Archive for ‘emergence’

August 8, 2013

Fixing a hole

by Carl Dyke

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Not a pipe! Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

– which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence (‘hey I built that table’, maybe out of the pallet the screws shipped on), and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these two? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Rhetoric. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?

August 6, 2013

On the patio – uh oh!

by Carl Dyke

For some years now the two big summer projects have been to paint the house and build a patio. The painting will have to wait at least another year, but the patio is done.

It all started with a little section of our little yard we grandiosely call ‘the grove’, because it’s not in any of the traffic areas and it’s in the middle of our trees. When I moved in the area was grassy, which turned out to be a highly artificial and labor-intensive condition. Without that labor it quickly deteriorated to scrub. This saved a couple minutes of mowing, and as Rachel and I ‘improved’ our outdoors we at first focused on other areas. But in the back of our minds we had not quite reconciled to letting the forest primeval withdraw this piece of ‘our property’ from productive development.

A patio is traditional in such cases, the problem being the natural slope of the land. After a couple years of morose reflection about digging it flat with sweat and shovel, opportunity knocked when our awesome neighbor Charles brought home the backhoe from work. During a break in the action I strolled over and allowed as how it would be delightful if blah blah blah, and 15 minutes later we had a nicely leveled little oblong to work with. Incidentally, it is just an amazing pleasure to watch someone who knows how to work one of those big machines practice their craft. Thanks again, Charles!

Because we had just moved our outdoor plopping from the nice sitting area under the pergola I built to the nice sitting area under the willow I planted, the backhoe opportunity was not otherwise connected to focused motivation, however. So our new landscape enjoyed a couple more years of natural settling. This may well have continued indefinitely, punctuated with idle conversations about whether to lay the patio with concrete pavers, brick, or stone, build a deck, or just relax and accept the foresty fait accompli, were it not for two critical catalyzing events. The first was our friend JR building a really lovely patio onto the back of his house, injecting equal parts of inspiration and shame into our dawdling. The other was me working on laying a stone walkway and patio during last summer’s campus ‘Show You Care Day’.

The project was striding right along from ‘someday, somehow’ to ‘soon, like this’. The fatal step was Rachel wondering about stone options and costs, and deciding she would stop in at the local landscaping lot for a quick recon on the way to her studio. She came back with a ticket for a pallet of local stone and a load of scree (crushed stone used as a leveling and binding substrate). These were soon delivered and all of a sudden we were building a patio.

We decided quickly against the kind of rigorous, multilayered surface preparation that gets you a perfectly level, uniform, and weed-resistant construct. Rachel got big old heavy stones in the 2′ – 3′ range, which guaranteed an irregular surface no matter what. Going with the flow of the site, the materials, our attitudes toward fuss, and the house aesthetic, our objective was to create a hard, relatively flat surface with rustic appeal. The site was already pretty level, so we spread the scree to about 3-4″ depth and started piecing together stones. Because the stones’ surfaces were not actually flat, this required quite a lot of little digging and filling operations to get each one firmly set in the scree, at which point we left final settling and leveling to time, use, and the elements.

We called what we ended up with The Cosmic Egg.

The Cosmic Egg

The Cosmic Egg

Nice as that was, dragging one of my old Mk 3 adirondacks over revealed a problem for the planned home-made furnishings – especially at the thin point of the Egg, there wasn’t really enough space for the adirondacks’ long footprint. So I poked around the web and looked at a lot of pictures and cooked up the Mk 4 design, with conventional back legs rather than the regulation slides. The prototype was satisfactorily more compact without giving up any comfort.


Here you see one finished Mk 4 and one unfinished one.


Rachel had the brilliant idea to make the table out of the pallet the stone came on! She did the landscaping with hostas, ferns, black-eyed susans, tomatoes, and tasty beverages.


Here are my ‘plans’ for the Mk 4s. They take almost exactly five 8′ 1X4 boards each:

May 10, 2013

What counts as success

by Carl Dyke

Reading final papers and course journals now, this smacked me between the eyeballs. For better or worse, this is what counts as a major success to me (from an introductory world history journal, so don’t sweat the typos). Our topic this semester has been ‘conditions of work’:

The last couple weeks, in class, we have investigated the research process and our second papers. I am learning that no matter what time period we are individually studying or what country, most of the same rules apply. There will always be a certain “group” within a population that is getting miss treated because they can be. In most cases, victims are not victimized because of some racial intention or ill-will, it’s because of necessity. I think that when something needs to be done that no one else wants to do, society “volunteers” people to do it. If that group doesn’t have the power or will to object, they fill the void. Once this precedence is set, the negative connotations follow.

Is that the end of the story? No, of course not. But to me, at least, this cleans out the hero/villain juvenilia and the ideological just-so stories and gets the line of investigation pointed toward increasingly better understanding. Yay you, unnamed student.

April 4, 2013

Placing concreteness

by Carl Dyke

One of the things you figure out pretty quickly if you pay attention to what students say is that a lot of them engage with the materials we show them in a very concrete way. One example of that from today’s draft intro paragraph peer review session in World History was the student who kept trying to turn prompts on reconceptualizing its paragraph into a recipe for which words to say and how to arrange them. “What have you figured out about how conditions of trade changed?” became “How many times do I need to repeat the assignment topic phrase ‘conditions of work’?”

