Monday, December 14, 2009

Spontaneous Organization

The market economy is a self-organizing system because it is made up of countless people who act out of their own self interest to buy and sell to other people. It is not designed and not made by a designer.

A language system such as the english language, is a self-organizing system. Each speaker of english uses english words in conversation with other english speakers. The language itself is shaped and evolves through the sum total of individual conversations and at the same time the language system as a whole shapes the way that each individual speaker uses it in conversation.

Although laws are made by governments and moral codes are often passed on from one generation to the next through formal and informal education, moral systems can also be seen as self-organizing. Our interpretation of values, social norms and rules helps to shape our everyday conduct with others. Each person's conduct in turn, is interpreted by and influences other's value systems and conduct in a vast circle of social networks. Some people's behaviour is exemplary and very influential, other's behaviour is despicable and serves as an example to be shunned.

All these human systems I am describing have emergent properties that are not reducible to a simple description of physical causes. Being an english speaker I can choose to speak eloquently or massacre the language. Either way, I am part of the english language system without being determined by it.

Consciousness is another system, in this case neurological, where the state of consciousness is an emergent property, not reducible to a physical chain of neurons firing.

The parts of consciousness interact together with the other parts: The mid-brain systems that keep us alert and awake and that help us to pay attention, the sensory systems, the motivational system that helps us to focus and prioritize, the memory systems of the cerebral cortex that help in making associations with past experience, and make experiencing into a continuous flow, the parts of the cortex dealing with language, and meaning that help to put ideas into words, the parts that allow us to visualize ideas, and the prefrontal areas of the cortex that assist us in judging and and decision-making.

Our thoughts, sensations, feelings and judgement get organized into coherent ideas and narratives spontaneously without being planned or designed. For any planning, necessarily already involves ideas and narratives, so it can't be primary.

We tend to model reality after ourselves. This is called “anthropomorphism”. At first we attribute human qualities to natural phenomena such as the weather, the sea, volcanoes, the sun and moon, and the stars. We invent mythologies to explain how these things act, as if they were people and acted according to their own purposes.

Determinism can be seen as just another form of anthropomorphism. Just as all humans make things and do things for a reason, determinism sees everything that happens as determined by previous causes. Determinism equates living things with machines as if they were designed for a reason.

According to determinism there is no free will because everything that happens is determined by antecedant causes. But does causation explain everything, and does it really determine behaviour?

Think back to the flock of sandpipers that I talked about in a previous article. The flock flies in unison, quickly manoevering around obstacles as one, and lands on the beach in unison. Where was the cause of that flock's behaviour? Was it the sum total of all the individual sandpipers' behaviour?

But didn't the behaviour of the flock as a whole influence the behaviour of each individual bird? The behaviour of the flock influenced the behaviour of the individual birds, and the individual birds influenced the behaviour of the flock. In which direction was the cause?

We're talking in circles here. If causation happens in both directions or is “circular” in what sense is it determinate?

Everything can influence us at once, and if so what is it that causes us to do what we do? Everything? Then the concept of causation and determinism itself are both meaningless.

It seems to me that self-organization can generate free will because the influence and interaction of a self-organized system can be omnidirectional.

Think of the brain. Interactions between many different parts of the brain contribute to each moment of consciousness. At the same time our conscious experience influences those interactions. What causes the experience then?

That's why we say that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon and not reducible to the firing of nerve cells. And we can say the same thing about “purpose” and “meaning”. These emerge out of living and self-organizing systems.

Purpose is more basic than meaning because it does not require consciousness. The purpose of maintaining life appears to be already part of every life-form. Meaning emerges from consciousness so it requires consciousness.

It may seem rather abstract, what I'm talking about but these are all things that science has a problem dealing with but are in the province of religion. Consciousness emerges from physical phenomena but cannot be reduced to them because it influences those phenomena. Purpose emerges from life and influences life, meaning emerges from consciousness and influences consciousness.

The key to all these phenomena is that they appear to emerge spontaneously from the bottom up in self-organizing systems, without being designed or planned. This has obvious implications for religion. But that's not my department.

Monday, December 7, 2009


I'm reading a book by Phillip Ball, called: Water, Matrix of Life. If you want to know more about water, it's fascinating and well written. I particularly like this quote of his: “Water is the agent of geological, environmental and global change. It confers fecundity on parched regions, while it's passing turns grasslands into deserts.”

Water does all this and more. But water is incredibly effective at what it does because water is a team player. Apparently there's water on the moon in the form of patches of ice, but it's inert, it doesn't do anything because it lacks the other team players. Let's introduce these other team members.

Water is a compound not an element although the Greeks and the Chinese thought it was one of the “four elements” - Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Let's run with this idea but let's assume that fire can mean all types of energy, especially the Sun. Let's use a bigger name for Air. We'll call it the Atmosphere. Let's say that “Earth” means the planet and not just a hunk of rock. Now let's add a fifth element, and call it “Life”.

Put these five elements together and they will interact spontaneously. And these interactions form the great geophysical systems of the Earth.

The Earth's surface has mountains and basins. It's lowest points are where most of the water is – in the oceans. The Earth's gravitational field is strong enough to hold all the gases: the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapour that make up the atmosphere.

Think of Earth as a house without a switch because it runs itself. It's roof is the atmosphere. It lets vital energy from the Sun in and gives us a bit of insulation at night. Too much insulation is not good, as we see with the planet Venus, with its surface temperature of 460 *Celsius.

The Earth's got plumbing, heating, ventilation and power, mostly run by one system: the weather. But it's also got backup power from internal heat which causes plate tectonics to reconfigure the seas and continents every hundred million years or so.

It's not like a house that was designed and built, because it repairs itself. Tell me, what house that we have built repairs itself, or has lasted as long as Earth has?

As a plumbing and heating system and power system the weather is partly predictable and partly unpredictable. Sometimes we get too much water sometimes not enough. Sometimes it gets too hot, sometimes it's just right.

The weather operates under the usual physical laws. The Earth's spin causes winds to curve in the direction of rotation making cyclonic wind patterns counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Sun's radiation heats water on Earth's surface and causes water molecules to change from liquid to gas. The water vapour can rise into the atmosphere because it contains heat from the sun.

Weather is partly predictable, we recognize the seasons, but also unpredictable, we don't know what the weather will be like a month from this day. The weather is a self-organizing system. Weather systems can last up to a week and travel thousands of kilometres.

Let's call a system: a group of parts that interact together to form a whole that is separated from the external world by a boundary.

Let's divide the world of systems into three: machines, institutions, and self-organizing systems.

Self organizing systems are systems of parts that interact via simple physical laws. The parts of the Solar system - the sun and the planets, interact by the laws of motion and gravity to form a balanced system that has maintained itself over time.

All machines are mechanical systems designed and built by humans for various goals. A house is a mechanical system that transfers heat and energy from outside and holds it inside. Houses and other machines have switches on them. When the switch is turned on, the machines start to work and when it's turned off they stop working.

What is a self-organizing system? Think of a flock of sandpipers flying low over the water – the precision and coherence of their flight. The flock swoops and glides as a unified whole as if it acts with one mind.

But each bird is acting on its own and the subtle alterations in flight that each bird makes in response to its neighbours creates an emergent unity.

Unlike machines, self-organizing systems are not deterministic. These systems have properties that emerge from the interaction of all the parts that cannot be predicted from the nature of the parts alone.

You cannot predict the weather beyond a week; Human behaviour is both predictable and unpredictable. Weather systems and large-scale human societies exhibit complex behaviour that is the hallmark of self-organizing systems.