Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Problem of Complexity: General Complexity

In the third and fourth chapters of her dissertation, Preiser considers the implications of the limits of knowledge of complex systems for any critique of those systems. She situates her understanding within two main philosophical traditions: first, Kant's critical project and then Derrida's deconstruction and différance.

Preiser asserts that Kant's understanding of critique as the continuous self-critique of the limits and possibilities of reason itself co-insides (a nice neologism by Preiser) with her complexity approach. Her close reading of Kant reveals critique to be a judiciary process with a double movement that both cuts, or analyzes, and brings together, or decides, simultaneously. She then associates this double movement in Kant's understanding of critique with Derrida's notion of différance and his metaphors of stricture and hymen to redefine critique as dynamic rather than a static linear judicial process. She finally associates stricture with force field and hymen with constellation to create metaphors by which to express the liminality of critique.

Critique as a dynamic process of constant cutting and joining of seemingly opposing paradigms provides Preiser with an approach to the legitimization problem in poststructural critique, as it unsettles the distinctions assumed by each paradigm, establishing the limits of each and resisting both the reduction and reconciliation of one to the other. Thus, complex critique is grounded in neither paradigm, belonging to neither wholly yet partaking in both at once and finding its legitimacy in exposing the limits within each paradigm. By maintaining its position within a force field of opposing and attracting entities and forces, complex critique can work in the space between rupture and reconciliation, maintaining the gap for the enlightenment to come. In this space, Preiser insists, critique becomes the method, tool, and force that compels us toward a reform of reason and thought, which she intends to explore in her fourth chapter.

In her fourth chapter, Preiser explores the concept of general as opposed to restricted complexity after the fashion of Derrida and Morin, as general complexity allows one to both accept and reject in a double movement the strategies and positions of Newtonian/Cartesian reductionism. Her concept of general complexity follows from Derrida's concept of general as opposed to restricted economy — economy being that dynamic, complex system that enables and structures the movement, circulation, and exchange of thought (or anything else, I suppose) within a given system.

Preiser begins her exploration of general complexity through a discussion of Derrida's deconstruction of restricted economy, with its underlying rationale of a structured, universal, and closed system of production and exchange that promises absolute knowledge and formal mastery of everything in the system. This economy configures the interactions of components and other systems as always meaningful and claims that multiplicity and indeterminacy are always accounted for, creating a closed system guided by linear causality, unaffected by external influences of un-knowable, incalculable components not already taken up in their processes of production and consumption of knowledge, widgets, or whatever. Restricted economy assumes a strict distinction between inside and outside its system and always looks for ways to incorporate anything that can undermine its economizing strategies. Restricted economy sees the world as ultimately a knowable and manageable system and believes that appropriate work or thought within that system will be rewarded with appropriate wages, or returns, by that system. Preiser says that it is this restricted economy of thought that spurs both Derrida's deconstruction of metaphysics to expose the gaps in Kant's closed system as well as Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of the all-encompassing economic apparatus.

Meaning Is in the Connections & Not in the Thing

Preiser cautions in her discussion that a general economy is not a contradiction or rejection of a restricted economy but a recognition of the limits of the restricted paradigm. General complexity is not a call to holism or the chaos of relativism; rather, it is a middle way between the restricted (simple or complicated) and the chaotic — in other words, the complex. Finally, Preiser defines general economy in terms of Derrida's concept of différance. Just as the meaning of a sign is not constituted simply by qualities inherent in the sign itself but by the network of relations between the sign and all other signs in a particular text in both a particular place and time and in all other places and times, then the meaning of an economy is not constituted simply by entities and processes inside the economy but by the network of relations between that restricted economy and all other economies (the general economy) in all other places and times. Thus, no sign and no economy has some absolute, present meaning and identity within itself. Its meaning and identity is to be worked out and expressed within the complexus of traces and relationships between it and everything else. Its meaning and identity are neither simple nor chaotic, but complex: a result of the irreconcilable tensions within itself and between itself and its surround.

Preiser equates Derrida's différance with Morin's complex thought and its concept of dialogic, which maintains the tension between antagonistic systems, accepting the middle third without attempt to reconcile either rupture or reconciliation of systems in a dialectic. Working and thinking within this gap allows new possibilities of critique that are neither absolute nor eternal but open to excess, innovation, and creativity.

I am not proficient enough in philosophy to evaluate Preiser's readings of Kant, Derrida, and others in between, but her argument makes sense to me, and I think I can follow it well enough. Her reading of both Kant and Derrida clarified some confusions I had with both of those fellows, so I'm happy that I took time to read Preiser carefully. At any rate, I feel positioned to read her conclusion about the practical applications of complex thought. I suspect that I will learn something that will help with my exploration of the different ways we Americans understand Donald Trump. We'll see.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Problem of Complexity: Knowing Complexity

In the second chapter of her dissertation, Preiser tackles the difficulties of knowing complex systems. She starts with four quotes from four modern philosophers of science who all capture the issue nicely, but Bruno Latour is the most succinct: "We have taken science for realist painting, imagining that it made an exact copy of the world" (Pandora's Hope 78). Latour's implication, of course, is that science is not an exact copy of the world. What his statement overlooks is that realist painting isn't an exact copy either.

The very term copy implies not exact, not the same, but something that affords some utility: more portable and handy and reproducible. We make copies because the original is too unwieldy — too complex — to deal with handily. The models of the world — the knowledge — that we carry around in our heads, books, and computers to use for our various purposes are all inexact copies that greatly reduce the complexity of reality to make the models easy to use. A realist landscape will hang on our walls — the landscape itself will not. We reduce the landscape to a two by four foot stretch of canvas in order to make it fit and to make it easy to transport when we move or sell it, but that reduction always leaves things out that are quite likely important to the actual landscape itself. For instance, the painting may not capture the increasingly dry weather conditions that make the forest susceptible to fire and blight. The painter can overlook those details to satisfy his own purposes, the forest cannot.