Lots of information in a pile, no analysis. A peer shrewdly asked if there were any people involved. So we got ‘Portuguese’ on the board. Then we talked about what kind of work. Trade, as it turned out. So we added ‘trading community’ to Portuguese. Another peer asked if the issue was storms at sea or political conflict. So ‘community’ got complicated to include seamen and kings, we added ‘conflict’, and broke out ‘political’, ‘economic’, and ‘social’. Was any of that sorted out in the draft paragraph? No, so it’s not about adding or moving a word or two, it’s about figuring out what you want to get at based on what you know. At the end the student came up and took a cellphone picture of the board.

Yesterday in the ‘bad literature’ seminar the group presenting on the religious erotica genre (their choice) were struggling with audience. It turned out they assumed that the people who read things are the people those things are about. So the audience for shocking erotica about monks boinking transvestite novices must be young Catholics considering the monastic life. I asked if the audience for Huckleberry Finn was orphans and runaway slaves, and whether they would respect me as a professor if the only books I read were about aging white male professors at nice little regional universities. They had brought up and passed over quickly points about authority and credit/discredit, so I prompted them to get a little more stubborn about developing those analyses. It didn’t take long to work out that an audience of non-Catholics might have reasons to be interested in literature discrediting Catholic authority.

Another fascinating assertion in that discussion was that because all fiction is based on fact, it might as well be treated as such. So the facts about a novel’s rhetoric and context can be read right off of the text. As a fan of science fiction I was tempted to ask about the factiness of phasers, warp drives, and Wookies, but time was running short so we deferred examination of creativity and imagination to our next meeting.

Incidentally, it has occurred to me that part of the problem with the concept of linked learning is that we can see courses, but we can’t see links. We can’t see learning, either, so it’s all very confusing.

(Crossposted at Attention Surplus.)

March 7, 2013

Complex systems made learnable

by Carl Dyke

My friend and sometimes tennis partner David just emailed me this link to a story at titled “Through a sensor, clearly: Complex systems made observable.” It’s right up my alley, he thought, and right up our alley, I thought.

Now, I don’t have either the math or the graphical chops to get under the hood of this research. But I think I understand what they’re up to, and I think I know enough to spot a couple of places where questions might be asked. For example, if I understand correctly we’re talking here about describing a snapshot of a complex system; it’s my impression that once the system is actually complexing, the data-crunching becomes prohibitive. But if so, one moment of a dynamical system is of limited utility, since it captures the system but not the dynamical. If I’ve understood correctly, this is not a criticism, but an appreciation of where we are in the learning curve.

I also appreciate that there’s a devil in the details of observer design; that is, the sensors have to be able to tell the difference between information and noise, nonlinearity and randomness. In effect this means that the sensors have to be able to learn to discriminate intelligently, which most human brains are not that great at. But they’re just doing feasibility at this stage, and I gather they think if they can use graphical modeling to specify some system parameters, they can eventually walk-in the data-gathering to yield more satisfying descriptions.

Well, I bet about half of what I just said is at least a little bit wrong. What I hope is that I’m just wrong and not ‘not even wrong‘, that is, that I know at least enough to be worth talking to further by someone with a better understanding. And this brings me to the question for today, which is this. Given that the project here is to represent and understand complex systems, which explicitly include “biological systems [or] social dynamic system[s] such as opinion or social influence dynamics” – that is, to start with, citizenship and life itself – what responsibility does a university general education core program have to bring students up to a kind of elementary competence where they can participate responsibly in this kind of conversation? What and how would we have to teach to make that so? And what in the reverend paleo-disciplines and contents might need to retool or move aside to enable this development?

UPDATE: if nothing else comes of this post, at least I’ve learned what it means to be ‘fractally wrong‘.

March 6, 2013

McGinn, Again

by Asher Kay

Obviously I haven’t had much time to post lately, but I was revving up to dismantle Colin McGinn’s recent review of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed — a review rife with the sorts of problems I pointed out before with his review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature.

Lo and behold, someone beat me to it, and did so with more gusto (and endurance) than I possibly could have mustered. Friends, I give you Ron Murphy.

EDIT: I should note that I haven’t read Kurzweil’s book and suspect strongly that I would not find it satisfying.

January 6, 2013

A Question Haunts America

by johnmccreery

Us folks on the left are not the only ones who see the U.S.A. as going to hell in a hand basket. My title is taken from the first line of an article in The National Interest by conservative pundit Robert W. Merry titled Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy. Oswald Spengler that is, the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), now as rarely mentioned on the left as Gramsci is on the right, a mention-and-skip author in liberal higher education with its focus on the Enlightenment and progress toward the great kumbaya of universal rationality. Perhaps he deserves a second look.

He did, after all, anticipate the world wars and the “surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism” that seems to afflict all civilizations when their roots in naive but authentic culture give way to “the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture” (the quotes are from Merry, not Spengler himself).

The idea that civilizations are organic wholes and develop through cycles from birth and flourishing to maturity, decay and death is no longer fashionable. But the notion that there is no universal humanity, only human beings, born incomplete animals, who become what their cultures/civilizations encourage and demand that they do is, albeit debatable, Anthropology 101.

Perhaps it is my years, rushing all too soon toward three score and ten (now just a year and a bit away) that turn my thoughts in this direction. But could it be that left and right, we all need both Marx and Spengler to see the world whole through disillusioned eyes?

December 4, 2012

Can Odd Monisms Ruin Nagel’s Book? (4,3,6)

by Asher Kay

Yeah, that’s right — I used a cryptic crossword clue as a post title. I was going to go with “Something It Is Like To Be Bemused And a Little Relieved”, but that sounded too much like David Foster Wallace.

