Sunday, November 22, 2009

Humanity: hedgehog or fox?

Isaiah Berlin discusses an interesting paradigm for understanding different kinds of thinkers, the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog operates under a single vision while the fox incorporates many ideas into a worldview. Philip Tetlock applies this framework to an analysis of political predictors and finds that while all expert predictors are bad, foxes are not as bad as hedgehogs. The success of the fox is perhaps partly due to Bayesian updates, adjusting the synthesis-oriented worldview per new information, as opposed to the hedgehog being stuck trying to fit all new developments into the same model.

Humanity: hedgehog or fox?
It could be argued that so far all of human history has been organized around certain grand hedgehog visions such as mastery over matter, immortality or evolution, to name a few.

Mastery over Matter
Over time, humans have been continually demonstrating increasing mastery over matter. The current focus is on improving control of biology and indeed reengineering it with genomics and synthetic biology, matter with 3D printing and eventually molecular nanotechnology, the brain with fMRI technology and smart-drugs and space with a next-generation understanding of physics. Perhaps the most intense version of mastery over matter is the present focus on the biomolecular interface, the integration of organic and inorganic matter. However mastery over matter may not persist as a paradigm, a future redefinition could include mastery over information.

Immortality is another grand vision, persisting from the time of the Pharaohs and earlier to long-established religious beliefs to the contemporary notions of life extension, uploading and cryonics. In some sense, immortality is just another kind of mastery over matter.

Evolution is a strong paradigm, explaining many things, and connotes a higher order than just mastery over matter since not everything is matter. Evolution can examine more phenomena, including the progression of intelligence, possibly across substrates as is contemplated with artificial intelligence. However, despite myriad application attempts, it is not clear yet whether evolution can explain everything, for example the laws of physics and how the universe developed.

Since even in a simple analysis, no one model can explain everything and there are multiple ideas relating to a composite explanation of human activity, the conclusion would be that humanity bears more resemblance to the fox model than the hedgehog model. Tetlock’s finding that the multi-viewed more adaptable foxes are better could likely hold true for societies and humanity in general as well as for individuals.

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