Archive for the ‘Ontology’ Category

Oct 23 2009

In this second post of four I am looking at the domain of reality our beliefs and actions help create and how it is different from the non-human universe. I argue that by applying the same way of thinking about ourselves as we do about independent objects we get into trouble. We mistake something plastic for something solid. I am looking at some implications a more psychological and participatory view of history might have for how we should think about our future. My thoughts are work in progress, brush strokes on my philosophical canvas, neither without tension nor contradiction. As usual I welcome any criticism you might have.

What Doesn't Kill Me

What Doesn't Kill You

The Window of Opportunity

In the movie What Doesn´t Kill You, a recovering alcoholic and criminal thug is contemplating whether or not to rob an armoured truck. As he is staring at himself in the mirror the different futures he can imagine are being played out in his mind. This could be his last job. He will either be able to raise his kids and be a father to them or end up serving lifetime in jail. Life demands him to make a choice.

In passing moments in our lives our choices make a difference. There is an opening in the road, several paths are available, but they will not stay open forever. The rules of the game are waiting for our input into the game, and how the future will unfold is dependent on it. Time is moving ahead and its direction is determined by what has been settled into some shape or other, and that which is still shapeless and open to influence. In the whole universe creativity lives between what has already become reality and that which could never become real. It exists in the realm of possibilities, in moments of choice.

Reflections in the Window

What are we supposed to do? What is the purpose of our existence? Where should we go? These are universal and ancient questions, and instead of offering my own opinions I want to look at why we ask them, what kind of answers we tend to expect, why we expect them and perhaps should not. I believe that in this as in everything we tend to look for emotional certainty, the kind of existential foundation that makes it possible for us to get on with our daily lives without doubts. Our lives are demanding, we have little time to question things. We are looking for the kind of answers that make the questions go away. Thus to begin with, we not only want answers, we have an existential bias towards definitive answers that eliminate the questions. A part of us would even feel the safest if our destiny was written in stone, we had no personal responsibility and that the nature of things was fixed independently of us. Some find comfort in the idea that their individual life narrative is a thread woven into in a divine story evolving towards a glorious end. Others look to astrology, careerism, Marxism, Mayan prophecies, visions given by political leaders or academic futurologists, but the common theme is a future that is relatively fixed. For some such a notion offers the comfort that comes from having something solid to hang on to and we all need comfort from time to time. This tranquillizer however is not without side effects. In casting the future as something fixed we loose sight of the extent to which we ourselves participate in creating it, and we not only make ourselves less free, we actually destroy possibilities we did not even know existed.

The answers we find are largely the reflections of our own assumptions.

I believe we give this treatment not only to the future but to others and even to ourselves. To show how we – consciously or unconsciously – help shape the world we live in I will choose some examples from the financial markets, cultural trends, motivational, social and dream psychology. To add insult to injury I will then point out how some people who have understood this dynamics perfectly, do not want the people that have not realized their own power to shape their own lives to do so. People who take responsibility for their own lives, make conscious choices, question conventions and are self-driven are threats to their authority. I am not saying this to stir up conspiratorial fervent but history is full of examples of leaders not only asserting their own authority but also trying to enforce it by undermining the self-confidence of their inferiors. I will look at Plato for examples, but you probably need look no further than kiss-up-kick-down middle management in any hierarchical modern corporation.

The Myth of the Final Destination

Firstly, from where do we get the idea that the future could have a final destination? Arguably from Aristotle, who distinguished between four types of causes: material, efficient, formal and final. For him material cause was the material out of which something was made. The efficient cause the agent that makes something happen. The formal cause the idea the agent had of the end result. The final cause the purpose or end result itself. Today the word cause means more or less Aristotle´s efficient cause.

For Aristotle the final result of any process existed within it as a potential, and was acting on it as a pull from the future. The future goal was the purpose of the thing, the telos. When the Christians took over this idea the purpose of human existence came from being created in the image of God. Today, even if modern people no longer believe in such fairy tales the connection between purpose of human existence and a fixed goal still remains. It is as if life could only have meaning if there was one destination. It can take the earthly shape of the “love of your life” or a heavenly shape of Paradise. Failure to reach that final destination would spell disaster. Unfortunately if this was true we would have been fucked from the get go, as there are trillions and trillions of possible futures and the likelihood of whichever-would-be-the-right-one to happen is negligibly small. That is not the case when we look at the past of course since it is 100% likely that the past that actually happened actually happened. Still, it is tempting for some to argue that since it was highly unlikely for humans to appear in the first place and that happened it a proof a plan is unfolding and, however unlikely it may appear, we can still get to the final destination. That line of “reasoning” however is begging the question, since it assumes that the existence of humans proves that some great plan is unfolding whereas it proves nothing of the sort. If the planet was populated by religious lizards they would argue in the same self-serving way.

Why both Aristotle and the Christians got it wrong is quite understandable as they could do little more than guess. They knew nothing about quantum physics, DNA, germs, vacuums, or strange attractors, and they could not run computer simulations or test their ideas experimentally in the “Large Headroom Collider“. Even so they both offered helpful attempts at giving meaning and purpose to life, but now we need to think more carefully about how we phrase those questions. We drastically limit our options by phrasing questions about meaning in terms of one goal. What we should be asking – individually and collectively – is not what the final destination is, what we ought to do, or what our destiny is, but rather what are our possibilities, and what we want to do out of that which is possible.

Under Social Construction

Alcoholics Anonymous prayer

Alcoholics Anonymous prayer

So how do we know what is possible? That is the first difficult question, and the prayer of the Alcoholics Anonymous captures the human dilemma in a succinct way.

“God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”

How do we know what is possible to change, and learn to accept that which we cannot change? Studying science is a starting point, but science tends to prefer mechanistic and functional explanations and does not take into consideration how the explanation of a social process can itself become an influential factor. The genuinely significant questions, those that decide the fate of man, are not primarily concerned with merely natural potentials. Processes in social and private life are intrinsically reflexive. Our anticipation about our potentials itself influences and shapes those potentials. It is naturally true that a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, but it is only reflexively true that the American dollar has value or that France lies in Europe. Reflexive truths are true only because there are enough people believing them to be true. If you were the only maniac to believe the dollar had value you would not only not be able to buy anything, but would likely qualify for the asylum.

Reflexive truths are true only because there are enough people believing them to be so.

Some “realists” attack people that point out that reflexive truth are only conventions by calling them “idealists”, but is it not the realists who are stuck in their ideas without realising? Do they really know how to distinguish ideas from things? It seems they do not have ideas as much as ideas having them.

There is a massive divide between the natural world and the world we create. Now and then, the gap between the independent natural world and the mind dependent conventional world makes itself know it dramatic ways. Let me borrow the first example from George Soros, who writes extensively about reflexivity and has managed to make himself the 40th richest man in the world. He claims he owes his wealth to his understanding of his teacher Karl Popper´s philosophy and his own ideas about how reflexivity affects financial markets. In The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998) he gives the example of the crisis in 1997 Southeast Asian economy that the Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia accused him of causing. He writes:

“The Southeast Asian countries maintained an informal arrangement that tied their currencies to the U.S. Dollar. The apparent stability of the dollar peg encouraged local banks and businesses to borrow in dollars and convert into local currencies/…/ by the beginning of 1997 it was clear to us at Soros Fund Management that the discrepancy between the trade account and the capital account was becoming untenable. We sold short the Thai baht and the Malaysian ringgit early in 1997 /…/ Subsequently Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia accused me of causing the crisis. The accusation was totally unfounded. We were not sellers of the currency during or several months before the crisis; on the contrary, we were buyers when the currencies began to decline/…/ If it was clear to us in January 1997 that the situation was untenable, it must have been clear to others. /…/ ” (p. 137)

The crisis was “a self-reinforcing process that resulted in a 42 percent decline in the Thai currency and a 59 percent decline in the Thai stock market /…/ The combined result was a 76 percent loss in dollar terms, which compares with an 86 percent loss in Wall Street between 1929 and 1933.

