Of Downward Causation and Hipsterism

I doubted that I would ever tell this little story in a serious academic context, until a version of it came tumbling out of me in my recent specialist exam. Now that I’ve already suffered the embarrassment of having my committee hear it, I may as well share it with the wider world.

As a bit of background, consider the question of downward causation. Some philosophers (Evan Thompson, R.C. Bishop, Alicia Juarrero) have been arguing that complex systems exhibit downward causation, where the system as a whole constrains or explains the behaviour of its parts. We can’t just look to the intrinsic properties of the parts to understand the overall dynamics, we have to also include their organization as a whole system.

The example I like best is Raleigh-Benard convection, this thing:

So imagine this is water (or some other fluid) and the bottom plate is heated. Above a certain temperature, the water will make these lovely little rolls that form hexagonal cells. That’s Raleigh-Benard convection.

And the argument is that before convection starts, the individual water molecules are just bopping around, doing their own thing. The relevant causes are just the low-level microphysics of the system. But once a convective regime takes hold, the story goes, we need to consider another kind of cause – the constraint put on elements of the system by the organization of the system as a whole. So because the whole system is spiralling, individual molecules can’t just bounce around in any old direction, their set of possibilities is constrained to just rolling action. And that’s downward causation – a kind of systemic constrain on the possibilities of the parts.

I’d like to propose that we look at that same story from a different perspective. Suppose we ask what it would be like to be one of those water molecules. I think that if you look at it from the water molecule’s point of view, it’s pretty clear that whatever these systemic constraints that convection introduces are, they aren’t ‘downward’. They may tell us something about the system as a whole, but they don’t really tell us anything about the parts of the system, and don’t constitute a real constraint on the behaviour of those parts.

To that end, I’m pleased to introduce to Walter the Water Molecule:

The life of a water molecule is a simple but satisfying one. The really nice thing is that, unlike people, water molecules always act perfectly authentically, according to their own Innate Physics. When bounced by something from the left, Walter zooms right..

When something bounces him from the right, Walter always reacts in exactly the way he pleases, bouncing away to the left.

And no matter what his circumstances, Walter would always remain true to his own Innate Physics.

But one particularly hot day, Walter noticed something funny. Despite his doing nothing different than what he always had, it seemed more and more that everyone else was doing exactly what he was doing. He had decided, on account of his Innate Physics, to do vertical loops that day, but for some reason everyone else was doing it as well!

Since he was doing what he had always done, and now everyone else was doing the same, there was only one conclusion that poor Walter could come to: they were all copying him! Walter therefore became an insufferable hipster.

The moral of the story is, don’t be like Walter. His confusion was to think that just because everyone is doing the same thing, they must be following the crowd somehow. He assumed that if the overall behaviour is orderly, that must mean that the individuals involved must somehow be constrained from following their own Innate Physics. But that’s just not true. Water molecules do their own thing, no more and no less, both before and after the onset of convection.

Of course, something does change when the system changes from being disorderly to the orderliness of convection. What I’m rhetorically gesturing at here is that what changes isn’t anything about the parts of the system – they keep on keeping on in exactly the same way no matter what. What changes is at the system level. So there isn’t any good sense in which this self-organized behaviour counts as ‘downward’ causation.


three completely unhelpful things to say about self-organization

It seems like everyone knows self-organization when they see it, but no one can quite say what makes it a thing. What follows is just three seemingly sensible and intuitive sounding things that people tend to say about self-organization and/or complexity that don’t to alleviate that situation. They’ll get progressively less unhelpful as we go along.

Self-organization is a process whereby pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from interactions among the lower-level components of the system. The rules specifying the interactions among the system’s components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern.

Camazine, “Self-Organization“, from The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science

To start off, let’s look at Scott Camazine’s short definition of self-organizing systems. It’s a pretty good definition, especially if you already have an intuitive idea of the kind of systems we’re talking about. They have some interesting global behaviour, which isn’t imposed on the system from outside, it just emerges from the interactions of the parts. As far as it goes, I think what Camazine writes is true. It’s just not very helpful.

