Friday, October 19, 2012

Reductionism and Emergentist Models

In the Phaedrus, Plato says he likes dividing things into categories because it aids thinking. Nietzsche later reminded us that conceptual categories are, ultimately, artificial, and that we need to challenge them periodically, and remember that the divisions among things are not really so clear-cut.

That having been said, let me lay out several models I use that guide my thinking.

1) Information Theory. I begin with an ontology of information. If something is inform, it has no form. If something informs, it gives form. Thus, information is that which is without form, yet gives form. All things in the universe are information, and the universe itself began as information and continues to exist as information.

2) Chaos Theory and Fractal Geometry. The universe demonstrates considerable self-similarity regardless of scale, in several different fractal geometries.

3) Emergence. When different elements interact, they often give rise to phenomena with different properties than one could predict from understanding the part themselves without understanding the interactions as well. All laws of the universe evolved from separate entities interacting to give rise to those laws. Among these are strange attractors, whose paradoxical push-pull give rise to greater complexity. Cells are emergent processes from interacting biomolecules. Economies are emergent processes from interacting humans.

4) Nested Hierarchies. Everything in the universe evolved into its level of complexity from lower levels of complexity. Biological processes evolved from molecular processes, which evolved from quantum physical processes (atoms), and atoms evolved from quantum strings. New levels of complexity arise naturally from lower levels of complexity as the entities of that lower level interact as a complex, dynamic system.

The idea of nested hierarchies comes in several flavors:

1) The physical model exemplified by J.T. Fraser's umwelt theory of time. With his model, the timeless level of pure chaos evolved into the probablistic time of quantum physics, which evolved into the deterministic time of chemistry (Newtonian physics), which evolved into the weakly forward direction of biotemporality (biological time), which evolved into the strongly forward direction of nootemporality (human time). Each level contains more and more time. And each new level becomes increasingly complex, continaing ever-more fractal patterns, in nature.

2) The human cognitive and social model of psychological and social networks interacting to give rise to ever-greater complexity through emergence developed Clare Graves, as developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. With the Gravesean model, the pure survialism of animal life evolved into the weak communitarian structures of tribalism, which evolved into the weak individualism of Achilles-type heroism/belief in power gods, which evolved into the stronger communitarianism of authoritarian-religious systems (like Medieval Christianity of modern-day Islam), which evolved into the stronger individualism of the capitalist/scientific social system (the Modern Era in Europe and America), which evolved into the stronger communitarianism of secular egalitarianism (Marxism/Communism, environmentalism, postmodernism), which evolved into integralism, which recognizes the value of each of the lower levels (lower in the sense of being less complex, as each level is more complex than the lower levels), which evolved into holism, which attempts to more smoothly unify all the lower levels. The last two levels recognize the value of complex, fluid, nested hierarchies, as opposed to the egalitarian level, which rejects all hierarchies, and the authoritarian level, which tries to impose rigid hierarchies on everyone.

To have an even more integrationist way of thinking, we cannot forget these four things: I-we-it-its : individualism-communitarianism-traditional science-systems science. And these must be fully integrated into the two forms of nested hierarchy mentioned above (as those two ideas must themselves be integrated).

This implies a more Scottish Enlightenment understanding of man as socially embedded individuals rather than the Continental European Enlightenment understanding of man as rational, atomized individuals.

As F. A. Hayek observed in his essay "Individualism: True and False," the Enlightenment gave us two kinds of ratinoality and of individualism. One is based on the rational philosophy of René Descartes. This branch of individualism was further developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant, Georg W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and the existentialists, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. I will call this Cartesian Individualism (the digital-exclusive view). The other is in the Scottish tradition of David Hume, Bernard Mandeville, Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and John Locke, and further developed by Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton (the digital-analog agonal view). Cartesian Individualism sees man as fully rational; the Scottish tradition does not see man as fully rational, but also, perhaps primarily, influenced by his drives, wants and needs of the moment. Man's rationality, in this view, is bounded. These different views give rise to different forms of individualism. Perhaps the best way to show the differences would be to put the two traditions side by side in a table showing the difference between the two, and the consequences of each of these, traditions:


The individual is found within the social, and each affects the other

Man is not always rational, or even capable of always being rational – man also has impulses and instincts

Since man's rationality is bounded, and his knowledge necessarily always limited, he cannot design or plan something like a society or economy.

The individual participates in the social (cooperates) through pursuing his own interests.

It is not necessary to find good men to run the society, meaning anyone can participate.

It is not necessary for us to become better than we already are, making it easy to enter the game to participate

Freedom is granted to all

No one group ever always wins, which keeps people playing

Reason is seen as process in which any person’s contribution is tested and corrected by others.

Inherently unequal people are treated equally

Inherent inequality allows diversity

Hierarchical – intermediates encouraged


All of this results in the emergence of spontaneous orders/invisible hand phenomena.


Radical individualism, meaning society does not emerge naturally, but is imposed from outside.

Man is rational and has no instincts and can always control his impulses

Since man is rational, he can create through planning the ideal society or economy

Individual vs. the social – i.e., selfishness vs. cooperation – therefore need coercion

Social processes can be made to serve human ends only if they are subjected to the control of individual human reason.

Only the best can or should run society and make economic decisions – few can play

Men need to be improved (presumably made more rational) before a good economy or society can be created – hard to play

Freedom granted only to the good and wise

The "good and wise," "rational" rulers always win – no reason to play the game.

Reason found in the individual, especially in certain "good and wise" individuals.

People are made equal in actuality – thus, have to arbitrarily assign tasks

Only State and Individual, thus flattening society – intermediates suppressed

All of this suggests that all social order is created by someone and imposed on all the rest of society and that people will not coordinate their activities unless there is someone to actively, consciously guide that coordination.

The Scottish form of individualism provides us with a broader, more inclusive set of game rules. Anyone can play the social and economic games – making these systems more complex by containing more parts acting in coordination and cooperation. Man does not have to be "improved" for systems set up using Scottish principles to work, but man must be improved for systems set up using Cartesian principles. In the Cartesian view, there is one rationality; but in the Scottish view, there are many, which can often come into conflict.

As one can see, there are implications for which view of man you embrace. In a real sense, the Cartesian view is reductionist, while the Scottish view is complex and emergentist. The implication for understanding phenomena and processes is that one can only go so far with reductionism. One has to consider naturally-occuring interactions as well. The implications of each for both understanding society, and in making normative decisions regarding society, are profound.

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