The panic was spread to the neighboring countries by the financial markets – I used the image of a wrecking ball, others have referred to financial contagion as a modern version of the bubonic plague.” (p. 145)

Nowhere is it quantitatively so tangible and apparent how the beliefs held by people affect what is possible than in financial markets. The moment people lost faith in the value of the Thai baht and the Malaysian ringgit the herd changed and ran madly in another direction, draining the Southeast Asian market of capital as if it were water and a plug was pulled on the other side of the planet. The reason the markets are so volatile and vulnerable he claims is that investors are not independent thinkers but move in herds.

“Fund managers are judged on the basis of their performance relative to other fund managers, not on the grounds of absolute performance. This/…/forces fund managers into trend-following behavior. As long as they keep with the herd, no harm will come to them even it the investors lose money, but if they try to buck the trend and their relative performance suffers even temporarily, they may lose their job.” (p. 130)

In financial markets you can see the movement in clear digits on a screen, but the process of socially constructing reality is at work in every area of human life. A good friend of mine is a book publisher. At our last holiday together he was about to publish a book that was a rewrite of Jane Austen´s Mansfield Park. A journalist from a book review magazine called him and asked if he saw a new trend in rewriting classics. My friend agreed wholeheartedly and mentioned another example of the same. On the following Monday the magazine ran with the story on the book and a separate article on the new trend of rewriting classics. Is there a trend? You tell me. It is if enough people believe there is. It is a reflexive truth and it is quite possible that because of the inclination to imitate other writers will read the article and jump on the idea as well. This is a clear example of a socially constructed reality and should other writers follow suit it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our Plastic Souls

Reflexive potentials require our participation, and this in turn depends crucially on our ideas about what other people are going to do. What people do however is not fixed either as they respond to our expectations. We are largely unaware of what expectations we hold.

Unconscious images of Jim and Jules.

Unconscious images of Jim and Jules.

Consider a meeting between two friends – Jim and Jules. Jim has an “image” of Jules, in that he has an idea of what Jules is like, what he thinks about things, how he reacts and so forth. Jim has also an idea about himself. On top of these he also has an image about Jules image of Jim, assumptions about what the other knows about him. Then there are the images of what Jim wants Jules to think of him, and also what he thinks Jules wants him to think of Jules. Further there is the image Jules really has of Jim. The situation is naturally symmetrical for Jules, and in the end we end up with a small village of semi-conscious images and reflections, all capturing some aspect of what Jim and Jules are like.

Which image captures the true Jim? You tell me.

To some extent the accuracy of their images of each other depends on how well they know each other, but even if they were familiar like an old married couple, the one would still not truly know the other´s motives. We often make the mistake of thinking we know what others are thinking, or why they behave the way they do, but we cannot really know this. There is a simple reason for this. We do not even know our own motives, so how could someone else know them? You may object and say that you know perfectly well what your motives are, and I would agree to the extent that you may have a clear idea of why you think you do things. This idea however is one out of several possible ways of making sense of what you are doing and feeling and not the final and ultimate truth. As we grow older we look back and now we understand our past motives differently than we did back then, however clear they appeared to us at the time. People undergoing psychoanalysis speed up this process and find that they hate the person they thought they loved, or love the person they thought they hated. The images we have of ourselves and the meanings we give to them are plastic, and keep changing throughout our lives. I do not believe we are shapeless or entirely without an essence but the quest for the True Self is as illusory as chasing after one´s True Love or a Heavenly Paradise.

What Doesn't Kill Me


If it is true that our souls are plastic why do we think they are fixed? I think some answers are to be found in how the child develops a sense of self by reflecting itself in its parents. A 3 years old girl in front of me at Heathrow airport is playing around in the queue. I look at her and smile, and the moment she meets my gaze she instantly becomes self-conscious and timid and runs off to hide behind her father´s legs. She sees herself through my eyes. The child psychologist Piaget noticed that children often solve problems through their own bodies. A child is trying to open a box. Suddenly he opens his mouth, then the box. This I believe is our original self-image, and through an extension of that we understand ourselves not from inside but from outside as it were. The psychological language we use is full of concepts and metaphors borrowed from domains of reality different from ourselves. We let someone in, we have a thought in our head, we go deep into the subconscious, we fall in love, we close the door, we look down on someone, feel uplifting feelings or we go to pieces etc. While these expressions are useful and we find them meaningful, they at the same time present us with an image of ourselves much the same as we would get from seeing ourselves in a mirror.

Space extends. Mind intends.

What is wrong? Put simply: Space extends. Mind intends. Thoughts do not exist in physical space. They do not have physical dimensions. What is the size of an imagined orange? 6 cm or 125 miles? Mental images are scale independent and even if you put a matchbox next to the orange you could not say if it was the size of a teaspoon or a galaxy. Likewise emotions do not just sit around like firemen on a break until some situation flares up. An emotion can be repressed and exist in some way, but not like a forgotten summer cat exists when family goes home from holiday. The nature of subjective phenomena is very different from the concrete determined objects in our environment. We need another way of thinking about ourselves, because something goes fundamentally wrong when we try to look at ourselves through the mirror of our environment. When we see ourselves only as objects, we loose ourselves as pure subjectivity.

We are the observer, not the observed. In The Observing Self (1982) the psychotherapist Deikman is arguing that “at the heart of psychopathology lies a fundamental confusion between the self as object and the self of pure subjectivity. Emotions, thoughts, impulses, images, and sensations are the contents of consciousness: we witness them, we are aware of their existence. Likewise, the body, the self-image, and the self-concept are all constructs that we observe. But our core concept of personal existence – the “I” – is located in awareness itself, not in its content.”

Basically there is a witness to what is happening in the mind that itself is not part of the content. We can have a direct awareness of the witness, but it is not something constant or given. More a flickering flame and like Kierkegaard observed it is the easiest thing to forget oneself.

It is the fact that we are plastic that makes it possible for us to be shaped and told what we are. The fact that we are not transparent to ourselves makes us susceptible to influence. Different traditions have different ideas about what humans are, and if we had a fixed essence and at the same time direct access to ourselves we would not be so amenable.  Now instead depending on where we were born we soak up identities like ink on a soft paper.

The Myth of Fixed Archetypes

Intuitively I feel there is a connection between our belief in a predetermined future and our belief in fixed mental objects. This is more of a hunch but somehow I think these two notions depend crucially on the idea of something transcendental, superhuman, eternal and fixed. Furthermore I think the culprit is Plato, that Greek intellectual giant. He was so ground breaking that some have called all subsequent European philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato and the reason for this is that he not only touched upon almost every area we have been capable of thinking about, but to a large extent also (reflexively) helped define what those areas would be. In many ways he both opened and closed our minds at the same time.

Arguably Plato´s most influential innovations to our plastic mindset was his notion of the world of Ideas. To him, the world of Ideas was the real world; the material world, though seeming real to our senses, was only an illusion. The Ideas were the Ideal Forms that shaped our transient chaotic domain of reality. They alone were absolute, unconditioned and eternal realities. This I think is one of the worst myths to have haunted mankind, and it seems that in the same moment the idea was born did Plato realize how it could be abused. He instantly declared the philosphers the guardians of the Absolute Truth, and ordinary people mere sleepwalkers. While the content of the Absolute Truth has change throughout generations, the thought pattern has remained where the Truth is one and accessible to the few. Thus their authority is secured. This pattern has never gone out of fashion and is present in any fundamentalist movement, from Jesusism, Nazism to Communist North Korea. It provides the bricks and mortar for any value hierarchy that does not welcome destabilising criticism.

Jung´s vision

One of Jung´s visions

The claim that there is an independent, fixed, eternal realm of meaningful mental objects is absurd. Let me show its absurdity as it appears in the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung´s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. For Jung the archetypes were the prototypes, the original forms that gave shape to our mental content. He traced them in religious icons, myths and dream symbols, claiming they were not merely individual or reducible to subjective interpretation, but having a fixed and independent existence in the collective unconscious. Since the young Jung wanted to be scientific he did not claim the archetypes were eternal and timeless, but inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, and somehow tied to our biological past. Later in life this concern was not so prominent, and Jung downplayed the ´biological´ aspect of his psychology, and even discarded it altogether, preferring to see the archetypes in a more Platonic sense of prexistent spiritual entities.

