The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Matthew Pirkowski. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Matthew Pirkowski. Matthew’s a computer technology guy and a crypto guy, and really interesting. I ran across him on Twitter, where he has perhaps in the top five best value per syllable of any of the tweeters that I follow. You can follow him at @MattPirkowski, P-I-R-K-O-W-S-K-I, well worthwhile. I actually reached out to him based on a tweet or two that he did, and it turned out we both have an interest in the concept of emergence. Regular listeners to the show know that’s a topic I like to talk about from time to time. And Matthew’s got some very interesting thoughts, so welcome aboard Matt.
Matthew: Thanks, Jim. It’s awesome to be here. Really happy to talk to you today about emergence and all things related. I guess, on the Eve of this interesting new phase in our geopolitical reality, I guess, for people who are listening at home, this is a moment in time where we have an interesting emergent phenomenon happening on the world at stage, many different perspectives that have been put forward, that don’t necessarily map to what emerged. And there’s an interesting question as to why that is. And I think that one of the reasons is we don’t actually have any widespread framework for thinking about the concepts of how patterns and processes come into being, that we talk much about in our education system, that we’ve wrapped our heads around as a culture, that we really understand scientifically.
Matthew: This is beginning to come together. And I think that what we can talk here about today, or one of the things I’m interested in talking about in here today is how we seem to be moving toward a better understanding of what this process of emergence is and how it can be applied to a wide variety of patterns. Whether those are geopolitical in terms of warfare, or diplomacy, or whether those are natural in terms of naturally emerging structures, like the origin of life itself. Or just our day-to-day life in terms of our communication structures and what even makes a good conversation. So it’s a wide spectrum of topics that we can cover. But I’m looking forward to going down any of the rabbit holes you wish to cover.
Jim: All right, let’s get down to it for our listeners’ sake and they do listen. Some of these people will be listening two years from now. It’s amazing, the tail on these podcasts. Today is Thursday, February 24th. Assuming the world still exists in two years, that’s the day the Russians launched their all out attack on Ukraine, so that’s what Matthew was referring to. So emergence, an interesting and to my mind, extraordinarily important topic. But as you said, one that most people don’t really have their hands around. And it’s certainly not taught in school the way I would suggest that it probably should be. Let me throw out a definition of emergence and I want you to react to it. This is more or less a textbook example. Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. Properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.
Matthew: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it’s an interesting example of a way of looking at this concept of emergence that actually ties into the history of this idea and how it’s actually evolving and changing a little bit. Or at least how I perceive it to be changing and how some authors of researchers in this space are perceiving it to evolve. If you look at where the concept of emergence first came from, and it actually goes all the way back to J.S Mill. This was in the middle of this enlightenment period where we were very much in the modality of simplifying processes and reducing them to mathematical formula. And so there’s a quote from him. It’s a very long quote, so I’ll paraphrase.
Matthew: But he’s saying essentially, in many of these processes, we see that there’s this additive property and the added property is pretty straightforward. One plus one equals two, or you see different properties of let’s say heat or thermodynamics, something of one level of heat added to another level of heat has has a additive tendency there. But he was turning this focus to living systems. He was turning this focus to the types of processes that tend to exhibit some new or novel phenomenon, only when they come into relation in a particular form. And this debate then extended as part of this evolutionary tension between reductionism and vitalism at the time, in the early 19th century.
Matthew: And basically reductionism, I kind of like to think of it more as the dissectionism. This idea of we’re looking at something from the outside, we’re looking at a process, or a substance, or structure, and to understand it, we start reducing it or dissecting it into different component parts. Oftentimes, we sort of try to cleave that structure, hopefully at its joints, joints that seem natural. If you’re talking about an actual dissection of an animal, like maybe you would actually cleave something at its joints or maybe you would try to take a systems approach, skin and then vasculature, et cetera, et cetera. But fundamentally, what you’re doing is taking this thing apart.
Matthew: And you very quickly come to notice that as soon as you start taking a living thing apart, it ceases to be living, right? So there’s this question of, okay, there’s a non additive aspect of this and vitalists initially thought, élan vital, the idea that there was some substance to life that was permeating physical matter, but was separate from physical matter that was injecting material reality with a life force. And the reductionists or the dissectionists, as I’m saying here, very much took the opposite tack. And obviously the history we live in, the sort of material reductionism won that day and for good reason. You can make a lot more progress when you’re actually trying to just talk about the parts that are there and how they’re interacting as you reduce them.
Matthew: But in that context, that tension from that whole philosophy of emergentism came forth, you could say it even emerged. And it’s really fascinating because it was trying to find a middle road where the whole could be more than just the sum of its parts. And that actually introduced a lot of philosophical problems in some ways. Because when you have something and you have a property, let’s say that you have, we’re talking about water molecules. And let’s say that you have many water molecules and you reduce their temperature and they become ice. Well, ice has its own macroscopic properties. It’s slippery, someone can slip on it. Well, you could say the emergent property of ice can have causal influence on the world, right?
Matthew: But that causal influence, from the reduction is perspective, all the causal influences have to flow upwards from the material properties of the actual physical molecules. And so you can kind of get into a little bit of a problem where these new causal structures are injected and then could, in theory, act top down or bottom up. And as we know, in terms of reductive materialism, we don’t like to have loops. We don’t like to have cycles because cycles make things very difficult to define. And so there’s a lot of philosophical argument about this idea that you can actually have new causal structures entering the picture and having those interact with previous properties that were, in theory, the source of that emergence to begin with. That’s the loop, that’s the weird loop.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. The classic example is I want to go to the kitchen, get a cup of coffee, my carbon atoms, my hydrogen atoms, my oxygen atoms, and all the rest of my atoms get dragged along in a trajectory, which is driven, in some sense, top down by my cognitive desire to go have a cup of coffee. And yet, assuming that we’re one realm, non dualist thinkers, the cognition that I want to go get a cup of coffee is in some sense, driven from the bottom up, from my carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine, sulfur, and all the rest. So yeah, this is the classic interesting challenge of thinking about emergence.