To see why, look again at the definition and ask yourself whether it excludes anything. Are there systems which aren’t simply the product of local interactions of their parts? The reductionist, physicalist picture which self-organization is supposed to be a challenge to asserts that everything is just the product of the interaction of its parts. If there is something philosophically interesting about self-organizing systems, it’s supposed to be that they challenge this view! Read in a strict and literal way (ie. without the benefit of implicit, intuitive ideas about what self-organization means), Camazine’s definition tells us precisely nothing about the phenomena of interest.

Every biological system can be viewed either as an organized whole or in terms of its individual parts. Holistic studies focus on the organized whole. Reductionist studies focus on the individual parts.

Grinnell,  The Everyday Practice of Science. p. 49

Ok, so Camazine didn’t help much to get a grip on what we really mean by self-organized systems. There was something unspoken in his definition, something about there being interesting global structures that emerge from the interaction of the parts. Surely then the above quote from Frederick Grinnell helps? What we’re talking about is organized wholes versus individual parts, right?

That would be fine, except that ‘part’ and ‘whole’ are entirely relative concepts. Everything is a part relative to some larger whole, and (almost) everything is a whole composed of several parts. Telling us that the sciences of self-organization or complexity or whatever focus on ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’ is to say precisely nothing about the style of reasoning being employed. Newtonian mechanics, that blessed paradigm of reductive, analytic sciences, applies perfectly well to extremely complex wholes. If you scooped out my brain (a very complex object if I do say so myself) and tossed it around the yard, it would trace out parabolas as nicely as any other, simpler object. So just saying flatly that self-organization is about ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’ is really no help at all.

The distinction between nonlinear and linear interactions provides one way of distinguishing between systems that have emergent processes and systems that do not (Campbell and Bickhard 2002). […] Nonlinear interactions are nonadditive and nonproportional. They give rise (by definition) to systems whose activities cannot be derived aggregatively from the properties of their components.

– Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 419

(Sorry Evan, and thanks for agreeing to be on my comittee!)

So we didn’t get any traction by saying self-organization is about wholes rather than parts. Maybe the trick is to characterize the relationship between the parts and the whole? That seems promising. One popular way of doing this is to say that self-organization happens when the parts interact in non-linear ways, such that the whole cannot be understood in terms of the simple addition of its parts. But what exactly is non-linearity?

Below you’ll find an example of a non-linear function. Are you ready?

Not exactly mind-blowing, is it? But it is, in the strictest and most literal sense, a non-linear graph. Changes in x result in non-proportional changes in y, because going from x=1 to x=2 results in a much smaller change in y than going from x=10 to x=11. And that’s really all there is to non-linearity – that the points on the graph don’t form a line.

The reason why y = x² is so underwhelming as a non-linear graph is that it’s really easy to see how it would be linearized. We just take the 1st derivative to get y = 2x and pow, perfect linearity. Of course, there are lots of graphs where it won’t be so easy to find a nice linear reconstruction – especially if lots of variables are coming together, each interacting with the others in a non-linear way. But now we’re on to a richer notion that linearity vs. non-linearity. We need something like non-linearizability, or non-decomposability.

To be fair to Thompson (hi Evan, thanks again) just paragraphs after the above quote he goes on to discuss exactly those kinds of richer ideas. My aim is just to point out that it is the more subtle and consequently more difficult to formally characterize idea of non-decomposability that does the actual work.

So those are three completely unhelpful things to say about self-organization. I don’t know if pointing those out is itself helpful in any way, which is why this gets to be a blog post rather than a conference paper or what have you. To sum up, we could say that a helpful notion of self-organization has to say something that:

1) Includes the fact that there is interesting organization at the level of the whole that calls out for explanation somehow

2) Says something about the nature of the relationship between parts and wholes, rather than just specifies that we’re talking about ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’


3) Doesn’t merely say that the relationship between parts and wholes is ‘non-linear’, but instead includes some richer notion like non-linearizability, or non-decomposability.

the general and the universal

I’m hoping to draw on the collective wisdom of the internets here. There is a distinction that could be very useful to my thesis, and I feel sure that someone must have made it already, but I can’t for the life of me think of who or where. Any help identifying a prior source for this would be most appreciated.

The distinction is between what I’ll call the general and the universal. Roughly, things that are universally true are true in all cases, whereas things that are generally true are true across contexts. Put like that there doesn’t seem to be much difference, so let me try to make it clearer.

