Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles

by Asher Kay

Riffing off a nice post by John at Ktismatics on whether we have direct access to our own minds…

Whenever there’s a discussion about the neuronal vs. the mental, issues of causation and reduction often come up. Can conscious activity be reduced to an explanation of neuronal activity? Does the neuronal level of organization *cause* the level at which qualia are experienced? What form does that causation take?

My stance is that causality is really a much, much looser concept than physical science would make it seem. Over time, physical science has corralled causality into a smaller and smaller area — but that area is occupied by some pretty inscrutable things — things like “forces”, which end up being mostly tautological at a paradigmatic level (“it’s a force because it makes things move — it makes things move because it’s a force”), and metaphorically hinky at the level of theory (gauge bosons as “virtual particles”).

So when we think about the neuronal “causing” the mental, we usually have in mind some sort of physical-science-like efficient causality, because that’s what we see as operating at the molecular level of description that neural networks inhabit.

But the question is — why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?

This is where reduction comes in. It seems that a lot of people think that if we can describe something at, say, a molecular level, we have reduced it, and we no longer need the description at the higher level, because we’ve explained everything that needs to be explained. Let’s say that we have a particular arrangement of a certain sort of molecules, and we know exactly why the regularity of that arrangement and the nature of the forces between the molecules allow photons to pass through without being absorbed. Have we “reduced” the emergent property of transparency? A scientist would probably say that we have — that the perceptual level of “seeing through” something doesn’t add anything to the explanation.

But that’s just one idea of reduction. Here’s another. Let’s say that we have a game that’s defined by the manipulation of yellow and blue marbles on a grid according to a set of rules. We’re given an initial row, from left to right, of, say, a thousand marbles on the grid, some yellow, some blue — and we’re given eight simple rules about how to place marbles on the next row of the grid. The rules tell us to look at each marble in the row, and place a marble below it with a color that’s based on the marbles directly to the right and left of the marble we’re looking at. For example, a rule might say, “if you’re on a yellow marble with a blue to the right and a yellow to the left, place a blue marble below it”, or “when a yellow marble’s neighbors are both blue, place a yellow marble below it”. It will take five hundred steps, but eventually we will run out of marbles, because the ones on the ends don’t have neighbors, and therefore don’t get marbles placed below them.

So what we have is an extremely simple system with only two entities, eight rules, and 1000 objects. Reductively, we would say that we have fully explained the system, right? We know all of the things that there are (red and blue marbles), all of the possible ways that they can be manipulated (exactly eight ways), and the exact configuration of the entire universe at its inception (a line of 1000 marbles). We know everything there is to know about the system.

Okay. So what if I now asked you to tell me, given a particular row of a thousand marbles and a particular set of eight rules, what the sequence of yellow and blue marbles will be after 250 steps of applying the rules. But wait, there’s a catch — the *only* thing you’re *not* allowed to do in figuring it out is *actually carry out the 250 steps*.

Why this prohibition? Well, the set of rules and the initial lineup of marbles are what constitute the *reduction* of the system. If you actually carry out the rules to find out the configuration after 250 steps, you haven’t *reduced* anything — you are actually *running* the real, unreduced system.

So — is it possible? Can you do it?

The answer is that in some cases, it’s impossible.

Now, many people would say that the example I just gave confuses reduction with predictability. But what if, instead of asking you to predict the sequence of marbles after 250 steps, I asked you to tell me, in a general way, if the rows of marbles produced by following the rules would make a pattern, and, if so, what sorts of features (in general) that pattern would exhibit. Could you do that? The answer, once again, is that in some cases, you couldn’t. Some configurations of marbles and rules produce weird repeating patterns that look like spaceships. The spaceships are not in the rules or the marbles — they emerge from them, but are not explained by them.

What I’m getting at is that although predictability and reduction are not the same thing, they are intimately related and not really separable. Predictability is the only real test we have to tell us if we have explained something fully. Reduction is a way of formulating a prediction about how something will behave.

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55 Responses to “Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles”

  1. Nice! As I understand it sensitivity to initial conditions is an important feature of non-linear emergent systems, which seems to be the case in the marble example – out of all those marbles, swap one yellow and blue on the starting board and the whole cascade goes differently.

  2. This is an important distinction, Asher. In my post I was careful not to claim that the neuronal level has direct relationship with or access to the cognitive level, thereby also waving my hands at the causal relationship between the two levels. Neural network and content are not unlike the grid and marbles of your example. The main difference is that your game also specifies the rules for setting things in motion. It is theoretically possible to specify all possible interconnections of all nodes in the brain, although the number of possible brain states probably exceeds the number of molecules in the universe. How many possible grammatically-correct texts is it possible to construct from the English language? A structuralist might hold that the language speaks itself, that the constraints of vocabulary and grammar inherently limit what can be said. Still, even within those constraint the possibilities still approximate shitloads to the Nth power. Each text that’s produced can be analyzed after the fact, reduced to elemental components and interconnections and even meanings, but the analysis doesn’t tell you what caused this particular text to be assembled.

