by Asher Kay

That’s right, bitches.

My life has changed several times since I last dropped a disemboweled little critter on this blogospheric porch-step. But recently, I came face-to-face with a vole that has been hiding out around my place for years, nocturnally rooting through the garbage bin and occasionally scaring all the cats. It’s not one of those eensy voles either — this one is a monster. It’s so brobdingnagian that I will need to dismember it and carry it piece-by-bloody-piece to the patio window.

But I’m not going to do it in the annoyingly metaphorical style of the previous paragraph. Nor will I use words like “brobdingnagian”. I don’t even like that word.

Okay, so this is a sort of teaser post. All of the setup and none of the stunts.

Have you ever read a book that seemed to know what you’d been thinking about for the last five years? I’ve read about half of one, and it is Incomplete Nature, by Terrence Deacon.

About two years ago, I did a post here called Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles. It was mostly about reductionism and predictability, but I had this to say about causality:

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?

Basically, I was thinking about an old argument amongst emergentists about the possibility of “downward causality”. There are tons of problems with the notion of downward causality, but my particular problem was the difficulty of thinking about a model of emergent, stratified reality in which nothing more than the standard, modern, efficient causality of the physical sciences played a part. It’s so difficult to think about that it’s hard to even figure out why it’s so difficult to think about. It’s the kind of problem that makes you start to wonder if maybe we just don’t really have a firm understanding of causality. But in a world where we can annihilate a couple hundred thousand people in an instant with our notion of causality, this is pretty much a heretical thought — or at least the kind of thought you don’t feel comfortable entertaining until you’ve done some post-graduate work in particle physics.

Despite the discomfort, I entertained the thought, in a playfully non-rigorous way. If you allow that there might be additional sorts of causation, you’re free to change the model around (or abandon it) and see what you come up with. My suspicion was that the additional sort of causality, if there was one, had to be related to the fact that in complex dynamical systems (or self-organized systems, or “emergent” systems), there are a lot more parts interacting and relating to one another than there are in the sort of billiard-ball examples we tend to imagine when thinking about efficient causality. And if that was the case, then the additional sort of causality was essentially mereological, since the cross-strata nature of this causality would be tied up with the relation of the parts to the whole system. The key to that, in my opinion, was the idea of “constraint”. To me, this was sort of like the flip side of an efficient cause. A constraint can be thought of as a causal “force” in that it disallows a dynamical system from occupying certain positions in the system’s state-space.

You can see me start to fiddle with the idea of constraint in the comments section of the same post. I say things like:

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”.


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.

The ideas I was expressing were obviously not well-developed then, but the basic line of thought was: 1) questioning whether we really understood causality in complex systems; 2) the suspicion that the current model wasn’t adequate to emergent systems at a higher level; and 3) the notion that the idea of constraints could help in re-working the model.

So now it’s two years and some odd months later, and I discover that Terrence Deacon has a new book out (this is a very exciting thing for me — his last book, The Symbolic Species, is one of my all-time favorites, and it was published in 1997). The book is ostensibly about “How Mind Emerged From Matter”, but since it’s Deacon, you can pretty much count on it being about a whole lot more.

And it is. It’s about emergence and causality and, best of all, constraint. There’s even a whole chapter called “Constraint”!

Take a moment to imagine my joy.

I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, but I’m starting to think that Deacon has actually found a way to re-think the model. His approach is strange, tortuous, detailed, counter-intuitive, and involves the same sort of mind-blowing figure/background switch he performed in The Symbolic Species. Here’s just a little taste:

The concept of constraint is, in effect, a complementary concept to order, habit, and organization, because it determines a similarity class by exclusion. Paying attention to the critical role played by constraints in the determination of causal processes offers us a figure/background reversal that will turn out to be critical to addressing some of the more problematic issues standing in the way of developing a scientific theory of emergence. In this way, we avoid assuming that abstract properties have physical potency, and yet do not altogether abandon the notion that certain general properties can produce other general properties as causal consequences. This is because the concept of constraint does not treat organization as though it is something added to a process or to an ensemble of elements. It is not something over and above these constituents and their relationships to one another. And yet it neither demotes organization to mere descriptive status nor does it confuse organization with the specifics of the components and their particular singular relationships to one another. Constraints are what is not there but could have been, irrespective of whether this is registered by any act of observation.

What I’m planning to do (and it may take a while) is create a series of posts on the ideas Deacon puts forth in Incomplete Nature. If the quote is not enough of a teaser, I will add that the journey involves the number zero, a  partial resurrection of Aristotle, boxes full of air, Charles Sanders Pierce, at least four neologisms, the siren-song of mereology, and a totally new perspective on object-oriented philosophy.

