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Culture & Religion

Maxims Fit Us Better Than Maximization

Maxims often beat maximization. Much in life isn’t quantifiable, much less numerically maximizable. It’s unwise to ignore that evolution fitted us for maxims, not math, to manage life’s complexities.

1. Since Galileo reiterated Plato’s faith that “the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics,” physicists have largely seen math as the one-true-way (the universal hammer nailing all truths). But physics has it easy. Its math describes reliable direct forces, simple  consistent behaviors, and closed causalities.

2. No equation captures evolution better than the maxim “Survival of the fittest.” Indeed evolution itself has language-like features. Its rules (or grammar) are fixed, but evolutionary processes are open and generative, creating “endless forms,” varying behaviors, and less predictable specific outcomes.

3. The animate sciences are much trickier than physics (their uncertainties would horrify Heisenberg). People vary far more than atoms. Nothing in physics chooses. Or innovates. Or can so easily change its behavior. Does “slavish imitation of” physics-like math fit here?

4. Biologists distinguish ultimate and proximate causes. Proximate causes (e.g. bird parenting rule = feed any open mouth in your nest) can diverge from ultimate aims (if a cuckoo usurps your nest). What previously caused survival, may not always. Such game-theoretic variability is absent from physics.

5. Life teems with indirect complex causes and inconsistencies. Fortunately we arrive “biologically prepared” to automatically acquire behavioral guidelines transmitted as maxims.  All cultures use maxims, which universally include contradictory pairs. “Many hands make light work” but “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Contradictory maxims survive where single rules-of-thumb fail.  Lacking one-true-rule, we carry many and mix-and-match as needed. Physics-like universal mathematical laws, don’t (yet) fit all of life.

6. Is Galileo’s mathcentric faith wise? Wisdom means knowing how to choose rightly, including picking the thinking tool fittest for a task. Economists who rely on numerical “rationality” unwisely ignore that we’re not natural number-crunchers. Math (like much other “rationality”) takes training. Math and money are “recent” inventions, and maximizing monetary self-interest isn’t a fit proxy for evolutionary success (we’re a highly other-dependent species).

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7. Numbers have no monopoly on precision or truth. Words, logic, images, and patterns can express more than numbers can, and can be qualitatively exact.

Only poor-quality thinking ignores that mathematics doesn’t add up to the sum of all human wisdom. Reason and prudence dictate keeping more than mathcentric tools in our cranial toolboxes.

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.


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