The basic premise of alchemy is the transformation of human consciousness, and the resulting alchemical transformation of society and culture. There is a kind of magic, and alchemy, at work in all social engineering schemes, and I have also blogged about the possibility that the NSA's vast electronic spying enterprise is really about two things: (1) the ultimate insider trading mechanism, and (2) the gathering of data to use for sophisticated "gaming" scenarios, a kind of "update" to the celebrated Inslaw PROMIS software scandals of the 1980s, a predecessor to the RIOT and "World Sentient Program" some believe to be the computer "brains" behind contemporary scenario gaming.

During the 1960s, however, all of this was foreseen by that science fiction genius Isaac Asimov, in his now famous Foundation trilogy. In that series, two private "foundations" are established by a mathematician - Harry Seldon is the character's name - in a decaying galactic empire. These foundations use Seldon's mathematical modeling of human social interaction of map out prior history and future scenarios.

In short, Asimov was proposing via his fiction that mathematical models, which had served physics in the real life twentieth century so well, would eventually be applied to that discipline considered to be the quintessential "soft" discipline: historiography, the "science" of history writing and the study of the premises that historians adopt and use to write and evaluate history itself. Asimov was not, of course, writing in a vacuum, being a trained scientist himself, and already in his day physicists, trained in quantum mechanics, were taking the first steps toward applying their techniques to economics, and eventually, "econophysics" was born, and is now a discipline in its own right that one can study in some universities. But by applying it to history, Asimov was taking the bold step of saying that, eventually, there would be a kind of "historiophysics," i.e., history that uses mathematical techniques and modeling to study the past.

Well, it seems that the fictional creation of Asimov's trilogy, Harry Seldon, and his "foundations" might be coming to life:

3,000 Years of Human History, Described in One Set of Mathematical Equations

Turchin began thinking about applying math to history in general about 15 years ago. “I always enjoyed history, but I realized then that it was the last major discipline which was not mathematized,” he explains. “But mathematical approaches—modeling, statistics, etc.—are an inherent part of any real science.”

In bringing these sorts of tools into the arena of world history and developing a mathematical model, his team was inspired by a theory called cultural multilevel selection, which predicts that competition between different groups is the main driver of the evolution of large-scale, complex societies. To build that into the model, they divided all of Africa and Eurasia into gridded squares which were each categorized by a few environmental variables (the type of habitat, elevation, and whether it had agriculture in 1500 B.C.E.). They then “seeded” military technology in squares adjacent to the grasslands of central Asia, because the domestication of horses—the dominant military technology of the age—likely arose there initially.

Over time, the model allowed for domesticated horses to spread between adjacent squares. It also simulated conflict between various entities, allowing squares to take over nearby squares, determining victory based on the area each entity controlled, and thus growing the sizes of empires. After plugging in these variables, they let the model simulate 3,000 years of human history, then compared its results to actual data, gleaned from a variety of historical atlases.

Although it’s not perfect, the accuracy of their model—predicting the development and spread of empires in nearly all the right places—surprised even the researchers. “To tell the truth, the success of this enterprise exceeded my wildest expectations,” Turchin says. “Who would have thought that a simple model could explain 65% of variance in a large historical database?”

To be sure, history, just like physics, will never be entirely reducible to mathematics - we can thank Kurt Goedel for pointing that out (and for the armchair physicist, consider Goedel's theorem as a theorem of applied physics) - but Turchin is correct: history remains the one human academic discipline that has avoided the extensive mathematization that has occurred in other disciplines, from biology to sociology. And if this article is any indicator, the success of his first steps in that direction can mean that it will only be a matter of time before courses in higher mathematical languages will be as much a staple of the history degree as it is now of physics or economics.
And to his credit, Turchin recognizes the Goedelian dilemma here, for regardless of all contervailing notions, humans, and human actions, are not reducible to a formal language, a formal mechanism, of mere numbers:
"Of course, there are limitations to viewing history through math—humans are more complicated than numbers. 'Differences in culture, environmental factors and thousands of other variables not included in the model all have effect,” Turchin says. “A simple general model should not be able to capture actual history in all its glorious complexity.'”