Likewise, a scientist's model of the forest will omit some details and dynamics to make the forest intelligible — to paint an intelligent picture — and usually for some purpose — perhaps to convince Congress to act on global warming, but the reductions in her model always leave out details that may very well prove to be critical later on. Only the forest is exactly itself. Copies are not. As George Box has told us so very well: "All models are wrong, but some are useful." If complete correspondence between reality and your model (poem, painting, or formula) is your objective, sorry. Everything we know is wrong, but some of it is useful.

Of course, I overstate my case. Day to day, we find it useful to say that we know things, and we can usually rely on this knowledge in our proximate zones of influence, but we must always be aware that our knowledge like our influence extends only so far. We can always reach a limit where our knowledge breaks down and becomes error. I reach that limit every time I write. That's where all the insight waits.

I find it rather humorous that in its reaction against reductionist thinking, complexity reveals that knowledge always reduces reality. Yet, in a strange way and quite unexpectedly, this tension between a desire for holism and the necessity of reductionism is the zone of best complexity thinking. Complexity must operate in that hot, volatile zone between the certainty that our knowledge models reveal something reliable and testable about reality while at the same time leaving out something that is important about reality. In other words, we can be confident that we know something wrong. We can have reasonable hopes that it may be useful to us in certain situations, and we can be certain that it will prove incorrect in other situations. Strangely enough, we are both enabled by what we know and limited by what we know, equally. This is the hot zone within which human knowledge must work.

So what does Preiser say about the problem of knowledge?

Preiser addresses two core problems with modern knowledge:

  1. the failure of Newtonian/Cartesian reductionism to cope with the complex issues raised by the discovery of the quantum particle, evolution, and relativity, and
  2. the restructuring of knowledge itself in the face of these complex issues.

Preiser notes that our current dominant scientific epistemology follows from classical Cartesian/Newtonian, which in short, asserts that the descriptions of reality produced through isolation, observation, and the establishment of regularities describes reality as it is. Preiser claims that this reductionist epistemology works well enough for mechanical, closed systems, but is inadequate for dealing with complex systems with emergent properties, which leads to problems for our knowledge generating practices. She intends to correct this issue with a post-reductionist epistemology that incorporates a more holistic complexity view while coping with the necessary reductionism inherent in any epistemology.

She then gives an overview of Cartesian/Newtonian reductionism, which posits five key features of Newtonian natural systems: they are deterministic, closed, reversible, atomistic, and universal. This model became the basis of the modern scientific method and epistemology, and it was so successful that its assumptions of unchangeable, timeless properties and laws that govern the universe soon spread throughout Western thought. This view has a number of implications. First, natural systems can be known by analyzing and isolating their parts into elementary matter and interactions that follow universal and uniform laws. Science, and by extension true knowledge, is thus the process of classification, measurement, and rational organization. Newtonian reductionism was expressed in the universal languages of mathematics and logic, which precisely represented the real world as it is. 

But, Preiser cautions, the fault lines within the Newtonian scientific model finally cracked with the discovery of the quantum particle, that Gordian knot of interactions and exchanges rather than a single, unified thing. The Newtonian model could not formalize the behavior and fundamental nature of quantum particles. Moreover, relativity and evolution revealed that the concepts of space and time, absolutes in Newton's model, must be changed to account for new experience and insights. These ruptures in the Newtonian model allowed complexity theory to emerge as a new view of reality.

Many complexity theorists have recognized what Preiser calls the first problem of knowledge: that a gap has emerged between our knowledge of the world and the world itself because of the empirical difficulties of describing the physical and phenomenal characteristics of complex phenomena. The logic of classical science cannot keep up with the generative, flexible, and pluralist nature of knowledge needed to describe complex systems. Complex phenomena challenge the five Newtonian postulates mentioned above: they are non-linear rather than linearly deterministic, open rather than closed, contingent in time rather than reversible, neither compressible nor universal, but always unfolding in a local, complex ecosystem. Preiser insists that we need new methods and vocabularies to usefully describe complexity.

Preiser insists that developing these new conceptual frameworks for knowledge requires recognizing four different kinds of reductionism inherent in any knowledge system:

  1. Ontological reductionism claims that all physical and non-physical phenomena can be explained in terms of matter, particles in motion.
  2. Epistemological reductionism claims knowledge in one discipline can be reduced to another discipline, ultimately to physics.
  3. Methodological reductionism claims that all systems are best investigated at the lowest, simplest possible level.
  4. Causal reductionism claims that all emergent properties of a system can be explained by their causal relations to the basic elements of the system, thus denying any downward causation in emergent phenomena.

Reductionism creates a kind of blindness when knowledge seekers ignore the complex systems at hand to investigate the simpler elements and then to explain the complex system only in terms of the simpler elements or systems. This reductionism ignores its own blind spots in order to claim universal truth. Many with a more holistic sense of reality have argued against this reductionism, but holism itself cannot escape reductionism. Indeed, Preiser argues that it is impossible to avoid the four kinds of reductionism, which are all implicated with one another, and that most complexity theorists fall into one of two traps: those who see no distinction between the system and its environment in some holistic approach and those who insist that all complexity can indeed be measured and simulated by computational models to reveal universal laws.

Following Cilliers, Preiser insists that a rigorous understanding of complexity must be aware that any description of complexity involves some reduction of reality. This understanding leads to a performative tension that destabilizes the dichotomy between either holism or reductionism. It's always both. Thus, any engagement with complex systems is always a dynamic interaction among the nature of phenomena (ontology), our knowledge of it (epistemology), and our methods for studying it (methodology) in a dialectical (Cilliers) or a dialogical (Morin) process that Preiser calls general complexity, after Morin.

