Saturday, May 19, 2012

Grasping Beyond a Physics Worldview.

This is an attempt to understand the acausal nature of evolution - I am very grateful to Kim and a  Google+ conversation her for the inspiration to record this moment of social thinking.


The conversation begins in the middle (I hope it will continue). Kim and I were conversing from the platforms of our own intellectual backgrounds. She is a classically trained scientist - whereas I'm a hybrid mongrel social scientist philosopher.


Her points was that just because we can't define space beforehand, this does not mean that space does not have bounds.


I countered that I thought she may still be thinking 'extensionally' as if the un-pre-stateable space I was referring to about an expansion of the 'edges' of space. But what I understand of Kauffman is that he is talking about the very fabric of the phase space (the place where things happen). So before a microbe moves into the swim bladder, there is a definable 'stateable' ecological space (a phase space) - this would be like the classic physics worldview, and we would try to understand the selection pressures (like understanding position, speed, trajectory of all particles) to 'predict' how selection would work on a fish with a swim bladder. 

But once the microbe immigrates to the swim bladder - all of a sudden there is a new niche that evolution's selection mechanism did not select as a 'fitness function'. This new niche changes the 'phase space' by adding a new niche (a whole new space of being, within which selection can begin to work. There could be no algorithm - no calculus of trajectory to 'predict' this space because it was 'acausally' instantiated by microbes moving in, not through the causal web of selection.

For me it is like suddenly the piece of paper expanding in a 3 dimensional way rather than simply getting bigger in a 2 dimensional way.

None of this, is an argument against structure - of course there is structure - but this is the important part the structure is not prestateable. 

Whatever & whenever we reduce phenomena to energy we lose the structure we are aiming to study - we lose the whole. That is why complex systems cannot be understood through a reductive method - complex systems must understood on the 'holistic' level it occupies and not on the level that the parts/constituents occupy. 

When we cannot pre-state the phase space - we can't pre-state the degrees of freedom. For example, we can never prestate all the possible uses of a screwdriver (ice-pick, spear-head, hammer, lever, stake, paperweight, hole-puncher, etc) - and because of this we can't pre-determine degrees of freedom. Certainly the structure of the screwdriver constrains the infinite range of its infinite possibilities - but infinity is infinite - even though some infinites seem logically to be bigger (e.g. the infinite set of even numbers intuitively seems smaller than the infinite set of all numbers - but infinity is infinity). 

And I think this is where the 2nd law of thermodynamics is always misused. The 2nd law is only applicable to 'closed systems' not to 'open systems' - that is why if you constrain a quantity of water within a completely closed metal container - but apply heat to the bottom of the container (e.g. make it open to energy input - thus making it open) - you get a phase transition from equilibrium to a turbulent chaos - to the new order of Bernoulli cells. The assumption (and it is an assumption) is that the universe is 'closed' and thus will inevitably reach some sort of entropic equilibrium, is not knowable but it fits our current theory. However, its expansion is not an act of equilibriation but an ever expanding reservoir of difference - which is the source of information and eternal energy (as I currently understand - I may be wrong). 

In terms of an ecosystem (defined as an open system - open to the energy of the sun) but also constrained by a finite physical space; We don't know and can't pre-state the limits of 'niche density' that can arise - as long as it continues to be open to the in pouring of energy. As niche density increases - the phase space expands despite being constrained within a physical limit. 

Because the earth is an open system - that is why life has progressed to ever greater degrees of complexity and richness rather than some sort of entropic equilibrium that the 2nd law (for closed systems) has predicted. 

What we have here is both openness and constraint - the very definition of complexity. The little I know of quantum and string theory would agree that there is no 'nothing' and that even at absolute zero there is still quantum and string activity. 

A key thing I think we must remember is that our mathematics & science - don't explain reality - mathematics is a language that has enabled us to powerfully describe reality - in ways that have enabled us to manipulate the reality around us to our ends. But description is not an explanation of causality. Before Einstein - Newton gave us a very good description of gravity - but he didn't explain its causality. Einstein improved this description with a theory (supported first by reason and later by evidence) that asks us to imagine the 'warping of space' as the best description. We still can't access the causality of gravity - despite our theories and their increasingly powerful descriptions.

The menu describes the meal - but it is not the meal. The map is a description of the terrain - but it is not the terrain. Math/Science describes reality - but it is not the causality imbuing reality.

Now when the swim bladder becomes a new niche - increasing the density of the ecology - expanding the phase space of possibilities - this may still follow some fundamental laws. For example the richness of the ecosystem in the swim bladder may follow a power-law distribution and a fractal pattern of unfolding interdependencies. Once an adjacent possible becomes a real virtual possibility it will inevitably follow the known and the yet-to-be-discovered laws of change and transformation as it become a real actual.

In an abstract way one can speculate an inevitable proliferation of niche space in a fractal-power-law distribution. But what we can never do is prestate the particular conditions that are created in life's becoming. 

