WayFinding in a world of Evolving Strange Attractors

Narratives of Causation, Structures of Reasoning – Part 3

“even a fully deterministic system can be essentially unpredictable due to sensitivity to initial conditions”

While Lewin’s observation of the utility of a good theory is without a doubt true, the relationship between the process of empirical observation and abstract theorizing remains an ongoing and intense arena of scientific and philosophical conversation. In general, what people are really good at is less about being ‘inherently rational’ and much more about an inherent ability ‘to rationalize’ – to apply forms of reasoning to make sense of things. In order to make the world sensible we can integrate even the most unpredictable surprise into coherent intelligible effects of previous causes.


We are often capable of constructing an explanation of a causal sequence after an unexpected event has happened. However, it is often impossible to identify what will trigger such event ahead of time – or what new unexpected events may occur in the short or long term.

The explanations that we create after an event can make the cause-effect sequences seem inevitable. Science has progressed by creating reliable explanations of causes and their effects that enable successful predictions.

When systems become more complex it become more difficult to account for any number of equally possible outcomes that didn’t materialize because of the presence or absence of unknown variables. Even Newton’s successful equation of gravity becomes unable to predict consequences of multiple bodies – like the famous “Three Body Problem” (There is no general analytical solution to the three-body problem given by simple algebraic expressions and integrals. Moreover, the motion of three bodies is generally non-repeating, except in special cases).

Life is constituted by innumerable complex, open systems. An open system means that the full set of variables that compose the system cannot be fully determined. This means that a complete list of ‘external’ and even ‘internal’ variables is unknowable. In an open system it is not possible to know how small a variable has to be to have no effect on the system – this is the famous ‘butterfly effect’.

What unfolds in history and life are not the results of a randomized clinical trials with adequate control groups. Thus, the future will always be subject to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

The perception of causality is even more complex. Marshall McLuhan explored the classic concept of gestalt of the figure-ground relationship. McLuhan suggested that it is impossible to reveal the ground as it is making the figure visible to our awareness. By bringing the ground into awareness it in turn become the figure of awareness – and further creates an additional (and invisible) ground.

How can one make the ground visible? According to McLuhan what is needed is the construction of an ‘anti-ground’ an anti-environment. It is interesting that the concept of ground (as a Gestalt figure-ground relationship) is also a synonym for environment.

One more point that McLuhan makes is the suggestion that whenever a ground becomes the figure in social awareness, it is always perceived as a monster. This observation is similar to the Jungian psychological concept of the ‘Shadow’ (those aspects of ourselves we deny).

The difficulty in perceiving the ground framing the figures of our observations and the psychological aspects that we would deny in ourselves make an objective assessment of causality in complex social systems very difficult. This is why social sciences are best understood as the complex sciences. In many ways the conditions that form the ground of a figure of observation and the shadows of the observer can act like the boundary conditions that sustain a strange attractor of narrative continuity.

As long as the ground and the shadow are invisible, they shape an unseen frame with an entailing logic for our observations of causality.

In the discussion of attractors, it is their boundary conditions that are the invisible ‘ground’ from which attractors emerge. And there can be numerous variables forming the boundary conditions forming a complex invisible whole with each part playing an indirect role. This makes determining causality very difficult.

Another way of understanding boundary conditions can be as constraints. All complex and living system require some form of constraints. As Stuart Kauffman says below – constraints are what enable the release and harnessing of energy and information necessary to perform work.

The first surprise is that it takes constraints on the release of energy to perform work, but it takes work to create constraints. The second surprise is that constraints are information and information is constraint.

Stuart Kauffman – personal communication quoted in Deacon (2012).

In “Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter” Terrence Deacon makes a very comprehensive case that constraints (as causal agents) restrict or confine systems or situation with boundaries. Often, they are not directly visible – but have to be conceived as ‘what is not there but could have been’, as alternatives/choices that are unable to be undertaken. Constraints can arise inherently within a system or from its context. Dynamic systems are constrained within relevant degrees of freedom and tend to reflect attractor qualities.

The Internet of Things, the digital environment, the data-informational atmosphere are emerging as a new ‘ground’ of an emerging global civilization.

I’m going to explore the implications of the digital economy by probing some of the seismic shifts in the ‘ground’ that is transforming our economy and our society.

In the next few posts I will engage in a plausible line of reasoning to anticipation or at least let us imagine how information and identity are shaped by and shape fundamental social constraints (boundary conditions). My aim is to understand how the emerging digital environment as a new ‘ground’ will shape a corresponding concept of self and construct of identity.

 Read the first issue