If you have solved my clue/title, you’ll know that this post is about Thomas Nagel’s newest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

The first thing likely to grab your attention is the subtitle, which might seem ever so slightly strident if you were not aware that shortly before publication, he toned it down from, “Come At Me, You Worthless Reductionist Pissants”. Happily, the book’s content does not reflect the vociferousness of the subtitle — it’s actually a pretty humble and friendly book. Nagel, in fact, doesn’t even explicitly say that Darwinism is false. He says that “psychophysical reductionism” is false, and by “psychophysical reductionism”, he seems to mean an array of things, some of which will strike the physicalist as strawmen (such as the idea that everything can be reduced to physics), and some of which will just seem a bit tone deaf (like the “reducibility of the mental to the physical”, which doesn’t really involve a reduction, per se, for someone who holds that everything is physical).

One could spend an entire post poking holes in Nagel’s conception of the physicalist stance (see Leiter and Weisberg’s recent review in The Nation if you already had your hole-poker out), but it’s a big topic, and I think it makes more sense to lay out a positive description of physicalism and show how some of Nagel’s objections look in light of that than it does to discuss it from the negative viewpoint of refuting someone. I’ll try to do a post on that soon.

What I want to discuss here are the several of things that puzzled me about Mind and Cosmos. The first is Nagel’s conception of “value realism” (he also calls it “moral realism” in some places). The basic idea of value realism, for Nagel, is that the truths indicated by value and moral judgements are truths that are not dependent on anything else — they are true in themselves:

Realism is not a metaphysical theory of the ground of moral and evaluative truth. It is a metaphysical position only in the negative sense that it denies that all basic truth is either natural or mathematical. It is metaphysical only if the denial of a metaphysical position like naturalism itself counts as a metaphysical position. But value realism does not maintain that value judgments are made true or false by anything else, natural or supernatural.

Of course natural facts are what make some value judgments true, in the sense that they are the facts that provide reasons for and against action. In that sense the fact that you will run over a dog if you don’t step on the brakes makes it the case that you should step on the brakes. But the general moral truth that licenses this inference — namely that it counts in favor of doing something that it will avoid grievous harm to a sentient creature — is not made true by any fact of any other kind. It is nothing but itself.

For me, this view runs into two problems. The first is the question of how we are able to access these truths. Nagel doesn’t address this issue directly, and my sense is that he would not see it as a problem at all. He seems to be saying that we have access to them in the same way we have access to mathematical truths, but I don’t see how that makes the question any easier since we don’t have an explanation of how we access those either. Since the point of the book is to push for non-physicalist theories of mental processes, I am guessing that those theories are where Nagel would expect the question to be addressed.

The second problem is the weird duality of pleasure and pain. If, as Nagel says, “pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like”; and if the good and bad of pleasure and pain are not dependent on anything else (our like/dislike, their physical manifestations, the evolutionary consequences of our reactions to them, etc.); then we seem to have an awfully big coincidence going on:

Describing it is tricky, since it is obvious that biologically hard-wired pleasure and pain play a vital role in the fitness of conscious creatures even if their objective value doesn’t. The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection, even though it is not a necessary part of the evolutionary explanation of why they are associated with certain bodily episodes, such as sex, eating, or injury. They are adaptive, but they are something more than that. While they are not the only things that have objective value, these experiences are among the most conspicuous phenomena by which value enters the universe, and the clearest examples through which we become acquainted with real value.

In the realist interpretation, pleasure and pain have a double nature. In virtue of the attraction and aversion that is essential to them, they play a vital role in survival and fitness, and their association with specific biological functions and malfunctions can be explained by natural selection. But for beings like ourselves, capable of practical reason, they are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves and leading on, along with other values, to more systematic and elaborate recognition of reasons for action and principles governing their combination and interaction, and ultimately to moral principles.

Remember that for Nagel, there’s nothing metaphysical going on — no “root cause” that leads both to the truth that pain is bad and to our visceral aversion to it. As Nagel appears to recognize, this leads us toward a sort of dualism. I’d go further and say that it’s the same sort of dualism that gets us in trouble when we accept the mind/body problem as a real problem. Nagel also recognizes that his conclusion relies heavily on intuition: “That is just how they glaringly seem to me, however hard I try to imagine the contrary, and I suspect the same is true of most people”. Mind and Cosmos is refreshingly honest when it comes to intuition.

Okay, so that’s the value realism thing. The other puzzling thing for me was Nagel’s conclusion that an evolutionary account of reason is impossible because it is necessarily circular:

By contrast [to the case of perception], in a case of reasoning, if it is basic enough, the only thing to think is that I have grasped the truth directly. I cannot pull back from a logical inference and reconfirm it with the reflection that the reliability of my logical thought processes is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected them for accuracy. That would drastically weaken the logical claim. Furthermore, in the formulation of that explanation, as in the parallel explanation of the reliability of the senses, logical judgments of consistency and inconsistency have to occur without these qualifications, as direct apprehensions of the truth. It is not possible to think, ‘Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.’ Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.

My first intuitive response was to think that Nagel was going a little easy on perception. Isn’t an evolutionary theory of perception open to the same problem, since we are relying on our perceptions (empirical measurements through scientific instruments) to determine the validity of our theories? Or if we have ways of “checking” our perceptions to make sure they’re valid, wouldn’t the same kind of checking apply to our reasoning process?

I’m reminded of the refutation of moral relativism based on the idea that it makes an absolute claim (i.e., “no moral truths are absolute”). It feels like a trick — that it’s only circular because it’s “about” reason. Plus, as with value realism, this sort of rejection forces us into a position of turning reason into another “true in itself” thing that doesn’t require justification.

