George Soros: Reflexivity and fallibility: guiding principles of understanding and acting within social systems

These are my notes while watching discussion of George Soros’ book “The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror” somewhere in University of Washington. A link to video recordings of the discussion on YouTube are here.

It is a little bit strange to me that the theory of reflexivity did not get through to science (or maybe it did, but with some other name and I cannot figure that out). Well, ok, social constructivism would be probably the name for it, but I do not feel that it is taken seriously enough.

  • Inherent unpredictability of the world due to:
  • reflexivity_cognition

  • The concept of open society is based on the fallibility – our unability to understand the world as it is.
  • Dogmas are false exactly because they impose certainty on a uncertain world.
  • Hayek believed that the market will find an equilibrium and is a mechanism for keeping a balance, but it is not (according to Soros, at least). Particularly financial markets are not “searching” for theoretical equilibrium. Information is not enough to come to rational decisions. What is going to happen depends on your judgement – is not something that can be known, rather, it is something to be decided…
  • Characteristic of the market (and of history) is self-reinforcing mechanisms with build in bias. You can dig yourself in various holes – you become enthusiastic about internet and that creates an internet bubble.
  • It is impossible to know the truth, but it is important to care about it and search for it (sort of). It is important to come as close as possible to understanding reality. You get closer by recognizing that you cannot get there exactly.
    Knowing the above you can exploit it.
  • Question about the relation of values as a direction of the action. Do we need a new epistemology? The one which is not abstracted from action, but the one that embraces it (George McLean). Our knowledge is shaped by our values and that should be recognized.
  • Post modernistic approach that there is no reality and everything is a narrative is a misconception, similarly to the misconception in the economic theory and belief in the separation between the observer and the world. The better way is to realize that our biased perception of reality (and actions) is part of reality and shapes the reality but reality does not necessarily correspond to our understanding and therefore we have unintended consequences.
  • misconceptions

  • Three conditions for the social systems: (1) conditions of extreme rigidity which imposes strict rules; (2) another extreme is a chaotic society, revolutionary situations (in the history of USSR you have both extremes); (3) Open society is something in between:
  • A good question from Anar Umurzakova “the chaos should be closer to reality than the rigid (or maybe open) systems?”. Answer: Closed/frozen society is also a self-reinforcing process:
  • The learning occurs (of financial institutions, e.g.) through understanding reflexive relations. Interestingly, Soros names Greenspan as the guy, who very well understood the uncertainty, while Taleb (in Antifragility) calls him the primary “fragilista” ;).
  • The difference between Open Society Fund and organizations like Wold Bank is that in OSF people care about what they are doing, but international organizations are mostly concerned with self-preservation
  • Discussion about 3 Worlds of Popper:
    What is the difference between World 1 and 2? There is a two connection between them, so we actually have two.
  • Soros gives an example: “If I say that you are my enemy, you may become my enemy just because I said this”: this is an example of structural coupling (Maturana)!
  • Do we value freedom because of the efficienteconomy?
  • Second part / introduction:
  • Incommensurable definitions;

  • 2nd_order_cybernetics
  • How to go back to the normal science?

  • Reflexivity theory adds to the existing economic theory the inherent bias in the decision making. It is not only information which leads to the actions, something is also in between. This ‘something in between’ adds a new dimension to the economics’.
  • Bioeconomics / neuroeconomics: studies how humans make decisions on the neurological basis and can answer the question how the biases form in the brain and how do they work. See Neuroeconomics.
  • Political manipulation:
    You have an option to manipulate the reality. Well, is it good or not, that’s the question…. Soros says it is bad, but what about virtual realities, computer games and, at the extreme, “life in the virtual reality”?
  • It is only when you discover a difference between market perception of how things are and your own perception, you can do something (arbitrage in case of financial markets). Otherwise, there is nothing to be done. The key to investment decisions (I think the principle may be used much broader):
  • A larger view of the scientific process.. Theories of truth, etc. This is not what Soros said, but it is nice anyway:



    Soros comment: classical theory of economics is a special case within the theory of reflexivity.

