Saturday, May 01, 2004

False symmetry.

The human mind seeks symmetry. Symmetry is viewed as a form of beauty, perhaps the essential form. Studies have shown that it is the symmetry between the left and right sides of the face which causes people to be perceived as "beautiful". Symmetry seems to satisfy a deep need in the human psyche for orderliness in a disorderly world.

But is it real?

The world is complicated and cannot be grokked by anyone in its totality. The human mind seeks simplicity. We make simplifying assumptions. Symmetry, whether assumed or real, is a form of simplicity. Basic Newtonian physics starts off by assuming frictionless objects and objects that continue in their motion without ever stopping. Have you ever seen such an object? Of course not. But by slicing the Gordian knot of reality into comprehensible chunks, modern physics has been able to make unprecedented progress in human understanding.

The existence of symmetry is one of our favorite simplifications, indeed it is the study of symmetry and its breaking which underlies most modern physics.

The problem is that in our simplification through symmetrification of the world, we run the risk of falling into a grievous trap which lurks just outside our consciousness. We run the risk of mistaking our simplified version of reality for reality itself.

Take France for example. France is a "country" and the United States is a "country". There is some symmetry between them. France has a government and the United States has a government. Both governments are subject to democratic control in lesser or greater form and both governments seek to control the behavior of their citizens through the creation and enforcement of laws. Both countries have geographical territories which they possess. But here already the analogy between the two has begun to break down. The United States has numerous military bases in Germany and Japan. Are these geographical territories which the United States possesses? Are these part of the United States? Of course they are not in the traditional sense but one senses that the situation has become somewhat fuzzy. Who is subject to American law and who is not? Are the members of the United Nations? Are companies doing business in the United States?

Again, France is a member of the EU, so maybe it is the EU which is the "country" and not France?
There is more fuzziness here. Some laws which apply to the citizens of France are not made by the French government at all.

The closer the examination the more the "symmetry" between France and the United States seems to collapse. France is small, the United States is large. France is mostly full of people who have lived there for endless generations, the United States is a country of immigrants and their immediate descendants. People in France listen to traditional French music while people in the United States listen to music from all over the world. France has French restaurants, America has a cornucopia of world restaurants, even in small towns in Kansas. Most people in the United States move around repeatedly, most people in France live in their towns of birth.

The deeper one investigates the more one is compelled to admit the extreme breakdown of the alleged symmetry between the two "countries". France is a traditional country. It has an ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population. The United States, by contrast, could be better described as a stage for fulfilling ones dreams than as a country. It is a stage upon which people from every corner of the world are drawn in order to make something of themselves. One quickly realizes that the contrast between France and the United States is really an apples-and-oranges comparison. Only the most superficial traits are held in common.

This observation has nothing to do with France in particular. Exactly the same comparison could be made between the United States and Poland or the United States and Zaire, or the United States and practically any "traditional" country. Fundamentally, the nature of the United States is radically different from the nature of these other entities.

But that's not how most of us, bound as we are by language, tend to approach the situation. We want symmetry. So our thinking proceeds something like: "France and the United States are countries. France has a film industry, the United States has a film industry. Therefore the film industry of France should be roughly the equivalent of the film industry of the United States. Again, France has restaurants, the United States has restaurants, therefore the global reach of the French restaurant business should be roughly the equivalent of the global reach of the American restaurant business." And so forth. Because we see some rough similarity between the two entities we leap to the conclusion that there should be perfect symmetry between them.

And we are offended when this is not the case.

The French for example have great difficulty understanding why their efforts are not the equal of our efforts. More, they are offended by the results and their apparent inferiority by almost all measurements of economic, military, scientific, or engineering success. They are offended at the lack of symmetry. Having assumed a certain symmetry they are offended that reality does not bear out the hypothesis.

We are well-advised to avoid the disappointments of false symmetry. The world is symmetric when it is symmetric, and only then.


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