Consider two putative biological laws. From Hempel and Oppenheim (1948), we have the proposed law “All robin’s eggs are greenish-blue”. Now that may seem odd to modern philosophers of science, because it’s unlikely that there has never ever been a case where, due to random mutation or dietary oddness or whatever, a robin has laid an egg that wasn’t exactly greenish-blue. But at the same time, we can say that, in general, robins do indeed lay greenish-blue eggs.

Now consider a different proposed biological law, from Sober(1997) : he suggests that if we’re worried about the presence or absence of laws in evolution, we can easily build them by including in the antecedent of our law all of the ecological conditions which lead to a certain phenotype coming into being. So Sober’s laws look something like,

If X ecological conditions obtain, then for all Y’s, Y’s will evolve to have Z trait.

Instead of just saying “All tigers are stripey”, we say, for all tigers that evolved in such and such a context, those tigers will have stripes.

So the distinction I want to make is between the generality of Hempel and Oppenheim’s law about robin’s eggs, and the unviersality of Sober’s laws of biology. Sober’s laws will always be true, because (by hypothesis) we built into their antecedent enough detail to ensure that the consequent will always follow. They are true in all cases. However, because we specified it so particularly, the antecedent will very likely obtain in only a few extremely specific circumstances. His laws therefore have very little cross-contextual applicability.

On the other hand, Hempel and Oppenheim’s law about robin’s eggs has pretty good cross-contextual applicability. We can vary quite a lot about the background conditions in which robins live, and they’ll still (mostly) lay greenish-blue eggs. The average temperature can change, the kind of trees they live in, the sort of predators they face, and probably their food sources can be varied fairly widely, and still they’ll (mostly) lay greenish-blue eggs. Of course, their law has limited generality – there will be background conditions under which robins cease to lay greenish-blue eggs, or even where robins will fail to exist at all. But I think it’s obvious that Hempel and Oppenheim’s purported law is much more general than Sober’s.

So that’s it. Generality versus universality. Universality is just about whether we can stick a universal quantifier on our conditional – in all cases, if X then Y. Generality is a modal concept, about invariance under variation. It’s about the antecedent of a conditional – across how many contexts can we reasonably say that X obtains, such that our law is even relevant at all?

Someone must have made this distinction, I’m sure. Any suggestions?

the philosopher and the comedian

It occurred to me the other day that stand-up comedy is a lot like philosophy. Let me try to show you why.

Stand-up starts from things that everybody knows about: gender roles, racial stereotypes, airplanes, work, advertising, traffic, brushing your teeth, farts. And it shows you something new about those things – or better, the comic strikes a new attitude with respect to them. If it’s funny, that means the insight struck some emotional knot that is suddenly unwound, and you laugh a little. The best comedy can shock you out of your normal way of seeing things.

Everyone knows that people used to use rotary phones, and that cell phones beam signals into space. What is being taught isn’t a set of facts, everybody knows the facts that stand-up comedy works with. It’s more like a frame-shift – they cause you to reframe a familiar situation with shockingly different values.

Jerry Seinfeld is the modern master of observational comedy, of course. His virtuosity is finding novel insights into the most mundane elements of mainstream american culture.

Here’s Dave Chapelle teaching about the black perspective on america. I suggest you particularly listen for his white-guy voice – it’s dead on. It’s a perfect example of what I mean when I say that stand-up teaches about what is obvious to everyone. To me, it’s like hearing my own accent for the first time. I can’t even hear the whiteness in my voice, until Dave reflects it back at me.

George Carlin remains the master of close-reading of ordinary language.

I like to think philosophy is something very similar. Wittgenstein consistently held that philosophy is a kind of homeless discipline. Nothing is the proper and exclusive domain of philosophy, it is just the proper ordering of all of the other domains of thought. He wrote

God grant the philosopher insight into what lies in front of everyone’s eyes.

Moral philosophy starts from intuitions about what is good – logic from painfully obvious facts about what is consistent or true. These are things that stand before everyone’s eyes, and the philosopher is asked to say something interesting and insightful about them.

The philosophy of science starts from the sciences. My job in philosophy of biology is to say clever things about what everyone (ie. everyone who studies biology) knows.

“Say, did you ever notice how we measure the fitness of a trait by taking the average reproductive success of organisms with that trait in a population? But that doesn’t reliably separate correlation from causation! I mean, what’s the deal?”

