Tuesday, December 16, 2003

order and disorder

With thanks to Anticipatory Retaliation, where the Missile Man has begun his promised Mother of All Screeds on the nature of war (read the prolegomena here). This first post begins the discussion at the level of order and disorder-- even beginning with the opening verses of Genesis, in which the Hebrew term tohuvavohu, "chaos," appears (and is often rendered in English as "without form and void," inadvertently supporting the nonscriptural idea of creatio ex nihilo-- creation of everything from absolutely nothing). The Hebrew image is in fact about God's creating order from chaos-- something that process theology (derived from A.N. Whitehead's process philosophy) has seized on in its description of the God-world relationship as one of co-evolution, mutual influence, and maybe even co-eternality.

Some excerpts from the AR post, beginning with a fantastic opening:

From a certain point of view, the only really important characteristics of our physical universe are order and disorder. The difference between these two things is Very Important. The way that they are related and operate is, perhaps, the only thing of real importance in conflict, or even life.


The essential distinction between something that is ordered and disordered is whether or not a specific, designated outcome is obtained, rather any one of the infinite number of possible arbitrary random results. Conversely, disorder can be viewed as capricious randomness. For example, one of the most common ways to talk about disorder in conflict is to talk of the proverbial “Fog of War.” In the world of physics, an increase in temperature goes with an increase in disorder, since the molecules that were formerly jostling against each other start crashing around like a room full of Chihuahuas on methamphetamines. Which would be a very disorderly room full of dogs, indeed. In both cases, an increase in disorder is essentially an increase in the amount of arbitrary randomness.


The relationship between order and systems is what makes entropy spectacularly important for the understanding of warfare. To understand systems, we have to take an extraordinarily brief glance at the history of our understanding of nature and systems (like order and disorder, this theme will reappear and we’ll be mentioning it from time to time as we proceed).

With the enlightenment and discovery of the scientific method, we really started to change our appreciation and basic knowledge of systems. Without getting into the gory details, with the discovery of the scientific method, people developed the idea that systems were deterministic. Thus, our understanding of systems was limited by our ability to discover the underlying rules at work and the ability to provide sufficiently detailed calculations to work out all the variables and unknowns. This deterministic world of Marx and Newton operates under the notion that given sufficient initial information and adequate computational power, the entire future of the universe could be determined from its starting conditions.

With the discovery of quantum physics and more advanced mathematics, folks came to realize that some things were just fundamentally unknowable. Revolutionary new ideas, like those expressed in the Paradox of Schroedinger’s Cat, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem to name a few, eroded the very notion that systems were deterministic, well-behaved and polite. At this point, since the idea that the outcome of a system could be determined by initial inputs had taken hold the other option that these ideas put into play is that if something is not a deterministic system, then it must be totally random, and hence totally unpredictable.

There's loads more. Go read the rest.

My own question, one I've had for a long time, is whether "order" and "disorder" are subjective or objective. So I tried writing in a series of questions to the Man Himself, but his comments feature only allows posts of no more than 1000 characters. You know me: 1000 characters is barely a single sentence when I write. So instead of posting a thread of comments there, I belched that I'd post the entire comment here on my blog.

And here the comment is, somewhat edited.

Quasi-epistemological question rooted in near-total ignorance of the topic:

Does the term "information," as in the sentence

"Something that is ordered contains more information than something random,"

imply subjectivity? Information strikes me as meaningful only if we posit someone who's being informed.

Are order and disorder to be viewed as "objectively" different-- i.e., different whether anyone's around to perceive them or not-- or are order and chaos simply functions of the mind?

Let's say you've got a computer animation simulating the motion of gas molecules. You do a freeze-frame of the animation and isolate eight molecules that, if you connect the dots, form the vertices of a perfect cube-- something I, with my conventional terminology, would describe as an "ordered/orderly pattern."

Let's say that that freeze-frame is the first thing I see on your screen, so my first impression is that I'm viewing "order." But then we hit "play" and zoom the camera back, and suddenly I realize that those eight molecules are lost in a larger, chaotic activity (I don't know if "pattern" is the right word for this). Given what I now know about the larger context, I think to myself, "What appeared to be order is in fact chaotic."

But is it "in fact" chaotic, or rather, is it orderly/chaotic depending on my perception of the context?

This is why I'm wondering whether notions of order and chaos are objective. To me, they seem very subjective and relational. For practical purposes, they're meaningful terms, like all terms that help us navigate reality. But I'm not seeing clearly whether they have any fundamental weight.

As you might guess, this is a question predicated on Buddhist metaphysical assumptions. Obviously I have my prejudices about order and chaos and terminology, but I am, to be frank, completely clueless about things like systems and information theory. Maybe I'm experiencing static because I don't know what underlies the lingo.

A second question, related to the first. I've heard this contention that something random contains "less information" than something that isn't random-- i.e., something ordered. I find this counter-intuitive, probably because I'm not understanding how these terms-- "random," "ordered," and "information"-- are being used.

A typical example given to demonstrate how a random phenomenon contains less information than an ordered one is that of a pile of fallen leaves. If we were writing a computer program that assumed our physical laws, we might write a leaf-pile program that contained only a couple lines:

1. Hold leaf over spot X at altitude Y.
2. Drop leaf.
3. Repeat (1) and (2) 5000 times.

This would be different from, say, trying to write a program (again, one that assumes laws of nature) to create a leaf-pattern version of the Mona Lisa-- an image intelligible to us as a recognizable pattern, and therefore, conventionally speaking, ordered.

Obviously, you'd need way more lines of code for the leaf-Mona Lisa program than for the leaf-pile program. This is why it's contended that random phenomena contain "less information."

The reason I call this counter-intuitive is that the leaf pile, once completed, represents a pattern that, if we tried to replicate it EXACTLY, would require way more lines of code than creating a leaf-Mona Lisa.

This also relates to the question of whether order and chaos aren't simply functions of the mind. The MAKING of the leaf-pile, using the simple leaf-pile program, is random and doesn't require lots of coding. The REPLICATING of that exact leaf-pile is now a nonrandom activity/process and requires a ton more coding. So-- does the leaf pile in question contain a lot or only a little information, and how do the respective leaf-piles, Random and Replicated, compare in informational complexity to Mona Lisa?

My prejudiced answer: it seems like the leaf pile's informational content depends greatly on how WE approach it-- i.e., order/complexity/chaos are subjective matters.

A third question! You mention "outcomes" in relation to order, which seems to imply things like motion, space-time, etc. Does this mean the terms "order" and "disorder" shouldn't be applied to static phenomena? After all, we don't usually think of a still painting in terms of outcomes. The painting's image isn't going anywhere (I mean that in the conventional sense; I'm not concerned with the quantum realities of the painting here).

Any enlightenment would be appreciated. I'm doubtless misusing terms that have specific meanings in the context of your post, and I grant in advance that whether order and disorder are objective or subjective realities may not make any material difference in your larger argument. These questions are primarily for clarification's sake.

If anyone else would like to take a stab at my questions from a scientific or philosophical (or other) perspective, please write in. I'll definitely post your response.


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