Stay tuned, beotches.

21 Responses to “Re-vole-ution”

  1. Sounds most entertaining. I wait like the cat who ate cheese. You know, the one with the baited breath.

  2. 624 pages — now there’ a constraint! Nonetheless, I’m reserving a library copy; maybe the 3-week constraint on keeping books before returning them will accelerate my reading.

  3. Yay, Asher! This is great. Oddly enough I was just reading a draft review essay on Deacon along with some other people doing similar things (Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson were the main names). No, I haven’t read any of them, but in view of my mobile fiddling among other connections I’m super excited to see what you come up with here!

  4. John M – [groan]

    John – I think you’re going to like it, even if you don’t agree with it. It’s really worth the investment of time, and it sheds light on a lot of the issues you’ve blogged about over the years.

    Carl – I read somewhere that Deacon ripped off material from Juarrero and Thompson. No idea if there’s any truth to that. I haven’t read either of them but I know Thompson does work on consciousness and embodiment and Juarrero does stuff about complex systems and emergence. So hopefully I’ll get my hands on some of their articles (the ones that don’t require a JSTOR account).

    This whole thing is going to take a while, working as I am around the day job, but I think it will really help to clarify my thoughts and give the ideas some critical analysis. I plan to post another teaser tonight that acts as a sort of preface to how this whole thing will relate to OOP.

  5. The following appeared in my SOCNET email stream. May be relevant. The full PDF is downloadable and free,

    Radical Constructivism and Radical Constructedness:
    Luhmann’s Sociology and the Non-linear Dynamics of Expectations

    The communication (and reflexive translation) of denotations between
    semantic domains can generate “horizons of meaning” as reflexive orders that
    remain structurally coupled to individual minds. Luhmann noted that this
    elusive order contains a trade-off between “organization” at interfaces
    integrating (differently coded) expectations at each moment of time, and the
    potential of further differentiation among symbolically generalized codes of
    communication in a “self-organization” over time. One can model the coding
    in the communication of meaning as eigenvectors which evolve as an
    implication of the interacting intentions and expectations. The interacting
    horizons of meaning generate new options (redundancy) against the arrow of
    time, since meaning is provided to events from the perspective of hindsight.
    Using the theory and computation of anticipatory systems,
    “self-organization” and “interaction” can be considered as hyper-incursive
    routines that use (expectations of) future states for their reconstruction,
    whereas “organization” operates in terms of instantiations (of
    expectations). Mathematical metaphors can guide us in further exploring the
    nonlinear dynamics of a social order of intentions and expectations without

    ** apologies for cross-postings
    Loet Leydesdorff
    Professor, University of Amsterdam
    Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR)
    Kloveniersburgwal 48, 1012 CX Amsterdam.
    Tel. +31-20-525 6598; fax: +31-842239111 ;

  6. Thanks, John!

    Also – I recently found an interview with Deacon on Think Atheist. You can listen to it here.

    The sound quality is pretty bad, but Deacon does a great job summarizing the approach and conclusions in the book.

  7. Just downloaded the Kindle edition of Incomplete Nature to my iPad. Quickly scanned the introduction. Looks interesting.

  8. Asher

    Perhaps bringing a bit of Morin into this might be helpful. As he told a conference in Vienna last month: Complexity is evidenced in the emergent and coherent powers of organization. The act of organizing parts into something new creates emergent properties resident in the something new BUT also constrains the expression of certain properties of the components which make up the now organized something new. these constraints occur because the components while acting in their role as a part of the something new in order to maintain the coherence of the something new must refrain from expressions of possibilities which were fine when the component was on its own but which are antithetical to the ontic status of the something new.

  9. I don’t know what “ontic status” means, but I think what Morin said is roughly consistent with what Deacon is saying.

    The only trouble I have is with “because the components… must refrain… in order to maintain” (though I feel that in that order, they might make decent rap lyrics). The vexed-ness of the question Deacon is posing is that the component acts in a way that helps maintain the coherence of its system without itself alone having an “in order to” (teleological) process going on. If there’s a teleological process, it’s acting upon the component via constraints.

  10. I’m just at the beginning of intentional human systems in Deacon’s book, but integral to his broader case is that a self-organizing system doesn’t magically counteract entropy; rather, it optimizes entropy in far-from-equilibrium energy conditions.That’s the function of the constraint: outside imposition of work on the system creates channels within the system through which energy outflow is maximized. By implication, in a human organization the organizers would erect barriers to the random movement of the human and material substrate flowing into the organization, channeling their throughput in such a way that the energy and material are more likely to interact in some ways rather than others.