Matthew: And yeah, exactly. And that Gordian knot, people have been thinking about that for a while now. And I think that there are a few trajectories of cutting that Gordian Knot, that are quite interesting right now. The orbit around the concept of constraints and the reason they orbit around the concept of constraints. I’ll back up a little bit. So I’ll say there’s a anthropologist/philosopher science by the name of Terrence Deacon. And he wrote this book called Incomplete Nature, which is a really great book. Anyone who’s interested in emergence, it’s probably the book that I’d recommend above all others. So Deacon had this idea of ententional properties, EN not IN. Ententional properties, namely those are the types of properties that can direct us that are not in the physical world.
Matthew: But that certain types of organisms seem to organize their behavior around at high levels, so just like you wanted to get that cup of coffee. And then they can use that to drive their physical systems towards these states that were imagined. That were not part of the world, but the organisms wish to be part of their world. And so Deacon places this problem as the central problem in his work. And he also connects us to this idea of the homunculus. These homunculor problems of a lot of modern science, in terms of the fact that much of the causality around these ententional properties are often encapsulated in some explanation that is just pushing the explanation back a level or back two levels, but not actually addressing this fundamental ententional issue.
Matthew: He inherits that homunculor language from the idea of a homunculus in the mind being the driver of human behavior, which is just pushing the problem back because the whole purpose was to say, “Well, what is the human doing? And what phenomenon are giving rise to the human’s behavior?” And if your answer is, “Well, there’s a small person in the mind controlling the show.” You really haven’t answered anything. And so he draws the analogy to many of our or scientific reductionistic answers that many of these are homunculor when it comes to this question of how do they actually end up contributing to the ability of systems to pursue goals or desires that are not actually part of the material world?
Matthew: And he ties that in with this question of this problem that we were talking about earlier with respect to the fact that if you look at the traditional ideas of emergence and you say that emergence is actually a system where you get something in addition to the parts, by a certain organization of the parts, you introduce these philosophical issues. And he kind of flips this script on its head. And it’s not just him doing this, there are some other interesting biologists that we could talk about later, who are working with certain similar ideas. But he does so by flipping it and saying, “Well, what if we’re actually talking about constraint systems? And what if we’re not talking about an addition of anything new, but we’re talking about very specific ways of reducing the possibility of space in the system, such that that system is far more likely to exhibit certain tendencies, that it would not have otherwise exhibited?”
Matthew: So you’re not adding any new possibilities. You’re just dramatically reducing the states of the system, such that it is far more likely to actually exhibit an ordered property that it would not have exhibited if it was just left to its own devices, to meander across all of its possibilities. So think of like a piston and an engine. The reason that piston and the engine can do the work is because of the fact that we constrain behaviors of the gases and the fact that like, if you just had gases and you had no constraints around them and you excited them, even if they were combustible, it just disperses into the air. The heat disperses evenly into the air. And you’re not going to harness that to do any sort of work. And therefore, it’s not going to be integrable into any sort of larger, more complex system.
Matthew: And so you end up seeing that from this new perspective of constraints. You can, without adding anything new to the world, change the likely probabilities that a system will explore certain configurations, such that you are way more likely to observe, at macro scales, certain properties that you wouldn’t otherwise observed. And so he kind of scourged this problem and therefore, introduces a new way of looking at emergence that is very much a peeling away, a reduction of the system’s ability to explore unconstrained spaces, as opposed to this idea that you’re adding something new. And I think this is a very important aspect to think about. And I think it’s actually, it’s already bearing fruit, especially in the field of theoretical biology. And we can talk about that more. But I think I’ll pause here and just get your reaction and what you think about this.
Jim: Yeah, that’s very good stuff. So I have to go back and read that book. I started reading it early on and kind of got waved off by people at the Santa Fe Institute for various reasons. I love Deacon’s The Symbolic Species, and I point people to that book for understanding about the emergence of language. But I have to go back and read that book on emergence. Anyway, two things I’d like to say. One, you said that don’t exist, meaning like Jim’s desire to go get a coffee. And I’d suggest that that is too limited a view on what exists, on what is our ontology in our universe is I would suggest that not only do we have objects in our ontology or in our universe, but we have relations.
Jim: And then specifically, we have dynamic patterns in time. And so my desire to go get a cup of coffee is a manifestation of dynamic patterns of firings in my brain that are unique or unique enough to that sense of Jim wants to get up and get a cup of coffee. So I would suggest that Deacon’s language is surprisingly a little too reductive there, that his ontology isn’t broad enough to include dynamic relations as part of things that are real. So that’s one pushback and that’s something I would say I did not necessarily have an appreciation for until relatively recently. That we need to open up a little bit in terms of what is real and give the status of reality to relations.
Jim: Secondly, the idea of taking things away as the basis for emergence, I would say yes. In fact, the two people I get my thinking about emergence from, principally, would both agree and I think did so long before Deacon’s. The person I’ve probably gotten the most from, with respect to thinking about emergence is Harold Morowitz. He wrote a book called the Emergence of Everything, where he literally starts out with the big bang, lays out 28 levels of emergence from the big bang itself. And 27th is philosophy, 28th is the spiritual. He specifically, in the book, from the very beginning, says that pruning rules are key to emergence. And that pruning rules can come in various forms. Some appear to be built into the nature of the universe. For instance, the Pauli Exclusion Principle about where electrons could be.
Jim: That pruning rule when applied to fundamental particles, turns out to give us the organization of periodic table. How about that? From what’s probably a built in physical law, at least the level that we currently understand quantum mechanics, which as you know, isn’t all that good. They can also be statistical phenomenon. For instance, in biology, we know that there’s speciation. My home academic field is evolutionary computing, so I actually see this in action in evolutionary computation, where species tend to form. The reason being is those individuals which are closest to the right place in an ecological niche will outperform those in aren’t. And they also co-evolve, fighting for niche space with other species.
