Monday, June 2, 2014

China’s Missing Models


“Imagine that you arrive late at a party. Everyone is already there, sitting at a big round what appears to be some kind of a game. The host tells you to sit down and join in. Let’s say that you quite like playing poker, and you get excited at the prospect of participating, but you quickly realize that this is not poker...You turn around to consult the host, but he seems to have disappeared. You take a deep breath and keep quiet, not wanting to reveal your ignorance.., and you quietly continue to observe… you probably cannot work out the meaning of this game until you have seen a sufficient number of cards. But you start to ask yourself,...what is the main point of this activity? If it is a game, how do you win it, and if it’s not a game, what is the point of it?”

Vlatko Vedral, Decoding Reality

The original story, told by Italo Calvino, used the card game as the metaphor for life - that in life no one knows the truth, and given the signals we observed, we can only build models that approximate the truth. Since realities are infinitely complicated, by necessity models must be simple enough to live in our head. There is also no way to prove that a model is correct. We used to believe that all swans are white until the discovery of black swans in Australia. Since it’s only possible to prove a model wrong than right, all models are inherently speculative. Newton’s laws were correct until the speed of light was proved constant. Einstein’s theory can explain both but doesn’t apply to particles, that has to wait until quantum mechanics. Now we are onto the string theory and more...

Spurred by the scientific discoveries since the Renaissance, philosophy and social science also provide alternatives to Monotheism as the foundations of human morality. From Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, Hume, Wittgenstein, Marx,... we went from God’s words to common sense, passion, game theory, rationality, until the latest behavioral economics researches proved that humans are predictably irrational, and our inquiry into the origin of human morality continues.

So why do we bother with models if they lack such staying power? Why don’t we simply act and react to the environment, and let the nature select the outcome, just like the rest of the species do? The simple answer is models make us human. Of all the species on earth, we are probably the only specie that build models consciously, and adjust our behaviour accordingly, even though we know they are imperfect. Civilization advances not just by new inventions, but also by the search for new models. Periodic table was a speculation that predicts real elements, irrelevant math theory SU(3) predicts the layout of quarks. Google was built on a model called PageRank, Internet was the accidental byproduct of CERN, whose goal was to provide insights to fundamental physics models, and the list goes on and on...

2200 years ago, China used to have many models, until 220 BC when the first emperor united China (think Hitler united Europe). He killed all philosophy schools and only kept Legalism that suit his purpose. Subsequent emperors replaced Legalism with Confucianism, but still banned all other schools. For the last 2000 years, Confucianism was the only state sanctioned model (Buddhism and Taoism were tolerated but routinely persecuted). Confucianism dismissed all religion as superstitions and based its teachings on the founding myth that all ancient kings are sage, therefore we must obey the emperor. Confucians also insist on ingratiating themselves with the regime, unlike Mohism which built its own NGO to advance social good (and were persecuted to extinction because the state considered it a rivalry). Chinese people became heavily dependent on their government instead of NGOs/churches, and were reluctant to embrace religions or other philosophies. (Fewer than 20% Chinese are religious, as opposed to ~80% American)

The intolerance for multiple models explains the "The Needham Question", why China had been overtaken by the West in despite its earlier successes. “Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing, which Francis Bacon considered as the three most important inventions facilitating the West’s transformation from the Dark Ages to the modern world, were invented in China". Had China not banned its 100 schools of philosophies, just Mohism alone, which advocates science and compassion, could have started the Renaissance when Europe was still in the dark age.

The state monopoly of model resulted in serial state failures and society breakdowns that continued to this day. The 1911 revolution created the first democracy in Asia, but the new era’s motto “Traditions as core, western technology as utility” resulted in two decades of civil war because no factions wanted to share power. In 1949, Marxism became the new state model, until it went bankrupt in 1989. Since 1989 China had embraced the market capitalism and the motto: “Crossing the river by feeling the stone”, but no one knows what the other side is. The 2008 world financial crisis proved the market does not always work, and decades of single minded pursuit of GDP had lead to rampant corruptions and environmental degradations. The latest model “China Dream”, according to Evan Osnos, is about “a state and its citizens bursting with aspiration toward an undefined goal”.