    Early AI programs ran a lot like your marbles game, or like a calculator, as I’m sure you’re aware, Asher. There’s a flat array of knowledge marbles scattered throughout the system, and some set of rules are invoked to sort the marbles into two piles: rejected combinations and still-possible combinations. It’s a Bayesian sorting procedure: keep iterating until you’re left with a pile of one particular combination of marbles: this is the “answer,” the desired endstate of the game. But how do you know that the answer is the right one? To the game of states (marbles and their arrangements) and rules must be added a third component: desired end state. The rules iteratively transform or translate the state of the game into predictable new states; the desired end state selects particular patterns and rejects other by comparing the emergent properties of the patterns generated by the rules with the desired pattern. In your game, for example, a goal might be stated as: “quit when the emerging pattern looks some other well-known object such as a spaceship, a teacup, an arrow…”

    The game can be described in terms of state-space: arrangements of colored marbles on the grid. The progress of the game can be described as iterative transformations of game space. The iterative transformations can be described in terms of rules. The end of the game can be described as the matching of emergent patterns between actual and desired game states. What sets the game in motion? Some sort of energy source. The elements, structures, rules, iterations, emergent properties, pattern matchings, and energy all work in combination to constitute a running game. No one part in isolation can be regarded as the cause. Elements and grids are the static objects comprising the game; structures and emerging patterns and rules describe ways in which the objects are related to each other; energy is the force setting the objects and interrelationships in motion.

    So now we’re at a place where both Harman and Bryant would have us go. Harman says that the relationships between objects (marbles and structural states) always happen inside a new merged object (the game). For Harman the new merged object brings together properties of the component objects that get cut loose from the objects and meld into new properties. What Bryant adds is a causal mechanism whereby the states of objects — their informational patterns — are translated into new patterns by other objects they rub against. What I think neither Harman nor Bryant accounts for is the role of the rule as a mechanism by which the translation takes place. I suppose the flat-ontological answer is to regard the rule as yet another object thrown into the mix, such that when the marbles rub up against the rule they change position. Or, in another example I tried to mess with a long time ago, when the earth and the moon rub up against the gravity-object, they assemble themselves into a new orbit-state relative to each other.

    You ask at the beginning of your post: “why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?” Deontologistics said that you pretty much have to account for multiple levels and their interrelationships if you’re going to allow emergent properties/objects as real. I’m not sure either the plasmic admixture of objects’ properties or the bumping of objects against rules and energy sources is adequate to the task.

    Sorry for rambling: just thinking things through here, stimulated by your intriguing post.

  3. Just able to follow along here, but may say (sincerely), thanks for caring.
    John says, “the number of possible brain states probably exceeds the number of molecules in the universe.”
    The figure I recall for number of elementary particles in the universe is like 10^80. Is this estimate of brain states somewhat hyperbole?

  4. If you assume 100 billion neurons in the brain, and make the simplifying assumption that at any given time, a single neuron could be on or off, the number of distinct states is 2^100,000,000,000. That’s something like 10^(10^4.8).

  5. Gosh, I feel smarter all of a sudden. But if they’re all stuck on the “I like jam!” setting what good do they do us?

  6. This is awesome stuff, guys. It’s definitely a very good introduction to the problems of emergence, reduction, and causation.

    Anyway, I just wanted to second a couple of John points here. First, to take emergence seriously, you need to allow for multiple strata of existence (which precludes flat ontologies, I think). I’m also wondering if John’s penultimate point is expressing a need to distinguish carefully between mereology and emergence. One might be able to create a flat, mereological ontology, but there’s a sense in which that simply omits the problem of causation entirely.

  7. Well, okay, I think. I recall an estimated ten billion count on neurons, my bad.
    And reading my last comment I find that, “thank you for caring” seems a bit glib and perhaps off-putting.
    I mean that I am grateful for folks driven to pursue matters curious and scrimmage with them
    In any case, it strikes me that such an incredible number of possible brain states makes any notion of parallel universes in physics somewhat beside the point. We are each likely dwelling in our own simulated universes, sometimes quite strange, and so must always have recourse to philosophy.

  8. John and Carl – with the marbles, I was trying to use a CompSci example without all the terminology. The example is actually a cellular automaton, and the “unpredictable” example is Rule 30. There are close ties, of course, between cellular automata of the very simple type I described and things like Bayesian classifiers and Turing machines.

    What you’re pointing up, John, is something that’s the hardest part to get my head around — the question of whether the “organization” that we talk about at various levels of description is a conceptual thing, or whether it’s “in the world”. The paradigmatic example of “supervenience” in emergent systems is the picture made up of evenly-spaced dots. Close up, we see dots — far away, we see a picture. But this example is purely conceptual — it has to do with what we see and how it’s impossible for us to simultaneously focus on several levels at once.

    The other common example is a multicellular organism. At the molecular level, we have atomic forces, electromagnetic interaction, etc. The molecules are “organized” into a cell a few levels up, and organized into a many-celled organism even further up. Our various sciences describe causal mechanisms at each level (particle physics, chemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, etc), and the impression that we get is that something like “metabolism” is really a conceptual shorthand for a process that could be described entirely by means of subatomic forces. So we sometimes see it as a purely conceptual limitation that we think of things as having levels of organization at all.

    What I’m beginning to think is that causality is emergent in the same way that properties like “transparency” or “consciousness” are emergent. At the subatomic level, we have all these efficient causes (weak and strong, electromagnetic, gravitational), but at higher level, different sorts of causality actually emerge — larger “forces” that act mainly as “constraints of organization”. So what I’m trying to think through is how we can look at “organization” as causality. I think this will end up helping me to conceptualize levels of organization in a way that places them in the “real world”.