Jung inherited the notion that dreams are the golden way to the unconscious from Freud. If the idea that there was mind independent ideal forms with a fixed meaning that expresses itself in our dreams was true, one would assume that two of the pioneer explorers of this transcendental realm would reach similar conclusions. Not only is it widely known that Jung and Freud disagreed on the nature of the unconscious, but I would claim that in discussing their disagreements Jung is pulling out the Platonic rug from underneath both of them. In a passage discussing dream interpretation in his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul I see him suffering the essential tension between how he wants the world to be and how it appears in practice. He is the great explorer of the Underworld, and if it would turn out he just invented it all himself nothing much would be left of his scientific aspirations of objectivity. He says “If there were no relatively fixed symbols, it would be impossible to determine the structure of the unconscious.” , yet he then goes on to suggest that to apply this hypothesis in practice can be a “grave blunder”.

“Just as the interpretation of dreams requires exact knowledge of the conscious status quo, so the treatment of dream symbolism demands that we take into account the dreamer´s philosophical, religious and moral convictions. It is far wiser in practice not to regard the dream-symbols as signs or symptoms of fixed character. In addition to this, they must be considered in relation to the dreamer´s immediate state of consciousness. I emphasize that this way of treating the dream-symbols is advisable in practice because theoretically there do exist relatively fixed symbols whose meaning must on no account be referred to anything whose content is known, or to anything that can be formulated in concepts.”

He then goes on to apply his own metaphysical speculations in practice, against his own advise, and discusses a dream a dying girl had about her mother committing suicide and a horse jumping out of a window.

“‘Horse’ is an archetype that is widely current in mythology and folk-lore. As an animal it represents the non-human psyche, the sub-human, animal side, and therefore the unconscious. This is why the horse in folk lore sometimes sees visions, hears voices, and speaks. As a beast of burden it is closely related to the mother-archetype; the Valkyries bear the dead hero to Valhalla and the Trojan horse encloses the Greeks. /…/ As a beast of burden it is closely related to the mother-archetype/…/ Also it has to do with sorcery and magical spells- especially the black, night horse which heralds death.”

From these readings he concludes

“It is evident, then, that ‘horse’ is the equivalent of ‘mother’ with a slight shift of meaning. The mother stands for life at its origin, and the horse for the merely animal life of the body. If we apply this meaning to the dream, it says: the animal life destroys itself.”

“Exact knowledge”?! “Evident”?! “Slight shift of meaning”?! Quoi? He might as well had said horses are related to frogs, foie gras and the Lilliputs, hence the Japanese eat with sticks. He knew from the outset that the girl was dying and no Valkyries or Greek Gods are needed to understand that she is trying to come to terms with it by consciously and unconsciously processing it. The dreams show death and is it not apparent that the meaning comes from her immediate life situation as he aptly says? As a matter of fact, Jung has problems with his own religious claim in an independent Platonic realm of fixed symbols.

“In each of the images given above we can see a relatively fixed symbol /…/ but we cannot for all that be certain that when they occur in dreams they have no other meaning./…/ To be sure, if we had to interpret dreams in an exhaustive way according to scientific principles, we should have to refer every such symbol to an archetype. But, in practice this kind of interpretation might be a grave blunder. /…/ It is therefore advisable, for the purpose of therapy, to look for the meaning of symbols as /…/ if they we not fixed.” (p. 23)

You can see that there is a tension between his Platonic belief and his practical experience that causes a lot of confusion for Jung. He at once believes in symbols with an independent meaning, i.e. not projected unto them by the individual psyche, while at the same time, in practice throws that assumption out the window, and when discussing his disagreements with his teacher Freud blatantly and honestly accepts that his own entire psychological framework is an expression of his own subjectivity and psychic make-up.

“To be sure, when we deal in ideas we inevitably make a confession, for they bring to light of day not only the best that in us lies, but our own worst insufficiencies and personal short-comings as well. This is especially the case with ideas about psychology./…/Is not every experience, even in the best circumstances, to a large extent subjective interpretation? /…/ What Freud has to say about sexuality/…/ can be taken as the truest expression of his own psychic make-up./…/ It was a great mistake on Freud´s part to turn his back on philosophy. Not once does he criticize his premise or even the assumptions that underlie his personal outlook. /…/ I have never refused the bitter-sweet drink of philosophical criticism/…/All too easily does self-criticism poison one´s naïveté, that priceless possession, or rather gift, which no creative man can be without. At any rate, philosophical criticism has helped me to see that every psychology – my own included – has the character of a subjective confession.” (`p.118)

By his own admission his metaphysical belief in fixed mental archetypes does not work in practice, his “scientific theory” is a subjective confession and his archetypes creative expressions. What then remains to substantiate his claim in collective fixed mental objects?

When we try to understand the world, the closer we get to ourselves the more our interpretation of an object itself becomes that object. We reflect ourselves in a hall of mirrors.

Why does he cling on to a notion of a fixed metaphysical realm when he must realize it is an impossibility?

Platonic Prozac

Another vision from The Red Book

Another vision from The Red Book

Jung himself was battling with psychosis, was hearing voices and seeing visions, for many years. While this is pretty well-documented, only last month was his family persuaded to publish his own notes and drawings of these episodes. The Red Book has been kept locked up in a bank vault for decades. I do not mean to say his inner turmoil disqualifies his insights into how our minds work in any way, but it explains to me why Jung was the more religious of the psychoanalytical pioneers. For someone for whom the plastic flooring in his mind is giving way there is a need for a solid foundation to stand on. Plato´s metaphysics offers just that. A belief in religious certainties is a prozac that measurably reduces anxiety (as this recent brain scan study on the neural effect of belief in an Almighty God shows). Faith and certainty give structure and thus help the believer to get on with his life without doubts. There are healthy practical consequences of believing and that is why the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is based on Jungian psychology. Uncertainty can be overbearing and faith is at any rate physically healthier than chemical addiction.

At the same time this human weakness makes us vulnerable to exploits. There is an inner need for certainty, and there are also outer political forces ready to make solid that which is plastic. Already in The Republic (380BC), while describing the Ideal State, Plato discusses the intentional use of lies to achieve political ends. His ideal society is heavily stratified with three fixed classes: the guardians, the auxiliaries and the craftsmen (workers, plebeians). To maintain social cohesion people must stay in their place or else violence and instability will ensue. It is prerogative the plebeians do not question their lot in life, and in order for them not to the Philosopher King is entitled to make use of “noble lies“, dispensed as a doctor would his medicine. In the dialogue Socrates tells Glaucon about the Myth of Metals which while prefectly fabricated is hoped by Plato´s Socrates to consolidate the state. It claims that each child is born with a specific metal in their soul, gold, silver or bronze, and accordingly is intended to be either ruler, enforcer or obedient subject respectively. Glaucon does not believe this myth will fly but Socrates hopes that future rulers will believe in it and thus it will gain in power. These myths have come and gone for thousands of years. Just now I am working in Dubai and while it is supposed to be some kind of democracy it is very clear that being a ruler is something you are born to be. In the United Arab Emirates the Platonic gold is not a metal in the soul but a name: Al Maktoum.

You can see how not only is there an inner need for certainty, there is also mounting outer pressure. And the same moment you accept there is an absolute truth you have to accept that the messenger of the existence of an absolute truth also has access to what it is. I claim there are rules of the game but not a fixed outcome. Unfortunately for us, there are not only rules, but also rulers of the game, and they often want us to accept their vision of the future as final.

