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Paul Grobstein's picture

moving beyond an evolving systems intro

Thanks all for rich conversation Thursday morning, and continuing conversation here.  Among other things, its wonderful to have Anne's list of "tabled" items for future conversation.   I very much agree that the details of the transition from the active inanimate to model builders and from there to story tellers are well worth exploring more fully.  So too is the relation between agency/intentionality and adaptiveness (they aren't the same thing at all: agency/intentionality are sometimes non-adaptive and things can be adaptive without being intentional), the relation between agency/intentionality and art (it can be either emergent or intentional and is usually both), the scope of evolving systems (yes, it seems everything is evolving, but not everying is emergent), and the place of emergence given intentionality (yep, there is always an "unavoidable" component to what happens; cf Unintended consequences, unconceived alternatives, and ... life).   

I'd add to the list the desirability of some further discussion of both "improbability" and "indeterminacy" (for the latter, see Evolution/science: inverting the relationship between randomness and meaning) and of reasons why the "whole is greater than the sum of the parts" (cf Complexity and Emergence and Some thoughts on similarities between brain function and morphogenesis, and on their significance for research methodology and biological theory).   Yes, there is a risk with both emergence and "indeterminacy"  of letting gods in the backdoor, of settling for quasi-mystic answers instead of exploring further for underlying phenomena.  But there are, on the other hand, ways of handling both emergence and indeterminacy skeptically and rigorously, and there is a risk of missing out on potentially useful lines of exploration if we rule either out of court at the outset.  

I'm glad too that there is some sense that the move from emergence to evolving systems, systems that give rise to and now include intentionality/agency,  might provide a useful framework for working on these and related problems.  Doug's bold-faced synopsis is very much on the mark and, yes, the point is the "behavior of a system" rather and not "the sensation of feeling conscious." I'd like though to replace Doug's "primary" with "previously existing" and his "forces" with "causal influences" to avoid some metaphysical baggage.  To wit:

"Agency" is a new thing in the universe, created from the same processes that have always existed, but it is more recent than previously existing causal influences, and it is now applying causal influences on the universe that are new in some fundamental way.

I'm glad of course to have Doug's skepticism as well.  "Will 'agency' and all of the language that goes with it (intentionality, story-telling, etc.) help with the understanding of these system?"  Yep, I think it will as long as by "systems" we mean the entire universe including human experiences of it, and we are willing/able to extend our repertoire of both observations and exploratory tools as needed for an enterprise of that scope.  We'll see.

Tim's skeptical concerns are equally welcome, particularly so since they come, I think, from a quite different direction than Doug's.  Yes, we experience consciousness and, with it, a sense that we are indeed intentional agents, but could the latter be an illusion?  Could our sense of ourselves as agents be a "blindspot"?  Or, maybe worse, could we be, like beavers (?), engaged without recognizing it in a mindless and ultimately impossible task of trying to remake the universe in our own image?  

I think it is obviously the case that "outcomes produced by intentional actions" are often "not what the conscious intent of story tellers was aiming for."  And fully agree that the intentions of authors (or painters or politicians) are much less than an adequate description of both why they did what they did and how it plays out in the world.  I am though much less inclined to say that "intentional actions" are therefore irrelevant.  I may not be fully aware of why I act they way I do, but that's not the same thing as saying that my conscious intentions play no role whatsoever in how I act or in the results of my actions.  Nor is it to say that I, inevitably, have exercised no choice in my behavior, that how I acted is fully and deterministically emergent.  

The key here is a set of ideas that Tim and I played with together several years ago, the notion that what comes with consciousness is the ability to create "counter-factuals," ways of making sense of the world and one's place in it over and above the particular one that one has at any given time.  By virtue of being able to somewhat non-deterministically conceive counter-factuals, story tellers have some ability to move the world around them in directions it might otherwise not have moved, and to move themselves in new directions as well. 

At least, so the story goes.  And what it in turn implies is not that we have no blind spots nor that we don't sometimes act as beavers, and certainly not that we can eliminate emergence, the unexpected or unanticipated, either in ourselves or in the universe of which we are a part.  But the story also implies that we have the potential to be an additional "intentional" influence both on the world and on ourselves and that we can cultivate that potential, in ourselves and others, by enhancing our capacity to generate counter-factuals. 

Is the story provably true?  No, of course not, no more than any other story is.  But it fits the observations and gives us some new territory to explore, the interface of the emergent and the intentional.  And that's all a good story can ever do.  As William James put it, "my first act of free will shall be to belive in free will" ... to see what happens.  Perhaps we can try the same trick with the intentional?  And, in so doing, get beyond both our existing blindspots and  our current senses of ways we want to  remake the universe? 

 

 

 

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