The Net

"I behold the entire universe in a single glass of wine" said Galileo. Although this great founder of modern science could not anticipate the findings of his intellectual descendants, his eloquent declaration captures the essence of the most important organizational principle of rationalist thinking. A glass of wine is a complex system that operates according to the basic principles of the universe. Gravity pulls on it, thermal inhomogeneities lead to density variations that respond to gravity with vertical motions, hydrodynamic principles transform those vertical motions into complex swirls, light moves through the wine, refracting and scattering all the forces that make the universe work are also at work in that single glass of wine.

The rationalist believes that everything in the universe is driven by principles, that nothing happens by accident, and that there are no special cases. If you can understand the fundamental principles, then you need not learn anything else, for everything is derivable from those principles.

This concept is most easily and clearly applied in physics. Physicists believe that a handful of fundamental principles control all physical phenomena. The conservation laws (mass-energy, angular momentum, linear momentum); the fundamental forces (gravity, electric, strong, weak); relativistic laws; quantum mechanics; and the still unresolved laws for the behavior of fundamental particles these basic laws are held to control all physical behavior.

One of the goals that physicists pursue is the reduction of the number of principles held to be fundamental. A particularly pleasing example of this came when magnetism, which had been thought to be a fundamental force, was found to be nothing more than the electric force operating under relativistic conditions. In other words, you can derive all the rules of magnetic fields from special relativity and the rules for electric fields.

This style of thinking is commonly referred to as the "universalist" school. Its antithesis is sometimes called the "particularist" school. Particularists feel that universal principles are all well and good, but applying them to the real world is a mistake, because the real world is too complex to submit to such simplistic approaches. Particularists see the world as a messy place, a clutter of special cases that defy rational analysis. Particularists often accuse universalists of dogmatic, inflexible thinking.

I suspect that most people lean towards particularism. It’s a softer, friendlier style of thinking. More important, it’s more forgiving of errors. If you err under universalist rules, your blunder is clear and obvious you should have known better. But in particularist thinking, there’s always room for special exceptions to excuse the errant thinker. Particularist thinking is safer than universalist thinking.

Particularist thinking is also easier than universalist thinking. You don’t have to know very much to consider your position justified. All you have to do is find some factor anything -- that distinguishes your subject matter from similar subjects. Then you can dismiss all principles by invoking The Distinguishing Factor. "That doesn’t apply in my case" is the oft-heard battle-cry of the particularist. The only things that apply are those things that the particularist wants to apply. A very convenient style of thinking, particularism.

There are also strong social pressures towards particularist thinking. Universalist thinking brooks little compromise; either you’re right or you’re wrong. Two universalists resolve a difference of opinion by a brutal collision of universal principles. Particularists have a much easier time compromising. They swap special-case arguments for a while until each has met the needs of honor; then they choose a point halfway between their positions and call it a solution. This tends to make particularists more socially adept than universalists, and for this reason, society brings strong pressures to bear on individuals to adopt a more particularist style of thinking.

For all these reasons, particularism enjoys much favor. But that doesn’t make it right, nor does it make it a better way to think. In this essay, I will present a defense of universalist thinking.

I begin by observing that universalist thinking represents an ideal, an unachievable desideratum. No universalist claims to know all the principles by which the world works, nor even a tiny fraction of them. Were that truly the case, then our perfect universalist would be able to eliminate war, poverty, and pollution by recourse to quantum mechanics. That’s a bit of a stretch just yet.

Rather, the realistic universalist maintains that there are a set of intermediate principles that control such phenomena. War, for example, can be understood by recourse to the principles of geopolitical interaction. If one understands these principles well, and applies that understanding effectively, then one can prevent the onset of war. Similarly, poverty can be reduced, in the opinion of the universalist, by understanding and applying the principles of economics if only we truly understood such principles.

That said, I will admit that good universalist thinking is a demanding exercise. If you want to play the universalist game, you damn well better be universally ("university") educated. When you start slinging around Grand Principles, you have to understand just what those grand principles mean and how they relate to all the other grand principles in the universe. Here’s an example of one such grand principle, as it is expressed in three completely different fields:

Business: "Identify and exploit your basis of competitive advantage"
Military science: “ Fight on the ground of your own choosing."
Biology: "Nature ensures the survival of the fittest"

These are three basic principles from three different fields, but they all say the same thing. Only when you can make such connections between fields can you really start to apply universalist thinking. This requires a broad education and an appreciation of many fields of human intellectual endeavor. That’s hard work! I’ve never stopped educating myself, and I really didn’t start to come into stride with universalist thinking until sometime in my thirties.