The Rulers of the Game

If the future is open and we participate in its creation, who are those that actually produce most of the drafts? Who are the potters that mould the plastic clay of our souls? Who benefit from people staying in a state of docile Platonic haze? From where do people get their visions of the future? From those who understand how to build the social reality. Freud´s aim was to liberate people from misery by helping them understand their own minds. His disciple Jung tried to give us a new type of spirituality where the aim was individuation, growing whole by integrating our unconscious shadow. Freud´s nephew Edward Bernays however applied his uncles knowledge to quite the opposite end. Bernays is the father of modern Public Relations (a word he coined), and his seminal book Propaganda (1928) opens with the lines:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Later he writes:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible…”

Read these lines well because you do not get many chances to hear these ambitions spelled out. Today strategic social architects keep their cards very close to their chest. Obviously Bernays was trying to market himself to the business elite and make his own influence appear greater than it was, but even so he has had a massive impact on the world. He was not only extremely successful marketeer for many major US corporations, but also hired by President Calvin Coolidge to improve his image, and his book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) was used by Hitler´s propaganda minister Goebbles to consolidate the German people´s hatred of Jews.

Leaving the Window Open


"...fresh air into a murky cellar..."

Psychological knowledge about about human motivation is a power tool that can be used for many goals. Those who understand the influence you can have over people who believe in fixed values have no interest in making people loose their naïvité and learn to see things from many angles. An aspiring leader does not want people to realize that there are many ways to interpret the issue he proposes to have solved, he does not want people to see that everybody´s idea of how they choose to spend the few moments they have on this planet is equally valid, that in social matters we participate in creating reality. Such sophisticated abstractions would only undermine his authority. A situation where people feel existential anxiety yet believe there is something out there in the world that can rid them of it, that they “should” not feel it, and that others do not, such a situation is ready and ripe for whoever is trying to control the masses. This is equally true of religious and secular ideologues. Thus the belief in an objective and fixed ultimate reality helps to provide a glorious purpose and goal for human existence. This is the kind of idea that serves the masses and the leaders alike. People want to hear they have the Truth, the Way and the Life on their team, and leaders want people to be docile. The Platonic attitude is thus exploited, externally by leaders but also internally by the unconscious defence mechanisms that want to keep uncertainty, cognitive dissonance and existential anxiety at bay.

The possible number of futures is nearly infinite while at the same time determined by the limitations of the rules, and each moment those possible futures are changing. It is creativity that makes the universe historical. If there was no creativity there would be no history since the past and the future would be determined in the present and whether or not it unfolded would be uninteresting. Time would be irrelevant. Creativity makes history by actualising one of the potentials in a window of opportunity.

We live at the horizon of the evolution of the universe and when we try to anticipate our next step, the universe is trying to anticipate and realize its own future through us. We are the cutting edge of evolution. We are the cosmic window of opportunity. Any potential that can be actualised in the real world, i.e. the world of res, things and bodies, must have been possible by the rules of the game, but when it comes to reflexive potentials it is not enough that they should be possible in theory; Somebody must discover them and believe in them for them to be real possibilities. We do not know how many different potential futures we have on this planet but we need many creative and imaginative thinkers to come up with as many scenarios as possible. We need our dreams, but not the Platonic-Jungian reveries of our sleeping mind, but visions of potential futures. The more fantastic visions, the more fertile the soil for beliefs and subsequent behaviour to bear them out. The more imagination the better the future. Unfortunately our culture is getting increasingly streamlined and the trend following behaviour greatly limits the capacity for independent thinking, and therefore it is unlikely that we explore more than a tiny fraction of the reflexive potentials we really have. There are many dangers with a homogeneous society, but the inability to adapt to sudden changes might be the biggest. With more diverse ways of living, more crazy odd people, we keep lots of alternative ways of living alive. The odd alternative people offer the conventional society not only a healthy contrast with which to compare itself, something that provokes critical reflection, but also maintains these alternatives alive as concrete viable options. If alternative lifestyles disappear, they will also in all likelihood disappear from our imagination. If we cannot even think it, it truly no longer exists. The reflexive potential is gone, and the window of opportunity has closed.

Aug 30 2009

I am driving my motorcycle in the south of Spain, and have left the beaches of Cadiz to to stay the night in Zahara de la Sierra, a mountain village with a Moorish castle ruin and a turquoise damn below. As I reach the top I enjoy a view of 30 km in every direction. I check in to a wonderful hotel perched just below the castle.

To kick off my philosophical journey I will make and defend the following ideas.

  1. There are rules independent of our minds that govern the whole of existence.
  2. Any actualised potential in one moment defines what is and what is not possible in the next.
  3. The rules determine what is possible in any given moment, but not what is actualised.
  4. Uncertainty and unpredictability are built into the very fabric of the universe.
  5. There are domains of reality causally independent of our minds.
  6. There are domains of reality causally dependent on our minds.
  7. In the mind dependent domains of reality our beliefs about what is possible can influence what is in fact possible.
  8. It is not the truth of the beliefs per se that gives us the most beneficial possibilities.
  9. A belief is healthy if in the moment it is believed it has beneficial consequences.

These assumptions or axioms seem to me to be true, and from them we can draw some very significant conclusions. I am no expert in any field and if someone can show me where I go wrong I believe I shall be equally happy. I do however believe the world is in one way or another, and in this post I will try to see if I can understand and communicate anything significant about how modern science says it is. At the same time I find myself in the uncomfortable position of believing that knowing the truth about how things are may not prove to be the thing that will help us realize the best possible future. In spite that general reservation in this post I will focus on what I think is true about the word (points 1 to 5). In the next how I think we work (points 6 & 7). And in the following why I think truth and health can be in a highly strained marriage (points 8 & 9).

The Castle at the Top of the Mountain

Art by Front

To make my case let me first set the scene using the mountain village as it strikes me a perfect metaphor for how the world is and the human situation within it. Perhaps you will sense my unease between the lines. There is a castle on top of the mountain. It was built sometime towards the end of 13th century by Alfonso X El Sabio. Imagine for a second that Alfonso was born in the castle and as a young prince is not so wise (sabio) but rather spoilt and credulous. He has servants that cook and take care of him and has never left the castle. He believes that the outside world is a hostile place and that he would be killed should he ever venture outside. He throws stones out through the window at anyone that may have the misfortune of passing below. As the otherwise peaceful villagers get stones on their heads they gradually turn hostile.

Would his belief about the world be true or false? There is no simple answer to that question, and it could be argued that the belief is both false and true. What makes it complicated is that the fact the belief refers to is dependent on the belief itself. The fact is a consequence of the belief. The poor prince acts in a way so as to make his belief come true.

A lot in human life works this way. Through our behaviour our beliefs actualise some potentials rather than others, which in their turn bring about a different set of consequences and possibilities, about which we may or may not have a clear idea, based on which we act again, to which the world reacts, and so on, round it goes.

(Legend has it this is that the Moors actually threw stones to check for Christian intruders at night. Normally that would provoke pigeons into the air, and if there were none they would concluce the Christians below had scared them off and they got ready to be attacked. Realizing this trick Christians brought pigeons in cages to let out when the stones fell so as to be able to take the castle by surprise in 1483).

For the prince, does it matter greatly for his survival what he thinks about the world? Is it not true that as long as he has food on his table he can believe anything about the outside world. He could deny the existence of the mountain. He could claim the castle had always been there, that he was the king of the entire universe. He could even deny the very existence of the food in front of him. As long as he keeps on eating he can live out his days in a state of complete delusion as regards the true state of things. And he would enjoy his life all the more for it.

The universe in itself however doesn’t pay special homage to royalties. It just follows its own rules.

The Rules of the Game

Some things are possible, others are not. I do not think I can make an argument about the existence of this distinction that itself does not presuppose it. The entire rational art of deduction is based on it. If anything is possible it must also be possible that not everything is possible, and then we are already in logical difficulties. Let me instead make a symbolic take on the scene I have created. Let the mountain represent that which separates the possible from the impossible. These are the external limitations that we try to capture in the laws of physics, biology and neurology, that underpin our economies, infrastructures, languages, thought patterns and so on. Call them what you wish. I call them the rules of the game. Whether these are immutable and eternal laws, or just acquired habits of the universe I believe is irrelevant because their timespan will vastly exceed that of life on earth. Our knowledge of them has increased, but is inevitably limited especially as regards ourselves.

