Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yes the world is intelligible - but there is nothing one can say to convince 'some' people

I would like to thank my wonderful cyber-friend Amanda and her amazing mind for the conversation which I've incorporated in the chain of reasoning for this blog posting.

Now one could counter my proposition that the world is intelligible by questioning the equality of 'the real' with the intelligible. That there are aspects to the world beyond our capacity to know. For example we don't know the boundaries of our intelligence and our perceptual ability. That we live in Flatland without much gauge on our gauge.

I would agree with this - and refer to Stuart Kauffman's latest writings as brilliantly articulating that the unfolding of the living world is beyond reasonable grasp. Yet once that is understood the unknowable unfolding becomes more intelligible. But I interpret intelligibility as a sort of understanding - understandable even if it is essentially causally unknowable. The unknowable nature of the unfolding living world is not a result of a whimsical divine action or the mystery of a magic. Rather the unknowability lies in the fundamental nature of the world. So I would see that while the unfolding world is unknowable - it is intelligible - understandable - more so of course in retrospect than in prospect.

But maybe there is something different that the counter statement. For example in Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk "My Stroke of Insight" - her left brain spoke intelligible while her right brain spoke subjective gibberish, or whether her conceptually unintelligible right brain experience presented another valid take on the world. The creative chora versus Plato - e.g. the Platonic dream that Eternal Reason presents us with the Real, versus the ever shifting and shifty comings and goings of feeling and dynamic creativity.

Now this counter is very interesting and actually gets to the heart of the matter. A great source for considering this is the RSA Animate video 'The Divided Brain by Iain McGilchrist. He points out that the brain processes two fundamentally & paradoxically different views. So what Taylor's 'stroke of insight' allowed was full unfiltered access to the right brain - this is much closer to the Buddhist view of the entanglement - the inter-beingness of the world, and the essential 'emptiness' of a self and all things. In some ways I imagine it as if she was accessing the nature of the world as it is in constant becoming from the foundation of superstrings on up to unfolding emergent levels of unpredictable wholes-becoming-more-than-sums-of-their-parts. This is part of what makes the world intelligible while yet being paradoxically beyond reasonable grasp.

I think this is the sort of view that is also linked to Kauffman's more spiritual musings e.g. the Re-invention of the Sacred. I would bet that Kauffman would have no problem accepting the view illuminated by Taylor's stroke of insight.

I think that what Kauffman, McGilchrist, Taylor and many others are pointing to is the need to move beyond a dualist imposition on our constructions of reality, the need to avoid this dualist trap. This is the radical epistemological move they are attempting - the embodiment of relativity-as-perspective-taking-and-context-shifting in an unfolding unknowable ontology-as-becoming.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bruce Sterling Bruce Sterling in his lovely book Shaping Things coined (invented?) the concept of a SPIME object:

Objects trackable through SPace and tIME – every object can be queried and has a unique history.

It is a manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial information system

SPIMEs begin and end as data
They are Sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable, re-coverable
They are Eminently data-mineable.

Recently I found the Twine announced in my Twitter Stream:

Twine is the simplest possible way to get the objects in your life texting, tweeting or emailing. A durable 2.5" square provides WiFi connectivity, internal and external sensors, and two AAA batteries that keep it running for months. A simple web app allows to you quickly set up your Twine with human-friendly rules — no programming needed. And if you're more adventurous, you can connect your own sensors and use HTTP to have Twine send data to your own app.

The result? Your plant (or any other object you may choose) can talk to you or anyone else that it may need to, for example meet Pothos the plant

For more on this see
Peter Morville’s Semantic Studio

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Godel, Popper, Kuhn moment for science

This is what I think is the most exciting paper I’ve read in the last decade, perhaps ever.
“No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere”

Stuart Kauffman and co-authors have written a definite critique of, and propose the ‘end of a physics worldview’ for the sciences of complexity and living systems (including all social sciences and with critical relevance to economics, business planning and strategic planning). I believe this is a watershed paper – on the order to those developed by people such as Gödel, Popper, Kuhn… If there is any paper that is worth investing your neurons in – this is the paper.

