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«About three centuries after Newton we are thoroughly familiar with the concept of natural science—most unequivocally with physical and biological ...»

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Understanding the Natural and the Artificial


About three centuries after Newton we are thoroughly familiar with the

concept of natural science—most unequivocally with physical and biological science. A natural science is a body of knowledge about some class

of things—objects or phenomena—in the world: about the characteristics and properties that they have; about how they behave and interact

with each other.

The central task of a natural science is to make the wonderful commonplace: to show that complexity, correctly viewed, is only a mask for simplicity; to find pattern hidden in apparent chaos. The early Dutch physicist Simon Stevin, showed by an elegant drawing (figure 1) that the law of the inclined plane follows in “self-evident fashion” from the impossibility of perpetual motion, for experience and reason tell us that the chain of balls in the figure would rotate neither to right nor to left but would remain at rest. (Since rotation changes nothing in the figure, if the chain moved at all, it would move perpetually.) Since the pendant part of the chain hangs symmetrically, we can snip it off without disturbing the equilibrium. But now the balls on the long side of the plane balance those on the shorter, steeper side, and their relative numbers are in inverse ratio to the sines of the angles at which the planes are inclined.

Stevin was so pleased with his construction that he incorporated it into a vignette, inscribing above it Wonder, en is gheen wonder that is to say: “Wonderful, but not incomprehensible.” This is the task of natural science: to show that the wonderful is not incomprehensible, to show how it can be comprehended—but not to 2 The Natural and Artificial Worlds Figure 1 The vignette devised by Simon Stevin to illustrate his derivation of the law of the inclined plane destroy wonder. For when we have explained the wonderful, unmasked the hidden pattern, a new wonder arises at how complexity was woven out of simplicity. The aesthetics of natural science and mathematics is at one with the aesthetics of music and painting—both inhere in the discovery of a partially concealed pattern.

The world we live in today is much more a man-made,1 or artificial, world than it is a natural world. Almost every element in our environment shows evidence of human artifice. The temperature in which we spend most of our hours is kept artificially at 20 degrees Celsius; the humidity is added to or taken from the air we breathe; and the impurities we inhale are largely produced (and filtered) by man.

Moreover for most of us—the white-collared ones—the significant part of the environment consists mostly of strings of artifacts called “symbols” that we receive through eyes and ears in the form of written and spoken language and that we pour out into the environment—as I am now doing—by mouth or hand. The lawsthat govern these strings of

1. I will occasionally use “man” as an androgynous noun, encompassing both sexes, and “he,” “his,” and “him” as androgynous pronouns including women and men equally in their scope.

The Natural and Artificial Worlds 3 symbols, the laws that govern the occasions on which we emit and receive them, the determinants of their content are all consequences of our collective artifice.

One may object that I exaggerate the artificiality of our world. Man must obey the law of gravity as surely as does a stone, and as a living organism man must depend for food, and in many other ways, on the world of biological phenomena. I shall plead guilty to overstatement, while protesting that the exaggeration is slight. To say that an astronaut, or even an airplane pilot, is obeying the law of gravity, hence is a perfectly natural phenomenon, is true, but its truth calls for some sophistication in what we mean by “obeying” a natural law. Aristotle did not think it natural for heavy things to rise or light ones to fall (Physics, Book IV); but presumably we have a deeper understanding of “natural” than he did.

So too we must be careful about equating “biological” with “natural.” A forest may be a phenomenon of nature; a farm certainly is not. The very species upon which we depend for our food—our corn and our cattle—are artifacts of our ingenuity. A plowed field is no more part of nature than an asphalted street—and no less.

These examples set the terms of our problem, for those things we call artifacts are not apart from nature. They have no dispensation to ignore or violate natural law. At the same time they are adapted to human goals and purposes. They are what they are in order to satisfy our desire to fly or to eat well. As our aims change, so too do our artifacts—and vice versa.

If science is to encompass these objects and phenomena in which human purpose as well as natural law are embodied, it must have means for relating these two disparate components. The character of these means and their implications for certain areas of knowledge—economics, psychology, and design in particular—are the central concern of this book.

The Artificial

Natural science is knowledge about natural objects and phenomena. We ask whether there cannot also be “artificial” science—knowledge about artificial objects and phenomena. Unfortunately the term “artificial” has a pejorative air about it that we must dispel before we can proceed.

4 The Natural and Artificial Worlds My dictionary defines “artificial” as, “Produced by art rather than by nature; not genuine or natural; affected; not pertaining to the essence of the matter.” It proposes, as synonyms: affected, factitious, manufactured, pretended, sham, simulated, spurious, trumped up, unnatural. As antonyms, it lists: actual, genuine, honest, natural, real, truthful, unaffected.

Our language seems to reflect man’s deep distrust of his own products. I shall not try to assess the validity of that evaluation or explore its possible psychological roots. But you will have to understand me as using “artificial” in as neutral a sense as possible, as meaning man-made as opposed to natural.2 In some contexts we make a distinction between “artificial” and “synthetic.” For example, a gem made of glass colored to resemble sapphire would be called artificial, while a man-made gem chemically indistinguishable from sapphire would be called synthetic. A similar distinction is often made between “artificial” and “synthetic” rubber. Thus some artificial things are imitations of things in nature, and the imitation may use either the same basic materials as those in the natural object or quite different materials.

