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 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.