    But I’ve decided not to get all conclusiony in the dead voles that I offer up here. I’m going to be more late-Wittgensteiny and pose a lot of questions.

  9. “First, to take emergence seriously, you need to allow for multiple strata of existence (which precludes flat ontologies, I think). “

    I’m not so sure. I think what it all hinges on is the question of how you look at “assemblages”. This is something that is hinky in both Levi and Graham’s stuff (at least the stuff that I’ve seen).

    I agree, though on the need for a careful mereological/emergence distinction. In a sense, maybe it’s the same thing as a distinction between causality and “relation”. If so, the idea of causality as “constraint” could help in formulating the distinction.

  10. I think what it all hinges on is the question of how you look at “assemblages”.

    To be honest, I actually think it hinges on a much more basic problem of navigating the meanings attached to ‘ontological commitment’ (and this is really my problem with all of the objectology material: ontological realism = Quine’s phrase, “To be is to be the value of a bound variable”). For the most part, systems theorists (at least this used to be the case, maybe the matter has changed) tended to emphasize the difference between explanatory model and its instantiation (i.e. they were staunch functionalists). What is, for them, is simply what satisfies the model within given parameters. But mostly they don’t really care. Marbles, pixels, pigment, it’s all the same. And I have yet to see an attempt to define ontology that pays attention to the basic problem of commitment qua justifcations for holding this ontology over that one. But anyway, that’s a snipe, I think.

    But maybe you’re right: a robustly articulated assemblage would allow you to maintain the singularity of ‘participants’ without sacrificing the ‘entity’ they comprise. The best example might be something like a sports team: individuals can rotate in and out, play multiple positions, quit, and get traded, etc, without the team being destroyed. The problem is that ‘team’ presupposes a set of higher order rules to provide context (sports league, rules of the game, etc) to which ‘Team’ remains subordinate. So it’s a question of context and perspective — a question of system. Does that sound right to you, Asher? It’s been years since I’ve thought about this stuff, and it’s coming back to me very slowly.

    Should we take a stab at the mereology/emergence problem first?

  11. Well, had to Google “mereology”.
    Seems like the solid strata from which any conceptual order arises, the rhythm upon which one must fall back having lost the melody, is that of energy and its regimens – its states and pathways of transition. Emergence is a new regimen of energy.
    In this light, iteration is an emergent property. Add a string which is just so long to a stick which is just so short and what is the emergent dynamic?
    Further, seem to me that iteration is a necessary ingredient to any game be it marbles or life, the fundamental stitch.
    So, whence iteration?

  12. I was just listening to an interview that included a description of the process of stop-motion animation, which struck me as another example of emergence along the lines of the Asher-marbles. Every constitutive element of the film is still; each shot is individually staged; the movie only shows up when the frames are run together at speed, creating an illusion of animated movement. And of course this is how films in general work. So if the film is sitting there in its box, it’s not a movie yet; that only happens when you run it in the camera and the eyes and brains of the audience assemble the sequenced still images and ‘fill in’ the illusion of motion. Energy, iteration and rhythm.

    And this is how perception itself works. As John has written, we take in vastly more information than we are aware of; there’s a lot of sifting, ordering and categorizing before the conscious interpreters kick in; and then those go to work on what’s left to reassemble it all into something emergently coherent.

    As to whether the resulting order is merely conceptual or is out there in the world, I don’t think we can say with theological certainty without overcoming the brains-in-vats objection. More pragmatically, I managed to drive 35 miles just now without (to my knowledge) hitting anyone else or being hit, so something must be going right.

  13. The marbles game consists of some calculable number of possible states; i.e., specific patterns of yellow and blue marbles in a row. If you now play the game — transform the current state into a successor state — some number of all the possible states will manifest themselves, one after another, until the game is over.

    The issue of causality is this: are the actual states of the game that result iteratively from playing caused by the possible states of the grid, or by the rules? It’s clear that the answer is “both.” The rules are what transform the state, but the possible states limit what transformations can happen. If the rules are prescriptive and fixed, like the one Asher described, then the sequence of game states is predetermined by the initial state. If the rule for playing the game is randomnesss, like tossing a coin, then on subsequent iterations each possible state of the game is equally probable. If the number of red balls in any given state of the grid is limited to 100, then the universe of possible game states changes, along with their probabilities of being actualized in any given iteration.

  14. What is, for them, is simply what satisfies the model within given parameters.

    If that’s so, that’s really scary. I always saw the model as trying to satisfy reality, and not the other way around.

    And I have yet to see an attempt to define ontology that pays attention to the basic problem of commitment qua justifcations for holding this ontology over that one.

    That’s because you are a “normativity hound”, which probably makes you a libertarian or a Stalinist. But I agree with you completely — ontologies don’t tend to pay attention to those questions. It’s probably because the phrase, “It sparkles!” doesn’t look good in a philosophy journal. Your article about OOO, by the way, which I’m working my way through, is testimony on the dangers of ignoring questions of justification.

    Which gives me a weird thought…. One is probably constrained by one’s metatheory even if one hasn’t formulated it.

