Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thoughts concerning a general theory of business 4: the two conceptual approaches 3

Posted in blogs and marketing, reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on March 21, 2016

This is my fourth installment to a series on general theories of business, and on what general theory means as a matter of underlying principle and in this specific context (see Reexamining the Fundamentals directory, Section VI: Some Thoughts Concerning a General Theory of Business, for Parts 1-3.)

I offered and began discussing two basic approaches to general descriptive and predictive theories in Part 2:

• Compendium models: models that seek to describe and causally explain as much as possible, even if an overall single unifying theory is not available to tie all of this together (at least yet), and
• Minimalist general rules models: models that seek to comprehensively predictively describe and causally explain such a universe of phenomena through application of a minimal set of general principles, rules or laws.

And as a part of that, I at least briefly outlined how the first of those approaches for organizing and explaining bodies of empirical phenomena can with time be supplanted by the second of them, as a deeper more fundamental set of unifying principles is developed that would account for a compendium model’s range and diversity.

I ended that posting by noting three factors that would shape and even fundamentally determine the viability of this developmental process, and the evolution from a compendium model to a minimalist general rules approach:

• Focus and usability, where actually applying the larger conceptual understandings of an overarching theory-based explanation in real-world contexts, always means taking recourse to context-specific special-case and organizationally restricted implementations – elements of a more compendium model type, even if we use them knowing they fit into larger conceptual understandings in the back of our minds as we use them,
• Acceptable levels of explanatory and empirically validatable accuracy, and
• Consistency and change in the empirically grounding foundations to a body of explanatory theory.

And I began addressing these factors in Part 3 with the first of them, and with the practical limitations of actually using the underling deeper unifying theoretical understanding of a minimalist general rules approach, in specific practical applications.

• I turn here to consider the second of that set of factors and the level of accuracy offered in a theoretical model for predicting relevant event outcomes,
• As balanced against the level of explanatory complexity needed to achieve that, and the need for accuracy per se.

I have been developing this series and its line of discussion up to here, in terms of well-established physical science and its bodies of descriptive and predictive theory. And I continue that pattern here, with a discussion of how a very real world engineering task would be completed.

• You are the chief scientist/engineer for a national space agency and you are tasked with putting a man made satellite into orbit around one of the outer planets of this solar system. The technology available to you for getting it there is such that most all of the thrust that would be applied to this satellite and the hardware that will hold it until arrival at or near its intended orbit, would be provided at initial launch from the surface of the Earth, from single-use chemical rockets and with only very limited maneuvering rocket capability available thereafter due to weight restrictions during initial launch. So the vast majority of this satellite’s voyage from Earth towards the point where it would be inserted into its target orbit, will take place as following a ballistic trajectory. And you and your team have to be able to calculate all of the gravitational and other forces and factors in setting up this ballistic trajectory and achieving it, so your satellite will arrive where it is supposed to be and when it has to be there, with that outer planet’s ongoing motion accounted for too, among other factors. How, at least as a matter of basic principle do you do this?

I stated at the end of Part 3, in anticipation of this, that there are three basic general explanatory and predictive models that could in principle be referred to in making all of the necessary calculations for this: the theory of general relativity, the theory of special relativity, and Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics, or classical physics as it is also called is the simplest of the three, even if its mathematics can and do get very complicated when doing high precision complex analyses as would be called for with this problem. And Newtonian physics is also now known to offer what amounts to approximation solutions in describing and predicting ballistic flight, with Einstein’s special theory of relativity offering greater accuracy. And the special theory of relativity in turn can be seen as only offering approximate solutions to a still deeper and more comprehensively explanatory and predictive theory: Einstein’s general relativity theory.

If that were all there was to this, then everyone would immediately turn to the most widely applicable theory and its mathematics to make these calculations. To repeat a point that I made in setting this challenge up, essentially all thrust is going to be expended at the very start of this voyage, and I add in just the first few minutes of a trip that would last years. Course correction after that, from maneuvering rockets will be negligible except for the most minor and almost cosmetic adjustments and with those reserved for the last stages of this journey. So as a first cut answer to the question that I posed when setting this scenario up, you would do this – make the necessary calculations and build and launch accordingly, using the general theory of relativity and certainly to calculate all of the ballistic and orbital dynamics involved. But let’s step back and reconsider this initial loosely considered conclusion.

Let’s start with Newton and his theory of motion as has been refined and expanded upon. Where is it most accurate and how accurate can it be there, and where does its predictive accuracy fail? What range of physical conditions and parameters does it break down and fail for, where relativistic physics would offer greater value? It turns out that it begins to fail and even very significantly when it is applied to objects observed as traveling close to the speed of light relative to each other. Special relativity can accurately address phenomena that violate that relative speed limitation but even that theoretical model breaks down at relativistic speeds when significant acceleration is added into this mix, and that is when the general theory of relativity comes into its own.

We are discussing a satellite that is always going to have an observable speed that is at most just a small fraction of one percent of the speed of light. So any calculation corrections that either theory of relativity would make to a strictly Newtonian calculation would be minute; they would fall within the error of measurements of what could physically be performed here in determining actual position and velocity of this satellite, and they would be negligible as far as need for accuracy is concerned too.

• I am, in many respects belaboring what should be the obvious here. More complex and comprehensive is not going to offer increased value when simpler offers sufficient accuracy to meet all realistic practical needs,
• And certainly when that increased calculated accuracy as a matter of theoretical prediction would be masked by accuracy limitations in building the equipment that these calculations would be applied to, and the accuracy of measuring outcomes that would be available.

I add that I intentionally selected a working example here, where the point that I seek to make would be as self-apparent as possible.

And this brings me to the third factor of my above repeated list:

• Consistency and change in the empirically grounding foundations to a body of explanatory theory.

I have assumed up to here in this series and in all of my scenarios and examples, that empirically grounded reality remains constant and unchanging, and that any accurate observation would be consistently replicable for outcomes achieved, if the precise starting conditions that it was based upon could be replicated. I will question and discuss possible violations of that underlying assumption in my next series installment. And that means thinking through and discussing underlying assumptions per se, and what aspects of empirical reality are actually being addressed, from this foundation building level. And with that, I will set aside physical science-based scenarios and examples as I have used up to here in setting up my theory of general theories distinctions: my metatheory of explanatory and predictive theory-based models. And I will start applying all of this to a business systems and economic context.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related material about what I am attempting to do here at About this Blog and at Blogs and Marketing. And I include this series in my Reexamining the Fundamentals directory, as topics section VI there where I offer related material regarding theory-based systems.

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