they fragmented and polarized, and were unable to set society and economy along the path of socioeconomic development. … Foreign powers and multinational corporations exploited the situation for their own purposes (9)

Incorrect. Foreign powers and multinational corporations set the initial stages for this situation, not simply in the history of colonization itself, of course, but in the very way they removed resources, depleted opportunities, and generally impoverished their foreign territories. From the very beginning, the foreign powers acted in anything but good faith toward their former holdings and actively worked to make failure not only an option but the optimal outcome. And that continues to this very day.

All of this makes very dubious László’s purpose or goal. At best, it seems like kissing up; his organization does have, after all, considerable ties with UNESCO. But these political issues aside, he also feints methodologically in a very dubious direction as well.

László describes how “the term bifurcation, in its most significant sense, refers to the transition of a system from the dynamic regime of one set of attractors, generally more stable and simpler ones, to the dynamic regime of a set of more complex and ‘chaotic’ attractors” (6); I have no objection to this.

He further describes (from the mathematical not physical theory of bifurcations) how different bifurcations exhibit different dynamics, from subtle (smooth and gradual), to catastrophic (abrupt and a product of excessive system stress), to explosive, which occur due to “sudden and discontinuous factors that wrench the system out of one regime and into another” (6). We might note in passing then how he attempts to describe decolonization in terms of a catastrophic bifurcation—a result of system stress—when the history of those situations more support an explanation in terms of an explosive bifurcation, due to the socially wrenching acts of foreign powers on the social dynamics of various decolonized societies.

László then describes how, having settled into a new dynamic regime, a given system may fluctuate “between discrete values in the regime (known as a Turing bifurcation), or the system may fluctuate wildly among many values, failing to settle on any one or set of values (in which case we are dealing with a Hopf bifurcation)” (6). Or “the bifurcation may be simply a transitory stage by which the system passes through a regime in order to find a new area of stability, in which case the bifurcation is a “window” to a stable dynamic regime for the system” (6).  I want to mention again this represents a mathematical not a physical theory, though in saying so I do not negate whatever utility or application one might wrest out of mathematical biology, &c. It does mean that any attempt to pretend—as László does here—that we might simply analogize or switch to the social domain involves two degrees of illegitimacy. Whatever value mathematical biology might have, it applies statistically to deterministic (living) material only as a model; that we might then use that model as a model for a model of the (non-physical) human social world sounds silly even to say, much less propose.[9]

Laszlo summarizes this process of social transformation generally:

The system proceeds in its stable state along well-formulated trajectories, until one parameter exceeds a threshold limit. At that point, the trajectory forks and the system enters a region of [its operation] where it behaves differently and assumes new and different values. It follows another trajectory, dancing to the tune of new attractors. It is important, however, that in the course of their evolution, complex nonequilibrium systems describe a trajectory in their phase space marked by a definite pattern. When bifurcation occurs, the fact that we cannot predict the exact trajectory it will take does not prevent us from seeing and predicting basic patterns that the evolving system will display over time (6, italics added).

Once again, we must remain very punctilious about any sort of elision from a mathematical model to any claims made about the physical world. On the one hand, no shortage of mathematicians continue to investigate mathematical models of complex nonequilibriums—like the Hopf bifurcation—to investigate how they behave (in computer simulations). On the other hand, we readily observe in the real world no shortage of phenomena and dynamics that lend themselves to descriptions in terms of complex nonequilibriums—or, even more precisely: phenomena that utterly defeat the sort of linear determinism that Einstein so religiously insisted upon.

But the vastest difference consists in this: because we build our mathematical complex nonequilibriums (on paper, in computers), this permits us to assume in advance (1) their deterministic quality, but also (2) a certain degree of knowledge about them. By contrast, for every example we believe we see in nature, we can neither (1) verify the assumption of determinism, nor (2) ground claims to know “about” the variables of the dynamics involved.

This does not mean, of course, that models can tell us nothing—though it does mean that models never “are true”; the upshot arises, rather, in the question of when and under what conditions we may apply a model. To find an application where a Hopf bifurcation allows us to identify a limit cycle as it appears out of an unstable equilibrium represents a vastly different situation than claiming some sort of predictive value from this concept in a developing historical circumstance in human culture.

To get less fussy, rather by definition complex nonequilibriums remain unpredictable, even as we assume (rightly in mathematical models, dubiously in non-mathematical models) a determinism in play. Thus, when László claims, “When bifurcation occurs, the fact that we cannot predict the exact trajectory it will take does not prevent us from seeing and predicting basic patterns that the evolving system will display over time” (6), he engages in a piece of bad faith and offers a wildly premature claim.[10] By this, he pretends (I have no nicer word for it) that the assumed determinism of the mathematic models may get safely assumed in non-physical human (social) settings.

