The Operational Approach to Reality

July 2nd, 1998

One of the deepest and most fundamental polarities in the universe is that between operations and existences; between facts and principles, knowledge and ideas. This polarity is so profound that it shows up over and over in a great many fields, each time in a different guise, but the basics are always the same.

In philosophy, this might be called the ’operational definition of reality’: reality is as reality does. We think about the universe as an intricate webwork of processes, which as a whole generate reality. The other extreme of the pole is to think about the universe in terms of things: reality is a set of objects. The objects, of course, interact with each other, but the essential truth is the set of objects. Am I, Chris Crawford, a 135-lb glob of organic chemicals and water? Or am I perception plus digestion plus locomotion plus thinking plus...? Either approach works.

In linguistics, this polarity presents itself as the distinction between noun and verb. These are two absolutely necessary fundamental atoms of language. The other atoms (adjectives, prepositions, adverbs, etc) are fundamental (not composed of the first two) but not absolutely necessary. You can build a language with nouns and verbs and leave out all the other grammatical types. But you can’t construct a language without nouns or verbs.

In computer science, the polarity concerns the two most fundamental units of computation: bits and machine cycles, or, in other terms, data and processing. Again, these are fundamental requisites of computing. You can still compute without printers, color monitors, mice, or keyboards, but you absolutely must have some memory and a CPU.

Physicists talk about waves and particles, and these correspond loosely with the above examples. Clearly, particles correspond to objects. I think it acceptable to think of waves as processes because a wave is a dynamic process in which something (often energy) sloshes from one form to another repetitively. Unless things have greatly changed since I was in graduate school, you could be confident that any solvable physics problem could be solved with either wave mechanics or particle mechanics.

How about economics? Here we encounter ’goods versus services’. These are two fundamental forms of economic output. You can’t have an economy without both of these.

We can even extend the principle into the arts: in storytelling, we can distinguish between the character-based story (object) and the plot-driven story (process). And despite Hollywood’s intense efforts, it remains impossible to create a decent story without SOME plot and SOME character, although I am told that the movie "Godzilla" made an impressive attempt in this direction.

Now I’m going to present some grand generalizations about this deep polarity. In each case, I’ll try to exemplify the point with reference to most of the above disciplines.

This is the notion that one can successfully (if clumsily) function by hewing to one of the extremes, or by using any midpoint in the spectrum. Indeed, we recognize that any given situation will be most easily handled with some particular mix of the two extremes. Thus, philosophers could, if they wanted to, achieve an all-inclusive definition of reality using some fluid mix of the operational approach and the object approach. Linguists will tell you that we can readily switch from verb to noun and back again. I could call myself a person (object), but I could also refer to myself in verb terms as a human being: a human-type act of existence. Indeed, in English we have a formal mechanism for converting a verb to a noun: just add the suffix “-ing” to the verb root and presto! you’ve got a gerund. We have no formal way to nounify a verb, but we extemporize; sometimes we simply pressgang the noun into a verb.

Duality is clearest and simplest in computer science. It is widely recognized that any computable problem can be solved with a range of algorithms combining data and processing in any mixture. We can use a table-driven approach that consumes lots of bits and few cycles, or we can try a formula-driven approach that uses lots of cycles and few bits -- as well as almost any combination of the two. It’s really a matter of how many bits and cycles we have to play with, and how clever we are.

One of the big discoveries of twentieth century physics is the ’wave-particle duality’. You can talk about any physical phenomenon as either a wave or a particle, even though the mathematics used to describe these two are fundamentally different. In many cases, the particle equations are the most useful, and in many other cases, the wave equations yield the greatest utility -- but there remain plenty of phenomena that require us to use both particle physics and wave physics.