As soon as we introduce “synthesis” as well as “artifice,” we enter the realm of engineering. For “synthetic” is often used in the broader sense of “designed” or “composed.” We speak of engineering as concerned with “synthesis,” while science is concerned with “analysis.” Synthetic or articial objects—and more specifically prospective artificial objects having desired properties—are the central objective of engineering activity and skill. The engineer, and more generally the designer, is concerned with how things ought to be—how they ought to be in order to attain goals,

2. I shall disclaim responsibility for this particular choice of terms. The phrase “artificial intelligence,” which led me to it, was coined, I think, right on the Charles River, at MIT. Our own research group at Rand and Carnegie Mellon University have preferred phrases like “complex information processing” and “simulation of cognitive processes.” But then we run into new terminological difculties, for the dictionary also says that “to simulate” means “to assume or have the mere appearance or form of, without the reality; imitate; counterfeit; pretend.” At any rate, “artificial intelligence” seems to be here to stay, and it may prove easier to cleanse the phrase than to dispense with it. In time it will become sufficiently idiomatic that it will no longer be the target of cheap rhetoric.

The Natural and Artificial Worlds 5 and to function. Hence a science of the artificial will be closely akin to a science of engineering—but very different, as we shall see in my fifth chapter, from what goes currently by the name of “engineering science.” With goals and “oughts” we also introduce into the picture the dichotomy between normative and descriptive. Natural science has found a way to exclude the normative and to concern itself solely with how things are.

Can or should we maintain this exclusion when we move from natural to artificial phenomena, from analysis to synthesis?3 We have now identified four indicia that distinguish the artificial from

the natural; hence we can set the boundaries for sciences of the artificial:

1. Artificial things are synthesized (though not always or usually with full forethought) by human beings.

2. Artificial things may imitate appearances in natural things while lacking, in one or many respects, the reality of the latter.

3. Artificial things can be characterized in terms of functions, goals, adaptation.

4. Artificial things are often discussed, particularly when they are being designed, in terms of imperatives as well as descriptives.

The Environment as Mold

Let us look a little more closely at the functional or purposeful aspect of artificial things. Fulfillment of purpose or adaptation to a goal involves a relation among three terms: the purpose or goal, the character of the artifact, and the environment in which the artifact performs. When we think of a clock, for example, in terms of purpose we may use the child’s definition: “a clock is to tell time.” When we focus our attention on the clock itself, we may describe it in terms of arrangements of gears and the

3. This issue will also be discussed at length in my fifth chapter. In order not to keep readers in suspense, I may say that I hold to the pristine empiricist’s position of the irreducibility of “ought” to “is,” as in chapter 3 of my Administrative Behavior (New York: Macmillan, 1976). This position is entirely consistent with treating natural or artificial goal-seeking systems as phenomena, without commitment to their goals. Ibid., appendix. See also the well-known paper by A. Rosenbluth, N. Wiener, and J. Bigelow, “Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology,” Philosophy of Science, 10 (1943):18–24.

6 The Natural and Artificial Worlds application of the forces of springs or gravity operating on a weight or pendulum.

But we may also consider clocks in relation to the environment in which they are to be used. Sundials perform as clocks in sunny climates—they are more useful in Phoenix than in Boston and of no use at all during the Arctic winter. Devising a clock that would tell time on a rolling and pitching ship, with sufficient accuracy to determine longitude, was one of the great adventures of eighteenth-century science and technology. To perform in this difficult environment, the clock had to be endowed with many delicate properties, some of them largely or totally irrelevant to the performance of a landlubber’s clock.

Natural science impinges on an artifact through two of the three terms of the relation that characterizes it: the structure of the artifact itself and the environment in which it performs. Whether a clock will in fact tell time depends on its internal construction and where it is placed. Whether a knife will cut depends on the material of its blade and the hardness of the substance to which it is applied.

The Artifact as “Interface” We can view the matter quite symmetrically. An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point—an “interface” in today’s terms—between an “inner” environment, the substance and organization of the artifact itself, and an “outer” environment, the surroundings in which it operates. If the inner environment is appropriate to the outer environment, or vice versa, the artifact will serve its intended purpose. Thus, if the clock is immune to buffeting, it will serve as a ship’s chronometer. (And conversely, if it isn’t, we may salvage it by mounting it on the mantel at home.) Notice that this way of viewing artifacts applies equally well to many things that are not man-made—to all things in fact that can be regarded as adapted to some situation; and in particular it applies to the living systems that have evolved through the forces of organic evolution. A theory of the airplane draws on natural science for an explanation of its inner environment (the power plant, for example), its outer environment (the character of the atmosphere at different altitudes), and the relation between its inner and outer environments (the movement of an airfoil The Natural and Artificial Worlds 7 through a gas). But a theory of the bird can be divided up in exactly the same way.4 Given an airplane, or given a bird, we can analyze them by the methods of natural science without any particular attention to purpose or adaptation, without reference to the interface between what I have called the inner and outer environments. After all, their behavior is governed by natural law just as fully as the behavior of anything else (or at least we all believe this about the airplane, and most of us believe it about the bird).

Functional Explanation On the other hand, if the division between inner and outer environment is not necessary to the analysis of an airplane or a bird, it turns out at least to be highly convenient. There are several reasons for this, which will become evident from examples.

Many animals in the Arctic have white fur. We usually explain this by saying that white is the best color for the Arctic environment, for white creatures escape detection more easily than do others. This is not of course a natural science explanation; it is an explanation by reference to purpose or function. It simply says that these are the kinds of creatures that will “work,” that is, survive, in this kind of environment. To turn the statement into an explanation, we must add to it a notion of natural selection, or some equivalent mechanism.

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