    I can certainly see how an intentional, final cause-driven system achieves this same sort of efficient energy transfer: spend your energy on putting those widgets together rather than frittering away the hours playing craps in the corner. My old-school thinking about emergent self-organization was more anarchic than this, with workers controlling the means of production and so on. But per Deacon’s scheme the organizational constraints are imposed from outside the organization; e.g., by the owners and managers. Now they could try to impose constraints that would in effect be the efficient cause of within-organization activity patterns; e.g., set up assembly lines, best practices, performance objectives, rewards/punishments, etc. In effect the within-system humans would be reacting to the constraints in a behavioristic sense, via interconnected stimulus-response cascades.

    If OTOH you assume that the humans inside the system are themselves intentional agents then you get into alignment of incentives schemes, such that the constraints imposed from the outside on the system by managers create channels that maximize energy flows for simultaneously achieving intentions of both bosses and workers. Presumably the best win-win of all is if the workers impose the external constraints on their own system, such that the organization is making it more efficient for them to achieve their own intentions rather than balancing theirs with someone else’s.

  11. I’m having trouble thinking through your analogy without falling into “homuncular” thinking. Are you saying that the shift for you is to think of the components of the system as “themselves intentional agents” in the same way that Deacon sees larger “teleodynamic” systems being built of smaller ones (cells supporting their own continuance, supporting the whole organism’s continuance)?

  12. I presumed that Michael was talking about human organizations — businesses, factories, governments, etc. The people inside a human organization are homunculi: autonomous sentient agents. Maybe I was wrong in my presumption. Anyhow, that’s what I was thinking about in my comment.

    I don’t know Morin’s work, but I agree with your caveat on his view of constraint in non-sentient systems. A component doesn’t have to “refrain” from anything: per Deacon, the component spontaneously participates in an organization that maximizes aggregate entropy increase beyond what would occur without the systemic self-organization. But again per Deacon, the impetus for self-organization is triggered from outside; e.g., the boulder in the creek bed causing the flow to organize itself into eddies for optimizing flow around the obstacle. So in that sense the components’ constrainings and refrainings aren’t activities that spontaneously emerge within the self-organized “morphodynamic” system. Rather they are reactions to external perturbations or work performed on the “homeodynamic” system of which the elements are a part. There is no “ontic status” of the new that’s bent on self-perpetuation. Absent the continued external perturbation that makes the new an efficient energy discharging mechanism, the new spontaneously self-disorganizes. E.g., if someone moves the boulder out of the stream or if the flowing water finally wears it away to sand, the stream goes back to its old flow patterns. Is that your read on it, Asher?

  13. Yes, that’s my understanding. I’m still trying to get a clear fix on what I’d say is “wrong” in similar ways of talking about systems. It’s more than the common mistake of homunculizing a component of a system. There’s a sense in which some theorists want to give ontological status to a sort of causation “of the whole system”, or to try to locate where the causal force “resides” in a system. It leads to ideas like “downward causation”, in which we try to see a causal force of the whole system acting on its parts, and it gets even more confusing when systems “act upon themselves” in a self-reinforcing way. I’m beginning to think that this whole way of thinking is a kind of low-level category error.

    I think that the precision needed to talk about these things without getting into this sort of error is one of the reasons why Deacon’s prose can be so difficult. People like Dawkins (or maybe it was Dennett) take the shortcut of talking about natural selection as a “force”, note that using precise casual language would quickly become prolix and burdensome, and simply ask the reader to keep in mind that this isn’t what’s really meant. It seems like Deacon thinks that this sort of shortcut – esecially in a realm where the causal mechanisms are not well-understood – is dangerously likely to lead to incorrect implications being carried forward into later reasoning.

  14. One other thing – there’s a kind of tautology that keeps striking me as profound, even though I know it’s just a tautology: “Systems whose components act in such a way that lead to the system’s persistence tend to persist, while those that don’t tend to dissolve”. Asking why these systems have self-reinforcing mechanisms is like asking why animals have a survival instinct (same tautology at a different level). Sometimes it feels like I’m asking why self-reinforcing systems are self-reinforcing, when I should be asking how the self-reinforcing mechanisms become available.

  15. Oh, and yet one more thing to ponder….

    Consider two types of explanation. One type of explanation assigns properties to things (the kitten has the property of furriness), and the other categorizes things into classes (the kitten belongs to the class of furry things).

    Is each type of explanation equally explanatory? Are they really saying anything different? Do we conceptualize a classification differently than we do an object-property relation? Would we cognitively tend to prefer one over the other? Would we feel dissatisfied with one type of explanation if we already had an understanding of something in terms of another type?

    It strikes me that the sort of re-conceptualization that Deacon requires of us has this sort of character.

