20.341 emergence online?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 8 Dec 2006 14:56:14 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 341.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 08 Dec 2006 14:10:21 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: emergence online?

After a recent lecture, an historian of chemistry gave me good
advice: that someone interested in the relations between the
humanities and the sciences should enlarge his scope of vision beyond
a history and philosophy of science that, as she said, has been
written primarily with physics in mind. Her suggestion was, of
course, chemistry as the focus, and she gave me good indication of
the rewards that might follow. Later on I ran into a biological
anthropologist, Terrence Deacon, who brought biology, specifically
evolutionary theory, into view. With a particular passage in mind,
I'd like to draw your attention to his essay, "Emergence: The Hole at
the Wheel's Hub", in The Re-Emergence of Emergence, ed. Clayton and
Davies (Oxford, 2006): 111-50.

Deacon begins with the puzzle of how, given the inevitable increase
in entropy, we explain the complex adaptive functions of living
organisms. He notes that the elimination of all end-directed
explanations in modern science has yielded spectacular successes. The
greatest triumph, he says, is Darwinian evolution, which gives us the
organization of living creatures from preserved chance variation. But
a problem remains, one of those problems over in the corner that,
once worried, begins to change everything. In this case, it's the
problem of positing organisms as mechanisms, like watches, as Darwin
does -- because this implies order from the outside, and is very much
unlike the way organisms are. The result is a telos ex machina world
that shows up the limitations of the machine metaphor.

What Deacon does is to direct attention to processes that share some
of the features of ends-determining-means logic, looking for a middle
ground that avoids dependence on an actual pull from the future while
doing more than a push from the past can do. He works out a
three-level theory of emergent order, whose parts he calls
thermodynamic, morphodynamic and teleodynamic. The argument is quite
complex, but the essence of it is that in some systems we can observe
chance variation resulting in the reinforcement of a self-maintaining
dynamic through which the system develops emergent form. In the
highest, teleodynamic kind (characteristic of organisms), the
presence of something like memory or information vastly extends the
developing system's ability to develop this emergence. What emerges
is, as he says, a "least dissonant remainder" after everything that
does not fit has been eliminated. Incompleteness and self-realization
give us that middle ground.

It is at the point at which emergence extends into culture that our
practice becomes relevant:

>... a symbolic species such as Homo sapiens has further entangled
>the causal architecture of its billions of minds in a vast
>higher-order emergent
>semiotic web. This web is characterized by symbolic self-organizing and by
>evolutionary processes that are quite different from those at lower
levels. In
>addition to the least-dissonant-remainder effects of the various underlying
>levels of genetic teleodynamic processes (including neurological,
>and evolutionary processes), the further distributive power of symbolic
>communication itself provides a multi-stage dissociation from specific
>thermodynamic factors. A symbolizing mind has perhaps the widest possible
>locus of causal influence of anything on earth. Minds that have become deeply
>immersed in the evolving symbolic ecosystem of culture -- as are all modern
>human minds -- may have an effective causal locus that extends across
>continents and back millennia, and which grows out of a locally
>remainder dynamic involving hundreds of thousands of individual
>communications and actions. Each symbolically mediated thought is the
>emergence of a specific 'constitutive absence'; each is a specific variant
>instance of an evolved adaptation within this vast spatially and temporally
>distributed ecology. This immense convergence of causal determination is
>coupled with an equally vast capacity for selective amplification via the
>teleodynamics of neural processing. With so many levels of amplification
>and causal inversion mediating between brain chemistry, conscious cognition,
>and symbolic evolution, it is no wonder that we experience symbolically
>mediated causality as almost completely disconnected from thermodynamic
>causality, even though its very effcacy is founded upon it.

>Human consciousness--with its features of autonomous causal locus,
>and implicit 'aboutness'--epitomises the logic of emergence in its
>very form. Like something coming out of nothing, the subjective self is, in
>effect, a constitutive absence for the sake of which new
>constitutive absence is
>being incessantly evolved. In this sense, there is some legitimacy
>to the eliminativist
>claim that there is no 'thing' that it is. Indeed this must be so. The locus
>of self is, effectively, a negative mode of existence, that can act
>as an unmoved
>mover of sorts: a non-thing that nonetheless is the locus of a form
>of inertia--a
>resistance to change--with respect to which other physical processes can be
>recruited and organized. Consciousness is not exactly something from nothing.
>It merely appears this way because of the misdirection provided by the
>double-negative logic of the least-dissonant-remainder processes involved. It
>is, nevertheless, a form of being that is constituted by what it is
>not, and yet
>remains a locus of physical influence. It is the hole at the wheel's
>hub. (p. 149)

One would think that as a cultural phenomenon, the Web exhibits
properties of emergence that might direct our efforts to deal with
its vast messiness. Perhaps PageRank (the algorithmic process at
Google's heart) works so well because it depends on emergent
patterning behaviours. It directs our attention to how meaning is
made by a kind of self-organizing. Perhaps a "semantic web" such as
is much talked about is not an emergent entity -- it's hard to see
how the online world's buzz of activity will notice your dental
appointment or bring a train schedule to the fore. But what does
emergence mean for digital libraries? Can we usefully distinguish a
third phase in the development of the idea of the library, from
private collection (ordered by a single person), to public (ordered
for unpredictable access through a published scheme), to a semiotic
web of self-forming, multi-dimensional clusters? Are the problems one
encounters in constructing a *world-wide* digital library a
consequence of being locked into the wrong structural metaphor?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Fri Dec 08 2006 - 10:17:02 EST

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