The Elephant’s Child and the Theory of Non-Elephants

Sometimes I wander the Dark Forest of Twitter like Kipling’s Elephant’s Child and pester the twitterati with my bothersome ‘satiable curtiousity…Sometimes I just drift in the datastream, soaking up information.

But this week I had an especially annoying question–

Why would you play a game that you can never win?  An expensive game?

One answer I got was “survival”– another answer was “have to do something”.  The reason I ask is because America played this game before– in VietNam.  And there is no “winning” for America in this.  The only way to win is not to play.

In VietNam US understood fairly early that it was playing a game it could never win (for example, the “crossover point” is Xeno’s paradox: US could never kill enough VietCong to make them give up, even by dropping 640 Hiroshimas on them).  But US continued playing exactly the same way until the electorate of the US realized VietNam was a CAT game and withdrew support.  This occurred partly because of Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers, and partly because of television and the draft.  The war became non-costviable.  The current war on the Islamic State will end the same way– once the electorate realizes the war is unwinnable they will withdraw support…or possibly Econopalypse 2.0 arrives first.  And the gamespace is even more biased towards the Islamic State than it was towards the Cong– regional population demographics for Sunni youth will provide an endless resupply of recruits for the State until well past midcentury.  Also social media connectivity continuously frags the US narrative that “we are winning, honest we are.”

The core problem with the ceaseless US attempt to impose secular capitalist democracy and western moral values on indigenous populations in third world countries is it can never work.  Because the coarsest scale of homo sapiens sapiens is ALWAYS strictly greater than 1.  We are not all one.  There are no universal human rights.  There are no universal moral values.  There are only organism level rights and values.  And that is what we call in mathematics an impossible problem.  And in reality it is called an unwinnable war.

Which brings us to the study of non-elephants.

“…On the other hand, no general theory for large non-equilibrium systems exists.  The legendary Hungarian mathematician John Von Neuman once referred to the theory of non-equilibrium systems as the “theory of non-elephants” meaning there could be no unique theory of such a vast area of science.” Per Bak, How Nature Works

Now in the 21st century, a sizable chunk of the math/science community is doing just that– devoting itself to the study of non-elephants in order to advance science and mathematics.  We stand on the shoulders of giants– Benoit Mandelbrot, Per Bak, Yaneer Bar Yam, Von Neuman and Feynman.   And Michael Baranger.

The paradigms of sandpile collapse, avalanches, complexity, emergence and self-organizing criticality likely extend from subatomics to galaxies and metaverses…but the places where humanity could most benefit are the studies of climatology and conflict.  We simply have to stop poisoning ourselves and killing each other.  And for US in MENA, that means leaving the Game.

Chaos is a very big subject. There are many technical papers. Many theorems have been proved. But complexity is much, much bigger. It contains lots of ideas which have nothing to do with chaos. Chaos is basically pure mathematics, and by now it is fairly well-known. Complexity is almost totally unknown still. It is not really math. It is more like theoretical physics, or theoretical anything. Of course, once it is in good shape, it will use a lot of math, perhaps a lot of new math. So the field of chaos is a very small subfield of the field of complexity. Perhaps the most striking difference between the two is the following. A complex system always has several scales. While chaos may reign on scale n, the coarser scale above it (scale n−1) may be self-organizing, which in a sense is the opposite of chaos.
Perhaps complex systems, such as biological systems, manage to modify their environment so as to operate as much as possible at this edge-of-chaos place, which would also be the place where self-organization is most likely to occur. It makes sense to expect self-organization to happen when there are strong long-range correlations.

We think we live in an equilibrium world– even the stock market and US wars could be modelled as periodic equilibria–but thats because our lives are so short.  What if the Non-elephants are really examples of what Dr Sean Carroll calls slow life?  What if their “hearts” beat only once every millenia or two?  Interesting times indeed.





