Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fecundity and Implementation in a Complex Universe

Or, Compositionism in the Pluriverse

As I’ve indicated several times before, one of the reasons I’m finding object-oriented ontology (OOO) and Latour so congenial is that I’ve had similar ideas, often in conjunction with the late David Hays. But we arrived at those ideas, not through immersion in continental philosophy and thought, but through the cognitive and neurosciences. In that we have been a bit like Latour in that we’ve mostly been trying to figure out how things work out there in the world, not trying to do philosophy. But we did some, if not philosophy, philosophy-like thinking.

Thus we came to believe that reality is inherently complex and that, consequently, the way to empirical truth was not through dispersing phenomenal complexity in favor of a deeper underlying simplicity. We came to talk of a universe that not only has spawned multiple Realms of Being, but that might well spawn more of them. Had we known William James’ term pluriverse I’m sure we would have adopted it.

We didn’t and so we couldn’t. Instead we talked of the universe as being fecund (Hays proposed the term), with later Realms of Being implemented in ones that had evolved earlier. Our notion of implementation, which derives from computer science, seems kin to Latour’s notion of composition. Objects of one kind can be said to be implemented in, composed of, objects of some other kind. But the implemented/composed objects cannot be reduced to the objects of which they are composed/implemented.

We never attempted a systematic exposition of this notion, but I did outline it briefly in a review of John Horgan’s The End of Science. You can download a PDF of the complete review from my SSRN page, here. I have reprinted the discussion of fecundity and implementation below.

Note that it is not at all clear that where Hays and I talk of Realms of Being that we are talking of Being in the sense of object-oriented ontology. Most likely we’re not. But this is a matter of mere terminology, not fundamental conceptualization.

* * * * *

A New World: The Fecund Universe

One of the people Horgan talked to is Paul Feyerabend, the well-known philosopher of science. At the time Feyerabend was working on his autobiography (Killing Time) and on another philosophy book, one he was unable to complete before he died.
Tentatively titled The Conquest of Abundance, it addressed the human passion for reductionism. “All human enterprises,” Feyerabend explained, seek to reduce the natural diversity, or “abundance,” inherent in reality. “First of all the perceptual system cuts down this abundance or you wouldn't survive.” Religion, science, politics, and philosophy represent our attempts to compress reality still further. Of course, these attempts to conquer abundance simply create new abundances, new complexities.
This has the feel of the emerging world view, especially the line asserting that “these attempts to conquer abundance simply create new abundances.” That abundance is what the new view is about. It is a topic the late David Hays and I discussed under the rubric of fecundity—Hays suggested the term—and that is the word I shall use. I have no particular reason to believe that our discussions paralleled Feyerabend's ideas in any detailed way, but “abundance” and “fecundity” share a thematic similarity.

Let us start with an analogy. Consider the game of chess. It has a finite number of pieces and is played on a board which is finite in size; the rules governing play are finite in number and restrict each move to a finite number of steps; and all games must end in a finite number of steps, though it is possible for a game to end in a draw. Thus described chess is an inherently simple game. And yet it is rich enough to tax the abilities of very intelligent and creative people who devote their lives to playing it. A substantial community of people devotes a great deal of time and effort, not only to playing chess, but to studying it and teaching it, writing books and articles and, in the last half-century, programming computers to play the game.

The devotees of the simple world are like those who think that, when you know the rules of chess, you know all there is to know about the game. All the rest is either mere appearance, mere contingency, or mere engineering; whatever it is, it is only merely so. To the devotees of fecundity the rules are only the starting point and all the rest, that is what we must understand. And, more to the point, that is what we can understand, if not just yet, and not necessarily exhaustively and finally.

Of course we need to look beneath the surface of things. But there is no reason to think that what we will find will be simple. On the contrary, I believe that complexity inheres in the basic fabric of nature (Benzon and Hays 1990a). That complexity is necessary and not contingent. It is that inherent complexity which makes the universe so fecund, so full of abundances.