    Should we take a stab at the mereology/emergence problem first?

    Okay – well, we should probably start with an elaboration of how mereology falls short, if indeed it does. I think the sort of mereology we’re talking about has to be ontological rather than just “epistemic”, right? If mereology is just a sort of formal system of conceptual relation, then the discussion is whether the system is coherent and logical and so forth. If mereology involves an ontological commitment, then the discussion is whether the system is explanatory, apt, descriptive, and so forth.

  15. John – I like your example. This is exactly what I’m trying to think through with respect to causality. Let’s say that we accept the “both” answer — the rules are causal in that they determine what can happen next, but the game states are also causal in that they *constrain* the system. The question for me is: How are those causal mechanisms related? Are the game states actually an emergent property of the rules? In other words, are they system-wide constraints that emerge as a result of the local application of the rules? If that’s the case, then I think people are going to have problems with saying that the game states have a causality all their own.

  16. I found an interesting page from a 2003 conference on evolutionary theory, in which “mereological emergence” is mentioned.

    Imagining Stuart Kauffman giving a talk and Terrence Deacon asking questions after the presentation gives me chills.

  17. Systems theory is scary in regard to its elimination of singular entities, and its overbearingly epistemic attitude. But the fright only occurs when you think of systems as being ontological, rather than merely explanatory in nature — you won’t find a phase space, a vector or an attractor out there amongst the furniture of the universe (I made this point as Tuffini over at LS, and ended up being called an ‘analytic computationalist [!] by a partisan). The reason systems theory (and I probably should be qualifying this label by saying what kind of system)is both powerful and seductive is that the actual furniture of the universe doesn’t enter into it at all. Ants, marbles, Seagulls, Sub-atamoc particles, Weather, celestial bodies — you name it — they’re all modeled by the same system. The power lies in the conceptual simplification of phenomena to a procedural account, that is both predictive and explanatory — and finite, graspable. For some reason though, everyone seems to wants to ontologize this. It makes little sense to me — but hey what do I know?

    On a different note, I’m glad that you’re enjoying — or at least brave enough to try and read — my paper, I look forward to feedback (perhaps here as a Vole…). And I think you’re right, we are constrained by metatheory, even when we haven’t explictly formulated it. Within German Idealism (and its uncanny convergence with pyschoanalysis), this is why you get the consciousness/Self-Consciousness problem and theories of Reflection. but that’s a different kettle, for a different kind of discussion.

    Your suggestions about where to start viz. mereology sound right to me. For our purposes a formal account is probably not robust enough.

  18. Wow that page you just linked to is super cool. Must read it carefully…

  19. “The power lies in the conceptual simplification of phenomena to a procedural account, that is both predictive and explanatory — and finite, graspable. For some reason though, everyone seems to wants to ontologize this. It makes little sense to me — but hey what do I know?”

    I’m not sure I’m tracking this discussion. In the page Asher links Deamer makes a distinction between ‘epistemological’ or ‘weak’ emergence, and ‘ontological’ or ‘strong’ emergence. The first is descriptive or explanatory of ordinary events and processes, e.g. in physics; the latter addresses the coming of something “truly novel” into the universe. As far as I can tell he is using the terms differently than you guys are. He’s also got an old-school notion of physics that doesn’t include non-equilibrium thermodynamics, as Kauffman later shows. But Kauffman also uses the term ontological emergence to describe the appearance of novel phenomena that cannot be reduced mechanically to their parts. He seems to think that these new things, like the old things, exist.

    Alexei, is this what you mean by ontologizing?

    Context-dependence and relationality are the key points for Kauffman, yielding procedural accounts that are predictive and explanatory only via probabilities and non-linearities (constraints not laws). Money quote from that page:

    Kauffman said that if we cannot pre-specify all possible functions, then the universe and biosphere are non-algorithmic. The biosphere keeps evolving through the use of unanticipated pre-adaptations/exaptations. The epistemological strategy of reductionism to the laws of physics simply does not work to describe such robust biological creativity.

    Telmo Pievani pointed out a further extension of Kauffman’s argument. He suggested that the adjacent possible may be even larger than Kauffman thinks because if we take into account all the effects of every function, then there is an infinite possibility space of those effects. Along with the propagation of new functions, there is a continuous propagation of their effects as well. These too are not derivable algorithmically.

  20. I hadn’t read the piece that Asher linked to before I commented, but I think the distinction between weak and strong emergence captures more or less what I was getting at. Put as simply as I can: unless you think there is some correspondence relation — a structural homology that is content preserving, and asymmetric — between scientific model and the dynamic interactions among singularities, you can’t really bridge strong emergence and weak emergence. The theory remains a theory, and what happens in the world can only be treated as an instance that conforms (or doesn’t) to the model. But there’s no way, I think, to model ontological emergence without transforming it into the weaker sense. Does that make sense? Just as the concept, ‘dog’ isn’t a dog-thing, a system isn’t an ontological interaction. And just as it’s a category error to think that ‘dog’ is identical to the dog-entity, it’s a mistake to think that our models of emergence are identical to strongly emergenct phenomena.