The whole world history of failure to predict in those cases where the outcomes were (on principle) assumed as simple and linear certainly (1) mocks such overly audacious claims, but should also (2) add that much more caution and skepticism to such claims in a domain where complex nonequilibriums and chaos generally, rather by definition, make prediction impossible. At best, the only kind of intervention one might make in such a circumstance would occur after the fact, such that understanding the character of chaotic dynamics might allow us to mitigate any catastrophic and explosive outcomes and hopefully steer things toward a subtle (gradual and gentle) change. Certainly by no means not “seeing and predicting basic patterns that the evolving system will display over time” (6). As soon as we enter such a domain where we can see or predict, then we have either (1) moved out of chaotic dynamics in the first place, or (2) have delusionally come to believe that our model has more “truth” than reality itself.

As a final note, I spoke with a mathematician to confirm that I had not fatally misunderstood the distinction described above between mathematical and physical systems and the inappropriateness of extending those mathematical models to two levels of remove into the non-physical realm of human social life.

I do believe that chaos theory gives us a powerful way to address things our otherwise linear methods can only fail to get at, but in the human social realm, we must as resolutely resist the sort of positivist reductionism László would resort to under the guise of nonlinear dynamics just as strenuously as we resist such positivist reductionism in its linear guises, like Wilson’s (1975)[11] sociolinguistics—“ which is based on the assumption that social behavior has resulted from evolution and attempts to explain and examine social behavior within that context” (from here)—Dawkins’s (1976)[12] selfish gene, Canetti’s (1960)[13] pseudo-sociology and quasi-anthropology, and even Jung’s (1962)[14] pother on language when he claims to locate in current-day language the remnants of previous primordial signaling and the like.[15]

László closes the first section of his book “The Path to the Precipice” with a section on responsibilities. He specifically points to how scientists, in a post-Bomb era, have sometimes seriously questioned the pretense of “neutrality” in their work and science generally. He adds, “It is time for businessmen, no less than politicians, to factor the human condition into their day-to-day decisions” (34), meaning that a similar responsibility exists for those with the political and financial power to question the pretense of the “neutrality” of the market as well; a call, made in 1991, that has since gone not just unheeded but scoffingly dismissed, as neoliberal disaster capitalism (or disastrous capitalism) has continued to destroy everything in its path, while sweeping that destruction under the carpet.

His point, however, remain well-taken, but it remains unclear to what extent he takes his own advice. He never speaks of his own responsibilities, but only advances that his approach to chaos theory will permit the predicting of the unpredictable. I parody his argument only slightly, because he might insist—more reasonably sounding—that he claims no ability to predict, but only to make interventions into otherwise catastrophic or explosive bifurcations. Any such softening of blows, however, occur by definition only after the fact—and maybe that proves sooner after the fact, more swiftly reactive than the usual clunky behemoth of social mechanisms we already have, but still it remains after the fact: the very opposite of prediction. It seems then not just irresponsible but actively duplicitous to claim otherwise and that seems contrary to any genuinely meant call for responsibility.

endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] László, E. (1991). The age of bifurcation: understanding the changing world. (World Futures General Evolution Studies Vol. 3). Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, pp. i–xvii, 1–126.

[3] Esbjörn-Hargens, S. (2010). Introduction. In Esbjörn-Hargens (ed.) integral theory in action: applied, theoretical, and constructive perspectives on the AQAL model. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[4] Gidley, J. (2007) The evolution of consciousness as a planetary imperative: an integration of integral views, Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research and Praxis, 5: 4–226.

[5] László, E. (2007). Science and the akashic Field: an integral theory of everything. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

[6] Wilber, K. (2004). Introduction to integral theory and practice: IOS basic and the AQAL map. Retrieved January 5, 2005, from http://www.integralnaked.org

[7] Prigogine, I. (1991). Foreword. In László (1991). The age of bifurcation: understanding the changing world. (World Futures General Evolution Studies Vol. 3), pp. ix–xii. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach

[8] Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.

[9] This trend, to less and less take reality as a starting point for supposedly scientific investigation, has become a major tendency in institutional perpetuation. The most widely known and notorious case of this involve String Theory, which even the man (or woman) in the street knows proposes  currently untestable model, the equations of which themselves remain unknown and only hypothetical. In other words, it comprises a search for a description of a model not the physical world. Whether this represents an example of religion of Lysenkoism may remain a point of debate.

[10] And thus a dangerous one. Already the economic technocrats flounder blindly in the dark at the “helm” of the economy. It might seem like a random policy change could turn out as effective as one supposedly rationally arrived at. One senses that attempting to apply chaos theory at the scale of whole human systems would result more in chaos, in the popular and undesirable sense.

[11] Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[12] Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

[13] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback)

[14] Jung, C. G. (1962). Symbols of transformation: an analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. New York: Harper.

[15] Because Jung takes a phenomenological position usually, to ascribe positivist conceits to his claims in this regard might go wide of the mark. But even as he offers this as a hermeneusis ( means of interpretation) and not a statement of fact, the notion of eternal and unchanging archetypes, of the “universality” of human beings, even as an interpretative framework, may quickly become problematic. When rendered literally, the notion of human nature serves as a foundation for eugenics and thus gestures of ethnic cleansing, &c.

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