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.

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