Further, let the castle, full of symbols and royal crests, represent culture. We build culture on top of nature. One rule is that nature set the limitations and possibilities of culture. The higher depends on the lower. Destroy the mountain and the village goes too. But the opposite is not true. There was a mountain long before there was a castle, and the mountain does not need or care for the castle.

The servants could be our instincts, all the subconscious processes that keep us alive and well. They normally keep making us looking for food and eat even if we wanted to deny the need for and the existence of food. (Only yesterday did I hear a girl proclaim she believed Indian yogis could learn to live off nothing but sunlight).

The prince then, who would that be? It would be our conscious mind. He is a prince and not a slave because he is both spoilt and free. No matter our factual circumstances we are free to interpret them in wildly different ways, some truer than others, some healthier than others. The rules are so permissive that they can enable us to completely deny their existence, much the same way democracy can allow anti-democratic voices free expression or law and order protect the rights of anarchists.

In theory we have an infinite (but not unlimited) creative scope to interpret what happens to us, what we choose to pay attention to, and how we choose to behave. In practice however we cannot think further than the reach of our imagination. We breath meaning into the rules, and our expectations about how the game will play out informs our actions and therefore modifies the outcome.

The lower sets the possibilities of the higher. The higher gives meaning to the lower.

(For sake of clarification, I am in no way referring to human norms. Conventional laws can be broken, but they have no more to do with the rules I am referring to than that they, like everything else, are limited by them.)

Admittedly, neither the claim that there are rules, nor that they are independent of our minds, are scientific claims. They are axiomatic, and cannot be falsified.

A swallow just swept into the open window. On the way out it did not see the crystal pane. People that don´t believe in an external world that sets the limitations better walk around with crash helmets.

Patterns in Nature

Generative art by Jared Tarbell

Generative art by Jared Tarbell

There are many bogus claims about regularities in the universe, invoked to explain (and justify) everything from people´s names to the holocaust (!). On the one hand there are many patterns, and our brain is made up of patterns, why it is only natural for us to find them. On the other hand we can be mistaken, and often fail to find subtle patterns (more on that below ) or believe we have found a pattern that at closer examination is not there (apophenia). Many paranoid schizophrenics are convinced of hidden meaningful connections between random events and that their lives are run by secret conspiracies. Likewise religiously inclined often look for, and find, meaning and purpose in every twist and turn of their lives. Understandably orthodox scientists would like to steer clear of both those threats of apparent irrationality but in so doing may prove to be throwing out some genuine patterns with the proverbial bath water. Findings in the area of quantum physics, complexity and self-organisation have many spooky and apparently irrational aspects to them. The difference however, between scientific hypothesis about some regularity and superstitious claims is that the scientific ones are open to be tested and found false. As far as truth is concerned a rule whose implications are always right no matter what happens is quite useless (eg. if you pray hard enough you will get what you dreamt of). As for mental health it may be quite appropriate.

Are fractals the fingerprint of God?

Are fractals the fingerprints of God?

If we have thousands of people chipping away at a claim of some natural regularity, probing, testing and debating, what remains will be vastly more reliable than that of any preacher, no matter how many followers he may have. For all its shortcomings – incompleteness, Eurocentrism, self-forgetfulness, politics etc. – natural science remains the most reliable source we have to identify the rules of the game. To deny the authority of science over superstition is equal to deny that the earth is round. It is science that puts us into perspective and teaches us that life is but a fragile spark.

Many claim that the three milestone achievements in natural science over the last century are: quantum mechanics (QM), the theory of relativity and nonlinear dynamics, popularly known as science of complexity or chaos theory. Generally they focus on the very small, the very large and the scale of life. I will only dip my toe in the very small and the life size as I believe the rules we live under are determined predominantly by them.

Quantum Indeterminacy

Classically the idea that the world is governed by universal laws implied that the world a) is necessarily deterministic, and b) (at least in theory) predictable. I believe quantum mechanics is teaching us that neither is true. If time could be turned back history could unfold differently, therefore knowing the rules not even Laplace’s infinite intelligence would be able to predict the future. This is so not because of our limited knowledge but because the world in itself seems to be indeterministic. Quantum mechanics got its name from Max Planck’s initial insight around year 1900 that electromagnetic energy could be emitted only in quantized form. This insight was only the beginning of a story of 100 years of quantum mysteries such as Bohr’s model (1913) in which a subatomic particle such as an electron could make quantum leaps from one orbit to another without passing the space in between, or John Achibald Wheeler’s (1978) delayed choice experiments where a choice made by an observer determines what must already have happened at an earlier stage. Wheeler writes in 2001 that “today an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product is based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics, from semiconductors in computer chips to lasers in compact-disc players, magnetic resonance imaging in hospitals, and much more. “ Yet even if we know how to use the theories we still do not know what they mean.

The observer does not create the observed. The rules are independent of our minds.

One aspect of reality that has been brought into question by QM is the independence between the world and the observer. In the classical Copenhagen interpretation (1920) a subatomic particle – a quanton – is a wave-particle described perfectly by the Schroedinger wave equation yet it could not be measured with exactness in both speed and location at the same time. If speed was measured the position would not be known. The limits of our knowledge are thus set by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The question was, and still is, whether this uncertainty is something that is provoked by our equipment, or whether it is the quanton in itself that is uncertain. The classic debate between Bohr and Einstein hinged on this subject and Einstein’s position was succinctly summed up in his metaphor “God does not play dice” by which he meant that there was a world out there, independent of our minds, with precisely determined properties. In his famous EPR paper (1935) he claimed that quantum physics was an incomplete description of reality, and that there were some hidden variables, although unknown to us, that still determined all properties of reality. The EPR paradox pivots on the notion of entanglement between twin quantons, which means wave-particles that appear as each others opposites, such as an electron and a positron. By measuring some property such as spin on the electron one automatically knows the corresponding value for the positron. This is a bit like you do not need to go up to the second floor in a two story building to see if the elevator is there. It is enough to know if it is on the first floor. Experiments show this to be true. If the electron’s spin was undecided before the measurement how come the positron would be determined exactly in the same moment when no measurement has interacted with it? According to Einstein either the twins send information to each other faster than the speed of light, or there are some hidden variables that keep them synchronised. Because it seemed more unlikely that information could travel faster than light (nonlocality) one assumed reality was determined and QM was incomplete. In 1964 however John Bell produced a paper called Bell’s theorem that showed that even if we could not know the variable, we could experimentally test some of the implications if they existed. According to mainstream interpretations these experiments show the Einstein was wrong and that reality is undecided prior to measurement (indeterminacy) and that information can travel instantaneously (action-at-a-distance).

There are however several alternative interpretations that avoids indeterminacy by accepting some even more absurd idea, such that the world would split at each moment of choice and each history would unfold in its own version of the universe. The most respected realist interpretation of QM, and the only one apparently equally compatibly with test results was formulated by David Bohm in 1952. It is very “ironic” that mainstream physicists reject determinism and realism based on Bell’s theorem while Bell himself is defending Bohm’s interpretation (Bell 1987):

But in 1952 I saw the impossible done. It was in papers by David Bohm. Bohm showed explicitly how parameters could indeed be introduced, into nonrelativistic wave mechanics, with the help of which the indeterministic description could be transformed into a deterministic one. More importantly, in my opinion, the subjectivity of the orthodox version, the necessary reference to the ‘observer,’ could be eliminated. …

Hence there are many ways of interpreting the equations, their predictions and the experimental results, and some are consistent with an independently deterministic world, and some (more common) with a world inherently probabilistic and uncertain. In none of these cases however is the world created by the mind. The outcome of the experiments are not determined by the observer. The wave-particle will behave as it will independently of the wishes of the observer, and in every case follow the rules. It may be that matter or energy is not determined in itself, but the rules that govern their possibilities are still independent of our minds. In this way the world is in one way or another and it is not up to us to dream it up. I think this brings home my first point.