The search for working models has been the central issue of Chinese modernization effort since 17th century, and it has been hampered by state interferences and deep culture reluctance to embrace religions, philosophy, or pretty much anything that is not rational. But rationality is just a mean, not an end to itself. The objective of models cannot be just numbers since many important things in life are not even  measurable. America was founded based on “..Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Self-evident truths? Unalienable rights? Creator? Happiness? All men are equal? This entire statement is irrational, except Life, yet it addresses the most central question: “Why we live?” If you think America’s founders are hopelessly romantic, Kahneman and Tversky proved we are predictably irrational, humans have so many cognitive biases and pitfalls that believing in human rationality is like worshiping our 3 billion neurons as God, and China had been down this path before.

In the 12th century, after seeing enough despotic rulers to finally give up on the myth of the sage kings, Neo-Confucian scholars tried to reset human morality on the ‘firm’ ground of rationality(理學) instead of the Great Teacher’s fairy tales. “Humans were as big as heaven and earth, it’s just that we belittle ourselves”. Elevating one’s own rationality to deity, Confucian elites became narcissists who think they are entitled to their own success. One of the most important Neo Confucian scholar, Zhu Xi, persecuted Buddhists as a high official, and even tortured a prostitute who refused to incriminate his political opponent. This goes to show Confucian rationality has nothing to do with conscience or compassion. Like the alpha males of a chimp colony, the Neo-Confucian elite became ignorant of the sufferings of others, and the society became fragile and unable to meet environmental or external challenges. The legacy of rational entitlement still lives today: China/HK/Taiwan now have the same number of billionaires as US, yet only one Taiwanese billionaire signed Bill Gate’s Giving Pledge, as opposed to hundreds in US. Recently one of the richest Taiwanese billionaires died and left nothing to charity, and let his four wives and dozen children suing each other over his hidden overseas assets. Will a society without compassion last? Can the invisible hand come to the rescue in time of crisis?

Even Adam Smith wasn’t so optimistic. “Each one of us, being totally selfish, can paradoxically contributed to our overall well-beings”, yet Smith also held the professorship of moral philosophy, and he’s prouder of his other work “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. The great depression of 1929 and 2008 proved that invisible hand still requires bailout from the common people. Picketty’s latest book shows that a rational market is not sustainable even when it works, because in the long run the return of capital will outstrip all others. Without the irrational wealth redistribution by the government through progressive tax and welfare, or donations to charities, a market based society simply will not last. Mariner Eccles, a mormon Republican banker from Utah who became the federal reserve chairman under Roosevelt, concluded that The Great Depression was like a poker game in which the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and the game stopped when most players had to leave the table. He campaigned for increased public spending to create jobs to end the depression, but eventually it was Hitler who did the job by starting WWII that employed everyone. Eccles’s descendants are still one of the largest charity donors in Utah today. When driving in Salt Lake City, one cannot help but noticing numerous Eccles sport stadiums, science centers, libraries, olympic park, performance center, etc.. It is totally irrational to make all these billions only to give them away, yet hundreds of US billionaires pledge to give away majority of their wealth, so their society, and democracy, can last.

The search for modern China is the search for the missing models, some will be new, some will be old (Mohism is amazingly modern), and the responsibility must lie with each individual, not the state. Some objectives of these models will be irrational, like compassion, happiness and faiths. Some will seek the truths that are never attainable, like why do the world exist, why we live, etc. Whatever they are, they must incorporate all human experiences and tolerate our differences. In this age of globalization, to build models based on a failed state-sponsored philosophy, and 2000 years of censored history which concerns mostly despotic rulers instead of the common people, is like building a prediction model for global market based on a bankrupt luxury good company. That model had failed and will fail again. After all, all human beings are the children of the same African mother only 150,000 years ago, our common mother would probably think we are really not that different, neither should our models be.