General complexity is at once coherent and open with the result that our understanding is never absolute but always contingent and skeptical of itself, allowing the researcher to reflect critically on her knowledge generating practices. She is no longer certain that her models fit reality like its mirror image as she shifts her focus from the properties of entities in classical science to the relations among entities and the echoing relations among relations in complexity science, which of necessity leads her to an entirely new epistemology as new knowledge requires new ways of modelling reality, new ways of framing reality to gather knowledge from it through observation and interpretation. But, as Preiser warns repeatedly, no model can capture the full complexity of any complex system as such systems are radically contextual and radically open. In some ways, a system's degree of complexity can be measured by the degree of difficulty in modelling the system. Any modelling system (a particular science or novel, I think) must decide what observables of a given real system to include and which to exclude in order to function as a model and to generate knowledge about that system. Knowledge, then, always limits a contextual and open system in order to understand it and use it, but it never knows when the parts of the system excluded by our models — which in the real system are still interacting non-linearly with the parts included in our models — will become relevant. Given that we cannot avoid the reductionism of any model, of any knowledge, then we must embrace up front and constantly the limitations of our models. An irreducible gap exists between complex reality and our knowledge of that reality; thus, to create knowledge, we must use reductionist strategies to be able to say anything meaningful about complex systems at all, but our models too seldom acknowledge what's left out, and thus they all have blind spots. This is the nature of knowledge as revealed by complexity: that knowledge is limited, but as Preiser argues, this limitation is not a disaster but a condition for knowledge. Limits enable knowledge. As Dutch philosopher Cornelis Anthonie van Peursen explains, we need a horizon that limits our field of vision for the act of seeing to take place. This horizon is formed by the interaction of the observer and the environment, and is situated in both at once. It is both inside (subjective) and outside (objective) the observer.

Having explored the first problem of knowledge, or the epistemological rupture that occurs when moving from the reductionist Newtonian paradigm to the complexity paradigm, Preiser frames the second problem of knowledge, arguing that knowledge generating practices and the notion of knowledge itself changes in the face of complexity.

Preiser complains that most current complexity science is still reductionist: concerning itself with measurement and uncovering regular laws — an approach that, according to Morin, recognizes complexity by decomplexifying it. The heart of the error of decomplexifying lies in the assertion that what is left out of the measurements and calculations are not of importance, but as Cilliers insists, they are of utmost importance as they are still a vital, perturbing part of the real system being measure and calculated in the model, and in complex systems, even small parts can have large effects (the butterfly effect of chaos theory). Preiser proposes Morin's concept of general complexity that replaces the concept of disjunction between emergent features of a system and its underlying structures with the concept of distinction between emergent and underlying structures that recognizes both their independence and dependence in the system. This is a post-reductionism that is self-aware of the blind spots of its own practices and disarms the animosities of opposing paradigms without uniting them into a grand monist truth. Post-reductionist denies neither reductionism nor holism, but holds them in dialectical tension and assumes that the most useful knowledge lies in the interplay of both. This new approach to generating knowledge requires a new language and vocabulary.

Preiser claims that complex knowledge is hybrid and difficult: because complex knowledge acknowledges dynamic relationships as well as entities, it is not static or fixed, but dynamical and provisional, not limited to a stable entity, a fact, but branching out to other knowledge regimes so that there is always a surplus of signification in which meaning is open, infinitely disseminated, and ultimately uncontainable (rhizomatic, in Deleuzional terms). The process of generating, storing, and using knowledge becomes a dynamic complex system itself. While, complex knowledge rejects both the absolute totality of knowledge and the possibility of representing something fully, it does not reject knowledge, truth, and representation in some anything-goes relativism. Rather, it challenges us to know and engage the limits of our knowledge, and to re-invent if necessary. In short, complex knowledge is the ghost of reality, and haunts those liminal spaces where knowing meets non-knowing.

So does Preiser clarify (reduce to a working model) this complex knowledge? I hope so. That's why I'll read the rest of her dissertation. But in this chapter she reinforces for me issues in writing fiction that almost all fiction writers and readers struggle with: where to put the frame of beginning and ending? what to put in the middle and what to leave out? and to understand the implications of all those forces that are perturbing the narrative but could find no space or time for expression. No one can tell the whole story, so how do you tell an engaging story?

I think the best writers have always understood intuitively the complexity of the world. Of course, formula fiction is a closed little system with neat actors interacting in highly regular and predictable ways (stock characters with fixed plots), but the best fiction is open to the world, mapping new terrains to see what happens, following ghosts in that liminal space between knowing and unknowing. That's the good stuff.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Self-Organization

The fifth and last of Preiser's characteristics of complexity is self-organization, which I previously summarized as the ability of complex systems to modify and reproduce themselves in order to cope with their environments. In other words, they are able to learn and to adjust to ensure their survival. At last, I thought, I had come to a characteristic that seems to divide living, animate systems from inanimate systems.

I can learn about my environment and modify my behavior and beliefs to cope. I can reproduce to continue something of myself. I don't think my house can do these things.

But I may be misunderstanding both my abilities to self-organize and the abilities of my house.

I, of course, am able to exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with my environment in complex loops that restructure me internally and my environment externally. In other words, my environment perturbs me, and I perturb my environment, and we can both modify ourselves to maintain our own integrity and to better fit with the other. These perturbations are reciprocal but not commensurate. Because of its immense size, the environment perturbs me much more than I perturb it. It's a bit like comparing the gravitational pull I exert on the Earth to the pull the Earth exerts on me. The tail does not wag the dog, though neither are passive.As an aside observation, however, note that if I combine with 7 billion other humans to create a modern consumer society, then that society can begin to wag the Earth, and this helps me understand our current ecological crisis. I must keep in mind that the environment, the Earth, will respond to the perturbations of seven billion ticks to maintain its own integrity as a functioning complex system. And I think the Earth is still the more powerful partner here. If it starts scratching its back because we are making it itch, then we humans may not benefit.

But this is not a post about ecology as such, but about self-organization. I perturb and am perturbed in return, but I notice that I have looked in only one direction: outward. What about inward? As it turns out, the environment inside me is just as big and as complex as the environment outside me. In other words, the distance from me to infinitesimal strings is about the same as the distance from me to the infinite stars. You can find some wonderful interactive animations that help visualize this seeming paradox here and here, but my point is that likely there is as much perturbation coming from inside me as from outside me, and I emerge as Keith Hamon in the whirlpool at a particular intersection of these forces. I do influence those flows of forces, but they influence me so much more. They create me. For a time, the forces coming from the stars and the strings weave a pattern that is me. And everything else, of course. I mean, it isn't all about me -- though in a way it is -- just as it is all about you. And your dog. And your iPad. And your planet. We are each rather nicely positioned at the center of the Universe, and the whole freaking thing works together to create each and every one of us.