15 thoughts on “The Elephant’s Child and the Theory of Non-Elephants

  1. Re: “we’re winning really we are” why is the us more interested in the Islamic state than Assad ? The US feels that by bombing Isis some how the world will know some form of peace when that’s simply not the case. What is there to gain from defeating Isis? It’s not as if it’ll deter some future “enemy” Islam will continue on as it has been until it destroys the corrupt from within itself and moves to reestablish itself as a dominating force in the world. So why fight it? We have the numbers and the time the counter narrative doesn’t work and violence is the only means to submit our true Islamic identity in the world of course the us will say that violence isn’t the answer but the fact remains that it is, violence in the opposition of torture rape land grabs and the minipulation of Muslim leaders into being subservient to American interests over Islamic interests. What other choice is there ?


    • US will continue to try to try to stop IS because its really the only move they have in the CAS gamespace.
      they are zugzwang to use a chess term– have to do something and there are no “good” moves.


  2. Great article. “We think we live in an equilibrium world– even the stock market and US wars could be modelled as periodic equilibria–but thats because our lives are so short.”

    We are truly living in extraordinary times. The sad truth is: capitalism will continue and evolve, but hopefully for the better.

    Simple advances in technology that have come out of western civilizations (nuclear weapons, computers and internet) and thanks to some serious (SERIOUS) help from the Islamic golden age (advanced mathematics, astronomy, foundations of physics) have caused humanity to reach a tipping point.

    We are witnessing the end of politics. The end of a few men declaring ‘universal human rights’ for all…American citizens are not happy with America, the world is not happy with America.

    With internet and connectivity, we must all coordinate with one another and bring about our own rights that we say for our selves….vauge I know but listen….

    As we enter a new phase of humanity, we must overcome one simple goal: either A. Utterly blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, destroy the ozone layer and let in radiation and kill all life on earth, blah blah blah. Or B. Come together as a species and tackle the cosmic horizon together.

    The west can not tell the world what ‘human rights’ are then pick and chose when they want to accept them.

    But rather than killing ourselves, rather than falling prey to intraspecies conflict like so many primate monkeys do, we must PULL TOGETHER and WORK TOGETHER to conquer the external space around us and enter the new phase of humanity and of cosmic exploration.

    Sorry for blabbing. Great article.


  3. Is has lost, they used to talk about conquering the world, now they talk about why they are losing and how they will attack Shia (easier to fight). A bunch of high school dropouts/former druggies wanting some fame is not a long- term recipe for success-and that is the Achilles heel for IS, it simply does not attract enough people and its spokesmen, especially in the West are loathed by most Muslims.


    • the point of this article is that IS is regionally impossible to defeat because they have virtually infinite resource resupply. US simply cannot win, and eventually it will become too expensive to bear for the American public. Like Kissinger said of VietNam, all the guerrilla army has to do to win is not lose.


      • Very different from Vietnam- IS modeled itself as an offensive force, when they stopped expanding and started losing cities the allure was greatly diminished. An “infinite resource resupply” has no value when the entity is seen more and more as a losing one.


      • Like Kissinger said of VietNam

        “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.”

        This is forever war. But never fear, the global market crash will begger the US first. Just like VietNam, when it becomes non-cost viable for US to pour arms and $ into MENA it will end.


      • That’s the thing though, IS is not and does portray itself as a guerrilla group- it acts as a state and its war objective is conquest, not defending. Not only are they not conquering anymore, they are losing territory rapidly. hence, Kissinger’s quote is moot here.


      • I’m not sure why this is so hard to understand, but in a war if one of the parties objectives is to conquer land, but it has lost a significant amount of land, then it is losing.


  4. “The current war on the Islamic State will end the same way– once the electorate realizes the war is unwinnable they will withdraw support”

    Except, they won’t. IS and Vietnam aren’t the same thing. With IS, there is involved religious fervor. On behalf of some elements in the US military. The cross-bearing soldiers, the “referencing crusading times” generals, the the Judo-Christian allied think tanks etc. If you ignore this fact about Western involvement in MENA, then you are either biased or utterly unaware. Which I believe you aren’t.


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