Dice play God.

While the jury is still out on what to make of QM and determinacy, theories that try to reintepret the results so as to save a precious principle such as locality (Einstein) or determinism (Bohm) have something ad-hoc and unscientific about them. It is not trying to see what is, but trying to recast it to fit some model. That is an outrageous and heretic thing to say about two of the most profoundly creative and daring minds of last century, and I know of few people, physicist or otherwise, that have spent more time working on keeping their own and others’ minds open. Still it does seem to me that it is rather dice that play God than the other way around. What I take away from quantum physics is that freedom and indeterminacy are built into the very fabric of the universe, and choices creating new choices are being made constantly. The future is thus open and there can be no final Omega point for our existence. Whatever possibilities there are they keep on changing and none is predestined.

The Nonlinearity of Everyday Life

Nonlinearity is not the exception, it is the rule.

The belief in a final destination of human existence is an idea common to both Christianity, Islam, neoconservative and communicst ideology. This teleological idea has had a firm grip on popular imagination in spite the fact that in nature there are no straight lines, and the only final destination we know for sure is the grave. While the old science was based on an idealised special case of nature where processes were seen as linear, we now know that most, if not all, natural and social processes are nonlinear. In nonlinear systems changes over time are not proportional, i.e. they do not follow straight paths, instead they can be erratic, haphazard, showing booms and bust cycles, have negative and positive feedback loops, sometimes momentarily predictable then utterly random. The real world is full of nonlinear processes, such as weather systems, population growth, traffic, financial markets and the spread of ideas, and not only are they individually unpredictable, they all interact and influence each other in dramatic ways. Nonlinearity is not the exception, it is the rule. It describes the very real processes that determine and shape our individual lives. How many influential men were born because a rainy day their parents decided to stay in bed? How many are not born to potentially loving couples since they are busy getting divorced due to stress caused by the current financial crisis?

Every time a choice is made in the universe one out of several possibilities is actualised. Each choice leads to new choices. What was possible in one moment is gone once a choice is made and may never return again. Each choice – irreversible. The collective interaction between all processes – unpredictable. If the world is a field of vibrating dominos, the arrow of time is determined by those already fallen and those yet to fall. The present is the point where the choice is made between those that will fall and those that will remain standing forever. Not even the tile itself knows how it will fall until it has fallen.

The Impossible and the Impossible

There is more than one type of impossibility.

One implication of the axiom that the rules determine everything that is possible is that there is not only one type of impossibility. There is the impossible that could never come into existence because the rules do not permit it. For instance, there could not be a Divine Dictator ruling all in a rule based universe like ours since everything depends on everything else and you cannot bend some rules without bending all rules. For it to be possible for some processes to follow rules, all processes must follow rules, or else arbitrary disorder would spread like cracks travel in the ice of a lake. If a god answered one prayer complete disorder would ensue. Nothing external can control a web of rule based processes with creative choice built in. Whatever order there is will have to emerge from within the system itself. The Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong called the outer region of the impossible absistence and it is made up by all those ontological freaks that could never, and will never, be.

Knowing the rules however we can imagine various scenarios that could play out, but may not. You remember those books where you could choose how the story continued by jumping to another page? Similarly those alternative endings reside somewhere between absistence and actuality. Each potential is a viable candidate for existence that adheres to the rules but by the fall of the dice may or may not pass the frontier into actuality. Missed opportunities are impossible now but not in the same way as an omnipotent being is impossible. In my Meinongian parlour missed opportunities and existential crossroads not yet reached neither exist, nor absist, they subsist. Subsistence plays a greater part in the life of our souls then existence. We regret past mistakes and dream of a future still in the making.

Spontaneous Emergent Order out of Disorder

The notorious second law of thermodynamics states that left to itself a closed system will increase disorder. The simplest sign of order is differentiation, differentiation between two substances, hot and cold, light and dark, inside and outside, positive and negative etc. Disorder is the same as homogeneousness, everything the same. A battery left to itself will eventually go flat on its own. If there is an Omega point for the universe it is when all the energy is used up and it has reach maximum disorder. In thermodynamics that state is called heat death. It is not an uplifting idea, but an extension of something well all know to be true from our daily lives. Eventually the fire goes out.

But if the universe as a whole is producing more and more disorder, how come life would appear? Life is going in exactly the opposite direction. It is producing more and more order all the time, more complexity and more differentiation. If the universe at large is not evolving how can goal oriented forms suddenly appear? How can life and purpose emerge from a bunch of randomly bouncing particles? Life and human civilisation seems to be a blatant contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics.

Life obviously exists and hence under some conditions a spontaneous increase in order must be possible. What are those conditions? Ilya Prigogine got the Nobel Prize in chemistry 1977 for his work on irreversible thermodynamics where he showed the spontaneous order can appear out of disorder in dissipative structures far from equilibrium. A dissipative structure is an open system that receives, processes and dissipates energy to its surroundings. To be far from equilibrium means there is a big difference in temperature, pressure or concentration, and thus a lot of energy exchange.

Bénard cell

Bénard cell

A simple example of this is a shallow pan of water or some other liquid that is heated evenly from the bottom. To start with the molecules in the liquid are moving around at random with the same kind of arbitrary motion no matter where you look. As the temperature increases a sharp contrast between the bottom and the top produces a far-from-eqiulibrium state and all of a sudden the microscopic randomly moving molecules organise themselves into hexagonal convection cells. This phenomena is called a Bénard cell. One of the most fascinating aspect of this jump is that the exact direction of the hexagonal pattern is determined by the tiniest initial changes such as the force of gravity which in normal stable conditions would have only negligible effects on a liquid a few millimeter thick. (Prigogine, 1985)

The fact that in ordinary water disconnected and non-communicating molecules in an instant can go, correction must go, from macroscopic disorder to a beautiful ordered pattern by simply adding heat proves that locally increased order is neither an absisting freak nor an improbable subsisting potential but a natural necessity. According to the rules under these special conditions nature must jump from a state of complete disorder to a state of perfect order, as if that was the most energy efficient solution to a specific thermodynamic challenge. But does this spontaneous emergence of order not contradict the second law of thermodynamic? Not at all as the local increase of order happens at the cost of increased disorder in the surrounding. Islands of order appear in an ocean of disorder by stealing negative entropy (aka syntropy) from the environment, thus making the sum total of disorder increase. These local exceptions, however tiny on a cosmic scale, are enough to bring about the basis of our entire civilisation. Given the rules and the contrasts created in the Big Bang, spontaneously emerging order – the very basis of life – must appear from within the system itself without fail.
Every star in the universe is one such source of far-from-equilibrium conditions.
For an extensive list of examples of order emerging spontaneously check out the entry on self-organisation in scholarpedia .

Unpredictability and Butterfly Moments

According to Prigogine a complex system passes through stages where they behave in a classical and deterministic way. Only at certain crucial moments, so called bifurcation points, does a system have a choice, and tiny random fluctuations can dramatically influence its future. “The ‘historical’ path along which the system evolves /…/ is characterized by a succession of stable regions, where deterministic laws dominate, and of instable ones, near the bifurcation points, where the system can ‘choose’ between or among more than one possible future./…/This mixture of necessity and chance constitutes the history of the system.” (Prigogine, 1985, p. 169) Think of a leaf floating in a river. When the river is flowing calmly it is fairly easy to predict where the leaf will be a second down the line, but the moment the river reaches some obstacles the flow changes radically from laminar to turbulent, and becomes in effect chaotic. Suddenly the smallest change in the leaf’s position will throw it one way or the other and it is impossible to predict at what side of the river it will end up. A bifurcation is a choice, a fork in the road, and it is often at these moments chaos emerges.