    But it’s been almost 10 years since I’ve really done anything with systems theory, so maybe I’m simply out of date. Everyone I’ve read maintains a strong distinction between ontology and system. Maybe that’s changed. There’s an excellent article on merelology here, and another on emergence here. My sense of mereological emergence is that its what the latter article calls a fusion theory. But that’s just a guess.

  21. Thanks, Alexei.

    “Put as simply as I can: unless you think there is some correspondence relation — a structural homology that is content preserving, and asymmetric — between scientific model and the dynamic interactions among singularities, you can’t really bridge strong emergence and weak emergence.”

    It seems to me, naively I’m sure, that this sort of argument is available as a riposte to any claim about the relations between a concept and a thing. So far, so Kantian. But science is not worrying about whether its objects exist or can in principle be known, right? So sure, the idea is not the thing, but scientists are still perfectly happy to talk about things as if they exist and as if our concepts are in principle conformable to them – in the ordinary sense that when I don’t run over a dog, it’s a dog I didn’t run over and not an emu or an existentialist?

  22. So what I’m getting at is, I still don’t think they mean the same thing by ontological emergence as you do – it’s a different language game they’re playing, in which what you’re disposed to question is exactly what they’re disposed to take for granted.

  23. It turns out that this post is operating in parallel with the last couple of Larval Subjects posts, the common foci being virtual/actual, causality, emergence, and reductionism versus parallelism among objects of different levels of complexity.

    Alexei is right: the marbles game is an artifact, a simulation that exploits simplifying assumptions which might not correspond to the real as it occurs in nature. Still, Asher’s question is relevant to the artifact: in what ways do the rules and the potential system states combine causally to generate future states? The array of potential states is the “phase space” of the game. But are all these potential states really part of the game’s structure, or are they generated through simulated or actual playings of the game? To regard phase space as part of the system is to assign partial self-causality to the game’s structure. This move is particularly compatible with an object-oriented ontology: the objects cause their own transformations. Incorporating phase-space properties into the object is to extend a sort of virtual halo around any particular state it happens to be in at any given place and time. In this sense the material condition of the object is only a particular configuration of its larger reality.

    If phase-space properties are assigned to the game-object, then the rules become the means by which the potential/virtual of the phase-space is made actual/material. Is it possible to incorporate the rules too into the game-object? Sure. Each position in the row can have a rule attached to it, telling it under what circumstances it should become either red or yellow. So now both the phase space and the “norm” become part of the game-object.

    To me these decisions — is causality internal or external to the game-object? — seem like matters of aesthetics or pragmatics rather than properties of reality per se. But that might be because we’re talking about an artifact that can be built with either procedural or object-oriented techniques.

    And it’s also clear to me that those of us participating in this thread are picking up on different ideas exemplified by the game rather than converging tightly on one set of ideas. That’s okay with me: this is one of those opening-up kinds of posts rather than a problem-solving kind.

  24. The chair I’m sitting in here and now could conceivably occupy practically anyplace on earth or under the sea — or in the universe for that matter — where it wouldn’t get burned up or crushed to bits by g-forces. This virtually unlimited array of potential locations: are they part of the reality of the chair itself; or are they abstractions imposed on the chair by simulating what could happen to the chair if outside forces acted on it, causing it to move? If someone were to move this chair to Timbuktu, would the fact that Timbuktu was already part of the chair’s phase space mean that the chair was a partial cause of its own actual relocation?

  25. Nope! That’s just silly. 😉

  26. Seriously () though, there’s greatness in this example. I can readily imagine the chair ending up in Timbuktu, following a fairly ordinary path for American castoffs. But ‘following a fairly ordinary path’ already makes me wonder about the individual agency of the chair. I can also imagine it being washed overboard in transit, being nudged into a current by a passing whale fleeing a Japanese research vessel, and ending up at the deepest point of the Mariana trench, which would be more random. I’m not seeing much agency for the chair in this scenario either, although there may be some hydrodynamic significance to the chair’s surfaces in relation to local turbulence patterns.

    What I wonder in each case is if assigning agency to the chair because of its phase space (it could have gone to the moon instead!) is anything like blaming poor people for being poor.

  27. Okay, you people are way ahead of me now. Sorry to back up….

    To my mind, theories of strong and weak emergence are both “ontological” in the sense that they are trying to describe reality. Weak emergence is “epistemological” only in the sense that it explains emergent properties as belonging to theory but not necessarily to reality. In other words, emergent properties are things that arise in theories because we are conceptually limited in thinking and talking about systems in which many parts are interacting in complex ways.

    To me, the difference between the two viewpoints doesn’t amount to much. The idea is to understand reality as well as we can, and if we need phase spaces or weird sorts of causality to do it, then so be it.

    So the problem of ontologizing is kind of annoying to me. We are not going to prove whether such-and-such a thing in our theories is “really out there”, so I’m not sure why we worry about it. The best sort of theory, in my opinion, takes into account the idea that it is built specifically for the purpose of conceptualization.

  28. But science is not worrying about whether its objects exist or can in principle be known, right?

    I take it that some form of realism is more or less axiomatic for scientists. So yeah you’re right, Carl. Asher, you’re right too, when you say,

    We are not going to prove whether such-and-such a thing in our theories is “really out there”, so I’m not sure why we worry about it. The best sort of theory, in my opinion, takes into account the idea that it is built specifically for the purpose of conceptualization.

    .