It seems to me that reasoning is something way less cool than Nagel makes it out to be. If I perform a reasoning task that takes me from proposition A to proposition Q, all I can say is that proposition Q follows from the procedural rules that I’ve set out. If proposition A is based on a perception of the world, and proposition Q also accords with a perception of the world, I can say that my procedure was successful in producing an inference about the world. Further tests might show that the procedure is wildly successful in producing a bunch of successful inferences about a bunch of things in the world. So when I’m “presupposing” reason when I theorize about reason’s awesomeness, all I’m really doing is saying that my confidence is high because the procedure I followed tends to be highly successful in making inferences about that kind of thing.

It’s really easy (for me, at least) to imagine this as a sort of algorithm-generating process that continuously takes A-propositions from perceptions, runs them through sets of rules, then tests the resulting Q-propositions against perceptions. Those algorithms that result in high “accordance” rates get weighted up and preferentially used. Those that don’t get weighted down and eventually wither away. If such a process occurs unconsciously and is repeated over years and years, even at early stages of an organism’s life, the adult organism would probably end up intuiting that the successful algorithms are “just true in themselves”. And if the external environment is perceptually consistent enough – if there is, in philosophical parlance, a metaphysical basis for the concordance between inferences and perceptions – those algorithms are going to be both easily discovered and widely applicable, given the right kind of hardware.

UPDATE: A recent review of Mind and Cosmos from John Dupré at Exeter contains a wonderful summary of the physicalist stance:

So here is the first problem. Reductionism can be understood as a metaphysical thesis, typically based on an argument that if there is only material stuff in the world (no spooky stuff), then the properties of stuff must ultimately explain everything. This is a controversial thesis, much debated by philosophers. But what the last 50 years of work in the philosophy of science has established is that this kind of reductionism has little relevance to science. Even if it turned out that most scientists believed something like this (which I find incredible) this would be a psychological oddity, not a deep insight about science. A more sensible materialism goes no further than the rejection of spooky stuff: whatever kinds of stuff there may turn out to be and whatever they turn out to do, they are, as long as this turning out is empirically grounded, ipso facto not spooky. Such a materialism is quite untouched by Nagel’s arguments.

I think critics of physicalism find this sort of stance to be extremely frustrating. If physical = non-spooky, then it could be said that everything we have a coherent theory of is physical, and that everything that seems spooky now will eventually be considered physical when we have a coherent theory of it. The only way for a critic to keep something permanently non-physical is to argue that no coherent scientific theory of it is possible (which is kind of what Nagel is trying to do with subjective experience and value judgements).

July 16, 2012

Chaotically Speaking

by johnmccreery

Over on OAC, a new seminar is underway. The topic is Joanna Overing’s paper, An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque. During an exchange with Joanna, I write,

When you write that, “Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism,” you are, I suspect, alluding to what Chinese call Daojia, usually described as “Daoist philosophy” and associated with classic texts like the Dao De Jing attributed to Lao Zi or the Zhuangzi,attributed to Zhuang Zi. What I studied in Taiwan was Daojiao, usually described as Daoist religion, whose relationship to Daojia is complex and often contrary. But let’s put that aside.  What you write reminded me of a book by N. J. Girardot titled Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (University of California Press, 1983, a volume in the series “HERMENEUTICS: Studies in the History of Religion”). In the preface to the paperback edition Girardot writes,

Chaos is an oddly fashionable topic these days. This is not the usual state of affairs, since chaos has typically been imagined as the fearful antagonist of God, of the cosmic order, and of all that is normal. The dark Otherness of chaos has, therefore, most commonly lurked within the locked closets of civilized discourse and sanctioned revelation—only showing its monstrous and misshapen face, still half-concealed by a primordial hockey mask, at times of dreadful confusion, insane retribution, and irrevocable change. However, at other times and sporadically within some traditions—especially as seen in the early Taoist texts examined in this work—chaos has been upheld as the creative source, hidden order, and ongoing power of cosmic life.

Girardot then moves on to chaos as conceived by modern science, mathematics and economics.

As pointed out in best-selling works like James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), “chaos theory”—and its attendant exotica of Mandelbrot sets, Koch curves, Menger sponges, fractal clusters, smooth noodle maps, and other beautiful “monstrosities”—has opened horizons of understanding in fields concerned with the strange science of process and becoming.

While I wish to suggest no more than a very simple rhetorical symmetry between chaos theory in contemporary science and the hun-tun theme of a blessed “chaos-order” in the ancient Taoist texts, beneath the surface, and somewhat chaotically, both emphasize understanding reality in its authentic “wildness”—as a dynamic system in which constant change and erratic complexity harbor an enigmatic principle of patterned regularity and regeneration….For both, it has to do with the interrelated flowing of heaven and earth—the way clouds form, smoke rises, and water eddies, as well as the way human health depends on the inner rhythms of the body.

What I wish to point out here is that the “monstrous and misshapen” are described here as the evil other of the Southwest Asian monotheist’s Almighty God, the patriarchal principle of order in all things.  The “monstrosities” mentioned in connection with scientific chaos theory are, in fact, patterns of exquisite beauty, examples of dynamic order that emerge from chaotic processes, becomings rather than beings. To me they seem as alien to

The story of creation time [as] one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: … a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement

as they are to the timeless order envisioned by Greek philosophers or Christian theologians or the Genesis story in which God speaks and the world Is, and death and evil slip in through the actions of Adam and Eve, who are ancestors but in no sense divine. Taking your premise,

that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces

as given, how should we account for these differences?

Let me rephrase the final question. How would you account for these differences?