Jim: So you end up with species separated by some amount of space in the creature of design phase space. And of course there’s always individuals in between, that’s how evolution works. But in general, they tend to be pushed by statistical evolutionary forces towards this idea of competitive exclusion. And hence, we get speciation with all the macroscopic things that has to do with evolution. And that is not a law of physics, that’s a statistical regularity. And then of course, another example he gives is frozen accidents. For instance, early, early in life on earth metabolism happened to lock into right-hand forms of sugar. Right-handed neutrality of molecules. You remember organic chemistry in college, you’d hold your fingers up and point different directions. You can either do with the right hand or the left hand.
Jim: And it turns out the right hand sugars only bind with, I think it’s left hand nucleic acids and such. And so this right-handed, left-handedness is utterly arbitrary and organic chemistry, kind of like left side of the road, right side of the road driving. But once biology locked into right-handed sugars, there’s really no way for biology after that point to explore. But left-handed sugars might be able to do. So those are all what Morowitz would call pruning rules. And it sounds very similar to what Deacon was getting at. The other person who I’ve taken a fair bit from, with respect to thinking about emergence is John Holland, a very good book called Emergence: From Chaos to Order.
Jim: And it’s, I would say a more narrow book than Morowitz’s. But he comes up with the idea because he’s a computer science guy. He’s the guy that invented genetic algorithms and a bunch of other interesting things, computer science. In fact, he was one of the very first PhDs in computer science in the world. It’s kind of interesting. He has the idea of constrained generating procedures that at least in artificial worlds, which is mostly what he explored, to get emergence. Again, you can’t be exploring all possibilities space as you get this combinatory explosion, nothing interesting happens. But with constrained generating procedures, interesting things can emerge. So I would say that those ideas are prior to Deacon’s, both of those two guys. And Deacon probably ran across their ideas and incorporate them into his own.
Matthew: Oh, definitely, definitely. So just to set context a little bit, Deacon is a historian and anthropologist of science, as well as to some extent, trying to synthesize these paths into a higher order narrative. So he is by no means claiming that he’s generating these ideas. He’s taking a highly synthetic perspective, knowing it, and having observed these many different explorations and concepts in the domain of emergence. So yeah, he’s definitely a posterior or after many of these other initial thinkers, especially those who were primarily exploring this in the computational realm. But I also, I wanted to go back to your multiple points and there’s a few things I wanted to hit through there.
Matthew: I hope I can remember them. But this idea, also this notion of the ontology and the question of the coffee and the desire and its ontological status, whether it exists or not. I want to be a little bit more clear. I was just trying to set the stage from the perspective of the pure material reductionist. The idea that if we took a very traditional reductionistic perspective, we’re not necessarily including this idea of possibles within that, which is actually in the complexity world, a person who you probably know Stuart Kauffman, he has argued recently strongly as well for the ontological status of possibles.
Jim: The famous adjacent possible, right?
Matthew: Yeah. The adjacent possible and ontologically real possibles. And he does this for many good reasons. But primarily, you see that there are certain phenomena that actually, it’s very difficult to explain without understanding the fact that possibility space changing based on updates locally. The possibility space is not actually constrained. At least according to Kauffman. He makes the assertion that possibility spaces are not constrained in the way that physical or material spaces that we understand mathematically at present our constrained, in the sense that if I change something locally, I am automatically updating the possibility space for the entire landscape.
Matthew: And this relates to another thing that you were talking about, which is the chirality, which is really, chirality is a mirror symmetry. If you hold one molecule up to a mirror, you see the mirror image. You have the inverse mirror symmetry of that, which is the chirality question. And sometimes it’s arbitrary, it’s often arbitrary, which one of those gets chosen. But the interesting thing about what happens after it gets chosen, as you were talking about, you were talking about this series of consequences that propagate outwards, once a particular preference regime comes into being or gains momentum. And it sort of moves outward like a wave front. And the way that this was studied in the complexity world initially, was discovered in spin glasses. Are you familiar with?
Jim: Oh yes, absolutely. But tell the audience. The audience probably doesn’t. So tell them a little bit about spin glass.
Matthew: Yes. So without going into a pedantic level of detail, spin glasses refer to materials where the magnetic state of the local regions of that material, so now the magnetic poles associated with typically, atoms or small molecules, they each have a preference. So if you have a ferromagnet, like the kind of magnet that people are familiar with, all of the little micro magnetic poles are aligned with the macroscopic behavior of that magnet. It’s all pointing in a line with a positive and negative pole. But you can create situations with certain materials where you heat them up and all of the magnetic poles are spinning every which way. And then if you cool them down at the right pace, which is called a quench event, you lock in all of those random preferences of the pole. You partially lock them in.
Matthew: And that’s kind of the same idea as the symmetry breaking, because you can look at their degrees of freedom, being able to go everywhere, this paramagnetic state, this heated state as a symmetry. Which is actually a rotational symmetry that’s similar to certain symmetries that we can get into with particle physics if we wanted to. But in any case, basically that symmetry is locked in locally. And then it’s kind of like a preference. So every single local magnetic pole wants to align the other magnetic poles around it in a way that is least frustrating. And frustrating is essentially this idea that you have energy bound up. If two molecules have gotten locked together near each other, but they want to move, yet can’t because they’re held in by all the other molecules or all the other structural molecules or atoms around them.
Matthew: Basically, they have this metastable lock in of energy where you have this amount of energy that can be released in certain local places. So you get these regimes in these materials where you get almost like bit flipping of these poles. And then the preferences will spread out from little local points and then they actually come into contact with one another. So let’s say that you had a universe and you could think of this as this chirality question. Well, if in one part of the universe, the chirality, the symmetry broke in one direction and another part of the universe, the symmetry broke another direction. And those spread out through whatever material substrate they’re in, they eventually get to a border, a boundary.
