Richard Feynman's "Mayan Student" Adds Some Perspective to the OFMOS Worldview


OFMOS, as a model that explains how corporations evolve over very long periods of time, looks little like the concepts and theories that you might find in the mainstream management or strategy books. And that's because it is indeed a new worldview, a new way of looking at the world.

It is a worldview that was built bottom-up (beginning with the behavior of the individual and then moving up to the aggregated dynamics that take place at the firm and economy level), as opposed to using a top-down approach.

Now, to add some more perspective to this development, I thought that Richard Feynman, the famed physicist and great explainer, might have just the right way to do it. In his lecture Seeking New Laws | The Character of Physical Law, he uses a brief imaginary example of a conversation between a Mayan astronomer and his student to illustrate the importance of the worldviews behind the theories.

"For those people who insist, however, that the only thing that's important is that the theory agrees with experiment, I would like to make an imaginary discussion between a Mayan astronomer and his student. The Mayans were able to calculate with great precision the predictions, for example, for eclipses and the position of the moon in the sky, the position of Venus, and so on.

However, it was all done by arithmetic. You count certain numbers, you subtract some numbers, and so on. There was no discussion of what the moon was. There wasn't even a discussion of the idea that it went around. It was only calculate the time when there would be an eclipse, or the time when it would rise-- their full moon-- and when it would rise, half moon, and so on, just calculating, only.

Suppose that a young man went to the astronomer and said, I have an idea. Maybe those things are going around, and there are balls of rocks out there. We could calculate how they move in a completely different way than just calculate what time they appear in the sky and so on.

So of course the Mayan astronomer would say, yes, how accurate can you predict eclipses? He said, I haven't developed the thing very far.

But we can calculate eclipses more accurately than you can with your model. And so you must not pay attention to this, because the mathematical scheme is better. And it's a very strong tendency of people to say against some idea, if someone comes up with an idea, and says let's suppose the world is this way.

And you say to him, well, what would you get for the answer for such and such a problem? And he says, I haven't developed it far enough. And you say, well, we have already developed it much further. We can get the answers very accurately. So it is a problem, as to whether or not to worry about philosophies behind ideas."

Cristian Mitreanu