    My only point, and I think it’s a modest one (and John articulated it beautifully, when I was groping for it), is that there is a temptation to confuse a model with what exists. Instead of particulars, forces, etc, what exists is a system comprising vectors and attractors, etc. But that is to confuse a way of explaining, predicting, and making tractable an infinitely rich, complex and unrepeatable interaction among particulars with what is ontologically basic. There are no laws in nature, no constraints. These are ways of conceptualizing and simplifying what is in order to make things tractable, and so that we can then go out and do stuff.

    With respect to emergence, and systems theory talk more generally, there’s a particularly bad habit to fall for this bait and switch: model of reality somehow becomes description of actually existent entities, and then it becomes ontology. Philosophically, that seems like a mistake, no? Whether there’s pragmatic value in using the model seems somehow irrelevant to me. Of course it’s useful, but why?

  29. OK, so ‘strong’ ontology in the sense of actually knowing what’s actually out there is impossible, and ‘weak’ ontology is inherently conceptualized and therefore epistemological through and through. If this is the case, then it seems to me we can dump strong ontology into the dustbin of theological prehistory and leave it to the gnawing of intellectual historians. For us now, isn’t ontology just our currently best guess about what’s out there based on our currently best practices about how to figure it out?

    As for confusing the model with what exists, sure, and at some level of meta-awareness it may be useful to keep this in mind; but I find it a non-problem every time I hit a tennis ball or brush my teeth or kiss my wife. Nor do I think the claim that there are no laws or constraints in nature is any more supportable than the claim that there are. It might be that our law-inferencing is our point of closest contact with the real, who knows. We just don’t know and can’t, so again confusing model with existence seems like a non-problem. It’s models all the way down, with us.

  30. I find it a non-problem every time I hit a tennis ball or brush my teeth or kiss my wife. Nor do I think the claim that there are no laws or constraints in nature is any more supportable than the claim that there are. It might be that our law-inferencing is our point of closest contact with the real, who knows. We just don’t know and can’t, so again confusing model with existence seems like a non-problem. It’s models all the way down, with us.

    Well, I don’t think anyone does philosophy when they brush their teeth or kiss someone they love. I certainly don’t. But that doesn’t tell against my claim, I think. We can live most of our lives in blissful ignorance of the technical, philosophical, and scientific knowledge that makes tennis, wives and toothpaste possible. So sure: we don’t have to worry about the Model-reality thingie because we don’t have to worry about scientific knowledge thingie. But isn’t this simply a cop-out? It’s not like there’s an explicit counter-argument in here, is there? I’m just sayin….

  31. “With respect to emergence, and systems theory talk more generally, there’s a particularly bad habit to fall for this bait and switch: model of reality somehow becomes description of actually existent entities, and then it becomes ontology. Philosophically, that seems like a mistake, no? “

    I agree. It’s a bad habit, and one should be careful to avoid it, or at least nod to the issue when talking about theoretical entities as if they were actual entities (often, it’s just too cumbersome to use special language that continually makes the distinction).

    “Whether there’s pragmatic value in using the model seems somehow irrelevant to me. Of course it’s useful, but why?”

    Can you clarify that? What model are you talking about here?

  32. “So sure: we don’t have to worry about the Model-reality thingie because we don’t have to worry about scientific knowledge thingie. But isn’t this simply a cop-out?”

    I personally think that we should try to figure out as much as we can about how our conceptual models work, and how it is that we can say *anything* about reality. We are very limited in this endeavor, but I think it’s a worthwhile one. The philosophical questions involved, in my opinion, are more Wittgensteinian than anything else. What does learning how to walk say about the relationship between reality and conception? How is it that I can identify a mistake in my perception? Etc., etc.

  33. I didn’t have any specific model in mind, Asher, although I suppose a fine example of the conflation is Delanda’s use of dynamical systems theory.

    What I was trying to get at was that models in general are (almost by definition) pragmatic constructions, and they tend to be judged in terms of pragmatic concerns (projectibility, aptness, coherence, etc). Since models are heuristic devices, it would seem that the deeper philosohical questions have to do with what makes them heuristically valuable. That’s all I was trying to get at. But anyway, I think I’m dragging this conversation into an unproductive place. Or at least I shifting our focus away form what this post was investigating. Sorry for that, it wasn’t my intention to hijack anything — I really thought my suggestion would be helpful, and feel free not to respond!

  34. Alexei – Actually, I think you’re talking about exactly what I would *like* to talk about but suck at talking about. We have models of reality, and it’s my opinion that we *should* judge them on pragmatic grounds, because the reason we have them is to do stuff with them, and we lack the ability to “ground” them in some sure knowledge about reality. The deeper questions, for me, have to do with what makes it possible for us to create successful models at all — in other words, a theory of theories. It’s frustrating, though, because if you have a theory about *that*, how do you judge whether it’s a good theory or not? Maybe because it’s a transcendental question (about conditions of possibility), we should judge such a theory in a different way. And yet, it still seems to be beholden to the same pragmatic considerations that operate for any other theory — we want to have a good theory of theories so we can use it to make better theories.

    The answer that’s been floating around in my head is that the theory about reality and the theory about theories might be mutually-supporting in a way that that’s not logically circular. In a sense, we could say that reality gives rise to the theory of theories (constrains it to what it can be), and the theory about whatever describes a reality that needs to be able to give rise to the theory of theories.