These fanciful flights quickly land me in a mystical realm of mystery and awe which resonates well with me, but it isn't what I want to discuss in this post. I'm intellectually aware of these vast scales within and without me, but of course, day-to-day I'm aware mostly of the proximate scales just within and just without me: does my stomach hurt? is my family excited about Christmas? These scales form my day-to-day reality, and while I'm always aware that my feet stay on the ground because of the gravitational pull of the Earth, I often forget that I can go crazy because of the pull of the Moon, only one scale removed farther out. Or while I'm aware that my muscles one scale inward ache after exercising, I'm blissfully unaware when one cell in my lungs -- just one scale farther in -- mutates, becoming cancerous in reaction to the perturbations of working with asbestos fifty years ago (I don't know that this has happened, but it could -- I do know about the Moon).

In short, I can learn and self-organize. I can somewhat sense the forces moving around and through me, and I am somewhat resourceful enough to adjust myself to find a better fit with those forces: deflecting some, modifying others, washing in a few. I've been doing this since my embryonic phase in the womb when my cells started unpacking themselves using the energy, matter, information, and organization supplied by DNA and the womb. Can my house learn and adjust itself?

I suspect that most of us think of learning as an intellectual task, and much of formal learning is, but complexity tells me that learning is any ability to sense and to respond at any scale to the forces flowing within and without us. I'm thinking now that most learning is not intellectual or conscious at all. I coached soccer for years, and I became aware that most of my players who became adept at some skill had no conscious idea of how they were able to capture a ball out of the air while simultaneously turning to move toward the opponent's goal. They just did it, or didn't. Those who did didn't know why they could do it anymore than those who didn't knew why they couldn't. My attempts at explanation were mostly vapid and useless, because I didn't know either. Somehow, that one's body could learn that trick, and the other body could not.

I say body to distinguish it from intellectual mind. Our feet learn quite aside from our conscious control. With no immediately conscious help from my mind, my immune system learns about new invaders and then fights epic wars throughout the galaxy within me. Star Wars is not just in my mind, but literally in my body, and thus far, the good guys are winning, though there have been some close skirmishes.

So if learning is not an exclusive privilege of human intellect -- however much I may value it -- then how far does learning extend through the Universe. My immune cells, obviously, can learn. Dogs and trees learn. I recall how the dwarfish oak trees on the south Texas coastline bend inward from the prevailing Gulf winds. This is not an innate growth pattern of oak trees; rather, these trees have learned to cope with their environment, using what range of responses they have available. Slime mold and viruses can learn. If viruses can learn, are we very far removed from carbon and oxygen learning?

I tend to think of hydrogen coupling with oxygen as a rather mechanical process, but perhaps all coupling from atoms to humans to galaxies are to some degree complex behaviors that lead to new forms. They do, of course. The coupling of hydrogen and oxygen leads to water. My own coupling with a woman led to a life-long relationship and to two sons. My coupling with other Georgians this past November led to a victory for Joe Biden and the overturn of the Trump Administration. The coupling of the stars led to the Milky Way and Earth. The Ancients may have been right: it's all coupling, all the way in, all the way out. And while there are mechanics to the coupling in its myriad forms, it is never merely mechanical. Coupling can not be reduced simply to its parts and mechanics. It is always purposeful and meaningful.

Well, I seem to have landed myself into some kind of Gaia theory. I didn't expect that, and it's clear that I have much thinking to do before I sort this out in my head, but I'm not likely to do it in this post.

Let me summarize what I mean by self-organization in complex systems. First, I'm convinced that to some degree, all entities are complex: from rocks and water to human brains and galaxies. Then, all these systems, including my house, can sense their internal and external environments and can respond -- however slowly and in however limited or expansive a range -- to those perturbations. They can all self-organize.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Emergence & Complex Causality

Emergence is the fourth of five characteristics of complexity that Preiser says are commonly mentioned in the literature. In a previous post, I summarized what I understood of Preiser's points about emergence and complex causality this way:

Complex systems manifest emergent properties that can be understood only in terms of the organizational structure of the system and not in the properties of the components. Emergent phenomena depend on and yet are independent of constituent parts and display certain properties:
  1. radical novelty: emergent phenomena are neither predictable nor deducible from micro level components, which are necessary but insufficient for understanding emergent phenomena. 
  2. coherence: emergent phenomena are integrated wholes likely to maintain some identity over time.
  3. macro level: emergent phenomena occur at a macro level compared to their micro level components.
  4. dynamical: emergent phenomena are not a priori wholes but gradually appear as a complex system dynamically develops over time.
  5. ostensive: emergent phenomena show themselves and are ostensively recognized in terms of their purpose and meaningful behaviour.
Complex systems operate through both upward and downward causation, such that emergent properties are the result of the organization and interactions of constituent parts at the micro-level but also in turn cause changes in the constituent parts.

I find this explanation of emergence and causation in need of some unpacking. I like to use proximate examples, so first, I think I should point to this post I'm writing as an ostensive example of an emergent property of the complex system Keith Hamon. My blogging, of course, depends on the various parts of my body -- heart, lungs, musculoskeletal system, brain, and more -- however, a thorough study of each of those parts could not prepare you for such an emergent characteristic as blogging. Nothing in the behaviors and interactions of my organs says, "This guy writes a blog."

Despite its dependence on the interactions of all my various parts, blog writing itself as a recognizable characteristic of Keith Hamon emerges at a scale above the parts that constitute me. The efficient working and interaction of those parts are, of course, necessary to explain my blogging, but they are not sufficient. Blogging emerges and works at a social scale above the scale of my individual organs, and blogging is recognizable and makes sense only at that scale. If we were to look at the scale of my fingers -- carefully and exhaustively mapping the interactions of tissue, bone, and blood -- we would find nothing labeled blogging or that points to blogging. Only when we examine all the parts working together do we start to see some patterns that we can begin to label blogging. Really, we can hardly label my finger twitching as blogging until we look at the even higher social scale that encloses me and the blogosphere.