Matthew: They form a boundary because they have incompatible preferences. Like you were saying earlier, if you’re talking about the chirality reality of certain molecular regimes, they’re no longer compatible with one another. So that would be the same thing as like, if you had two different alien species from different planets that somehow had different genetic chirality, they would not be able to procreate with one another. Or you can say that, and this is where we get into these questions of more generalized emergence, these regimes, based on preferential symmetry breakage, locally, and how that propagates outwards through space and time. You can also map that to, for example, why the geopolitical maps often look the way that they do? Nation states weren’t always locked into their particular boundary structures. They emerged locally.
Matthew: We had local growth phenomenon and local cultural preferences and local behavioral that dynamics. And these expand until they meet resistance in the form of another expanding cultural regime. I mean, if we’re not taking into account rivers, or mountains, or oceans, we’re talking about just continental dynamics and then you get these boundary conditions. And the interesting thing about these boundary conditions is that they’re not entirely stable. They’re metastable. In the same way that in these spin glasses, you get these boundaries and then something can change or break and that entire boundary can dissolve.
Matthew: And one regime can sweep through and take another regime over, this same pattern can occur in other systems and including human systems, which is what we’re observing in the most general sense. I don’t want to brush too much over all of the very specific dynamics of what’s going on in this very specific happening today in Ukraine and Russia. But at some level you can look at that as this sort of, the boundary gave way or is giving way for a set of reasons that has to do with local preference regimes wanting to further expand. And the boundary of the other regime no longer being able to sufficiently resist that preference.
Matthew: And so this idea goes very deep into the topic of this concept of local preferences propagating outwards, giving rise to conflict regimes along boundary structures that are metastable has also a lot to do with this question of possibility spaces that we were talking about earlier. Because of the fact that there are different models or different ways that you can think about causality occurring in these emergent metastable regimes. Some of them are purely local. So all of the causality has to percolate outwards from point to point to point on the map, so those are called like the Edwards–Anderson models mostly. And then there’s like Sherrington–Kirkpatrick models, which have non-local effects.
Matthew: And the non-local effects are interesting because that’s where you start getting to this idea of, A, how possibilities change realities, even if they’re not moving locally through space and time as we know it. And you could kind of also map that onto, as a loose but possibly interesting conversation, how digital and communication infrastructure in today’s world changes local realities of conflict boundaries as well. The way that the world reacts and sees light speed in real time is a different dynamic than the mid 20th century or early 20th century, when information really did have to propagate out much more slowly and the different dynamics that enables or changes. This all has to do with this question of how people observe possibilities and how those possibilities change instantaneously, even before the information travels through space and time. So that’s a lot, but yeah.
Jim: Yeah. I’m going to respond to some of that. I got a lot of different things to say about that. Let me talk about the last one first, which is this propagation of information. Currently, I’m doing a relatively deep dive into the French Revolution and reading very things about it. And had a Zoom chat with an expert about the French Revolution yesterday. And one point he made, says, “Don’t miss this point.” Unlike today, the French Revolution, 1789 to 1799 essentially, was before the telegraph, it was before the railroad. The fastest means of communications was the horse. And so things would happen in Paris and they wouldn’t hear about it in Marseille for a week. And it might take a month to get to some remote village in the mountains.
Jim: And that’s a very different world. And it’s why so much of the intellectual fervor was in Paris because Paris was locally connected. There was a whole bunch of newsletters, and pamphleteers, and political meeting houses, and stuff. And so new ideas, and trends, and calls to action in the street could propagate in Paris in hours, while it could not propagate into the rest of the country, let alone to the rest of the world in anything like real time as compared of course to day where literally, what’s happening in Ukraine is heard in the world in seconds. The world’s responses, at least the cognitive responses, could be echoed back to Russia and China in seconds or in minutes at least. And that’s a very, very different world.
Jim: And when one thinks about the degrees of freedom that that gives for emergence in our memetic space, it’s call it the meme space. I think we truly don’t really understand that space very well because of the fact of the complete lack of latency. And also, in many forms, particularly in the online world, a lack of viscosity. One of the other things I’ve taken from the French revolution is their problem was their political institutions did not have enough viscosity. They could switch and go from one extreme to the other very rapidly. And we saw these oscillations between the radical enlightenment people, who then were overthrown by Robespierre and the terror, who overthrown by Thermidor, who was then overthrown by the directorate. And so there was these radical fluctuations because institutions didn’t have enough viscosity.
Jim: That’s another question for another day. But let’s get back to spin glasses and things like those. And interestingly, people who listen to the show regularly know I talk about game B, sort of a social politic idea for designing a new social operating system for society. And we actually take these ideas fairly seriously in our thinking. In fact, on the landing page for our online community at game-b.org, the quote at the top of the page is, “When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system,” from Ilya Prigogene. So these ideas aren’t just theoretical, they’re actually practical, even at the level of social movements. And the next step is to go to Prigogine and his ideas that many, though not all emergence systems happen in systems that are far from equilibrium and that the emergences tend to actually be what he calls dissipative structures.
Jim: And if you think of a system as far from equilibrium, simplest way to think about it is that there’s an energy flux through the system, comes in one end, out the other. And in some sense, this energy is the fuel that allows emergence to occur. And then the structures that emerge use up, dissipate the energy, essentially in the form of higher level energy gets produced into lower level energy. For instance, the high level energy of the sun hitting a chlorophyll cell, chlorophyll filled cell, gets turned into sugars, which are even higher quality. But then downstream, they’re reduced to CO2 coming out of our mouths and waste products going out into the soil at much lower energetics and information state. So essentially, life is sunlight coming in, CO2 and shit going out. And the stuff in between are emergences that are powered by the system being far are from equilibrium.
