Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Maslow's Calabi-Yau Manifold

Let's start with a favorite movie moment. In My Beautiful Laundrette, the main character's father, a disaffected ex-patriate Pakistani journalist, says to his son: "The English working class has been a great disappointment to me." It's a moment that has always stayed with me since I always want to find a movement that I can believe in and never do. They are all a disappointment to me. I do not think I will end up living alone, drinking vodka and having Sascha clip my gnarly toe-nails while I stew over my disappointment. Better to keep searching.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I never pinned my hopes on the working class. Oh no, it is humanism that has been a disappointment to me. I first heard in public school about Maslow's pyramid. From Wikipedia: "Abraham Harold Maslow (April 1, 1908June 8, 1970), American psychologist, noted for his conceptualization of a "hierarchy of human needs", considered the father of humanistic psychology." I mention public school because it shows how bland and sanitized the whole thing had to be to be taught there.

I loved the pyramid idea and wanted to learn its intricacies (and, of course, ascend myself to the top of the pyramid and be "self-actualized."). Turns out there are no intricacies. The very idea that certain human needs are contingent on others is just wrong. Wikipedia again: "in their extensive review of research which is dependent on Maslow's theory, Wahba and Bridgewell[3] found little evidence for the ranking of needs Maslow described, or even for the existence of a definite hierarchy at all. Chilean economist and philosopher Manfred Max Neef has also argued fundamental human needs are non-hierarchical, and are ontologically universal and invariant in nature - part of the condition of being human; poverty, he argues, is the result of any one of these needs being frustrated, denied or unfulfilled." Go Manfred. Except that the Chilean working class may yet prove a disappointment to him. (Or, more properly, the members of communities in the developing world).

Neef does not have a pyramid but a matrix of needs. Columns are: "Being," "Having," "Doing," and "Interacting." Rows are "Subsistance, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identify and freedom." A 4 by 9 matrix gives us 36 categories. Neef is right that there is no a priori reason to suppose that some set of these must be met before satisfying another set. We don't need a "sense of humor" before we can organize a "religion" (and maybe those two can't go together). We don't need to have "parties (get-togethers)" before we can have "political dissent." But I don't see how we can avoid choosing some values over others. Maybe his economics approach allows some kind of maximizing theorem (but what would the inputs be).

No, I find I have to wrap the human values on Neef's chart into some kind of shape. What kind, you ask? And thank you for asking. The blogger needs you to ask. Well, if you want to fold up a two dimensional space, you could use three dimensions: a pyramid (Maslow really just made a triangle), a cube, a saddle-shape. But what if you want to wrap your 36 spaces in ways that would tear a 2-dimensional sheet. Well, the mathematicians (and particle physicists) have plunged into these depths. The Calabi-Yau Manifold is (from Wikipedia): "a special class of manifold used in some branches of mathematics (such as algebraic geometry) as well as in theoretical physics. For instance, in superstring theory the extra dimensions of spacetime are sometimes conjectured to take the form of a 6-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifold." And since human needs ought to be at least as complicated as physical matter, maybe there is a Calabi-Yau manifold that describes the way human needs are contingent on each other. So there could be intricacies just like I wanted when I heard about Maslow.

Big problem, though. It turns out that there are a stupendous number of ways to make a Calabi-Yau manifold. Whether this is a cause for despair or hope for physicists looking for a final theory of the universe is the subject of an excellent book: The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind. How would we ever find out which shape, however complex, is the shape of the human psyche? That thought occupies me, which is better than being disappointed in some movement or theory that did not work. And it gives me something to blog about, thanks for listening, that is more than the ho-hum of day to day.

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