So blogging is a radically novel emergent characteristic of mine that is neither predictable nor deducible from meticulous study of my constituent parts. If you want to understand why and how I blog, you must, of course, understand how my parts work together, but you must also understand human language and communication, the Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular, computer technology, and more.

And you must be able to see that all of these micro and macro parts cohere over time, that they persist within a recognizable organizational structure to perform consistent functions. The pattern of blogging must cohere and persist long enough to be informed by energy and information, to digest that energy and information, and to feedback energy and information into the environment. In other words, the system must cohere long enough to perturb and to be perturbed. Blogging has been around since 1994, and I have been blogging in some form or other since 1996 -- first as a personal journal and then in 2009 as a professional space to support my teaching and study in the first MOOCs I was taking. Blogging has connected millions of people into coherent and meaningful groups. It has connected me to students and MOOC colleagues from around the world.

And this leads me to the next point about emergent phenomena: they are dynamical, emerging gradually as they search for and eventually find a space for themselves in the current ecology. In 1994, Justin Hall did not call his review of various Internet sites on Links.net a blog. That term and identity came later. My first blog was basically a journal of family events. This blog Learning Complexity grew out of an earlier blog Communications and Society named for a class I was teaching in the Interdisciplinary Studies department at Georgia College and State University. Each of these emergent systems could have been stillborn, and indeed, I have started other blogs that went nowhere, read by no one. Thus, a complex system must be robust enough to force its way into an ecosystem and resilient enough to persist.

Justin Hall's first blog could have died, but the idea and technology of blogging was robust and resilient enough to cohere and persist, which brings us to Preiser's last characteristics of emergence: they are purposeful and meaningful. Blogging is purposeful and meaningful to millions of humans, the technology is robust enough to sustain the flows of energy and information, and so blogging has persisted. All emergent phenomena exist in this tense and tenuous space. We can certainly imagine that blogging might not have made it, for we have examples of many Internet ideas that did not. (Remember AltaVista and Yahoo, the early, too rigid search engines?) To persist, an emergent characteristic of any complex system must express some meaningful purpose, usually with some elegance.

Blogging, then, is a radically novel, coherent, macro-level, dynamical, and meaningful characteristic of the complex system Keith Hamon that cannot be understood or explained by my body parts. Blogging is emergent, and to borrow an old adage: I am greater than the sum of my body parts.

But as Preiser notes, borrowing from Edgar Morin, the whole is also less than the sum of its parts, and this gets us into the issue of complex causation. Upon the emergence of my body as a functioning system, I as a whole begin to exert forces on the various parts of my body, causing changes within the parts and shaping how they function -- which, of course, changes how the parts affect my body and back around again. Blogging, for instance, exerts forces on my heart, lungs, musculoskeletal system, brain, and more, which in turn, exerts forces on and literally shapes my body and my blogging. I have a different mind because of my blogging. I likely have a different heart. I know my hands are different.

The same sort of causation happens between the body scale and the social scale. My blogging has some modest effects on a small slice of society, and in turn, society has large effects on my blogging and even on my various body parts. I can become depressed, overweight, and sluggish from blogging about this pandemic and the Trump administration or I can become excited and energetic at the emergence of a vaccine and the promise of a Biden administration, and these changes in my body parts can affect my blogging and my interactions within society and back around again. Complex causation, then, is circular and continuous, non-linear. A + B = C is replaced by A1 + B1 > C1 > A2 + B2 > C2 and round and round.

So yes, my organs make up me, but I in turn make up my organs, just as I help make up my society, which in turn makes up (in multiple senses) me. Filtered through me, society also makes up my organs, as the last four years of the Trump administration have churned my stomach, and I suppose my organs filtered through me help make up society. Forces move across scales to perturb in unpredictable ways the complex systems functioning at different scales, and those systems in turn feed forward and feedback forces that perturb complex systems working at other scales.

Causation, then, is complex. What causes what? Does my stomach hurt just because of some silly antic by Trump? Or must I factor in my religious upbringing, my education, my diet, my professional life, Facebook, and more? Odds are that I will never be able to say just what makes my tummy ache. Even with something as apparently simple as a virus, we can quickly see that a pandemic is not simply caused by a mutated virus. That virus must express itself in various ecosystems to survive and thrive. Of course, it needs a physical system, but it also must find its way through various social, political, economic, scientific, and religious systems and different body types if it is to persist. And if humans are to manage the virus, then they must manage all of those systems -- a task beyond the abilities of the current U. S. administration and population.

Wow. I have much to learn yet and way too little time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Humans, Houses, and Heterogeneity

The third consistent and persistent characteristic of complexity that Preiser finds in the literature is non-homogeneity, or as I prefer to say it, heterogeneity. I did not notice if she explains why she prefers the negative expression rather than the positive, but I prefer the positive, probably because of my reading of Deleuze and Guattari's characteristics of rhizomatic structures which have informed my thinking for years now and which resonate well in Preiser's writing.

In an earlier post, I summarized Preiser's non-homogeneity this way:

Complex systems are comprised of a number of heterogeneous components with multiple, dynamic pathways among them that create rich and diverse interactions which become too complex to calculate. The elements and interrelationships change over time and scale.