Not very funny, I admit. Philosophers have our own criterion for judging insights into the obvious. Instead of funniness, we prize the elegance of the argument, it’s ability to clarify and its generality. But the analogy is there, I think.

of survivalism and intersubjectivity

In the comments on the last post, Luke Roelofs raised some interesting questions about my stab at thinking about virtue ethics. I was suggesting that when we’re thinking about ethics, we should really be thinking about what kind of people we want to be. And since being a person depends on (or maybe just is) a certain kind of self-unity, we can treat self-integration as a moral imperative that kind of comes for free with the virtue ethics standpoint.

Luke raised the very reasonable worry that this sounds less like a moral imperative, and more like an imperative to be kick-ass or powerful. The concern, as I understood it, was that moral monsters can be highly self-integrated, and so degree of inner harmony doesn’t have much to do with morality.

The line I’d like to push here is that sociability is too deep in us to deny. As a matter of empirical fact, we are constructed to be sociable, and tend to need others around to flourish. And further, being able to understand and interact with others is part of what it means to be conscious in the first place. If those two things are true, then I think we can safely say that intrapersonal integration is impossible without interpersonal integration. The idea is that as a sentient being, you simply can’t be complete and whole without considering others. And more than just noticing their presence, but being disposed towards treating them kindly, and with due consideration.

As usual, I’ll proceed more by assertion than argument1. But hopefully I’ll be able to throw out some ideas which make this way of seeing a bit clearer, and maybe even plausible. To start off, consider survivalism.

Actually, first consider the ‘state of nature’, as imagined by people like Locke and Rousseau. These political philosophers have us imagine that before we got together into societies, we all just roamed around free, living off the bounty of the earth. They admit, of course, we probably had families or whatever, but still want us to take seriously the idea that we were individuals before we were part of a society.

Now with that in the back of your mind, consider the story of Ed Wardle, the handsome man in the picture above. As part of a television series, he was dropped off in the wilds of Canada with little more than everything modern technology can provide a person to ensure their survival in the wilderness. He intended to stay for three months. But after 50 days he was too hungry and lonely to go on, and used his satellite phone to ask for extraction.  Now how does that look against the image of the state of nature, where perfectly free individuals bound across verdant fields, picking fruit as it pleases?

What he lacked was probably training. If he had some good disciplined survival training, and a tough mind, he probably could have survived the three months out there. But that’s just to say that he needs more culture, more society in his process. The individual, if such a thing is even possible, is actually a cultural product. It takes years of parenting, moral education, social training and external regimens of discipline to make a person ready to make choices about their own values. That makes society prior to the individual.

One truly alone human being - the pinnacle of cultural achievement

Psychologically, there’s no doubt that we need other people. What is the worst punishment meted out to prisoners in countries like Canada? What is worse than being surrounded by angry, desperate, trapped criminals? Not being allowed to be around angry, desperate, trapped criminals. Solitary confinement, when extended enough, will reliably break a person’s mind.

I suspect this is a result of the way we’re wired. I hate to trot out the piece of pop-neuroscience du jour, but have you heard of mirror neurons? Of course you have. And here’s a video about them anyway.

It’s not completely clear that there are a certain set of neurons that we could call ‘mirror neurons’. But the evidence is reasonably good that we’re constantly running simulations of each other, and doing it with the same hardware that we use to run ourselves. And as Ramachandran suggests in the video above, it’s entirely plausible to suppose that it isn’t just a matter of modelling others based on ourselves. We’re almost certainly modelling ourselves based on others. We are, quite literally, in each other’s heads.

Ok, I hear you saying, let’s suppose all that is true. We’re interdependent or whatever. Does that really mean we have to be nice to each other?

I think it does. Because a totally self-integrated person is not at war with themselves. That is the asymmetry between treating others kindly, and treating them badly. One is integrative, and the other is not. And if you’re largely a collection of simulations of other people, being whole and complete means living in harmony with your outside world as well.


1. I love the internet.

intelligent ignorance

I’m about to spend the next nine months or so studying for my specialist exam, an oral exam conducted by a committee of three of my professors. I have to read around 30 articles or chapters, and be able to answer detailed questions about them all. But first, I have to figure out what I should be reading. This is tricky.