    Does that make any sense at all? I am ashamed to say that I almost wanted to make a diagram.

  35. P.S. Don’t feel like you’re hijacking. This is an “opening-up” post, and I think the questions you’re raising are valuable. It is just taking me a while to get a clear grasp of them.

  36. I almost wanted to make a diagram.

    HA! Everything else you’ve said makes perfect sense Asher.

    I think you’re right, by the way: there are indeed virtuous circularities (you find them in math occassionally — and they dominate German Idealism). In fact, Hegel’s understanding of System and of Science is effectively a way of accounting for the mutual coherence of theory and metatheory. That’s been the task of German philosophy since at least Kant (and it basically ground the hermeneutical circle stuff). For a rather straightforward account, you might want to Look at Paul Franks’ book, All of Nothing: Skkepticism, transceental arguments, and Systematicity in German Idealism. So yes, We’re basically on the same page, I think.

  37. “But isn’t this simply a cop-out? It’s not like there’s an explicit counter-argument in here, is there? I’m just sayin….”

    Hey! Um, sez you! Shut up, and such. Mmmblmmmmble.

    OK smartypants, you’re right. So ignore the part about the pragmatics of everyday life. I still think strong ontology is impossible and therefore at best a waste of time, even as a regulative ideal, although it can certainly be fun like lots of other wastes of time. I also don’t think we’re in a position to say that extra-epistemic reality is or is not lawful, because we’re not in a position to say anything at all about extra-epistemic reality. Consider these footnotes to the nice conversation y’all are having.

    Re: that, why would we need to judge a theory of theories in a different way? Theories are conceptual things just like languages and potroasts and races, right? So yeah, I think there’s going to have to be a pragmatic mutual coherence sort of move, or something like what Sandra Harding calls ‘strong objectivity’, where none of the members stand on their own but brought together properly we get tables and chairs and teepees and such. Totally on board with this point.

  38. a footnote to a Carl’s footnote:

    I also don’t think we’re in a position to say that extra-epistemic reality is or is not lawful, because we’re not in a position to say anything at all about extra-epistemic reality.

    I think we’re actually committed to saying that extra-epistemic reality contains no laws (that the universe is lawful is a slightly different kind of claim that concerns regularities and such) I mean, Laws are like teepees and potroasts in that they’re conceptual through and through. so unless you’re willing to admit universal concepts into your version of the universe’s basic features (or at least claim that concepts are specific to sentient and sapient beings like ourselves), like Harman, there’s no way to claim that the universe contains laws. It may be lawful — i.e. phenomena unfold according to observable patterns — but that’s an emphatically epistemological claim. That’s what I was trying to get at when I said there are no laws in the universe, although the universe may be lawful. I know that may sound counterintuitive, but there you go.

  39. Yes, I see, that makes sense. Thanks.

  40. I notice that my earlier pronouncements here were carefully sidestepped as though some uncertain objects on the sidewalk (dead voles perhaps) and given the level of discussion I should likely quit while I am behind. However, I am curious to know whether one proposition finds any traction here: Iteration (by that name or another) is a deeply embedded emergent phenomenon.

  41. BaghdadSerai – Sorry I missed your vole. Concerning iteration, I’d say that it is indeed fundamental. In my example it would be equivalent to time, which we understand even less than causation, if that is possible.

  42. Yes, we could make the case that time is emergent (I recall a casual reference to this somewhere). We note that periodic phenomenon pervade the universe with phases varying over more than 10^30 orders of magnitude. Of these we select one as our very tightly tuned metric. So why is there so much recurrent behavior just about anywhere you look?
    I judge from these comments that my notion of emergence may be a little rough and ready. I see it fundamentally as the coming together of two “things” which results in a new dynamic, that is, that it is basically rooted in physics but percolates upward in increasingly rococo patterns into biology and cognition. For example, consider what we got when, long ago, we added a stick, which is just so short to a string, which is just so long.
    So if time is the dutiful child of some emergence, honoring in its behavior the nature of both parents, what can we tell of these parents? What two things in coming together could be construed as creating time?
    For me an answer came strangely enough while irrigating a cornfield on a spring morning and, while it has become a prominent feature in my little mental sandbox and I obviously believe it has some utility “out there”, its ultimate meaning is beyond me and I would be much comforted by some consensus.
    If you will, I would like to leave you with the question and see what emerges.

  43. BaghdadSerai – Although I suspect that time is an emergent property of the complex system that is the universe, I think a definitive answer to your question won’t be forthcoming for a long time, if ever. I personally have no mental foothold whatsoever on the question. Time (like causality and space) is such a basic concept that it’s hard to unthink it or get “behind” it in any way.

  44. See, Asher, this is why I keep strictly to feverish misunderstanding propagation, boring posts about me and the occasional scandalous innuendo about our blogbuddies.

  45. Speaking of which, it appears that John is totally missing the basic point of the discussion. Again.

  46. Gone senile again, I reckon.

  47. Asher, thanks for your courtesy in the face of my suspect enthusiasm. You clearly hold the high ground here and I am surely uncomfortable to find myself putting forward the thoroughly tenuous notion that the concept of time might be approached through a “field study” via an ordinary and simple-minded analogy. Yet, here I am, somewhat possessed by this notion. It is a curiosity that I believe has utility as a way of understanding; if it is not science, perhaps it is at least as a decent rule of thumb. At this point it is difficult for me to know if it is anything beyond word play. I will try to be brief and you feel free to be plain spoken.