Like Deleuze and Guattari, Preiser joins the concepts of multiplicity and heterogeneity to say that complex systems are made up of a number of distinguishable entities that interact with each other in countless ways to form a functioning entity that itself helps make up an enclosing, functioning entity. So to understand Keith Hamon through the lens of complexity, I must think of myself as comprised of a number of different organs that interconnect with each other along multiple, dynamic pathways that create rich, diverse interactions that are too complex to fully calculate. Moreover, I must think of different scales, so that I see each of my organs -- my lungs, for instance -- as a complex system itself comprised of tissues and cells, which are themselves complex entities comprised of multiple, heterogeneous molecules, which are themselves ... well, you know the drill by now. And I must be able to scale up to see that I, Keith Hamon, am one of the multiple, heterogeneous entities that comprise larger complex systems: my university or my family, for instance. And all of these different entities at the different scales are all interconnected by countless pathways to manage various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization to all the other entities at all scales. For example, consider an image of just one complex system, the Internet:

A Map of the Internet in 2017

Of course proximity has its privilege so that entities closer to each other typically exert more influence on each other, but all entities exert some influence on all others, and this complex weave of forces becomes impossible to map. Note that the map of the Internet above does not include the people who connect to all those wires and routers. It doesn't map the software or the content. As complex as it already is, that map is woefully inadequate to explain the Internet. We simply can't reliably trace a single cause to a single effect. This uncertainty helps me understand Covid-19, for instance. We know that the disease starts with a particular virus, but the same virus has such a wide range of interactions with different human and animal hosts. Many don't notice this virus any more than the other viruses inhabiting their bodies. Some become mildly or violently ill. A few die. The explanation for any of these different states depends on more than simply tracking the path of the virus through a specific body.

So what causes someone's death? The virus, of course, is a necessary component of a Covid-19 death, but it is not sufficient to explain that death. A body is a complex system, and its interaction with any external agent such as a virus can be explained only by considering all the various heterogeneous elements and the interconnections among them. It's becoming obvious to me that understanding why one person dies from Covid and another does not demands knowing not only the disposition and interactions of all the person's internal systems (organs, tissues, cells, and the like), but also their external social, economic, political, and religious systems. All of these systems interact to render some people vulnerable and some not, and we are only dimly becoming aware of this complex interaction. We may never understand it fully -- at least, not before the virus moves on to be replaced by another pathogen with a different complex of interactions. And because it's such a complex matrix of interactions from so many different systems, we may never be able to bring sufficient forces in the form of medical and social therapies to bear on everyone's illness. We are not that resourceful or wise.

But I haven't really dealt with heterogeneity. Why should entities in a complex system be different from each other? The short answer is to enhance the resilience and responsiveness of the system to its environment. Because my body has an array of organs and tissues that perform a range of functions, I can better "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." (Sorry for that unfortunate comparison. "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.") For instance, compare my body to that of slime mold, a relatively simple creature that has very few ways to perceive and to respond to its environment. It can sense its world only in a very narrow range, and it can process and respond to those sensations in even more limited fashion. More complex creatures, including myself, can sense more of the world, process those sensations in more ways, and respond in more ways. This variety makes my complex system more resilient, more likely to survive and thrive.

Of course, my complexity is only relative to the simplicity of the slime mold. Compared to a rock, the slime mold is a quite complex creature. And as I've already noted in a previous post, the simplicity of a rock may be a trick of different time scales. Because rocks perceive, process, and respond to their environment over millenia rather than minutes as I do, then they seem dumb to me. For all I know, rocks might be the geniuses of Earth, and I regret that I will not likely be here when they reveal their plan.

My house has its own complexity: a range of different rooms serving different functions. It has heating and electrical systems that perceive, process, and respond to the environment in different ways to preserve its own integrity and to please its microbiome: me. Moreover, my house is in a neighborhood of heterogeneous homes. My house does not look like my neighbors' houses, as all the houses here were built by different people of different economic status at different times in whatever style and with whatever materials were popular with the owners at the time. Tastes changed and so did the houses.

The variety of houses gives my neighborhood an organic character that contrasts remarkably with the mechanical, cookie-cutter character of the newer subdivisions where all the houses and yards have a homogeneous look and feel. That is an aesthetic judgement on my part, but it explains why I prefer a garden of many plants and flowers rather than a garden of one flower, however beautiful the flower. If a blight attacks my garden of many flowers, then some will survive. If a blight attacks a garden of one flower, the garden dies. Complexity is not only more resilient, but to my eye, it is more beautiful. I celebrate complexity and appreciate its proximity to chaos. That's where all the excitement is.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Relational Bodies and Houses

Preiser says that complex systems must be understood as a nexus of nonlinear, dynamic relationships. In a previous post, I explained this second of Preiser's five characteristics of complexity this way:  

Complex systems are constituted relationally both inside and out, and the relations between internal components and the environment are dynamic, manifold, and nonlinear, which means that output is not directly proportional to input. The behavior of interactions is to some degree unpredictable and uncertain and functions in a state of asymmetrical non-equilibrium. The survival of complex systems depends on this nonlinear relationality.

So what does this mean for thinking about myself or my home?

It means first that the typical definitions of myself are limited -- not necessarily wrong, but not exhaustive, either. The usual way of knowing a thing such as myself is to look for defining characteristics -- features that I have that distinguish me from you, for instance, or from them. We have numerous labels for those characteristics such as weight, height, race, voting preferences, gender, occupation, family, location, age, and so on. We can assign values to each of those labels: pounds or kilograms (the particular scale employed matters little here), inches, colors, political parties, years, and various types. If we aggregate those characteristics, then we identify and define Keith Hamon.

This is the classical scientific approach to knowing Keith Hamon: break him down into whatever characteristics are relevant to the current discussion (health, commerce, politics), assign appropriate values to these characteristics, look for the patterns of cause and effect in those characteristics, and then, if you are clever and focused, manage Keith Hamon better: correct his illnesses and insure he buys certain things and votes for certain candidates.

This is an extremely powerful approach to knowledge about the world in order to control the world. We record the tokens of an individual. For instance, I got the brown hair color token -- at least until a few years ago, when I had to exchange it for the gray hair color token. Either way, I had a specific token, a thing, a chunk of knowledge that in the correct conversation could be used to manage me better. If something was wrong with my health or economic status, I or some employed expert could examine my tokens, determine what is amiss, and recommend a course of corrective action.

This stuff works. The problem, Preiser says, is that because of its efficacy, people assume that this is the only approach to knowledge. They become blind to other knowledge and to the limits of their own knowledge, especially when confronting complex systems such as Keith Hamon, or even his house.