This is a tough read, it took me several sittings over three days to get through it. But it has profoundly changed my thinking processes (OK most will wonder ‘what thinking processes!”) J

I’ll try to give a brief summary in my own word with apologies to the authors for what I get wrong. Kauffman et al make a compelling argument that evolution cannot be understood from a physics frame.

Physics and its mathematical tool set requires a ‘prestatable (event/phase) space and proceeds to use a calculus of trajectory (momentum, force, mass, etc.) to determine what will happen. In this way time (past – future) is revealed. The problem with evolution is that it is impossible to prestate the (event/phase) space. Some examples the authors use are built on the concept of ‘Darwinian pre-adaptations’. E.g it is impossible to prestate the potential use of the set of three jaw-bones as the mechanisms of the inner ear. Or to prestate all the uses of a screwdriver because it is impossible to know in advance all the possible ‘contexts of selection’ that could use an artifact like the screwdriver. All these unimaginable potential uses are what Kauffman has termed ‘adjacent possible’ no directly causally determined but ‘enabled’ by the existence of the screwdriver. The screwdriver is a ‘pre-adaptation’ of an function that can be unpredictably ‘exapted’ to another function.

Another example – evolution selects a fish to evolve a swim bladder. But if micro-organism inhabit the swim-bladder as a new ecological niche – evolution did not select the swim bladder for this purpose. What the selection of the swim bladder did was ‘enable’ a field of unpredictable ‘adjacent possibles’ – an unpredictable ‘field’ of potential exaptations.

My example would be how evolution could select for a sensorium capable of symbolic processing – but language is not selected for – by that I mean that while there are genetic causal linkages to language processing, there is no genetic link between such processing and the unpredictable (and infinite number) of languages that are enabled by the processing capability. Language arises at the level of social interaction with no direct causal relation to genes – there are no English, Mandarin, Hindu, Sanskrit, etc. genes.

All these examples (and all Darwinian pre-adaptations) are examples of ‘radical emergence’.

Physics/Mathematics provides a language structured by a logic of implication. It is extremely valuable and successful as a way to describe certain domains of reality. But the map is not the territory and the descriptive logic of implication leaves the actual logic of causality unrevealed, inaccessible. For Kauffman et al, evolution, the biosphere, complex systems require a different logical structure that accounts for radical emergence.

Why is this important for strategic planning? Because strategic planning and economics are totally imbued with a physics worldview (in particular neo-classical economics is built on and continues to use the mathematics and concepts of 19th century physics). And that means the logic inherent to strategic planning assumes a logic suitable to a calculus of trajectory. Kauffman et al point out that such a logic in very inadequate to understanding evolution, the biosphere and living systems.

Further to the point – in an environment of accelerating change built on competitive advantages of a capability to innovate – a calculus of trajectory misleads and misuses resources in two ways. Requires the increasing expenditure of resources to monitor and adjust the system to ‘stick to the plan’ and incurs increasing opportunity costs because of an inability (organizational arthritis) to seize opportunities.

Google’s shaping strategy is more of a philosophy “Disrupt ourselves, before we are disrupted” (paraphrasing Eric Schmidt). To thrive by innovation what is needed is less a strategic plan and more of a shaping strategy or philosophy that provides a common purpose. Thrive through innovation requires an operating philosophy open to and geared to seizing unpredicted opportunities as they arise – which also requires a capacity to proliferated experiment and rapid failure.

One could make similar arguments for Apple – who don’t ask what their customers want – rather they focus on imagining what will be ‘wantable’ but unimagined by their customers. This entails understanding what the evolving socio-technological combinations enable.

A counter example of a classic business strategy decision is Kodak who invented the digital camera and shelved its development because they did not want to disrupt the lucrative film business. Kodak has recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

Finally, Kauffman’s paper has inspired me (in a dream last night) to define foresight

“Foresight is not about predicting what will happen.
Foresight is about understanding evolving conditions in order to imagine what they can enable”