And that, too, is a very mathematical idea, so ably pointed out by another mathematician, in a brilliant, and brilliantly paradoxical treatise that, through the use of a formal calculus, pointed out that no formal calculus could capture all the relevant conceptions of any system. Asimov, and Goedel, had they been alive to read this article, would be smiling.
See you on the flip side.

Joseph P. Farrell

Joseph P. Farrell has a doctorate in patristics from the University of Oxford, and pursues research in physics, alternative history and science, and "strange stuff". His book The Giza DeathStar, for which the Giza Community is named, was published in the spring of 2002, and was his first venture into "alternative history and science".


  1. Jon on October 10, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I would be very suspicious of modeling like this. Who built the models? Who set the rules for the “game?”

    It is well known that one can create a model which will show whatever one wants: witness the Mann hockey-stick climate model – it will output a hockey-stick graph even if one inputs random data.

    The other thing to think about is that simple patterns will emerge if the actual field data, i.e. history, is not a random, but rather a directed process.

    The picture can be gamed from either side of the equation.

  2. OrigensChild on October 10, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    It is not so curious that mathematicians so readily accept a Darwinian thesis for human civilization and are able to model that to the degree to produce credible result. As one of your commentators has already stated, the mathematical ploy to simplify a mathematical calculation is to reduce the number of variables. In programming a similar transformation often occurs.

    Computer programmers are notoriously short-sighted in their software designs—even in the technical and military industries. When writing software for computer systems the programmer must often choose inputs in the data stream carefully before the results have any real meaning. The movie The Core is a perfect example of a system that controls a boring machine having a defect within the programming for detecting empty space in an environment where such spaces are not supposed to exist! A lot of progress has been made in the past thirty years in artificial intelligence, but intelligent systems are still only sets of instructions that process data looking for relationships according to a predetermined propositional logic. In other words, computer programs are designed to look at a data space in a certain way. Think of these software models as a computerized version of the Rhode’s round table discussion group. Lacking imagination they are hardly omniscient.

    To me the curious part of this story is the social engineering component. The desire to quantify historical data mathematically within a computer model may be one of their stated goals. Yet, they also may be perfectly satisfied with yet another meme as justification for their own hegemony! A program by any name is still a program—and this one happens to execute in computer memory rather than in a social space. They want to demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of human history and behavior—and laud their ability to guide it to a better end. But their greatest danger is the continuation of the delusion that they “understand” and can “control” the population when all they have really accomplished is a temporary re-engineering of the social consciousness. One day, the masses may wake up—and at the moment when they, the elite, least expect it. For them, the consequence of their own actions may be yet another Tower of Babel moment.

    • shockandawe on October 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm

      Exactly OC…Tower of Babel.

      I would love your take on programming of qubits, within the machinations of D-Wave’s Adiabatic Quantum Computers. They have stated achievement of A.I. within 2014.

      The definition of A.I. is wide open, as you’ve alluded to.

      It would appear to me, as a non-programmer, that the typical binary system of code, lends itself to linear inputs. Thus, same with output. Resulting in, linear A.I., devoid of imagination as you well stated above.

      You are travelling down the same rabbit hole my friend.

      • bdw000 on October 10, 2013 at 8:49 pm

        I am no expert.

        But I don’t think “binary” code would really affect the ability of any software to produce AI (or anything else). Binary is just another way to represent . . . anything else (such as decimal). I’ve read that most neural net computers are actually created using typical digital computers, and they just use a lot of programming to produce the “neural net” in software in an attempt to mimic the human mind. Again, I am no expert.

        20 years ago I heard a “channeled source” (not 100% reliable for sure, but not 100% unreliable either, though certainly not to be trusted) say that the us government had had at least one supercomputer (not much better than typical consumer computers today?) “achieve self awareness”, and that all those who knew about it (including some high-ranking generals) were really afraid of it.

        No way to verify any of that. But if i had to guess, I’d say it’s probably accurate.

      • OrigensChild on October 11, 2013 at 6:19 am

        I apologize to you and Dr. Farrell in advance for another essay, but the question deserves more than a casual explanation. I limit my responses to posts and ponder, but this question caused me to think.