    Firstly, I was not helpful in using the word “things” in my initial little riddle; the word “qualities” would have been more useful. So, to restate, from what two perceptible qualities might time be seen as emergent?

    It will be helpful to put yourself in a somewhat fuzzy-minded and mystical frame of mind. Also, try not to think of metal objects and, if you can, rest one hand on something made of wood. (Just kidding)

    So, for sake of discussion, we are irrigating corn and our gaze comes to rest upon a little portion of the scene, the faithful and pregnant rock within a stream of water. This is the germinal actuality of our analogy. Here our senses present us with a wealth of detail that we must discard left and right for we are in the process of abstraction. With eyes half closed, we are looking for elemental qualities. I suppose, depending on our mindset, this could go any number of ways, but you may feel comfortable in settling on two qualities in apparent counterpoise, a tidy dichotomy, the stillness of the rock and the movement of the water.

    In addition, taking a slightly different track in our abstraction, we could reasonably settle upon a second set of apparently contrasting qualities, finding in the rock that which is discrete and in the water that which is continuous.

    Now we are assuming here that what impinges on the screen of our senses may be akin to some sort of conic section, the perceptible portion of some larger process beyond our ken. (What is the bear’s appreciation of the hummingbird?) And further, we recall that any absolute distinction between movement and stillness was set aside a century ago.

    Still, here is the curious thing. In a simple-minded alchemy, what do you get when you add something moving to something still? This is hardly the first time the question has been entertained nor are we entirely original (within a couple of millennium) in suggesting this answer. We don’t really need to think about it, nature continually does the math ad infinitum. Observation of our little rock in the stream reveals the answer in countless eddies, enduring but continually changing little iterations. We could see the cycle as nature’s way of constraining movement about some region at rest. I have come to attribute systemic and far-reaching ripple effects to this elemental dynamic.

    Similarly, consider the apparent sum of adding something discrete to something continuous. Here we have a slender reed of support from the more formal mathematics of topology. The “compactification” of a line upon a point produces the circle, a continuous infinity constrained. I am not so enthusiastic as to try and relate this simple construct to a physicist’s notions of wave–particle duality, but I am curious.

    One may quibble that emergence of cycle is not the same thing as the emergence of time, but surely recurrence is declarative of time’s volumetric. That is, what need is there for time if nothing endures from one moment to the next? (How’s that for fuzzy-minded?)

    As I mentioned, I have come to attribute systemic and far-reaching ripple effects to this elemental motif. As a broad generalization, I believe it enables a useful compression of some complex features of our experience. What you will make of it I can hardly tell, but I surely appreciate your taking a look.
    Regards.

  48. BaghdadSerai, this is fascinating and fun to think with. I like your approach to these issues as well as any I’ve ever seen, in particular the virtual infinity of possible abstractions of quality in even simple observations, and of course the corollary expedience of discarding detail.

    This suggests that all of our abstractions will in some sense be optional.

    Re: your thoughts on time, I’m not sure fuzzy-minded is the right descriptor; it is one abstraction of what you’ve said, certainly. But it’s true that in conversations of this sort we all straddle the lines between philosophy, poetry and gibberish. Any thoughts about how to tell them apart, or is that the wrong question?

  49. In oblique reply it strikes me that in conversations of this sort we construct from a limited character set and repertoire of words a kind of fixed terrain and that there is no science or philosophy that can foretell the particular path which even a well known traveler will follow in their traverse.

  50. BaghdadSerai – I’m not sure what you mean by “high ground”, but I would say that you have the high ground here, in that your conception is a little more expansive than my brain will permit.

    But in reading through your description a couple of times, I think we are in relatively close alignment in our respective ideas about causality. The eddy is something that emerges from what I would call the constraints of the system.

    Where it gets difficult for me is in thinking about the continuous and the discrete. I find that my brain is predisposed to see it as an either-or sort of thing. The line/circle example, I think, describes the isomorphic operation that I need to perform on my conceptions. What I had never really thought about is how continuity can imply recurrence. Or how iteration could be seen as a sort of recurrence. What emerges when you move from line to circle? Continuity from discreteness, infinity from finitude, recurrence from… what?

    This is going to have to sit in my head for a while, BaghdadSerai. But I think you’re on to something.

  51. BaghdadSerai – also, out of curiosity: have you described this idea to other people? If you have, what sorts of reactions have you gotten?

  52. Not really. I have found it difficult to find the proper court of appeals which is partly my on limitation.

  53. Carl, Asher, thanks for looking at this and would much appreciate in any further thoughts. I am somewhat in road mode for a bit, but keenly interested.
    My speculations about time seem to me a bit grand, if they were valid why are they not noted somewhere, even in passing. I believe there is cosmological relevance, but hey, who am I to say?
    In any case, I feel on firmer ground with a more down to earth, system’s view of the relevance of iteration. There is an ideogram here: http://baghdadserai.livejournal.com/2009/01/01/
    See what you think. Regards.

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