Popularly and historically chaos is virtually synonymous with randomness, but over the last 60 years scientists have come to find subtle order behind many seemingly erratic processes.Thus the history of science has taken another ironic twist. The world is more chaotic than we thought, while chaos is, well, less chaotic. With the help of computers and enough empirical data never before available scientists are finding that the behaviour of the leaf in the swirling river may be controlled by surprisingly simple rules. The branch of science dealing with such simplicity in complexity is called nonlinear dynamics, or more popularly, chaos theory. The chaos that chaos theory is concerned with is not the kind of chaos we normally think of. In fact quite the opposite, and is often called deterministic chaos as it is a collection of many orderly behaviours.

Bifurcation diagram of butterfly moments

Although chaos is unpredictable, it is deterministic. If two nearly identical chaotic systems of the appropriate type are impelled, or driven, by the same signal, they will produce the same output, even though no one can say what that output mighty be./…/ The distinguishing feature of chaotic systems is that they exhibit a sensitivity to initial conditions. /…/ if two chaotic systems that are nearly identical are in two slightly different states, they will rapidly evolve to very different states. To the casual observer, chaotic systems appear to behave in a random fashion. Yet close examination shows that they have an underlying order.” (Ditto & Pecora, Scientific American 1993)

Are all complex and apparently random events controlled by some simple rules? I am not aware of any chaos theorist that claims that randomness and chance do not exist. What they have realized though is that under certain conditions what appears to be random is in fact ordered. There is a lot more spontaneously emerging patterns in nature than previously thought. Conditions that can produce deterministic chaos include (adapted from a longer list in Williams, 1997):

  1. The process is nonlinear.
  2. The outcome of a process is fed back into the same process again, the output of an equation in one step is used as input for the next iteration. Today’s events affect tomorrow’s events.
  3. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The process unfolds very differently given the tiniest differences in some variable (The Butterfly Effect).
  4. Changes in the variables of the system, when plotted in a diagram called phase space, display fractal shapes. Fractals repeat self-similar shapes no matter the degree of zoom.
Chaotic attractors in neural networks

Chaotic attractors in neural networks

What is unique about chaotic processes as opposed to linear ones is that while they follow rules they are unpredictable. In an linear equation if you wanted to find out how things will be at time t you simply put it into the equation. In chaotic equations you must repeat the calculation over and over again, perhaps millions of times, to actually get to the point you are interested in. Whatever error you have in your initial value it will multiply every time and eventually the accurate data will be cancelled out by noise. Historically it was assumed that while we could not measure anything with complete exactness what ever degree of certainty we started with it would hold for our predictions as well. What the meteorologist Lorenz discovered was that the error will increase rapidly and drastically, and with every repetition of the calculation we will loose one decimal place of exactness. Knowing the rules does not mean being able to predict the outcome. This “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” became known as the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon rainforest that two years later causes a tornado somewhere in China.

In butterfly moments a single idea can change the future course of history.

As you can appreciate I have gone to some trouble to give support for my second (!) initial point that “any actualised potential in one moment defines what is and what is not possible in the next“. In chaos theory it is dramatically illustrated by the Butterfly Effect, which is thus the outcome of a repetitive process where each successive step is dependent on the outcome of the previous one. But of course we all assume this to be the case when we consider any historical evolution, whether a physical system, social or personal history. If it were not for x then y would never have happened. We intuitively believe in cause and effect chains, and maybe my point can be interpreted as such a simple statement of causal determinism. That is not my intention though, and that is why I think the third point is the most contentious, i.e. that the rules only set the limits, they do not define the outcome. This I believe is the sticking point in the debate between Einstein and Bohr, and it comes back in chaos theory, and is of utmost important in bifurcation points. I think that if indeterminacy is found to be impossible in quantum physics it cannot be possible anywhere else in life. The conclusion seems inevitable to me that if Einstein was right there is no freedom, and thus personal responsibility is merely a useful fiction. The question thus is what chance really is, if it exists, and whether the same cause can have different effects given the same conditions. Quantum oddities have often been ignored when dealing with ordinary life processes, as they seemed to concern only the tiniest things in the world. It seems to me that in chaotic bifurcation points, lets call them butterfly moments, we can no longer afford such luxury since normally negligible effect can have dramatic consequences. And this is not just abstract metaphysical speculation any longer but theoretical reflections on empirical results. In butterfly moments individuals can have dramatic consequences for the whole and their behaviour can result in that the system as a whole is favouring one reaction path over a number of equally possible paths. Tiny random fluctuations in the right moment can shape the pattern in a Bénard cell, the crystallisation of frost, the morphogenic process giving stem cells their position and function in the body. Why would this not also be the case for moments of crisis in human history and the chance fluctuations produced by influential individuals, such as prophets, political leaders or revolutionaries? Why should we assume that human history only had one possible subsisting path to follow? Take quantum uncertainty and magnify it with chaotic sensitivity to initial conditions and I cannot see why you would not end up with indeterminate quantum effects on a macro scale. That means that human life is intrinsically indeterminate and unpredictable, not only due to our inexact data and imperfect knowledge, but rather in itself. If we could rewind human history 5000 years it would play out in very different ways. Jesus, in the unlikely event of being born, would probably have been forgotten as 99% of the other paranoid prophets, Columbus would not have discovered America and Latin America would not speak Spanish, Hitler would have been locked up in jail and most of Europe communistic. Large and small events are all dependent on an interplay of chance and necessity and to look for a hidden plan, an invisible hand, divine guidance, astrological patterns or predictable Hegelian-Marxist dialectics is all a fool’s game as inspired as foretelling the future through coffe grounds.

One the most baffling and fascinating aspects of how parts and wholes interact – holons as Koestler called them – is that the whole can sometimes behave as a coherent individual. How can individual Uranium atoms decay at the right moment so as to produce a holistic regularity when the individual does not know about the whole? How can a water molecule moving at random jump into hexagonal order in perfect synchronisation with all the others? How can ants organise an anthill in perfect symmetry without any control from above? How do the parts know how to behave so as to produce holistic order without having access to any bird’s eye view? “We believe that models inspired by the concept of “order through fluctuations” will help us with these questions and even permit us in some circumstances to give a more precises formulation to the complex interplay between individual and collective aspects of behaviour. From a physicist’s point of view, this involves a distinction between states of the system in which all individual initiative is doomed to insignificance on the one hand, and on the other, bifurcation regions in which an individual, an idea, or a new behaviour can upset the global state. Even in this regions, amplification obviously does not occur with just any individual, idea, or behaviour, but only with those that are “dangerous”- that is, those that can exploit to their advantage the nonlinear relations guaranteeing the stability of the preceding regime.” (Prigogine, 1985, p. 206 )

Some implications and conclusions

There are many conclusions to be be drawn from these insights. I am just trying to come to grips with them myself and welcome any criticism or suggestions you might have. This is what I make of it though.

  • Life and order does not need an external architect to arise. Once the necessary far-from-equilibrium conditions exist, order will arise. I remain utterly agnostic as regards the origins of the rules of the game but once existing any exogenous force, such as influence by some divine dictator, could do nothing but destroy it. Any programmer will tell you that changing so much as a comma in a working program will most likely grind it to a halt. “If it ain´t broken, don´t try to fix it.”
  • While indeterminacy does not offer any support for the notion of free will and personal responsibility per se, without indeterminacy the concepts are (ontologically) nonsensical as there can be no genuine options to choose between. It seems to me that the most impartial interpretation of quantum physics is supporting the idea that indeterminacy and uncertainty is part of the very fabric of the universe, and that everything could therefore have been radically different from how it happened to turn out.
  • Spontaneously emergent order realizes one out of several possibilities that exist in a given moment, but we have no reason to assume that this particular choice is the “best” of all possible choices. It may be just good enough to survive. In molecules and cells the degrees of freedom are more limited than in more complex systems, and taking our world as a vast complex whole we have no reason to assume we are living in Leibniz’ “the best of all possible worlds“. The way our society is organised for instance may be a short terms solution, a local optimum, that has taken us this far, not a global optimum that will ensure our long term survival.
  • With or without indeterminacy, chaos theory shows that our attempts to make long-term predictions of the future are futile. Anything we pretend to know about the future is only conjectures, better or worse guesses, and never true or false. In one blow this renders belief in religious and ideological prophecies delusional, and as a consequence makes the bulk of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism and Neo-Conservatism nonsensical.
  • In butterfly moments individual actions can dramatically change which of several possible futures will become reality. While history is paved with times of crisis and relative stability, our times seem to be more chaotic than ever in terms of the far reaching consequences our actions may have. I believe that among the non-random factors that influence our socio-cultural evolution individual ideas that inspire behaviour play the most crucial role. A single idea can change the world, save it or destroy it.