First, my characteristics are not discrete chunks of something, tokens, that I possess and can exchange; rather, they are the results of dynamic relationships among multiple entities. Even something as apparently simple as my hair color is the result of dynamic relationships. I don't have a brown hair token -- not really. Rather, I have the interplay of a range of hair follicles of different shades and colors, the ambient light (my hair is black at night and has auburn highlights when I've been in the Bahamas for a month -- I have the photos to prove it), the age of the rest of my body, the quality of the measuring devices (your eyes, a camera, mirrors), and the distance from me at the time of recording or viewing. My hair color, then, is a result of the interplay of all these entities and relationships which are constantly changing. Thus, the color of my hair is constantly changing. Perhaps not by much day to day, but it is changing.

Fortunately, my hair color is trivial to most discussions, and I can glibly answer brown when asked about it, as I did at my last driver's license examination. The license clerk accepted the brown token just as glibly, even though I could have legitimately answered gray, or better yet, salt and pepper. Still, salt and pepper was not one of her available designations, and since brown was still about as appropriate as gray, she recorded brown. I'm confident that when I use my license in the future, most people will accept the brown token, even if they notice that it's no longer quite accurate. It fits well enough.

And that is the problem for Preiser: understanding anything as a collection of characteristic tokens works well enough in the common light of day. Heck, it even works well enough to send astronauts to the Moon and back. Still, as we peer farther into the Universe and deeper into the atom, we find that this reductionist token approach works less and less well. There are no tokens. There are only dynamic relationships. What's worse, our ability to manage -- to predict and to determine -- those relationships becomes more and more uncertain. For instance, the color of my hair is a property -- in however small a part -- of the relationship between my hair follicles and the beating of my heart and flow of my blood and my current exposure to Sun flares. I don't know how it is related, but complexity thinking tells me it is. If I had powerful enough monitoring devices and the correct mathematics, I could perhaps trace those relationships and win a Nobel prize, but ... I don't.

We humans intuitively know this. We know that the reduction of knowledge to a handful of tokens is limited and limiting, but we've also learned that it is useful and powerful. It works. Mostly. It's the "mostly" that bothers Preiser and other complexity thinkers.

PenubagVector: Victor Blacus, CC BY-SA 3.0 
via Wikimedia Commons

It bothers me, too, especially when I encounter people who insist that reductionist science is the only way to knowledge. It's a bit like insisting that only the electromagnetic radiation that we can see, visible light, really counts, when it has become clear to us that visible light is a really small slice of what's available and that reducing reality to visible light is nonsensical -- even though focusing on the common light of day works very well for me most of the time. I must keep in mind that reductionist science is in great part responsible for my awareness of the wider spectrum of light.

But I'm also excited to think about how open complexity thinking is. Understanding something so specific as Keith Hamon or a chrysanthemum means exploring all the dynamic relationships and interactions between all the infinite parts starting with the human scale and moving inward toward the quantum scale and outward to the cosmic scale and mapping all those pathways and flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. It's an endless task, which means learning has no end. Well, that should occupy my time. And if I throw in trying to understand you as well, then it should keep me busy until I'm gone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Open House and Open Human

House and Human

I want to explore these five characteristics of complex systems that Preiser lists in her dissertation by comparing and contrasting the human body to a human house. This is mostly a matter of convenient proximity, as I have one of each. I start with the assumption that a house is more of a closed system and a human is more of an open system. In other words, on the sliding scale from simple system to complex system, a house skews to the simple and a human skews to the complex.


The first characteristic that Preiser mentions -- openness -- suggests that the contrast between house and human may not be as distinct as I imagined. As Preiser describes in her dissertation, the openness of a complex system both internally and externally involves us in the issue of boundaries both internal and external. I can, of course, see and model the boundaries of my own house, both inside and outside. I can also see the boundaries of my own body, mostly on the outside, but I know that the inside can be seen under special, medical conditions. I can in the common light of day point to both my house and my body and say, "That's my house. That's me." Most everyone will know what I mean and agree with me. I can walk through my house in the dark, and mostly the walls do not shift and the floors don't rock. My own body stays mostly inside my skin, a convenient and customary area of demarcation -- a boundary.

However, as soon as I begin shifting my gaze to see through a complexity lens, then both house and body begin to open, though I think the body opens more. As it happens, both my house and my body emerged in 1951, so we are the same age. The boundaries of my house were fixed at birth/building and have changed very little since then. The original owners had about 2,400 square feet under roof in 1951, and we -- the second owners -- still have the same. The room layout is about the same, though the surface features have changed with new paint, carpets, and furnishings. 

The boundaries of my body, on the other hand, have changed much, certainly more than my house. I have more cubic footage under roof than I did 69 years ago, and the contours are different -- though thankfully my head is still atop my shoulders, my heart in my chest, and my legs underneath me. Still, even the most casual observer will note that I am not what I was 69 years ago. I don't occupy the same space. My boundaries have shifted mostly due to the growth and rearrangement of my internal components, but also because of complex interactions both internally and externally. For 69 years -- or rather for 70 years, as my body was growing and interacting with its environment in the womb -- I have been open to energy, matter, information, and organization from outside. My entire body is a porous sponge that soaks up my environment. I process those inputs internally more or less well and feed back outputs into my environment. 

One scale down, my organs are doing the same. My heart is jostling with its neighboring lungs and stomach to get along (it mostly does) and to be a productive member of the society that I am. It takes in blood and oxygen for energy to do its work and feeds back the blood and energy to its community. Round and round, a constant, essential cycle. I can scale down through tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms as deeply as my science and technology will allow me to go, and it's the same openness all the way down or in.

One scale up, my family is doing the same. We jostle with each other to get along (we mostly do) and to be productive members of the society that we identify with (we mostly are). We take in and feedback in a constant, essential and necessary cycle. We gather often, exchanging information and energy that coordinates us and maintains our identity as a family. Again, I can scale up through clan, community, town, state, nation, world, and cosmos as far as my science and technology will allow me to go, and it's the same openness and flows all the way up or out.