July 8, 2012

Constraint and the perfect shot

by Carl Dyke

Watching Andy Murray play Roger Federer (Wimbledon 2012) I’m struck by another case of constraint causation. The court, the surface, the net, the weather, the opponent, the rules of the game and a million other factors large and small create the conditions of the game in general and its particular instance in this match. They do so by ruling out all the things the game isn’t (backgammon, a brit milah, a French Open quarterfinal between Williams and Sharapova) and all the people who haven’t ‘earned’ their way there, so now it’s Fed and Murray in the Wimbledon men’s final.

All this sets the scene for both the match and my observation about it, which is that sometimes Murray second-guesses himself in the middle of a shot. Every point begins with a highly constrained space of possible plays – the serve – which then has a virtual infinity of permutations of speed, spin, angle, target. This wave function of possibility collapses into an actual serve which is just one of the shots it might have been, calling forth in turn a service return that has a possibility space constrained by all the conditions previously mentioned plus the particulars of the instant serve.

It is of course impossible to hit your return both crosscourt and down the line, both hard and soft, both topspinned and underspinned, although in theory and early in the process all of those are live and potentially good options. Every shot works like this – a big but constrained space of possibilities that must be collapsed into a single actual shot. And this is the thing that Murray sometimes fails to do – he seems to stay aware of options through the point of execution, consequently hitting shots that are trying impossibly to be both or all of the good options he needed to pick between.

The perfect tennis shot only becomes so by rigorously not being every other possible shot.

June 18, 2012

The years of rice, salt and science

by Carl Dyke

Among the books I’m reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a fictional alternate history of modernity premised on the Black Death wiping out Europe completely so that Islam and China rise to dominance instead. It’s a good book in many ways but I was struck for present purposes by how Robinson gets science to happen. Like in all good alternative histories he’s trying to figure out what differences make a difference; for reasons peculiar to this particular history he’s also trying to figure out what sames make the same.

So expediently but interestingly, he restaffs yet recapitulates the developing experimentalism of Galileo, Grimaldi and Boyle et. al. pretty exactly, but in an environment in which the global context and intertext are far more explicit. That is, his story reads much more directly as a dynamic assemblage of existing elements than the usual heroic individual string-of-pearls discovery tales of triumphal Western Progress. For narrative purposes it’s all compressed into a single place/time (the khanate of Bokhara, 1020 AH) and group of people, but here are some of the factors:

*A Silk-Road nexus teeming with travelers and books from across Greater Asia

*A catastrophically-failed and disenchanted Arab alchemist whose day job is armory and gunpowder engineering

*A Tibetan fellow-alchemist and glassblower who has no reason to be impressed with Aristotle

*A self-absorbed khan with predatory enemies on all sides and a pragmatic principal advisor more interested in useful military technology than orthodoxies

*A well-established scholarly madressa community, including mathematicians, philosophers and Sufi mystics

The regional-military practicalities create one kind of enabling constraint, the failure of alchemy another, the Muslim theological-philosophical system a third. It helps a lot once the alchemy fails that the Tibetan guy is there to decenter Aristotle and that as a craftsman he’s of an empirical bent. His glassblowing enables lenses and vacuum vessels without too much need for suspension of disbelief. But all of that had been around there from time to time ‘forever’, we might say. What Robinson shows elegantly is that it took a particular configuration of those elements under particular dynamic stresses to create a new system, which quickly became self-organizing and expansive. All of the parts did their parts by doing their parts, but what they did was repurposed, with the radically-empiricized former alchemist as the catalyst.

So having invented the barometer, against the Aristotelian speculations of the Arab philosophers the emergent scientist grumbles

As if stones or the wind could want to be someplace or other, as a man does…. Things fall because they fall, that’s all it means. Which is fine, no one knows why things fall…. All the seeming cases of action at a distance are a mystery. But first we must say so, we must distinguish the mysteries as mysteries, and proceed from there, demonstrating what happens, and then seeing if that leads us to any thoughts concerning the how or the why.

Clearly this is the hero of the linear progress-of-science metanarrative, but Robinson doesn’t leave it at that. To get the right ferment, or alchemy so to speak took more than this, including the irrelevant or counterproductive stuff the new scientist was pushing against, like his son-in-law’s Sufioid handwaving about the universal force of love:

The Sufi scholars were still inclined to extrapolate from any given demonstration to the ultimate nature of the cosmos, while the mathematically inclined were fascinated by the purely numerical aspects of the results, the geometry of the world as it was revealed. These and other approaches combined in a burst of activity, consisting of demonstrations and talk, and private work on slates over mathematical formulations, and artisanal labor on new or improved devices.

This is where I stopped last night. I’ll update in the comments if necessary as I read on.

June 13, 2012

Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading

by Carl Dyke

The prior post on complexity in practice was trying to be ‘about’ a paper by Chuck Dyke that is ‘about’ Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson et. al. However, the discussion quickly encountered an antecedent problem, just what sort of thing the paper actually is, or as Asher put it, what the author is trying to do; which is then a question about what to expect from it, how to read it and how to decide if it’s a good version of what it is. It occurs to me that addressing that question is actually a perfectly good way to talk about the paper, so here’s my take, broken out into a separate post for ease of handling.

As I asked last time, what would it look like to practice complexity, not just talk about it? My sense is that Dyke (and Deacon I think, but less so Juarrero) is trying to do this. Of course if all of them are right, and this is the general takeaway of the now-long history of systems theory, in one obvious sense we are all practicing complexity all the time – we are in fact morphodynamically and perhaps teleodynamically complex. What I mean though is that Dyke’s paper seeks to demonstrate the complexity it discusses. It is both about complexity and an enactment of complexity. In this sense it is the same sort of thing N. Pepperell argues Marx’s Capital is on a much grander scale, both a discussion and a demonstration of complexly dynamic and complexly coupled systems.

