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thinking timetables

Posted under Miscellanea at .
Tags:history, psychology, zen

Going to have a go at my intellectual highlight for 2013 now. (It’s that time of year.)

AJP Taylor famously wrote that the cause of the First World War was train timetables. I will paraphrase the argument from memory: The large armies of the major belligerent powers had had their manoeuvring potential worked out in great detail, and their attack plans accordingly. A critical element was the relatively new one of train transport of troops and materials. As trains run on tracks they require timetables, schedules. Even a slight failure to keep to the schedule could be catastrophic to the orderly attack plans. So once the decision to attack was made, nothing could be done to stop it (without risking defeat).

I don’t quite recall whether Taylor also covered the point that in advance of the nominal decision to attack, various circumstances conspired to make it more or less inevitable — once you accept the thinking of the politicians of the time. (It all looked a bit different a few short years later.) Amongst these circumstances would be knowing the difficulty of changing plans. (Kaiser Wilhelm apparently asked for a less potentially catastrophic set of plans but was told that it could not be done in time.) Part of which is the difficulty of recalculating train timetables. In other words it is the major powers’ inflexibility, brought on by political and territorial complexity exceeding communications and computational power, which was the issue.

I will try to sum this up more concisely from imagination: It is as if you had a clockwork mechanism. Maybe something dangerous. You don’t know exactly how it works or what it will really do, but you start to wind it up. Once you have started to wind it, you find that there is no way to stop winding it (short of a major change of mind which will impact your life in ways which are unacceptable to you). Once it is wound you can decide to leave it for a while, but you don’t really know the consequences of just leaving it wound. You can at any point decide to release the mechanism and let it do its work, but you can’t stop it once it’s released. The analogy could be extended showing the conundrum in all its horror . . . but that’s not what I’m thinking about (and you can read all about the First World War and how it changed or ended people’s lives whenever you like).

The interesting thing is that the decision to go to war was in effect made in advance, by the designers of the various mechanisms and plans and international alliances (much of it worked out many years previously by the elder Von Moltke if I recall); not by Kaiser Wilhelm and other Emperors and Presidents. His executive role was effectively only the acknowledgement that this had to happen. Possibly he (and others) could still have refused, but it would have taken a major effort and come at significant political cost — though not as much as was eventually suffered by him and several million others.

This is curiously similar to the evidence coming from consciousness and neurological studies, that our conscious executive decisions are taken after motions are initiated physically.

The example of the (mis)organisation of the major powers in 1914 may give some insight into the process by which a decision is really arrived at. Does the brain have plans set up for particular decisions and actions well in advance? From what I’ve read, arguably. To what extent do they resemble train timetables or military plans? I couldn’t comment. Are they inherently good, efficient, well formulated plans? Arguably not; I think we could quote the First World War as a series of bad decisions by various humans. Could some of the problems be down to a brain which struggles to communicate efficiently across an organisational scale that the (bio)technology in use has only just by the skin of of its myelin evolved to handle? I’m sure such a vague analogy could find an application.

Perhaps of most interest though — is it possible that under some circumstances, the executive consciousness can in fact intervene to halt or prevent an action which it can see is disastrous? Might that be its actual evolved function (and so, not all the accreted fripperies of ego)? Might there nevertheless be a cost involved in doing so, to the wider body, to the mind, or to the neurons which constitute or implement the executive consciousness? Or just to the ego? Would it not anyway be worth it?

I don’t know the answer to these questions (but I’d be interested in hearing).

And one last one: If our brains are so badly organised, limited by such slow communications, that consciousness never intervenes in the name of sanity, what sort of reorganisation of the brain or the neuron design would be necessary to permit it to do so?


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