The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the
Study of Antisemitism
Complexity and Prediction in Studies of Antisemitism:
The View of a Scientist
Racah Institute of Physics
The Hebrew University, Jerusalem
for the SICSA Workshop, Jerusalem, May 18, 1997)
‘Being devoid of any future, man’s
main endeavor is prophecy’ wrote a cynical moralist in the twentieth century.
In spite of numberless failures we keep trying to understand what happened
in the past and aim at predicting our future. Are understanding and prediction
possible in the complicated world we live in? It is commonplace to recognize
that the world in which we presently live, and the conceptual frame in
which we describe it, are ‘complex’.
Researchers often assume that they
study ‘complex systems’, but a rigorous definition of this concept and,
more importantly, its methodological and practical implications are lacking
in most cases. Relativization and deconstruction (in what some of us call
‘modern’, some ‘post-modern’ world), are reactions to an acutely felt (and
resented) complexity; however, once the object of research is thoroughly
‘dissected’, we are left most of the time only with a scatter of ‘dead’
parts. In essence, this research is ‘linear’ and reductionist.
Science has practiced very successfully
the reductionist method. We know it, we live by its consequences, one might
say. But today, science too is taking a different approach in its attempts
to understand ‘complex systems’. One talks in this context about ‘non-linearity’,
‘chaos’ and ‘attractors’, about ‘feedback dominated systems’.
These are ‘tools’ and ways of thinking which have been developed for the
analysis of such complex systems as living organisms and/or intricate psychic
or social and economic structures. Initially these ‘tools’ have been developed
in physics to understand the dynamics of non-linear processes in nature.
In very simple terms, such processes and their initial conditions are not
sufficient to predict their future evolution. For a simple illustration
one may consider the system consisting of the sun, the planets and their
moons, that is the planetary system. Poincare had come -- almost one hundred
years ago already -- to the conclusion that due to its complexity such
a system may, at some point in time, become unstable. In modern parlance,
we would call it a ‘chaotic system’. In a system governed by non-linear
dynamics, predictability acquires a different meaning than in a Laplacian
world (Laplace believed that given the Newtonian laws of motion, the initial
conditions of the universe and enough time to perform the computations,
he could predict the future of the universe to the end of the days).
The main question we would like to
address is this:
Of course, the common-sensical answer
is certainly not. It would be a futile attempt to suggest such a
thing. As the cynical moralist quoted above (Cioran) indicated, man will
never be able to suppress the ‘hidden prophet’ existing inside himself.
For one, he (the ‘hidden prophet’) is our guide on the treacherous paths
of this worldly existence; but more importantly, the urge to know ourselves
and the world surrounding us is probably one of the strongest instincts
in human beings. In that respect, like Sisyphus, we will keep carrying,
for a future, regardless our chances of success.In this lecture (maybe
another Sisyphic attempt), I will show that chaotic systems can be described
in comprehensible terms and that there are new and different ways to understand
‘predictability’. Valid information about complex systems is obtainable;
we begin to understand the shapes of leaves as well as that of continents.
Scientists are in the process of finding ways to describe systems as they
evolve toward organization, from ‘being’ to becoming’. How far can we go
on these new paths, we do not know yet. We know even less how useful these
new approaches will be in domains outside those of the so called ‘natural
sciences’.The message I will try to convey is simple: If we agree that
the objects of our study are ‘complex systems’, we must be prepared to
seriously consider methodological changes in our research. Maybe these
changes will, in turn, lead to a change in paradigm. I think that is premature
to discuss this now; for the moment we will limit ourselves to a few questions
Are the ‘complex
systems’ studied by historians, sociologists, economists, psychologists,
researchers in the field of history of culture non-linear, chaotic systems?
And if we find
them such, does this imply that they are unpredictable and therefore incomprehensible?
Should we give
up our research projects in these and many other domains of human and social
Can we define
‘complex systems’ in humanities or social sciences in the same way the
natural scientists do?
Most probably the conclusion will be
that new tools will have to be invented for the specific needs of all the
domains of research outside the ‘natural sciences’.
will we be able to use the already available ‘tools’ physicists use?
The structure of the talk will be
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In the first part of my talk, I shall
try to explain as shortly and as clearly as possible the nature of complex
systems, and the concepts developed in their context (or the ‘tools’, as
I called them at times). The main purpose of this part is to clarify the
meaning of ‘predictability’ in such systems.
In the second part of the talk, I will
relate to a few ideas which have been brought forth in the previous talks,
such as ‘pendulation’, ‘latent antisemitism’, ‘characteristic time constants’
for the development of antisemitic outbursts or their decay.
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