Matthew: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I mean, you have essentially some sort of cycle sandwiched in between a source of potential energy and then thermodynamic waste of some sort, lower potential states. You say shit, and that is exactly what shit is. Shit is exactly these structures that have… This goes back to this idea of constraints as well, the potential energy or the state of a system that lends that system potential energy, whether it’s a photon, whether it’s elevation in light of gravity, there are constraints that keep the system in that semi-stable or metastable state, until humans or some entity learns how to release that energy or use that energy. And that is then internalized into this cycle, like what Kauffman calls auto catalytic cycles or work cycles. And those cycles are able to reinforce themselves, but also they can’t necessarily because of the second law of thermodynamics.
Matthew: They, in doing useful work internally, in maintaining their internal structure, they must also generate macroscopically entropy. They must make the larger system more disordered in which they exist. And this has a lot to do with GameB, especially with respect to the questions of short and long term time horizons or time preferences, given the fact that you can very directly map externalities, especially over high time preference activity, to this idea of having very intensive cycles, very intensive processes that we use to perform work, where we don’t necessarily manage. We don’t necessarily care about where we’re getting that potential energy from or where it’s going. And I think much of what we do have control over. I mean, we can talk utopianism all day in terms of what is possible. But what we actually do have pragmatic control over to some extent is energy source inputs and waste outputs. And the ability to actually consciously examine where those inputs are coming from and where those outputs are going to.
Matthew: And if we’re actually able to reclaim… The more general or remote the energy source from the cycles of energy usage that other processes on earth depend on, probably for the better. And then also to the extent that our waste products aren’t being put out into the world in a way that are fundamentally disruptive to the inputs of other systems and that they’re not necessarily just accumulating as unusable either biomass or trash. That allows for both the increased resilience and hopefully, the more coherent integration as you were talking about this word coherent. Because are going to form new patterns of coherence, new coherent subgroups. Those subgroups… One way of gaining that higher level of coherence or that higher leverage over previous modes of GameA interaction is actually using waste as energy in creative ways.
Jim: And also producing new emergences. There’s a lot of room in human institutional space to create, particularly now that we have networks. People say, “Well, why didn’t GameB happen before?” Because we didn’t have the networks. The networks open up a whole large adjacent possible that wasn’t possible in 1789, by any means. Like John Holland, one of his descriptions of emergence and this was an attribute of some kinds of emergence and he would argue that evolution tends to push towards these kind. The interactions of agents produce an aggregate entity that is more flexible and adaptable than its component parts. So I would suggest one way to think about that is as we’re finding our way in the high-dimensional design space of a new and better society, can we trigger emergencies or guide or nudge towards emergences that produce more flexible and adaptive, higher level abstraction, emergent phenomena than what we have today?
Matthew: Emergences without emergencies. But yeah, I mean the relations of the network are huge in the sense… And that’s something that in every conversation I have about this, I try to bring up this idea of complexity catastrophe as well. Because I think it deeply ties into this question you’re talking about in terms of we have the ability to network ourselves together. But the way in which we connect ourselves to one another is deeply connected or deeply correlated with whether or not that system that is produced can actually evolve productively or adapt resiliently.
Matthew: And this was explored, again, by Kauffman in his theoretical explorations that were summarized in the Origins of Order, which is I think his first main book. Quite a dense book, but a good read. But this idea of that complexity, catastrophe emerged out of his exploration, theoretically and computationally, of what he created as NK adaptive landscapes. And so the N was the number of agents and the K… Oh really, he was doing this initially with respect to genetics and this concept of epistasis. And the concept of epistasis is like which alleles or which genes are able to affect the expression of other genes. So it’s like the actions of one thing in the system are contingent upon the actions of another. How much of that contingency, how many dependencies can something have before it becomes maladaptive?
Matthew: And he was doing a lot of this exploration. He realized that if you turn that K knob up, if you make everything too dependent or complexly related to everything else, you actually get a distinct crash in the adaptive capacity of that system, which relates also to this question of viscosity, I think you were talking about. Because to some extent, when you talk about viscosity, viscosity is a function, it’s kind of a density function. It’s also kind of therefore, an energy function, oftentimes highly viscous structures, they can’t move. They don’t have as many degrees of freedom for a number of reasons. It could be chemical properties, and it can be thermal properties, and it can be other properties as well.
Matthew: But what we’re really talking about is how much causal interdependence is there? And in a low viscosity system, there’s a lot less causal interdependence of each respected part of that system. In a high viscosity system, there’s a lot less than there is in a low viscosity system. A low viscosity system, if you add a bunch of heat to that, everything’s interacting with everything else and that can catalyze certain processes. But there’s also a reason why the majority of complex life doesn’t be exist in extremely high energy regions. Because you need the ability for those complex structures to actually stabilize without being constantly disrupted by energy inputs or chaotic dependencies on other parts of the system.
Matthew: And I think it’s an essential lesson when we’re thinking about network design or we’re thinking about what it means for us to communicate as large groups of human beings. The idea that we should all be put in large open networks with unbounded communicative capacity and observing everyone else’s outputs and then reacting to them at all times. I mean, that maps nearly one to one, to this complexity catastrophe idea of Kauffman. And he showed that that mode isn’t capable of reaching the highest peaks on these fitness landscapes. And so there’s something about this intentional viscosity and this intentional reduction of connectivity or causal interference that we need to address when it comes to the design and the thinking around these new communication networks.
Jim: Absolutely. First thing, Origins of Order by Stuart Kauffman is a really good book. As Matthew said, it’s a very dense book. But it was actually the second book I read in my early explorations into complexity after or John Holland’s, what the hell is the name of it? Something like Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems. That was the one I read first, then I read Origins of Order. And it really is a fundamental book. And it’s where the idea, sort of a derivative of the NK experiments and thinking that what’s really interesting usually and interesting in some real sense where the word interesting has meaning, is that space between chaos and rigidity.
