Navigating Change I

Physics has never been able to precisely solve the 3-body problem. This means that, even under ideal conditions, a mathematical model cannot be built to send a space ship to the moon without making corrections in the flight path during the trip. In the real world, where there are many and changing factors, these models are even more problematic whether it is plotting a trip across the country or projecting the fate of the economy over time. This is not even considering what Taleb has called “Black Swans” or unexpected events, beneficial or catastrophic.

We know that mammals and insects do have the ability to navigate long distance and that this knowledge is passed onto offspring. The Monarch butterfly is a paradigmatic example given the generational changes during its long migrations. How this is encoded and passed forward is still not known.

The psychologist Endel Tulving has defined two forms of memory, semantic, factual knowledge and episodic which is knowledge of past experienced events. Interestingly, the two have been linked to two parts of the human brain. While this is of interest in psychology and neurophysiology, for purposes of navigation, episodic memory appears to allow humans to develop trends into the near term future, an area that has yet to be fully explored. What is known is that this ability to abstract into the future develops in children at an early age where they can start asking questions such as “what if”. The memory “forward” has been suggested and then rejected that such capabilities reside in primates. Thus, humans, for the moment, seem to be the only mammals with episodic futures thinking.

The episodic future thinking appears to be linked to past memory and thus is a form of trend analysis. One can draw a parallel with the work of Kahneman as described in his volume, Thinking Fast and Slow. Thinking fast is the intuitive, which, in the end, appears to be based on the perception and transfer forward of the past. The best linking example might be the metaphor of the chess masters walking past a game in the park and remarking that White can win in two moves. The idea is that experience is a manifestation of episodic memory taken forward.

Economics with its focus on models is an excellent example. Many years ago French students questioned their professors as to why their models were believed when it was clear that they have catastrophic failures. The students raised such a disturbance that the faculty were called before the legislature to explain. The result was to see a rise, internationally, of what is now called heterodox economics and the many alternative measures of economic progress and well being in society.

Complexity theory tells us that, depending on the time scale being modeled that all components should be considered as variables. That means both the conventional variables as well as the “constants” defining the relationship between variables. Again, this points out a critical factor in navigating the future. This is the fact that a model can only be run once because there is a reasonable possibility that when that first step has been taken, both the variables and “constants” may have changed. This affects the ship navigating the world, the world itself and the map describing the world and by that which the navigation is created.

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