This is a rather different sort of enterprise than the usual linear thesis-driven essay or monograph, of course. In that sort of writing we’re looking for a “fundamental point,” as JohnM diagnostically put it in the prior discussion, which is then systematically developed with logical rigor and point-mapping evidentiary support – the Popperian philosophy of science model, as Michael pointed out. But as we see when we try to teach our students the technique, it’s highly stylized and artificial, not actually how anything in the world works – including the world of practicing scientists, as Latour and Woolgar famously showed now long ago. Endless handwringing and some very good jokes have been devoted to the ‘problem’ of the procrustean mismatch between logocentric linearity and anything it is ‘about’, as well as the tendency of logocentrics to pick topics and arrange situations that happen to fit the very specific and narrow virtues of their procedure.

Well, for better or worse by the time we’ve been indoctrinated and certified into the communities of expertise that constitute scholarship we have learned to ‘recognize’ disciplined, monographic linearity as the proper form of authoritative discourse, and immediately to dismiss as undisciplined, muddled, confused or meandering (‘poetic’, perhaps, if we’re being generous) anything that represents more directly the complexity it is about. This is a constraint that accomplishes a great deal, of course; the joke in Borges is after all that the map which most accurately represents the territory is also the most completely useless. The productive advantages of abstraction, specialization and focus, like the division of labor and the assembly line, really need no rehearsing, especially when volume is the objective and advanced artisanal talent is not widely distributed. Nevertheless, there is something inherently self-defeating about linear discussions of nonlinearity. If complexity is your topic, it makes a sort of elementary sense to adopt complexity as your practice. And it also makes sense to expect readers to modify their expectations accordingly. But as Asher has already discussed at length and as Dyke also thematizes, this puts a lot of pressure on readers, especially those for whom the strategies of linearity and discipline have been or promise to be the most successful.

What clues do we have that Dyke is trying to enact complexity, that is, that he’s not just wandering around pointing randomly at birdies and flowers and clouds that remind him of his first girlfriend? Just a few guideposts here.

We could start with the (sub)title of the paper, “a plea for pedagogical plurality.” Pedagogy? That’s teaching, communication more broadly. Purpose: transmission of information. Plurality? Why? If the linearity metanarrative were true, there’d be no need for pedagogical plurality; a single beam, properly focused, would pass through all receiving prisms identically. This image Gramsci called “an Enlightenment error.” But if that’s not true, and the author knows it’s not true, then perhaps the author will be compensating for the complexity of reception by shooting a variety of beams from a variety of angles, and expecting that the enlightenment effects will be subtly or even dramatically different each time. What will this text look like? It will make ‘the same’ point in a variety of ways, which will seem repetitive or chaotic exactly to the degree each reader reflects or refracts the luminous dispersion.

Of course if the author could rely on functionally identical readers, this pedagogical plurality would not be necessary. And here we see one of the amazing accomplishments of the discipline constraint: by absenting all other possible configurations, it delivers functionally identical readers who have been rigorously cut and rotated so the light they each beam out will be received and refracted just so by all the others. Like a well-hung crystal chandelier the blazing glory when such a cognitive system is well-ordered is really a beautiful and useful thing. But of course, only that one room is lit.

Let’s move on. The paper is ‘about’ Deacon, but more centrally it’s about what Deacon is trying to do in relation to what other people in a more-or-less loose network of more-or-less similar projects are trying to do. This means the network has to be mapped, and the proximities and similarities surveyed. A big middle chunk of the paper does this work, while trying to leave open sockets for the (many, many) network nodes not discussed, i.e. absent, while sampling their range and significance (e.g. the ‘random’ Pirandello reference). Dyke likes Deacon, thinks he’s right about how things work, and therefore thinks that the nodes and projects are both teleodynamically self-organizing and morphodynamically coupled into a larger system with its own dynamics. How would he show this, not just say it? What would we expect to see if this were true? Links, absences, feedbacks, feedforwards, gradients, the usual. A nonlinear, unpointy, inherently incomplete and unclosed text that, like the network it discusses, is multinodal and loops back on itself dynamically, working all the while to create, maintain and singularize itself. Circles that are actually spirals, as he slyly adumbrates under the discussion of the discovery of DNA and the structure of Deacon’s text.

And so, what is Deacon trying to do, and how does it relate to what Dyke is trying to do? The answer, we’re plurally taught to understand, is properly understood as a matter of constraint within complex dynamical systems far from equilibrium. So after a lot of loopy groundwork about situated knowledge and “ecologies of practice” and “investigative ecosystems” and a great deal of loosely, dynamically related detail we get yet another heuristic example, which I’ll let stand in as a ‘point’ for this post:

To move closer to issues of consciousness with another concrete example, why is it, we want to know, that Deacon’s book is so inhumanly tedious? Well, possibly it is so largely because of all the possible objections he can imagine to his theory. He’s probably better at identifying these possibilities than his potential critics are. Many of these possible critics don’t themselves appear as robustly singularized factishes, but only factishes in absentia. The intellectual defenses are waiting in the text to deal with them should they attack, just as the chemical defenses of a plant are on hand ready to deal with threats that never in fact materialize. But their absence is felt. I take it that I’ve just given a possible causal account of an apparent factish: Deacon’s prolixity. At any rate, the hypothesis that most absentials involve the modal characterization of constrained structure seems to me a live one.

A very, very sad story that.

