Oscar Wilde once said that "A fool is someone who knows the price
of everything and the value of nothing". Economists have struggled
with this question for several centuries and have largely given up -
most modern economists tacitly assert that price and value are the same
thing, except for possible "externalities" that prevent the
market system from functioning correctly. But many of us still believe
that the value of a good poem or a comforting word may not be fully
reflected in its price, and that value to society and GDP are only weakly
The question behind this question is whether there is an objective basis
for saying that one thing is more valuable than another. In the world
of esthetics is inevitably subjective. But perhaps this is not as manifest
in other domains. For example, in engineering is it possible to say
that one design is inherently better than another? This is closely related
to the long standing and much debated question of evolutionary progress.
Is there a sense in which we can clearly say that organisms tend to
evolve toward better designs, when taken over sufficiently long domains
in time and space? When we compare the non-living world of four billion
years ago to the rich biosphere of the present, the comparison seems
obvious to some of us. But this is hotly contested by others, who point
to the lack of a objective criteria for quality of design.
I think that, with functionality as the arbitrator, a mathematical framework
for distinguishing good and bad designs may be an achievable goal. This
has scientific importants for engineering and economics, and profound
implications for philosophy, relgion, and even politics. In the postmodern
world objectivity is out of fashion. Perhaps it is time for reality
to make a comeback.
, one of the pioneers of what has come to be called chaos
theory, is McKinsey Professor, Sante Fe, Institute, and the co-founder
and former co-president of Prediction Company in Santa Fe, New Mexico.