Jim: And viscosity, I suspect, is one of the knobs that could help us get to that in our network world. Because as you say, everybody connected to everybody just doesn’t work. And there’s a bunch of reasons for that. I mean, if only because there’s a pruning rule, which is, we only have X amount out of quality attention. And a structure of everybody connected to everybody means so many messages coming by, we can’t make any sense of them at all because of our cognitive limitations, essentially. Did a podcast earlier in the week with Douglas Rushkoff. We talked about the future of the internet. And one of the things we were both just musing about was, hey, what would happen if you had Twitter, but you were only allowed to do one post and three comments a day. Would it be better? And we thought probably. There’s an example of where you could add viscosity into a system in a very simplistic kind of way. And it might well make the system better.
Matthew: Yeah. I mean, and we get into this question of better for whom. I think that in terms of an information processing or collective intelligence mechanism, it would definitely make the system more effective and it would definitely make the system something more healthy to interact with. That said, I don’t necessarily think that it would make the system more profitable for Twitter, at least in the short run.
Jim: Yeah, yeah. We were not using that as our fitness function to be sure, we both agreed.
Matthew: No, exactly.
Jim: Yeah. The current fitness functions are fucked. They’re driving our systems to a point that are driving us insane, right?
Matthew: Yeah, exactly. Well, and I think it’s literally… I mean, I like to make the analogy that whether it’s intentional or not, what they’ve done is they’ve taken that complexity catastrophe dynamic and they’ve truly turned it into what I consider a memetic reactor, which is directly analogous to something like a nuclear reactor. And there are control rods that can be used to increasing that chaos, that chaos that’s generated by all of those causal dependencies is indiscernible. Like we were talking about, thermodynamically, from the concept of heat and that heat is a form of, in the thermodynamic terms, it can be used to perform work. And in the terms of Twitter within the memetic space, that heat, that conflict, that constant fitness function that is maximizing engagement is definitely saleable. Because you can put information in front of people’s consciousness.
Matthew: But it is also interesting because it’s weird because you get into these strange cycles of incentives because then you also say, “Well, if Twitter is there, doing internal analysis on what ads are most effective, but the analysis is being done in a context of highly agitated complexity catastrophe, what they’re really discovering is what kind of information or what kind of products people are most responsive to or responsive to it all, only in that phenomenological state.” So this is why I would say we get also a race at the bottom, not only in terms of the dynamics of the conversation, but also in the second order dynamics of the types of ads, and the types of products, the types of opportunities that will be put in front of us and seem to be successful within this dynamic.
Matthew: Whereas, in the network that you’re talking about, where people might in a little bit more of a lower time preference modality, it might actually make sense to have advertisements or opportunities in this space that are actually contributing much more to the real value creation of our society, as opposed to sort of more parasitic monetary extraction, which is what most of those advertisements are geared toward. Now, most of these are just highly salient memetic images on Twitter, like the advertisements. I don’t know if you’ve noticed these much, but especially recently. These highly salient memetic images that are just these sort of content click farms where people go and gather images of either highly sexualized nature, or highly dangerous nature, or whatever. And then they put 20 of these images together and then just harvest attention and sell advertisements up river.
Jim: It’s a new emergence, essentially, the fact that this ecosystem of capturing eyeballs to hijack your attention and to get you in a highly agitated and reactive state, the things say, “20 celebrities, you don’t believe what they look like today.” And some really gross picture of some ’80s sitcom star or something. And then you actually go to it. People tell me I would never do that myself. And you get some pictures plus a bunch of the easiest ads imaginable. Dick pills and the kind of stuff they used to sell on late night cable TV for two for 19.95. It’s really an emergence, quite literally, from the new ecosystem that this attention hijacking, agitated state phenomena of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the new kid on the block, the absolute fentanyl of online, TikTok, have turned into quite an art form.
Matthew: Yeah. I mean, fentanyl is certainly a good analogy there. I mean, this is the thing, it’s like part of this is intentional design. And you can look at this as if we are on an adaptive landscape, what is the purpose of the networks we’re partaking in? And it’s hard for the individual to step outside and see what is this system I’m in? And is it actually moving towards something that is desirable? But yeah, it seems very unlikely that spending the vast majority of our time, and attention, and consciousness within these medic reactors that are designed for potential extraction has much to do with solving any of the problems or even making progress on any of the problems we find ourselves with today. And then our responsibility is to ask, “Well, what does it mean to design systems that actually are much more like exploratory vehicles upon this landscape as opposed to sort of extractive mechanisms that really only amplify the issues themselves.
Jim: Yeah. This is where you get to the concept of emergence taken literally and not by analogy. We can think of some of the work that we’re trying to do as engineering for emergence. But emergence that we think at least, of course, one of the things about emergence, you don’t really know exactly what you get. But you have some reason to believe it will be better than the alternative. For instance, the intentionally viscus thing that’s sort of like social media or another one that I think I threw out on the Rushkoff podcast, I’m not sure, but imagine a Facebook where you were limited to the Dunbar number of 150 friends. It would have a different network topology, messages would propagate on it differently at different rates. And that would produce a different emergence than the kind of stuff that we see on Facebook, for instance.
Matthew: Yeah, definitely. And also, I mean, I think another degree of freedom that we can play with there is this concept of skin in the game or this concept of binding the representations on these networks to real actions or real costs in the world. Like the idea that in many ways we have this phrase, for someone to spin their wheel means kind of this internal mental process where you’re cycling and cycling and cycling through concepts. But never mapping those concepts into action in the world that moves the ball forward on some purpose that you have, towards some goal that you actually want to bring into reality in your physical, immediate environment or in your community or your family.