A screw driver has form and function - which does constrain the infinite set of its adjacent possibles - yet the constraints arising because of its form and structure don't make these adjacent possibles (permutations) finite - the constraints may simply be 'arcs' shaping a strange attractor of its infinite trajectory. Each step yielding new possibles to the arc and the trajectory. But the trajectory is not in the classic 3d or 4d of traditional physics it is in the unfolding phase space of niche densities - a type of proliferation of dimensions.

Perhaps another metaphor - Shannon's information theory was all about sending a 'signal' (pattern) through various 'noisy' mediums in a way where the pattern would not lose integrity (information). But he admitted that the signal being sent - and received without error had no application in relation to the 'meaning' of the signal. Even when the signal is received perfectly without error of distortion - the meaning that can be derived/projected on the received signal is unpredictable. 

This is why when we 'kick a dog' it will obey the laws of physic for a short while - but its ultimate behaviors don't depend on the 'energy transmitted' by the kick - it behaviors depend on the meaning it derives from who kicked it, the context of the kick, the internal state of the dog. This meaning is not determined by energy transfer (though energy transfer is essential). Meaning may ride on energy - but is not derived from that energy. New meanings are like new niches - they are whole new dimensions arising within a constrained yet infinite phase space.

Aristotle spoke of four types of causality - efficient, material, final and formal. Science works in the domains of efficient and material causality. Human intention works in the domain of 'final' (purpose) causality. Aristotle, McLuhan and very recently Kauffman spoke about formal causality. This is where I think our discussion is on separate sides. For McLuhan formal causality is evident when 'effect precede the cause' in a sort of figure-ground dynamic. This is sort of what Kauffman explores in trying to understand that evolution has no 'entailing law' but creates acausal (formal) conditions that 'enable' new adjacent possibles to become actual. The field of adjacent possibles is the cause but we can only see the cause once the possibles have become actual (e.g. effects).

I like the reference to "Even for words not created, we can use the structure of words to define the possibility of new words. No you can't have a word be larger than a book because that would violate the function of a word." 


I think the argument that can counter this position is the impossibility of 'real' translation of one language into another language - even though we can most often get good enough approximation.

Arthur C. Clarke said "A technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic" 

I think reality - especially living/complex systems are sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic - they are not magic - but are beyond the grasp of the reason underlying current math and science. :)I

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Some Thoughts about 21st Century Organizations as Constrained - Complex Adaptive Systems


I recently gave a co-worker the paper I had co-authored for my organization on the "Meta-Organization: A Conceptual and Research Landscape". Essentially the paper proposes the need to evolve our organizations toward a concept of 'constrained complex adaptive system' (C-CAS). Basic to this concept is the capacity and need for enabled 'self-organization'.

This is posting is another distillation of social thinking compiled from several emails and conversations regarding thoughts and counter-thoughts.

My colleagues first comment regarding C-CAS was to as whether I had heard of The Big Society - David Cameron's vision of the UK where people can just do things, without the need to pander or endure government bureaucracy - but can get some help in getting things done. The idea is that people no longer need top-down direction of services and that empowered localism can solve many social problems and reduce the cost of Government. Of course this approach would require new forms of institutions.

Some critics of of the Big Society argue that it would only work for the well-off, and well-educated. The problem is that the Big Society is vague enough to appeal to both the progressively oriented and to the more neo-conservative/libertarian ideologies. It can easily be transformed into a sort of ‘right wing’ libertarianism and ‘ownership society’ framework. The Big Society would than simply be double speak for getting rid of government. The devil would be in the details. 

The reason for associating The Big Society with the issues of the Meta-Organization and C-CAS is that they both aim to empower self-forming groups and the need to frame problems with care (as some problems are 'wicked' and thus not really amenable to 'solutions' as much as they require constant 'solutioning'). The question was whether the same criticism could be applied to both - e.g. C-CAS only works for the digitally literate. 

I fount this interesting. I have read about the debate between The Big Society, A great discussion on this is found on the RSA Social Brain site this. In particular I liked the Beyond The Big Society. 

There is some truth about the idea of a digital divide, but this is really an argument about how a society creates literate, empowered citizens regardless of class. Overcoming limitations class is an old 'wicked' problem that a digital environment sustained as a public infrastructure could help.

Particular contexts
My colleagues next comment related to a personal scenario - of sailing a 30 meter brig. This is small enough to enable everyone on board a type of immediate communication. Yet large enough that everyone has to be given specific tasks/duties. This is a transparent context where everyone can see if everyone else is doing the job and has enough flexibility for each person to get help if they need it. Fundamental however, is when the weather is extreme the captain's command (go starboard) needs everyone to comply. He claims there is no time for self-organizing. Despite a literature about ineffective hierarchies contributing to air accidents he had a difficult time thinking that a 'chain of command' would not be necessary on occasion. 

