Robust System Paradox
© 6 Aug 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Unnecessary ≠ Unimportant.


This post was inspired in part by my brother William’s post Incompatible propositions.

Five people stand in a firing squad to execute one criminal. They are all good shots: it will only take one bullet to kill the criminal. Each one thus concludes “‍my bullet is not necessary; if I don’t shoot the criminal will still die.‍” Not wishing to spend unnecessary effort and waste ammunition, each one thus refrains from firing. Consequently, the criminal does not die. Which member of the squad was in the wrong?

This kind of fallacious thinking appears often among my friends when they are depressed. “‍I’m not contributing anything,‍” “‍no one will care if I don’t show up,‍” etc. I also see it in people who feel like they are settling for “‍just a job‍” instead of their ideal career; they think they are just drawing a paycheck, that what they do doesn’t matter, that the part they play is entirely optional and pointless.

Years ago I began a tongue-in-cheek poem with the lines

I think when I am dead and gone
This world will still go on and on
  Without a single missing cog
    In all this fine machine;

And then I think there’ll be more food,
And everything will seem less rude;
  For I admit I am a hog
    And also rather mean.

There probably are some net drains on the social system, people who take more than they give. I don’t personally know many, but I suppose they do exist. Most of us, however, are functional cogs in the machine.

A robust system is one where something can go wrong and the system as a whole can continue to function. One missing cog doesn’t stop the gears from turning. One tie on a railroad can fail and the rails stay parallel. One gun in a firing squad can stop firing and the execution still happens. A pint of blood can be pulled from my veins and enough oxygen is still transported to keep me alive and active. A million people can die overnight and the remaining people will eventually adjust their behavior to take up the slack.

In a well-designed robust system, no one component is necessary. Any participant could quit or die and the system would keep on working. If you are part of such a system, you are not necessary. Neither are any of your fellow participants.

So if none of you are necessary, why are any of you working? If the work gets done with or without you, what does it mean to say that you are contributing or that you did a good job? Do any of your choices have permanent impact on anything? But if none of them have permanent impact, and neither do anyone else’s, why can’t we all stop contributing and have the world go on?

Hearkening back to yesterday’s post, if mortality is a robust system, where no one person’s actions are necessary for the salvation of any other person, does it matter if anyone ever does anything good?

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