There are easily thousands of articles I should read. Way, way more than I’ll ever be able to actually get to. I can read a lot of abstracts, but to really digest an interesting reading takes not only time, but mental space. In order to deeply process a new idea, I have to also not read a lot of other things. So there is a hard upper-limit to the amount of high quality work I can do between now and the spring. A lot of naps will be involved.

I think of it of a particularly large and vexing instance of the frame problem. To quote the article I just linked, the most succinct formulation of the problem I know is as such:

How could an inference process tractably be confined to just what is relevant, given that relevance is holistic, open-ended, and context-sensitive?

Another way to put this problem which comes from Vervaeke (here) is to ask how it is we can intelligently ignore almost all the information available to us. And you can’t ignore it by checking to make sure that you don’t need to ignore it – because then you haven’t ignored it. Vervaeke et al. think we solve it by being self-organized, by being an economy of cognitive strategies that compete. That sounds plausible to me, but it doesn’t provide much guidance as to how I should determine my reading list.

Intersubjectivity will help, of course. I’ll produce a list which is too long, and people who know more than me (my committee) will help me pare it down, and add things I missed. But if I’m really making something novel, that will only take me so far.

I know, I know… I’m wallowing in the difficulty. People solve this kind of problem all day long without even noticing, despite its apparent impossibility. We really are remarkable animals.

the making of insight

I reflected on the strangeness of my lifestyle as I was grocery shopping, surrounded by mothers with strollers and retirees at 2pm on a Monday. I hoped that they would not think I am strange, or worse, not gainfully employed. Despite the afternoon warmth I wore a dress shirt, to project respectability. It’s not that I’m a layabout – it is just that it is hard to demonstrate the way in which what I do is actually work.

Ultimately, I am trying to manufacture insight. I like insight as a product for many reasons: it’s easy to carry, cheap to reproduce and when applied in just the right time and place it’s the most useful thing there is. But making insight is qualitatively different than making most other goods. I spent 7 years working in a woodshop making picture frames, and the contrast is striking. But not because a picture frame is a material thing, and insight is mental or symbolic. You can’t eat a picture frame either, nor does it directly serve any other life-sustaining function. To my mind, the difference is more in the kind of effort that needs to be applied.

As a typical insight problem, consider the classic Nine Dot problem. Most psych students know it:

There is a way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines. Can you see it?

If you haven’t seen this before, solving it will require a frame-shift that is usually accompanied by which psychologists call an ‘aha!’ moment. That’s the typical phenomenology of an insight problem – that it brings you to some kind of impasse, which is then broken by a sudden realization.

Metcalfe and Wiebe (1987 – click for pdf) did a study on people’s self-reported feelings of “warmth” as they tried to solve insight vs. non-insight problems. When faced with puzzles that could be solved incrementally, one logical step after another, people reported feeling more confident that they would solve the problem the closer they got to actually solving it. They knew when they were getting ‘warmer’. But with insight problems, even 15 seconds before finding a solution, people didn’t feel much more confident that they would be able to solve it. Whatever process is involved in insight problem solving, it doesn’t seem to be accessible to consciousness in the same way that grinding away at non-insight problems is.

Work continues on the different characteristics of insight and non-insight problems. It appears, for example, that the different kinds of problem solving are realized by different parts of the brain (see Jung-Beeman et al. 2004, here). But even further, different parts of the brain are activated even before the subject sees a problem, depending on whether they are preparing to solve a problem with insight or not (Kounios et al. 2006, here). This kind of study answers a methodological problem in older work like Metcalfe and Wiebe (1987), which was that they assumed that the world is simply divided into problems which require insight and those that do not. Kounios et al. treat insight as a feature of the subject, rather than a requirement for solving a particular problem.

So to review, making insight is a largely unconscious process that doesn’t necessarily give one the sense that anything is being accomplished until a solution is actually found. It’s a different psycho-physical process than solving normal problems, and involves one’s disposition toward a problem as much as the problem itself.

Which is why, I think, I feel so odd watching the construction workers out my window, or shopping with the Moms with their strollers at 2pm on a Monday afternoon. I am working all day, just like they are, but my work is strange. It involves a lot of reading, but also a lot of naps. A professor once told me his young daughter was asked what he did for a living, and she replied, “He chews on a pencil.” That more or less sums it up.