I really liked the example of sailing experience. The way I see it is it is much like mission command ‘Command Intent’ (go to the Starboard) and decentralized execution – he doesn’t tell people on the team exactly how to do what they need to do. In some sense they at least 'self-organize' their own action and in helping any other team member - they do it as needed since the situation is 'transparent' everyone must compensate when uneventful things arise. The concept of ‘object oriented programming’ poses a nice metaphor of competency hierarchies – the hierarchic structure doesn’t go away, however leadership is assumed on the basis of ‘context’ (in the programming metaphor different ‘objects’ seize control based on the data coming into the system) – whoever has the required competencies related to the context & particular topic/task takes leadership until the context changes.
I can see that the context of a ship (& thus the Navy) leads to a more rigid hierarchy related to skill that take years to master. But as ships become increasingly automated a smaller more cross-trained and agile crew may be necessary.

The metaphor of sailing a ship with a small crew/team also brings to mind all sorts of other types of teams – each with differing types of improvisational demands and/or structures of roles. One person can engage in any number of different types of teams and become adapt at the range of structured role-based demands or agile improvisational way-finding. Each type of sport team carries different opportunities.

Anti-Institution
My colleague next brought up the issue of institutions - and the popular 'bad press' they get. The issue for him was the security they provide society.  Also he pointed out the despite a type of improvisational 'chaos' the self-organized endeavours seem to romanticize - institutions inevitably arise. 

Here I thought that much of the aim of the paper was an argument FOR institutional innovation - this is not an ‘anti-institutionalism’. Rather, is is a call that the digital environment is a change in the conditions of change. This means that institutional innovation is fundamentally important, and that we must accelerate that process whereby institutions emerge out of evolving practices.

Institutions seem to be increasingly under stress because they can’t keep up with the pace of change – I think what is required is the emergence of ‘meta-institutions’ and processes that enable institutional innovation – yet that fosters ‘good enough’ order in the process. In some ways this is seen in the backlash occurring to changes in the ‘institution of marriage’ – it is being stressed by new types of family (blended, serial monogamy, networked), and long-standing relationships (common-law) as well as sexual orientation.

People aren't like that
The next critique is a common one - the eternal debate on what human nature is fundamentally. My colleague had difficulty believing that 'everyone' would contribute positively to 'self-organizing' endeavours. He question the basic motivations for getting involved. He also brought up the digital divide and asked whether the 'unwired' were fated to become the new primitives. 

I get the motivation part. The challenge is both fostering ‘intrinsic’ motivation as well as the ‘moral’ dimension of our very social nature. Adam Smith’s first book was “A theory of moral sentiments’. It was in this book that he first used the term ‘invisible hand’. Later in the ‘Wealth of Nations’ where he outlines his theory of a market system – the reference to the ‘invisible hand’ carries a moral dimension that guides and constrains the working of a market system. A great deal of what we do is guided and constrained by this moral part of ourselves. There is a lot to say about why the myth of the ‘Hobbesian’ isolated and atomistic individual was an important myth to promulgate – e.g. to shake up the deeply entrenched way that identity formation was embedded in the structures of feudal and ancient society. No real individuals existed in those societies – they were representatives of kin and geographic lineages. To develop a society that could urbanize, ‘nationalize’, democratize and marketize (English is a living language) what was needed was a ‘new type of individual’ and a new type of ‘imagined community’. Despite the necessity of the myth of the isolated individual, humans remain fundamentally social.

Opportunity Costs
My friend brought up our conversation about the collapse of transaction cost that the digital environment as caused and which enables whole new ways of doing business never before possible. He countered that while search and access to information is now almost 'costless' - the cost is relying on it as well as the risk that it won't be there the next time we search. That our communications might break down, that 'competitors' will gain access to it.

While this is true - it is also not a new problem, it is in fact the same problems we face now. As David Weinberger elaborates so well in his new book "Too Big Too Know". Paper as a medium gave us the illusions of authoritative knowledge. That there was a sense that the world could be 'knowable'. The digital environment exposes and reveals the whole contestability of knowledge - the unknowable myriad of perspectives and possibilities of truth.

Kahneman's latest book "Thinking: Fast and Slow" makes clear the difficulty we have in assessing 'opportunity' costs. Humans tend to see situations as ‘gains or losses’ and we are more ‘risk averse to loss’ than we are ‘risk seeking for gain’. A great example is the ‘Cautionary Principle’ – this tends to be biased against the new, while blind to (or assuming that) the risks in the status quo – that doing nothing is safer than doing something. Hence potentially incurring huge opportunity costs. An entrenched cautionary principle would not have produced the vaccine, the steam engine, etc.

What is a better frame is the ‘Vigilance Principle’ – explore, experiment, etc. – But monitor, watch, be vigilant and respond with agility. We can never know the long term consequences of our action. An action could produce short term gains – that become disasters in the long run, or just as easily produce a significant loss in the short term that becomes conditions for great gains in the long run. Vigilance seems to me that only reasonable way forward. J