Matthew: And in many ways, our entire digital infrastructure in these social media spaces is decoupled from those kinds of like proof of action or proof of real work. This idea that there’s something that like, yes, there’s value in new connections and new ideas and exploration. But the purpose of them is fundamentally to inform action, to inform some sort of action in your local reality, typically. Or these days, not necessarily just in your local reality, you could have an action that propagates throughout one of these networks as well. But we don’t want to end up in a situation where we’re just trapped in these cycles of extraction without having the ability to think about how our communication or our goals are actually mapping to real world actions.
Matthew: And I think that that’s something that I love seeing like on Twitter, for example. And especially, this is almost an emergent property of, I think, community norms. You interviewed Jason and Ashley, the Doomer Optimist crowd or pseudo leaders to the extent there are leaders of the Doomer Optimist movement. And that subnetwork on Twitter, I think it’s interesting the relationship between norms and the dynamics of the system itself, because I think that subspace of Twitter demonstrates that there’s a much higher ratio of people in that at space sharing things that they’re doing, sharing projects that they’re working on, sharing progress that they’ve made on the land, or in their garden, or some new skill that they’ve learned.
Matthew: And seeing the cycles of feedback and positivity there, that’s not just trivial positivity, it’s also curiosity. It’s also people adding extra information about how to more effectively pursue a goal or implement the same process. That’s one of the things I really like about that community. And they also show that that is possible, even in these otherwise highly volatile online spaces. Now, can there be tools created to facilitate that even further and to catalyze those relations and that advice sharing and that mapping of conversation onto actual action that improves the world? Yeah. And I think that that’s deserving of a lot more attention than it’s presently receiving.
Jim: We happened to find an experiment on that a couple of years ago when Facebook tried to suppress the GameB movement on Facebook, probably accidentally, due to a bug in their algorithms. But we got off when we moved to our own private network, which has a very different design, it’s much cooler. You’re not sucked into constant arguing and chit-chat. It’s a little harder to find things. It feels like it’s more reputationally expensive to post, et cetera. And you might think those are bad things, but it was our sense that they’re not, that they actually produced a slower moving, more viscous, but more valuable community with an ability to do emergences at a higher level.
Jim: For instance, this particular platform, the mighty network platform that we use, a White-Label Platform, allows a community to create its own subcommunities internally, within it. Which you don’t have, for instance, in a group on Facebook. You can do [inaudible 00:51:34] communities, but you can’t do subsidiary communities. So these intentionally viscous in some ways, and some new functionality in other ways, produces a different emergence. And so thinking about your pruning rules, to get back to Harold Morowitz is probably part of what it means to be doing engineering for emergence.
Matthew: Yeah, yeah, 100%. I know that before we started recording, we also talked a little bit about these ideas of some of our cultural encodings associated with transcendental philosophies or religions. And so sometimes I think these hold value or are interesting. And I think that one little example here, especially just aphoristically or linguistically, this idea of like you will know them by their fruits. And I think that that actually has a lot to do with this concept of emergence. There is probably a grasping at the idea of how do we actually understand, given the complexity and opacity of underlying dynamics or what’s happening in people’s heads, or what’s happening invisibly throughout our network? How do we understand the quality of that network or the directionality? Where is it heading?
Matthew: And you know that by the fruits, you know that by what is actually produced. What are the artifacts of that community? Or what are the artifacts of the thought processes? If someone’s demonstrating or exhibiting thought processes that are leading them into depressive states continuously, now I understand that that can be a sort of attractor that can be endogenously, or inescapable, or can be something that’s not just related to thought patterns. But there are definitely modes of thought where you can think yourself into depressive states or counterproductive states, or you can think yourself into violent states and you can spread that through networks. And you could think yourself into states that you believe that it’s not even worth putting effort toward creating anything because the entire world is going to be destroyed in X, Y, Z years anyways.
Matthew: But there’s this interesting question of, well, okay, what are the kinds of axioms or the kinds of heuristics that we can bring to our daily life, and to our communities, and to our social networks that allow us to produce artifacts that reflect back to us more of the world we want to see, that reflect back to us a concrete example of the manifestation of our values in the world? And I think that in this world of networks and virtual reality, and I don’t mean virtual reality just as in how people think about VR, I mean, kind of the memetic or conceptual virtualization of reality through the fact that we live inside this network of almost a collective unconscious of partially formed thoughts being shared instantaneously at the speed of light around the world continuously.
Matthew: In that space, how do we actually come back to action and come back to the coherent coordination of connecting these words to the behaviors? And how do you connect those behaviors, such that they actually ladder up into something that as we were talking about earlier, as those preferences or behaviors propagate their consequences or causal regimes outwards? And when they meet other causal regimes or other preferences, they’re more likely to find synthesis or integration. They’re more likely to find positive some outcomes than they are to want to simply dominate or want to simply steamroll another set of preferences in the short term. So this is integral, I think, to the idea of creating any kind of network or communities that could in theory, displace GameA, given the primary determination modes of GameA have everything to do with the stakes of the mentality of conflict and steam rolling at the scale at which we can destroy everything.
Jim: How do we get away from the multipolar trap? Actually, a group of us are working on that right now. Stay tuned for some information fairly soon. Now we’ve talked about emergence from the definitional level. We’ve talked a bit about it in theory, we’ve talked about some examples. We’ve talked about some of the thinkers, who have been effective and important in this field. We’ve gone through some real world possibilities for what I called engineering for emergence. Now let’s turn back to what originally caused me to reach out to you on Twitter, where you suggested that you had some ideas around the grammar and axioms of emergence. What can you say, particularly about the grammar of emergence? What do you mean when you say that?