  16. Granted explanation is a particular kind of description, but properties and categories are particularly static kinds of both. It strikes me that the kind of question we want for the kind of explanation we’re interested in might be more like, as you just suggested, “how does the kitten’s furriness become available,” or “what is accomplished for the kitten by furriness?”

  17. My wife was saying that it might be easier for us (cognitively) to accept a non-central category thing as having a property than belonging to a class. For example, we have no problem saying that a bird has the property of being feathered *or* that a bird belongs to the class of feathered things; but we have an easier time thinking of a duster as having the property of being feathered than we do thinking of it as a member of the class of feathered things. Thus an object-property description might feel more apt to us when talking about thoughts as physical things.

    My thought was that with object-property descriptions, we tend to want to think of the property as something with its own existence (as though the feathers *are* the property), whereas we’re clear that giving ontological status to a category or class is Platonic.

  18. Hi Asher,

    In what sense did you mean “transparency”?

  19. I’m using it in the sense of a quality that we tend to ascribe to a thing as an aggregate — it “appears” at a certain level of organization. The possibility being pondered is that emergent properties like consciousness are “like in kind” with properties like transparency, but way more involved.

    The more I’ve thought and read about this, the more I think it’s a red herring. The vexed issue in a transparency/consciousness analogy is how to wrap your head around an aggregate having properties the parts don’t have. If you abandon a mereological way of looking at it, the vexed issue is really how a system is maintained over time.

    As a student of philosophy, the question always lurking in my head is, “what relationship do our conceptual models have to the world?” As a student of science, the lurking question is always, “Why does it work that way?”

  20. It’s nice to be reminded of a concept that inspired my quest for cognition. As I too tried to solidify my intuition regarding the metaphor of ‘transparency’, it brought me to a resilient ontological axiom: all events in reality are both distinct and inter-dependent, simultaneously. I develop this claim here, as you may have seen already.

    My original inspiration was not philosophy, but my past life as an architect. Colin Rowe with Robert Slutzky wrote a very compelling article called Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal. It describes how static art and architecture via the juxtaposition of forms can create a multi-stable interpretation that expresses significance, which transcends the mere forms alone. One might say many distinct, and often competing, interpretations emerge from fixed 2D (e.g. painting) and 3D (e.g. architecture) forms and spaces.

    Notably, philosophy had little to say about the concept other than the state of knowing that one knows, which begs all sorts of homunculi and infinite regress; the corner one paints oneself via a strict Reductionist, solely efficient cause, or mereological methodology. At heart I’m a designer trying to contribute to science, and my initial central question, not unlike both of yours, was “how is it possible that the human mind can derive more significance from that which is immediately presented?” The answer I felt, inspired by design grad school, was transparency. But it was just an intuition.

    Then my scientific undergrad offered a physical implementation: superposition, again, like the sine waves in the other post. How is it that the symphony ’emerges’ from individual frequencies. The initial objective answer is superposition, because our outer ear doesn’t receive individual notes, it receives a superposition of frequencies as one single wave form. So, I thought, how do we distinguish the notes of this superimposed cacophony? We learn to by filtering; er, our neuronal assemblies are biased by distinct and inter-related patterns in their environment. We learn to distinguish the so called ‘parts’. But, again, though some ‘parts’ are distinct, they are physically inter-related via linear superposition, simultaneously (try hearing just one violin). The symphony is both parts and wholes, simultaneously, and the trained human mind can variously ‘hear’ the violin section and/or the beat frequency between the oboes and cellos. Distinctions emerge in the, similarly, inter-dependent neural assemblies of the brain as perception melds into a more coherent whole as the movement approaches crescendo.

    But here is where the homology is hit home: not only are notes superimposed together to become a variously perceived pattern, but prior associations of life experience are also quite physically superimposed with the ebb and flow of neuronal frequencies, phases, and amplitudes to be conceived. Each co-constrains the other as the symphony evokes feelings, which in turn constrain our focus on specific ‘parts’ of the symphony, each in a dynamic dance with the other. Each is a ‘part’ that, for a moment, rises above the ‘noise’ floor like an island above the sea, only to be de-cohered and out-competed by another “ententional” dynamic lurking in the “structured noise” that physically exists below the waves’ surface of our vital and quite causal sub-conscious. Continual internal patterns simultaneously mold and are molded by both internal and external patterns, which are themselves superimposed, i.e. ‘transparent’, simultaneously.

    I’ll let the poetic license lapse for now. Suffice it to say, that I’ve appreciated this blog’s perspective on a project that might actually get a little traction in the years to come … iff we can put to rest our fondness for the machine analogy.

    Thanks for reminding me about transparency, Asher!


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