These are some of the conclusions I draw from man’s latest insights into the rules and I think they should have a great impact on the way we think about ourselves, our view of the world, our morality and legal system and so on. Whether they will remains to be seen as just like the prince can deny the food in front of him relativists or a religious fanatic can, in a loud voice, deny an independent reality and rules governing our existence using megaphones and TV sets built using the very understanding of the world whose validity they are trying to undermine. But just like life does not contradict the second law of thermodynamics, human behaviour never contradicts the rules of the game. How our misconceptions of the rules are not only permitted by them but might actually improve how well we play is the subject of the next post.

Further reading

Check out my recommended reading section on complexity.

Inspiring blog on fractal ontology
Is quantum probability really chaotic order?
Introduction to chaos
Introduction to self-organisation

Jan 25 2009

In Swedish the word for reality is verklighet. Etymologically it stems from the German Wirklichkeit, and I was very surprised to learn that it was the mystic Meister Eckhart’s translation of the Latin actualitas that he used to explain Greek philosophy to Dominican nuns around 1300. I think few Scandinavians and Germans suspect that their concept of reality comes from a mystic that while steeped in Christian metaphors had a very Eastern outlook that claimed that above and beyond the God as a Creator there is a formless Godhead from which all arises. The English concept reality comes from the Latin realitas or realis, and interestingly enough according to an online etymological dictionary it was originally, i.e. around 1550, a legal term meaning “fixed property”. That makes sense since it is still reflected in the American usage of real estate. The dictionary also claims that the meaning “real existence” comes from 1647, which suggests that Germans had an idea of reality a good 300 years before the English. It gives no further clues, and online searches for the etymology of reality leaves one none the wiser. I don’t know Latin, but I have gathered realitas is related to res meaning thing, and I believe that it would be quite uncontroversial to say that reality means something like “everything that exists”. Exactly what one thinks exists and what it means for it to exist is what distinguishes entire schools of philosophy.

That the origin of philosophical speculation in German has this mystical affinity of Meister Eckhart helps to explain the vast difference in flavour between Anglo-American philosophy and continental (i.e. German and French) philosophy. Where Anglo-American philosophy has had more of a sober rationalist character where clear logical analysis can lay bare a passive reality out there, continental philosophy has had more of the poet’s sensitivity. Logical positivists tried to distinguish that which exists and is true from that which does not exist, or exists merely in the mind, and is false. The very concept philosophical realism reflects this idea that reality is something external and independent of human thought. The Anglophone authority by default, the Oxford dictionary defines reality as “thing or all that is real and not imagination or fantasy.” It is no coincidence that in mathematics the opposite of real numbers is called imaginary, because in the Anglo-American concept imagination is exactly the realm of the unreal, the false, that which is to be discarded. It is very tempting for a rationalist to deride German idealists and French deconstructivists and dismiss them as either nostalgic romantics or irrational literary critics that cannot tell facts from fiction. While that is probably valid criticism in some cases the defining difference between analytical and continental philosophy does not lie in the degree of logic used. I would argue that the difference is that Anglo-American philosophy is eliminative in nature, while continental philosophy is inclusive, and that this goes back to the difference between reality and Wirklichkeit.

Wirklichkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real.

Wirklichkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real. As a consequence all of that which is an opposite of reality is included in Wirklichkeit since all the fictions of the human mind, myths, fairytales, scientific hypothesis, ideologies and religions, all are products of our imagination and have concrete effects and shape the world we live in. From this spring the essential difference in flavour between an eliminatist analytic philosophy and an inclusive synthetic philosophy. This is obviously a simplistic generalisation but I think it is true all the way from Descartes, Kant, the German idealists like Hegel and Schelling and the theosophists, through to Nietzsche, Heidegger, the phenomenologist-existential movement and post-structuralism. One can find as many differences between these schools of thought as similarities of course, but I dare say that they all reject the ontological suicide committed by the empiricists, and they all see science as an effect brought about by something larger than it can itself fully comprehend. They try to return to the subject and understand the ground that makes science possible instead of trying to explain it away. Thoughts are real if for nothing else they have real manifest effects. The human spirit is active and co-creates the world; it is not merely a passive witness trying to achieve a “view from nowhere”.

Oxford dictionary again does not distinguish between actuality and reality, but in order to be etymologically faithful actuality would be a better translation of Wirklichkeit as it would go back to Eckhart’s original translation of actualitas, and imply that which acts.

How to slice reality in three

Plato distinguished between the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This threefold distinction of reality corresponds to Kant’s three critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement. It is also reflected in our language as It, We and I, and in the distinction between natural science, social science and humanities. It reflects three distinguishable domains of the world, following different rules and different ways of yielding to human understanding. In the realist-empiricist understanding of the world the I-We domains, would strictly speaking be imaginary and unreal. Contrary to the Oxford dictionary actuality would be the very opposite of reality. I cannot say I understand the point of reductionism, but at the very least I’d say it’s somewhat impolite to claim that that for which most people throughout history have lived and died is an unreal fiction.

For a German thinker like Habermas the three domains of reality have three different claims of justification, or three different truth concepts. While claims about the It domain are still true or false, in the domain of We, i.e. in morality and politics, policies and actions are not so much true or false but fair or unfair. Furthermore, in the realm of the subjective I, it is not so much truth we should look for but truthfulness. This is an example of how one must adapt one’s concepts to the world, not try to eliminate the parts of the world that don’t seem to fit into one’s concepts.

There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.

To respectfully accommodate everything that exists no one has gone further perhaps than the little know Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong whose ontology is wonderfully permissive. For Meinong anything the human mind can think of is an object and must exist in some way. What Anglo-American philosophers would consider reality is but a tiny subset of Meinong’s ontology. This group of objects simply exists in material space-time as they have passed from potential to the real, but another group of objects are still only possibilities, or ideas and fantasies, yet they are somehow. They don’t exist, they subsist. To the subsisting category belong all the dreams that might never come true, the Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle, the lover’s love and the seven virgins in the Muslims paradise. They don’t exist in the strict materialist sense, but they have profound effects on the material world. Not only would Meinong grant being to the entire I-We domain, he would never put imagination as an opposite of reality. Instead he would go to great lengths in trying to distinguish different types of mental objects from each other, he even invited the impossible and inconceivable into his world. “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects”, an example of this would be a round square. It could not pass into the material space-time domain of reality, and it could not subsist in the cultural-subjective domain because we cannot actually conceive such an object. Yet, it is somehow since we can think about it. For Meinong impossible objects neither exist, nor subsist – they absist. He considered ordinary metaphysics as being ‘prejudiced in favor of the existent’ and he was the first I think to distinguish between different types of non-existent objects in the strictly material sense. My grandmother no longer exists physically, but she does subsist as a memory. If she had never had a grandson I would have been a mere subsistence myself. A grandmother that is born after her grandson is not a real possibility, yet she absists. We live in a twilight zone and Meinong tried to distinguish the different types of shadows. What exists also subsists and absists. What never was possible could not be realised, but it is still meaningful to be able to distinguish between that which was possible but is no longer so, and that which never was and never will be possible. For Meining though even the faintest impossibility has some air of being. Just like Meister Eckhart’s formless Godhead or Advaita Vedanta’s Nirguna Brahman, Meinong’s absistence, unlike existence and subsistence, has no opposite, no negation.

We have come full circle.

Everything absists.