Matthew: Well, when I say that, that has a lot to do with this transition and the perspective of emergence with respect to the constraint based perspective that we’ve been talking about. When you think about grammar, if you just look at the superficial definition of grammar, you see that it has to do with the constraints surrounding the way in which our expressions, our words, our phrases can be put together, such that meaning emerges from them. That is comprehensible by other actors, who are the receivers of these expressions. That’s grammar. Grammar is the way, the order, the way in which we pluck from possibility space, the giant possibility spaces that we’ve been talking about.
Matthew: Specific combinations that actually are able to communicate information and coordinate action. And so when I’m talking about this grammar of emergence or axioms of emergence, what I’m trying to kind of get at is a different way of approaching the ontology and epistemology of our world, of our reality, of the way that most people begin to think about, or try to ascertain an understanding of the things that are happening around them. So if we go all the way back to the beginning of this question, we realize that if we accept the axiom or if we accept the idea that all structure must emerge bottom up. And then those structures can parameterize other previously emergent structures top down. So things have to actually come into being from simpler structures, into spaces of more complexity.
Matthew: And they don’t always have to go monotonically or only in that direction. You can have complexity catastrophe, you can have collapse, that can be kind of a random walk to some extent. But the whole point is that when we see complex objects, especially in a world before we had any frame of reference for talking about an emergence or bottom up order, how did we approach reality? How did we approach understanding? Well, we came at it from an outside in perspective. We came at it from a top down perspective. From that initial perspective. We were coming from the outside in, we were coming from the highest states of complexity and trying to reduce them to simpler rules, which is part of that dissective frame of reference we were talking out earlier.
Matthew: So for the majority of modernity, one might even consider that the entire foundation of modernity is related to this idea that we are able to take complex structures, operate from the outside in, peeling back those layers, bringing them into parts, creating ontologies that allow us to categorize those parts and then developing tools, techniques, or frameworks, specializations, specialized domains with respect to being able to perform work based on the knowledge we’ve gained. And that’s gotten us quite far. There’s a lot of utility in that. I mean, I’m not denigrating that in any way. But what we are coming to realize is that we’re now in a phase where so much of our ability to take the next step depends on far more integrated processes.
Matthew: And as anyone who’s taken a calculus class can tell you, integration is exponentially more difficult than differentiation. And I think a fundamental truth there. It’s not just because you’re doing calculus, it’s because of the fact that when you’re doing something like differentiation, you can apply locally bounded rules, which is very similar to the reductive paradigm, where you can basically dissect reality into local subsets of reality that behave predictably. But when it comes to integration, you need a far broader understanding of the dynamics and tendencies of the systems that might be involved. And also, there’s this element of intuition to it. In many ways, integration is a much more of an art form. It’s much more difficult to fully reduce to analytic equations.
Matthew: And so I use grammar to talk about this process as opposed to the mathematics. I mean, axioms are similar. But axioms are actually, one might say, the grammar of any given mathematical perspective. And I say mathematical perspective because the perspective of possibilities in any given mathematical domain emerged from the axioms. The axioms are the fundamental convenitoric kernels of that mathematical space and how they are put together, all of the possibilities of how they’re put together, constitute the domain of possible expressions in that mathematical space. Mathematicians, then go through that possible space, examining, trying to basically find certain expressions that they can connect to other expressions, such that they can demonstrate within those axioms that they are true.
Matthew: So it’s a kind of a closed system. But grammar and language, on the other hand, is a generative and open system in the sense that our language is evolving, our grammar tends to evolve. And the degree of permanence that structures that are generated by our grammar attain is related pragmatically mostly, to their function in the world. Do they actually to perform useful work? And can they be recombined with other structures to perform useful work? Which is a much more pragmatic perspective than the formal or analytic perspective of mathematics. And so I think that what we’re beginning to see now, what is beginning to emerge across a number of domains at the Santa Fe Institute, at some other complexity research institutes, with respect to certain researchers and theoretical biology as well, we’re starting to generate narratives and grammars around how we can think about patterns that are not domain specific.
Matthew: And how those patterns, those grammars of emergence can be used as can containers or locations, rallying points let’s say, for the process of coming to synthesize or integrate all of this domain specific knowledge that we have generated that are currently, we currently have this landscape, this post Babel landscape of hyper specialization. And to some extent, there’s a great deal of value that we can derive from reintegrating some of that. And reintegration requires translation, requires grammar. And I don’t think that we’re going to find the ability to reintegrate or successfully integrate across those different specializations, those domains through further grammars of differentiation, through more reduction. We have to be able to find synthesis. And that’s very much what I would say this entire next episteme or this entire next paradigm that we’re moving into is going to be about.
Jim: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, actually. Well, we’re coming up about our time here. Any final thoughts? Any wrap up that you’d like to make?
Matthew: Oh man, I think that there’s some other interesting stuff with respect to Deacon that could be cool in light of that question of synthesis. I would say, I know maybe you got some recommendations against it, but I’d say it’s an interesting framework to download at least, to think about. In terms of any partying messages, I would say that I am interested in working with anyone who’s also interested or pursuing this kind of synthesis. There’s a need for convergence, because we don’t want to recapitulate the same problem that… Not a problem, but we don’t want to recapitulate the same pattern of hyper specialized language when we’re trying to create something that can help us synthesize these sources of information.
Matthew: And there’s a tendency always toward that fragmentation in language, even in conversations. For example, like conversations I’ll have with Jordan Hall or others, we are approaching these same ideas and we’re generating our own language for those ideas. And therefore, it’s actually very important for us to find some way of coming together and actually synthesizing and actually laddering these up into something that people can focus on without being completely overwhelmed by this conceptual explosion. And so I just want to put my interest for doing that kind of process out there into the world and express to anyone who might also be interested in that, if that’s the case, please come find me and let’s work on that together a bit.
Jim: Cool. Well, let’s wrap it there. Matthew Pirkowski, you can find him on Twitter at @MattPirkowski P-I-R-K-O-W-S-K-I. And you for a really interesting conversation here today.
Matthew: Thanks for having me, Jim, enjoyed it.