Economics offers no challenges to the principle; we can intermix goods and services willy-nilly. As somebody pointed out recently, it’s impossible to unambiguously determine whether MacDonald’s sells goods (burgers) or provides services (food preparation). Is MacDonald’s a factory churning out burgers, or is it a distribution system for all-beef patties, lettuce, onions, pickles, and sesame-seed buns? Burgers have a short shelf life, perhaps 30 minutes; if we gauged MacDonald’s output solely on its burgers, then wouldn’t we think of it as a perilously short-lived company? In writing this essay, have I provided a service (intellectual edification) or a good (a particularly interesting image on a computer monitor)? [This issue had great significance some years ago when I testified before the California State Franchise Tax Board on the question of whether computer programming yielded taxable goods or non-taxable services. I argued for the latter; now I am not so sure.]

On to storytelling: writers, being naturally opinionated, tend to divide into tribal units, one supporting the character-based approach and the other touting the plot-driven approach. Yet each side grudgingly acknowledges the necessity of the other. They are arguing primacy, not necessity. And, (just as some things are pretty clearly goods, particles, bits, or nouns, while others are more obviously services, waves, cycles, or verbs), so too in drama do we have some stories that are pretty clearly character-based, and others that are pretty clearly plot-driven.

Racism, sexism, and nounism
Despite the apparent symmetry between the two extremes of the polarity, we humans seem to have a strong bias towards the object-pole. I’m not sure why; perhaps it arises from our sensory system, which handles objects so much better than processes. Perhaps it’s merely our language; most languages seem so much more facile with noun phrases than verb phrases. There are a few exceptions, of course, including one native American language that seems to verbify almost everything -- but such exceptions are notable because they are so damned weird.

An easier way to recognize the prejudice of nounism is to note the historical trends in some of the above-mentioned fields. In computer science, for example, we have seen an explosion of creative activity in the last decade arising from the wide availability of PCs and the Internet. But has anybody noticed that the preponderance of this creativity has expressed itself in -- and been measured by -- the huge number of bits that have been made available. Between CD-ROMs and the Web, we now have Humonga-bytes of images, sounds, text, numbers, and all manner of other facts. But consider this: we have also built enough computers (and made them so fast) that every day, civilization expends Humonga-cycles of processing time. And what are all those cycles doing? I’d guess that almost ALL of those cycles are wasted in wait-loops, as the computer sits for eternities waiting for the rare key press or mouse click. And even the cycles that aren’t wasted are used almost entirely for shuffling bits around: moving an image from a CD to the screen, a sound from memory to a speaker, and so on. An infinitesimal fraction of the cycles we generate every day are used to actually PROCESS anything. We push numbers around a lot, but we seldom crunch them. It seems a great shame to use this wondrous processing machine to shuffle bits around; is it not unlike using a Chinese peasant, a human being with character and feelings and soul, to bail water from a canal to a field? It would seem that, in terms of truly utilizing the power of the computer, we still have a long way to go.

The history of physics shows our noun-prejudice even more clearly. Isaac Newton gave us a pretty good system of mechanics for particles back in the seventeenth century, but we didn’t get decent wave mechanics until the nineteenth century. We solved the easy part (to us) two centuries before we tackled the hard part.

To see noun-prejudice in economics, observe how long economics devoted itself solely to goods. The realization that services are important came only in the second half of this century.

Making lemonade
Some people might bewail this ugly prejudice that colors our approach to reality, but I am not one of them. I see this as opportunity, not injustice. If everybody else wants to limit their thinking in some fashion, then I can leverage my poor mental abilities by concentrating on what other, smarter people don’t think about. Thus, for many years, I have worked hard to grok the operational approach, to bring it close to the innards of my thinking. It is, I confess, quite alien in style; my brain resisted stubbornly. Yet I have made some progress; as a result, I now enjoy even greater incomprehensibility to others than ever before. I make no apologies for the intellectual incongruities that I promulgate and revel in. I remind you that, while swimming may not be natural to the human frame, and we do it much worse than we walk, there remain many interesting places you can go while swimming that are utterly inaccessible to landlubbers. Come on in, the water’s fine.