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A Couple of Thought-Provoking Words

August 15, 2022

Today I learned two new words that got me thinking.

The words are equifinality and multifinality.   They describe two different ways in which systems can operate. Equifinality means that multiple paths will lead to the same end, while multifinality describes a system in which the same starting point can lead to many different outcomes.

At first it sounds pretty simple.  For example, life is an equifinal system—no matter what path you take, someday you’ll die, while a baseball game is a multifinal system—all games start from the same point but there can be a potentially infinite number of outcomes.

You’re probably wondering what’s the big deal—a couple of fancy words to describe what everyone knows.  Well I think that a big part of our problems stem from the fact that we are confusing the two!  It’s a variation on the saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  You might say that people who do that are mistakenly thinking an equifinal system is multifinal.

So that got me wondering if civilization is an equifinal or multifinal system.  And whether our different views and/or confusion on that question might be causing some of the global angst we are experiencing.

Based on history and what the human race has experienced to date, we might naturally conclude that civilization is multifinal.  We started from the same point and the way things are turning out is one of an infinite number of possible paths the human race may have taken, and we still have an infinite number of options ahead of us. Like populating the Moon, conquering galaxies and subjugating alien races with our robot armies.

Under that theory, new technologies, space travel and all sorts of other possible avenues will take human civilization in new and exciting directions and if just keep doing what we’ve always done, everything will work out just fine.

On the other hand, people who think that civilization is equifinal think that we are all going to end up either freezing, melting or drowning or blowing ourselves up unless we stop doing what we’ve always done, because there is no evidence that we know how to make things work out fine.

So which is it? 

Well, one challenge is that we probably can’t agree on whether civilization started from a single point from which we branch out or from multiple points which are converging on kaboom!

Did we evolve from primordial slime over millions of years or did we show up near the end of the week around 6,000 years ago?  Or, more practically, what about “civilization?” When did that start?  Isn’t it a rather Western Anglo Saxon centric attitude to think that there was ever only one “civilization?”  Remember what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western Civilization?  He said “I think it would be a good idea.”

So if we started from multiple civilizations, and I don’t think there can be a lot of argument about that, doesn’t that make civilization an equifinal system? 

With the emphasis on the final.  The only question is how soon. What do you think?

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