  • The future is not a single event, it is a range of events that can emergence depending on biases and actions of the participants. Therefore the future itself is indeterminate. So, any kind of determinate prediction has to be a false prediction.
  • Popper’s position was that the value of the theory lies in the severity of the tests which do not falsify it. Philosophers of science object this by asking how can you measure severity of tests? Soros gives an example of his investment to nearly bankrupt company (as perceived by the market), which eventually did no go bankrupt as a ‘severe test’ of his own hypothesis that the company is going to do ok. This smells related to improbable events, Black Swans and antifragility….

Paradigm Shift Towards Systemic and Adaptive Governance

Link to the talk in YouTube.
The talk mostly concentrates on climate change, but as he takes a systemic perspective, the principles which he outlines can be applied to other systems too, imho.


  • The biosphere will prevail. The question is: where humans will?
  • Governance:
  • Responding to feedback;
  • A cyber-systemic concept;
  • Cybernetics,from kybernetes meaning helmswoman or steersman;
  • Governing – responding to feedback; charting a course (purpose);
  • What form of praxis might best contribute to paradigm shift in these circumstances?
  • What constraints and possibilities does a conception of rivers as the sturctural coupling of two systems – the human and biophysical – offer to praxis innovations that offer an effective break with dualistic thinking and acting?
  • I guess he is referring to “praxis” as a process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized. Action, in other words, but based on theory
  • Current paradigm is based on antrropmorphism. Should this needs to be changed in order to make a paradigm shift?
  • Social ecological system as a way to go forward
  • co-evolutionary_dynamics

  • How does walking arises as a practice? (Humberto Maturana) It arises from the interaction between legs and floor. Without the floor we would not be able to walk (of course, obviously…)
  • situation

  • Structural coupling: think about the shoes which we use when walking for building a medium between the floor and legs
  • Left with open question: can a systemic governing praxis be built?

A beautiful conversation between Maturana and von Foerster, 1998

A conversation is broken into three parts. My random notes/comments:

1. Truth and Trust:

  • Procedure vs. Externality = Trust vs. Validity. Maturana: What operations/procedures of making science should we accept in order to make the results valid? (Around 12.00)
  • Foerster: “2+2 = 4” is not a truth, it is a rule. It is valid because it is the rule of the game called mathematics, but it is not an ‘external’ truth (16.20)
  • Scientist are searching for the rules of the game. But the searching procedure itself already includes findings in itself (Maturana). The result is a multiverse (a world of views) in a sense that different searching procedures give rise to different and valid universes.(19.58)
  • Biology and all the history of culture shapes our choices about procedures/operations which we use when we are searching for the rules of the game, i.e. do science, see above

2. Future To Be Determined:

  • Shift in perspective for education: if the world that we live in arises from the interplay of us living together [and educating each other], then which way we should interact [and educate] in odrer to live in the world that we want to live in? (Maturana)
  • Education: a procedure of co-invention
  • Foerster: legitimate question is a question which has no answer (yet); illegitimate question is the one to which the answer is known. Education should deal only with legitimate questions, but now it mostly deals with illegitimate ones…
  • Maturana: Education should give rise to the generative process leading to creation of “knowledge”
  • Education is creating a universe in which we want to live [together]
  • There is a social network game Poietic Generator, which allows for the users to “participate in real time in the process of self-organization at work in the continuous emergence of a global picture”. Users create the picture collectively, by relating to each other and seeing what other users create. Imagine that users live in a Poietic Generator…. In this case you will have a picture described by education as generative process of the world where users (we) live.

3. The Matrix that Embeds;

  • To ask a question is not enough. The form or context of the question will influence the form of the answer too. So there is a sort of “structural coupling” between the question and the answer…
  • Scientists are those who are taking things apart, they are separating elements; Systemisists are those which put things together, connect them;
  • A matrix of elements and their relations embeds both
  • Kornovsky: “extended connectedness”