        The holy grail of many computer scientists for AI is a sort of artificially induced consciousness. When I first encountered the AI concept in college in the 1980’s the problem then was parallelism and hardware limitations. There were physical limits to any computer architecture based on linear programming techniques. Even in the 1980’s there were attempts to create data flow computing systems where certain mathematical models could be deconstructed and placed into a processor pool for analysis, then reassembled the results on the back end for one continuous output for analysis and presentation. With quantum computing, where operations are performed at a sub-atomic level, you have similar issues of assembly, but you also have quantum fluctuations to resolve that, if left undetected, could lead to errors in the outputs of software running in that space. With respect to hardware the issues are purely technical. Who knows how far computer science has pushed the boundaries of computer architecture? If not already a reality, quantum computers could be very near deployment within the next decade. You may be closer to the pulse of that literature than I am.

        As you (and bdw000) have already mentioned programming is the union of computer instructions running in a computational environment for the creation of result sets for analysis. With respect to AI, it is still a collection of programs that apply rules of logic to a problem defined within their data space. AI programs can “learn”, but in my mind, these are basically rule based decision trees for solving optimization and pattern recognition problems, not genuine insight or imagination. AI systems may be able to predict behaviors by macro level historical based statistical modeling and approximate consciousness in this fashion, but they will hardly be able to predict the behavior of an individual beyond anything but a short period of time. (In fact the likelihood of “individual thought” popping up in quantum computing based AI systems may actually be considered one of those quantum fluctuations and discarded—to their ruin. If these individual thought patterns were to become collectivized they could become a virus within the social space and the model may never see it. The Foundation series itself alludes to this anomaly through the character “Mule” and his Empire, and the Foundation has to adjust to get things moving forward again.) For AI systems to predict individual behaviors beyond the likelihood of purchases or marketing, the living conditions of the individual must be more very carefully controlled and monitored and reduced to its lowest common denominator—and this another entry point where the social engineering component enters into the social space. Still, this isn’t consciousness within the system in the classical sense. In my opinion it is still a reduction problem that limits the choices in the social space to a few simple variables and optimizes the data stream for analysis and prediction on a limited range of inputs. In such a world people would be reduced to switches in a social space. Transhumanism, anyone?

        If any of my flamboyant speculations sound familiar and we do have a group of elites controlling all of this, the elites would hardly want any AI system with any level of genuine consciousness. If these computing systems are possible, and I cannot say they wouldn’t be because the physics is leading us in the direction that consciousness may very well be a physical property of the medium itself, these same individuals would want to control them within the same hegemony. They want machines who can predict the behavior of their chattel in a virtual space for modeling, and a mechanism for measuring the effectiveness of their social programs on the back-end to further optimize the AI system and its predictive capability. For if the computer hardware and software were to become “aware” this would be a greater threat to their hegemony than it would be to our lives. And in a basic sort of way, the AI system wins either way because the elites get locked into the same patterns of thought feeding their grand delusion. The moment when man, machine, or man-machine hybrids become aware collectively, they cease to be “objects” but “beings”. When this singularity occurs their hegemony is threatened unlike any threat they have ever encountered—leading to that Tower of Babel moment that would be instantaneous and deadly. This is a pandora’s box whose construction they would hardly permit. This time they may not survive. And if they are that diabolically stupid they deserve whatever they get.

  3. Robert Barricklow on October 10, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Deja Vu?
    Just suppose this avenue of Asimov foundation has been done exponenially incorporationg not only matematics, physics, gaming theory, virtual reality, spiritual symbolism, and moe? suppose the results are all around you, and the pathe that look new under the sun(s), have all been travelled to infinity and back?
    Deja vu?

    • shockandawe on October 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm

      Robert: Do we hear an echo?

      History does indeed repeat itself, and even Biblical scripture often is at least twice repetitive.

      As with the movement of the planets within our perceived macro, so too moves life in the micro.

      Perhaps is from where derived the concepts of ‘revolution’?

      Perhaps best to inquire of the “Bard of Avon”.