However far I go inward or outward, I see the same flows of energy, matter, information, and organizational patterns back and forth through whatever boundaries I define. My skin is a convenient and handy boundary with physical and informational implications ( social, economic, and political). It's also the boundary that most people see and that photographs capture. It shapes my perception of myself and my world, and it shapes my environment's perception of and interactions with me, but it is by no means absolute. I leak inward and outward. Each scale in or out stains the next scale, and understanding my skin requires understanding those proximate scales. Complete understanding of my body requires understanding all the scales inward and outward -- an impossible task. I am infinite, and I could study me forever and still not get to the bottom of me.

Well, I did not expect to follow that line of sentences to that period, but I'll let them stand to see if they have legs.

It's easy for me to see that my body is a more open system than is my house. I tend to think of a house as protection from the outside -- a fixed, inviolable, somewhat sacred boundary, or barrier, between my family and the environment, but complexity thinking questions those assumptions. Similar to my body, my house is made up of different systems that manage the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization into and out of my home. My house has electrical, gas, and plumbing systems that bring energy and water in and take heat and waste out. My house has television, telephone, and network systems that exchange information between the inside and outside. During this pandemic I've been more conscious of ventilation in my home, and so I've opened my house's windows more often to allow a better exchange of air from outside to inside, but really, my house is old and was built back when insulation was not a priority, so it has long exchanged air with the outside.

If I look for them, then I can find lots of exchanges and flows between my house and the environment, and the interactions between my house and environment become even more open and complex when I think of my family and me as my house's microbiome. We live inside the guts of my house similarly to the way all those bacteria live in my guts, and the interactions between the microbiome and host are complex and critical. The interactions become even more complex if I extend the microbiome metaphor to the holobiont, which includes the host, the microbiome, and all the other species living in or around the host and that contribute in some way to the functioning, whether for good or ill, of the host. I can see my house as the host and me, my family, my friends, workers, insects, pets, furnishings, devices, cars, lawn mowers, and other things as the holobiont. I've now included my yard as a second, more porous skin of my house. Clearly, my house is not a closed, simple system, but open and complex.

Of course, there are differences between my body and my house, as the other characteristics of complexity are likely to reveal, but the lesson for me here is that if I start looking from the framework of complexity, then I find that there really are no absolutely closed systems. Even rocks and black holes exchange some energy, matter, information, and organization with the rest of us, though on very different time scales and perhaps in coarser chunks. Still, everything is part of the weave, the complexus ("what is woven together") as Morin calls it.

I have a couple of reservations about openness as I have described it. First, the proximate scales are more important to us and to our identity. The farther I focus my attention away from my human scale, then the more obscure I become and the more difficult it becomes to trace the influences of my human scale on the behaviors of the other scales. I'm fairly confident if I move one scale inward toward my internal organs or one scale outward toward my immediate social groups, but if I move much further, I start losing Keith Hamon. At the molecular level, I'm just a nebulous cloud. At the national level, I'm just a bland dot. Either way, I Keith Hamon recede into the background as just part of the general noise, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what impact, if any, my behaviors at the human scale are having on either the molecular scales I enclose or the national scales that enclose me. Whatever influences that might be attributed solely or even mostly to Keith Hamon at the human scale seem to diffuse and become muddy as they delta out or in to other scales. At some scale, I seem to lose myself. Once I move beyond a certain horizon, I dissolve into something else. My house does the same. If I focus too far in or too far out, I can no longer recognize my house. (You can illustrate this graphically with Google Earth). Later in her dissertation, Preiser talks about the critical importance of horizons and boundaries for knowledge.

Second, the term openness suggests superficially that complex systems are all open and not closed. This is not the case. Openness in the sense of allowing the flow of energy, matter, information, and organization across some boundary of a complex entity must be counterpoised by closure in the sense of restricting, modifying, or at least monitoring the flows across some boundary. Both opening and closing boundaries are absolutely necessary functions for the maintenance of the complex entity, for its internal interactions, and for its external interactions with its environment. Openness and closure work hand-in-hand in constant, irreconcilable dialog, and the life of my body and my house plays out in the dynamic tension between them. Both my house and my body have boundaries that keep the rain water out of the inside while allowing some water in. Failures of either function leads to catastrophes. A leaky roof or a burst pipe can allow water in where I don't want it and stop water where I do want it. When the plumbing breaks, the party is over. Most activity ceases until the boundaries are repaired. My body works the same. Drowning and extreme thirst both lead to catastrophes. I just googled oxygen poisoning and learned of oxygen toxicity. Apparently, this is a condition, though I've never heard of it. Too much oxygen, just like too little, is bad for my body. All life on Earth depends just as much on the flow of light from the Sun AND on the layers of atmosphere, seas, and vegetation that filter that light. The dialog between sunlight and sunshade is a constant interplay in our lives, and we absolutely need both.

Openness, then, must be managed -- either by the boundary itself (my skin or my roof) or by the complex entity that depends on the boundary (me, when I decide not to have that next beer). Both my house and my body need both more liberal impulses of openness and more conservative impulses of closure, and the mix of both depends on the internal interactions of the complex entity and the external interactions with the environment. The mix is never static; rather, it needs constant attention and care. That's the responsibility of life as a complex entity.

Finally, I have issues with the implications that some entities can be almost completely closed while some entities are almost completely open. I don't think any system in reality is ever completely open or closed. I don't think Reality itself is completely open or closed. We must always account for the interplay to some degree of interaction of the forces and components within a complex system and the forces and components without that system. Even a rock has something going inside, though it takes a very long time to emerge, and what happens inside the rock is dependent on what is happening outside the rock, between it and the environment. Over centuries, even a rock must learn to adjust to its new environment or cease to exist. A black hole may be the most nearly closed entity in all the Universe, and yet we are learning to tease information and energy from it -- if not matter or organization. And who knows what matter and organization may lie on the other side of that hole? So dialog and interplay it is all the way down, all the way out.

Well, I intended to write about all five characteristics of complex systems that Preiser lists in her dissertation, but I'm up against the boundary of post length. It appears that I will devote one post to each characteristic. So more next post about relationality, non-linearity and non-equilibrium.