WayFinding in a world of Evolving Strange Attractors

Unpredictable Evolution of Complexity

Every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.

Alfred North Whitehead

In the last post I said I would begin a line of reasoning linking fundamental social constraints (boundary conditions) to corresponding concepts of self and constructs of identity. I am going to defer for one more post.

As important as understanding causality is to the progress of science and a capability to predict the evolution of the biosphere and other complex systems is beyond the grasp of prediction. Of course chance is an eternal causal agent. But there are at least two other aspects that make prediction (especially about the future) impossible. First is the fact that everything – whether a concrete thing or a conceptual thing - has a sort of field of ‘adjacent possibles’. Second, is the condition of ‘enablement’ – that somethings enable other things to happen rather than cause things to happen.

Thus, we are prevented not only from knowing what will happen but also from knowing what can happen.Traditional scientific methods and approaches that relied on reduction to attain simplicity tend to be unsuited to understanding complex problems and systems. Complex conditions both defy explanation and prevent prediction as well. Even when a correct prediction is made – we often can’t be sure we are correct in understanding why we were correct.

Of course, scientists have developed many methods to provide rigor to claims of cause beyond the evidence correlation. There is no doubt that the practices of science have and continue to increase our capabilities to do things, and to develop ever more sophisticated explanations of how things work. However, the very foundation of science proposes that all knowledge, by definition must be contestable. When knowledge isn’t contestable, when it posits absolute certainty – then it is vulnerable to becoming more like religious dogma. There is an important distinction between the success of science in enabling an exponential increase in human ‘know-how’ versus any certainty we can have about ‘know-why’.

In his book “Media and Formal Cause” Marshall McLuhan noted that: “Formal cause is still… hugely mysterious. The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time”… that “effects precede causes”.

For McLuhan, formal cause is like the “bright light of the future casting shadows on the present, from forthcoming events.” Formal cause then, remains invisible in the contextual, interactive, ‘ground’ of an event, but enables unexplainable effects.

Stuart Kauffman has recently been exploring what he calls ‘formal cause laws’ as a means to develop better theoretical explanations of complex adaptive systems and emergence. Kauffman argues that when we are thinking about biological and evolutionary systems it is not possible to pre-state the space within which future change will take place. More precisely we can’t pre-state the future ecological conditions - the niche boundary conditions.

This is a challenge to a traditional physics worldview where basic Cartesian space (even Einsteinian space) is predeterminable.

As Kauffman explains it, changes in the niche landscape do not ‘cause’ evolution but rather ‘enable’ it. Kauffman provides a simple example. It is easy to imagine the traditional causal network that would result in the development of the swim-bladder of a fish. The evolution of the swim bladder provides the fish with more fitness to compete and reproduce in its particular environment. However, when a microbe settles into the swim bladder turning it into a new niche environment there is no direct causal mechanism that set this in motion. The swim bladder ‘enabled’ an affordance or opportunity for the microbe to seize.

One could not predict that a microbe would create such a new niche. The bladder-as-niche was not within the pre-determined space where a trajectory between microbe and bladder could be calculated like billiard balls on a pool table.

Kauffman proposed that emergence of this sort is based on ‘Formal Cause Laws.’ In this way Kauffman suggests that Formal Cause laws for a theory of Complex Adaptive Systems would arise from the ‘whole situation’ including boundary conditions – whether it is an ensemble of random networks of chemical reactions or a growing economic ecology.

Another way to imagine the working of Formal Causation is with an example of an attractor. While there are many types of attractors, they can be simply defined as a set of physical properties toward which a system tends to evolve and propagate, regardless of the starting conditions of the system. Attractors display recognizable trajectories which can be periodic or chaotic, and the only constraint they have to satisfy, is remaining on their particular trajectory. 

Manuel De Landa discusses the behavior of a soap bubble as shaped by an attractor. No matter what the initial shape is of the bubble wand – the bubble will tend toward a perfect sphere – depending on air currents. The explanation for this tendency is that the sphere minimizes surface tension. However, the ‘cause’ is not surface tension, rather the attractor of the perfect sphere emerges from the entire dynamic system of soap film, water, atmosphere pressure, humidity of surrounding air and other environmental influences. The attractor is like the Formal Cause of soap bubbles trajectory of ‘wanting’ to become perfect spheres.

Kauffman believes that Formal Cause Laws are a new class of laws arising from the generic behaviors of large assemblages of systems that can provide a better foundation for understanding the sciences of complexity, emergence, evolution and even economics.

I think this is a better way to think about the current trajectories of disruption – the shift from centralized, hierarchical way of organizing human efforts towards more distributed, networked forms of organization.

 Read the first issue