June 11, 2012

Complexity in practice: a plea for pedagogical plurality

by Carl Dyke

What would it look like if our scholarly practice was actually informed by our shiny new theories of complexity? Below the fold is one possible answer, a draft review article by absential-in-chief Chuck Dyke (Temple University) covering neologism, “ecologies of practice” and theoretical propagation in Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson and others. The introductory section is here below the fold; the whole piece (pdf, with notes) is linked at the end:

read more »

May 23, 2012

Deacon, McGinn, and the problem of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder

by Asher Kay

It would be easy to dismiss Colin McGinn’s review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature as a bit of grumpy get-off-my-lawnism. But I think that by taking a closer look, we can gain some insight into the difficulty of communicating across disciplines.

As cognitive, neurological and complexity sciences burgeoned over the last few decades, scientists started encroaching on land once firmly occupied by philosophers. These scientists are eager to take a crack at some of the questions about human consciousness that have been vexing pretty much everyone pretty much forever. Beyond the obvious territorial concerns, this influx of foreigners creates some serious communication problems. McGinn’s review of Deacon, I think, is a fascinating case in point.

What we have is a philosopher in the field of “Philosophy of Mind” reviewing a book about the emergence of consciousness written by a scientist in the field of biological anthropology. What symptoms of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder (CDCD) might we expect to see? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A tendency for the discomfort and difficulty of understanding the scientist’s text to manifest in emotional ways like blame, offhand dismissiveness, derision, and imputing negative motives to the scientist.
  2. An aversion to the more wonkily scientific parts of the book, where the philosopher is likely to feel less sure of his rhetorical footing.
  3. A tendency to fault the scientist for his lack of knowledge concerning previous work done in philosophy on the questions the scientist is attempting to answer.
  4. An unexamined projection of philosophical terminology, conceptual frameworks and exegetical norms to the scientist’s text — In short, an assumption that the scientist is writing a work of philosophy.

If these are reasonable, it’s pretty clear from the review that McGinn has a nasty case of the CDCDs.

It’s not my intention to lay this all on McGinn (although his review is snotty enough at times that he arguably deserves some ribbing). For each of these symptoms, there’s a corresponding symptom that we’d expect to see, either in the scientist’s book itself or in his responses to philosophers’ criticisms. For example, the scientist might avoid philosophical ideas and approaches for the same reasons the philosopher avoids scientific ones. But if Deacon wants to create a cross-disciplinary work – if he wants to engage philosophers as well as scientists – he needs to be aware of the problem and find a way to communicate clearly with both groups. This is no easy thing — even less so since both groups have multiple sub-groups with their own communication problems. I think Deacon succeeds in some ways and fails in others. I’ll try to point out both as I go along.

read more »

May 22, 2012

Out of the box

by Carl Dyke

We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.

Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.

In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”

What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.

Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.

In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?

The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.

February 14, 2012

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

by Carl Dyke

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

February 3, 2012

Deacon and OOP

by Asher Kay

Before I get down to brass tachyons on Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, I want to set up a little philosophical context — something to keep in mind as we wade through his sometimes conceptually difficult ideas. The context involves our occasional preoccupation with object-oriented philosophy.

Deacon has probably never heard of OOP or Speculative Realism, and he probably wouldn’t be all that interested in them anyway, since he approaches things mostly from a physicalist, scientific perspective. He mentions some classic philosophers like Aristotle, Hume and John Stuart Mill – and he’s apparently a fan of Charles Sanders Pierce – but the modern philosophers he mentions are mostly on the scientific or analytic side — people like Rorty, Fodor, Jaegwon Kim, the Churchlands, and Dan Dennett. Though he’s kind of speculative, he’s not French-armchair-speculative — in other words, you won’t hear him talking about Deleuze, Badiou or Lacan, using the word “as” in bizarre ways, or getting all immanent about stuff.

But I do think Deacon’s ideas relate to OOP, and to the puzzlement we experience with some of its concepts. Since Deacon’s writing is difficult to excerpt (he even refers to his “sometimes tortured prose” in the acknowledgments), I’m going to offload the task to a summary of Incomplete Nature from a review by Jeremy Sherman. Sherman has apparently collaborated with Deacon, and his review is an amazingly well-written and accurate distillation of the book (the length of the excerpt is right up against the limit of acceptability, so I urge you to read the whole review as well):

We have embraced Darwin’s breakthrough but haven’t embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science’s greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.

Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there’s one. The step-down from 52 to one–the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It’s a narrowing of possibility.

Again, though we ran with Shannon’s breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.

We are very thing-oriented.

We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we’re pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.

We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a “least discordant remainder.”

Obviously, if you substitute “object” for “thing”, you could read this as a kind of rejection of the whole OOP undertaking. I don’t see it that way, but it does amount to a criticism, not just of our conceptual obsession with things, but also of our “things plus relations” way of looking at systems. Deacon’s criticism is aimed mostly at emergentist theories that focus on supervenience and mereological relations, but I think it has repercussions for frameworks like Harman’s, which sometimes express relations between two things as yet a third thing (entity) that contains them.

As Sherman expresses so vividly, Deacon’s re-framing involves looking at absences. Information, energy, and self-organizing systems are all defined by an absence of possibilities. A constraint is an absence of possible states. Thing-oriented models of reality are unable to capture this notion of absence fully, so Deacon suggests we turn to a process-oriented view.

Beyond the “process vs. objects” story, Deacon’s biggest unknowing comment on OOP concerns the idea of a “flat ontology”. I’ll let Levi Bryant lay out the relevant details (from The Democracy of Objects):

…Flat ontology refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation. To be sure, flat ontology readily recognizes that humans have unique powers and capacities and that how humans relate to the world is a topic more than worthy of investigation, yet nothing about this establishes that humans must be included in every inter-object relation or that how humans relate to objects differs in kind from how other entities relate to objects.