Fecundity is about the capacity of one Realm of Being to give rise to another Realm. In a fairly standard version—see Horgan's account of the views of physicist Philip Anderson, one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute (pp. 209-210)—the inorganic gives rise to the realm of life; life gives rise to mind; and mind perhaps gives rise to culture. Culture may well give rise to something else, and that something else will in turn give rise to something yet all-together new, and so forth. The laws of a higher realm must be consistent with those of the lower realms, but they are not derived from those laws. Each realm has its own laws, and there is no inherent limit to the number of realms. Hence there is no reason to believe that the universe is inadequate to our cognitive needs. [In The End of Science Horgan argued for a mismatch between the universe and our minds such that the latter could not, in principle, fully know the former.]

The relationship between a higher realm and the one(s) which gave rise to it can be said to be one of implementation. The term is from computing and designates a phenomenon which is ubiquitous there. A computer is, of course, a physical device, a complex bit of engineering. The nature of these devices has changed considerably in computing's short history, from mechanical relays and vacuum tubes in the 1940s and 1950s to transistors and integrated circuits in the 1960s and 1970s to ever denser microchips starting in the late 1970s and continuing to this day and on into the future, though not very far into the future--just what technologies will supplant microchips is not at all certain, but many things are in the works. In order for these circuits to compute anything they must implement certain logical functions. The nature of those functions is quite independent of the medium in which they are implemented. Nor can one in any meaningful way reduce the logical function of a circuit to the physical laws of the device implementing the circuit. Those physical laws tell you what will happen at a certain point Q when the voltage goes above a certain value, but they tell you nothing about why Q is connected to O and P and R and S in a certain way. That pattern of connections is dictated by logic, not physics.

The implementation of logical functions in physical circuits is only one side of implementation, the hardware side. Most implementation is on the software side. High-level languages are implemented in assembly language and end-user programs are implemented in high-level languages. Currently one of the most popular languages is one called C, with a sibling called C++. It requires one implementation to run on a “Wintel” machine, one for the Macintosh, another for a Sun Sparcstation, and so forth. The C language is the same in each case; it has the same nouns and verbs. But the assembly language which implements those nouns and verbs is specific to the machine it runs on. Further, the assembly language for a given machine can implement the nouns and verbs of other high-level languages, such as Basic, Pascal, Fortran, or Cobol. The fact that one language is used to implement another is not the same as asserting that the high-level language is reducible to the lower level language. Each language establishes its own domain, its own realm; implementation is the relationship between one realm and another.

Of course, it is one thing to explore implementation in the world of computing. It is rather different to assert that the relationship between biology on the one hand and physics and chemistry, on the other, is one of implementation. That requires an argument which I am not prepared to make, though some practitioners of artificial intelligence and artificial life seem to take it as a matter of faith. Given the work that Hays and I did on natural intelligence (Benzon and Hays 1988) I feel a little more confidence about the relationship between psychology and neurobiology; for that article proposed five principles governing the implementation of mind in brain. The most ambitious research program under the aegis of AI is about the implementation of mind in computer. However doubtful I am about what AI has so far achieved—Horgan quotes Marvin Minsky as asserting that consciousness is a trivial matter he resolved long ago (p. 184)—that goal doesn't seem to be inherently problematic. However mind operates, it is a realm unto itself. Its laws are not reducible to those of biology or those of computing, though it may well be possible that they can be implemented in either. Beyond mind, David Hays and I have speculated in personal conversation that the phenomena of social role (Linton 1935) and double-contingency social interaction (Parsons 1951) are the seeds of a new realm which we might as well call culture. We could then say that culture is implemented in mind, though explicating that is another matter entirely.

If this is how the universe operates then the closest one could come to what Horgan calls The Answer would be to understand how one realm could give rise to another. That is perhaps where Ilya Prigogine’s work comes into play (Horgan, pp. 216-221; Benzon and Hays, 1990a, pp. 36-37). However, while Horgan's Answer is complete unto itself, the Answer implied by Prigogine’s work assures us only that the universe generates yet further fundamental questions.

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