I’ve described universalist thinking in almost philosophical terms, but in truth I suspect that it runs deeper in the personality. Universalist thinking is a psychological orientation, and its manifestations can be surprising. I memorize very few facts about the world. Most of what I know is part of "the net" of principles. This net is a gigantic mental structure, a huge system of logically intertwined ideas. Everything fits together in the net.

Learning is really just a process of fitting new concepts into the net. The other day I was discussing some esoteric concepts with my financial advisor. I asked why we couldn’t use "Strategy A" to solve the problem at hand. He replied that Strategy A ran afoul of the law, and started to explain the relevant legal considerations. Although I had never heard of this section of law, it fit easily into the "legal principles" portion of my idea net, and I instantly understood the point; before he had finished the sentence I exclaimed "Of course, of course!"

On the other hand, when something doesn’t fit into the net, there’s a problem. Either the idea at hand is somehow off or wrong, or my net is out of balance. In many cases, the idea has been misstated or misunderstood, and I reject it in its current formulation. In such cases, I will try to reformulate the idea so that it can fit into the net.

This is dangerous ground, and is the basis for the accusation that universalists are closed-minded people. It is all too easy for a universalist to reject some fact or idea that doesn’t fit into his net. This is the most common abuse of universalist thinking, but the fact that the thinking style can be abused does not condemn it. The universalist must carefully assess the impact of the new idea on the net as a whole. After all, the current state of the net is nothing to be dismissed lightly; it represents the distilled wisdom of a lifetime’s experience. To discard or distort all this over a single data point is a dramatic step that can only be justified if there is great certainty that the data point is true and has been interpreted correctly.

When it does happen, the experience of a "netquake" is profound. I still remember a major netquake that one of my physics professors bestowed upon me. I was in the midst of an argument with him when he nailed me with a single rapier thrust of logic. I stopped, stunned. My net was in complete disarray. Very quietly, I murmured that I had to go think. Then I turned around and walked away. I spent the rest of the day realigning my net to the new truth that the professor had given me. It was a frightening and exhilarating experience. Alan Kay did that to me, on a smaller scale, a couple of times.

There’s one other symptom of universalist thinking: for the life of me, I cannot recall facts that don’t come out of principles. Telephone numbers, people’s names, addresses I just can’t remember them to save my life. If you’ve ever met me in person, you’ve probably been subjected to my "Oh, hi....there" excuse for a salutation, even if we’ve met before.

I can easily recall facts that are derivable from earlier principles. Why are coins round and flat? That’s obvious. Why do cars have four wheels instead of three or five? That too is easy. Why do we call a judge "Your Honor"? Why, that’s intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. If it comes from a principle, it’s easy to remember.

All great realizations spring from universalist thinking. Particularists cope with the world, ofttimes better than universalists, but universalists understand it better. Most visionaries are universalists, not particularists, for a profound and confident vision of the future can spring only from an application of grand principles rather than phenomenological observations.

A stiff requirement of universalist thinking is the necessity of constantly harmonizing distant portions of the net. A big net is a complex structure, and there are always minor inconsistencies to be ironed out. This ironing out process requires lots of random cogitation, a kind of intellectual daydreaming. I often do it while driving. For example, one day while driving I realized that the fringes once so common on outer clothing, especially cowboy clothing, are not decorative in purpose; they shed water more efficiently. Here’s another driving realization: the huge and bulky garments that people wore during Elizabethan times were not merely a matter of fashion; those people lived in unheated houses and needed a lot more insulation than we need today. While reading Marcus Aurelius the other day I realized why Christianity swept over the Roman empire so quickly: the Romans had already accepted the ideas behind monotheism, but their own religion didn’t support it.

This explains much of the appeal of universalist thinking. There’s something profoundly satisfying in discovering these tiny logical links in the world. Every such link binds the world together a little more tightly, confirms the notion that the world is really a single integrated organism rather than a random jumble of disconnected facts. This notion of The One underlies much of religion as well as our own deepest psychological needs. Universalism affirms that the universe is one. The universalist thinker seeks to understand this oneness, and thus approaches syntony with it.