Deacon would probably agree with b), but I think he’d definitely have a problem with a) (although for him, it’s not about “humans”, per se). Here, Deacon talks about the difficulty of expressing the causality of a boy skipping a stone at the beach:

The boy’s idea that it might be possible to treat this stone like another that he’d once seen skipped is far more relevant to the organization of these causal probabilities than what he ate for breakfast, or how the stone came to be deposited in this place on this beach. Even though the force imparted to the stone is largely derived from the energy released from the chemical bonds in digested food, and its location at that spot is entirely due to the energetics of geology, wind, and waves, these facts are almost irrelevant. The predictive value of shifting attention to very general types of events, macroscopic global similarities, predictions of possible thought processes, and so forth, offers a critical hint that we are employing a very different and in some ways orthogonal logic of causality when we consider this mental analysis of the event rather than its physics. Indeed, this difference makes the two analyses appear counterintuitively incompatible. The thought is about a possibility, and a possibility is something that doesn’t yet exist and may never exist. It is as though a possible future is somehow influencing the present.

The discontinuity of causality implicit in human action parallels a related discontinuity between living and non-living processes. Ultimately, both involve what amounts to a reversal of causal logic: order developing from disorder, the lack of a state of affairs bringing itself into existence, and a potential tending to realize itself. We describe this in general terms as “ends determining means.” But compared to the way things work in the non-living, non-thinking world, it is as though a fundamental phase change has occurred in the dynamical fabric of the world. Crossing the border from machines to minds, or from chemical reactions to life, is leaving one universe of possibilities to enter another.

Ultimately, we need an account of these properties that does not make it absurd that they exist, or that we exist, with the phenomenology we have. Our brains evolved as one product of a 3-billion-year incremental elaboration of an explicitly end-directed process called life. Like the idle thoughts of the boy strolling along the beach, this process has no counterpart in the inorganic world. It would be absurd to argue that these differences are illusory. Whatever else we can say about life and mind, they have radically reorganized the causal fabric of events taking place on the surface of the Earth. Of course, life and mind are linked. The sentience that we experience as consciousness has its precursors in the adaptive processes of life in general. They are two extreme ends of a single thread of evolution. So it’s not just mind that requires us to come to a scientific understanding of end-directed forms of causality; it’s life itself.

The first thing to notice here is, again, the focus on what Deacon calls “absential” qualities. Ideas and intentions are centered around things that are not present. There is a teleological quality to them that points at something (a goal, a purpose, an exact or approximate end-state) that does not exist yet, and may never exist.

This “absential” kind of causality, Deacon is saying, introduces something new into the world that did not exist before life emerged, and which most definitely “differs in kind” from the way in which non-living objects can relate to one another. His entire book centers around the idea that our theories need to be expanded to include the unique sort of causality that living organisms bring about.

So that’s the context. As I work through Incomplete Nature in subsequent posts, I might mention things like Harman’s conception of causality and his take on Latour’s actor-network theory, as well as some of Bryant’s ideas about assemblages. But I’ll likely leave any hardcore analysis of OOP out. While it provides a nice common ground of reference for we voles, engaging with OOP at a polemical level is probably best left to professionals.

February 1, 2012


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.

July 26, 2011

Digital Gramsci

by Carl Dyke

Since I betched awhile back about the unavailability of Antonio Gramsci’s writings online, I am now happy to report the International Gramsci Society’s new effort to digitize his oeuvre. Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche are online, so why not Gramsci too? For those whose Italian is rustier than mine here’s a rusty translation of the rationale:

The site is intended as a means of democratic diffusion of Gramsci’s works for an increasingly vast global public of readers increasingly less able to invest money in the purchase of books. Indeed, today’s demand for culture and education coming from below has characteristics and forms that must be intercepted and guided. Further, the site is intended to address recent new research methods, which need electronic supports unlike books and offer distinct research opportunities.

Well good for them. But still the old Leninism and just barely getting this newfangled technowhatsis, eh? In my mind there’s always been something retro, nostalgic, not hidebound exactly but sort of genially out-of-touch about the Gramsci scholarship which produces anxious claims of the Master’s enduring relevance (attualita’) with ritual frequency while sternly guarding the Gramscian essence in all the ways guaranteed to keep the cult small. Of course as a historian I’m fine with a past-tense Gramsci. It will be interesting to see if the current effort creates conditions that, intended or not, change the ethos any.

The new portal will be at and is promised within months.

April 27, 2011

skyhooks of the amazons

by Jacob Lee

One of the interesting things about the modern human environment is the extent to which autonomous processes and artificial intelligent agents of various kinds (and intelligences) not only figure in determining the situations in which we navigate, but figure in determining the situations in which *they* (the artificial intelligent agents ) navigate as well. For example, many retailers use automated pricing bots on sites like Amazon. Frequently these bots base pricing judgments  upon the prices of similar items being sold by their competitors. As might be expected, this can lead to various interactions between bots as they adjust to changes in other retailers prices. Sometimes the result can be amusing, even fascinating, as blogger Machael Eisen relates in his investigation of two absurdly priced books at Amazon daily ratcheting up in price:

What’s fascinating about all this is both the seemingly endless possibilities for both chaos and mischief. It seems impossible that we stumbled onto the only example of this kind of upward pricing spiral – all it took were two sellers adjusting their prices in response to each other by factors whose products were greater than 1. And while it might have been more difficult to deconstruct, one can easily see how even more bizarre things could happen when more than two sellers are in the game.