The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the
Study of Antisemitism

Interdisciplinarity, Complexity and Prediction in Studies of Antisemitism: 
The View of a Scientist

Prof. Michael Finkenthal
Racah Institute of Physics
The Hebrew University, Jerusalem
(Lecture 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 such as: 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’.

The structure of the talk will be as follows:

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