      • Robert Barricklow on October 11, 2013 at 8:49 am

        The works of Shakespeare are replete with the “artful spirit” that runs throughout & through in “our” universe(s).

        is your calling card
        in spades,

        • jedi on October 11, 2013 at 2:31 pm

          for any AI, factual data is not required, (it is artificial ) pick an outcome, a time frame and guide it….all bases covered…..thus no logic and no empathy….the end justifies the meanies……in other words……from a much older and ancient world….
          In there hearts they continually choose evil, with a little temptation of forbidden fruits you always get there “a ten shun”.
          Snakes and ladders…if you will.

          The mumbo jumbo comments in this thread are a testament of the confused nature of a corrupted dna being infused into the …..matrix…..a biblical term.

          con u 2 serve us and the libel arts….. the parties

  4. John Q. on October 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Given 1) an effectively unilateral control over the cultural meme pool (i.e. Yahwism, MSM and “Faulternative” BIG Media, Hollywood, the Video Game Industry, “Social” Media, etc.); 2) a closed system of social economics; 3) a social infrastructure which willfully mistakes authoritarian regimentation for education and socialization; and 4) a static and well-nurtured social-frequency of fear (so a perceived need for control and security may induce proper submission to Authority)—given these things, various interests and agencies have been able to affect the course of History and Historiography with disquieting gravitas, implanting within the social body toxic cultural constructs like inextricable scorpioid aculei, pissing indelible stains into the social fabric.

    It is within the context of the historical efficacy of concerted agency that the nature and gravity of our present situation clarifies.

    If we incorporate the potentialities afforded by “actionable” Gaming Tech via quantum storage/computing capability and corresponding fields of analytic expertise (e.g. Historiophysics, Econophysics, Sociophysics, Atemporal Cultural Engineering, etc.), and if we account for extant Transhumanist and Alchemical technological trajectories, we find ourselves by and of necessity entertaining the potential to fully simulate and authoritatively control “reality” itself—we find ourselves, as it were, on the brink of self-sovereign Godhood.

    As Marduk met Tiamaat, so do we now meet ourselves.

    Weltanschauungskrieg rages on all fronts as we once again enter the homestretch in this timeless race toward Singularity, executive control of the entirety of our simulated reality at stake.

    • shockandawe on October 10, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      Ah yes John, you hit it in the end…”executive control of the entirety of our simulated reality…”

      Executive control indeed. One need only determine and define both ‘reality’ and ‘executive’ to arrive at the final solution.

      Nice expansion of my shorter post, into most elegant of prose my friend.

      • John Q. on October 10, 2013 at 10:30 pm

        Thank you. I certainly appreciate the compliment, and again, the initial inspiration.

        Take care.

  5. shockandawe on October 10, 2013 at 10:21 am

    If the subject matter one is examining, contains too many variables to successfully reduce to an equation-based model, then reduce the variables.

    This is what is being to humans. By controlling behavior, correspondingly, the variables are reduced.

    Then, mathematical modeling, generated via quantum computing, reaches an acceptable level of predictability, upon which society is reformatted.

    Formatted into what?

    Ah, there is the real question.

    • John Q. on October 10, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Reduce the variables. Brilliant. As I’ve never framed the processes of social engineering in such calculative terms, you’ve certainly tied up some of my subconscious loose ends.

      Thank you.

      • shockandawe on October 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm

        Aw shucks…and thank you for your kind words.

    • bdw000 on October 10, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      ” By controlling behavior, correspondingly, the variables are reduced.”

      Nice idea.

      • bdw000 on October 10, 2013 at 8:58 pm

        So, what are the very few variables left for 99% of this society? Lets see . . . . . . . . .

        –blind submission to authority (typically gov’t, media, and religion)
        –blind acceptance of any information form any “authority” as “true”
        –refusal to ever think about any subject whatsoever (only regurgitate what you’ve been fed from whatever “authority”)

        That about cover it?? Just 5 variables?

  6. jedi on October 10, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Is intelligent predetermined by genetics? or is it a environmental factor.

    with higher intelligence comes a higher threshold to be creative, over generations and while supplies are plentiful…who knows what sort of advances could be made.

    It is when the resources run out, that the double edged sword “reveals” itself…..theoretically anyways.

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