[Humanist] 26.576 coevolution

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 13 09:33:47 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 576.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2012 07:07:33 -0500
        From: Haines Brown <haines at histomat.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.573 coevolution
        In-Reply-To: <20121212071933.59B3C311F at digitalhumanities.org>

>         Date: Tue, 11 Dec 2012 10:49:26 -0500
>         From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at wendellpiez.com>
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.570 coevolution
>         In-Reply-To: <20121211065016.07CE53A3A at digitalhumanities.org>
> So I am suspicious of treatments of technology that consider
> technological artifacts apart from our uses of them, as if there was
> actually a "thing" there. 

I suspect there is a theoretical basis on which to approach this point 
so that it can be dealt with in a more constructive way. It is to 
start with the conventional distinction of weak and strong emergence.

A weak emergence refers to the outcome of a relation of processes that 
does not unequivocally reduce to them. In traditional epistemological 
terms the outcome is characterized as "novel" because it could not 
have been absolutely predicted. In ontological terms, the outcome is 
to some degree improbable. Man-machine machine interaction thus has an 
effect (a "thing") difficult to explain.

I don't want to expand on this except to make two points. The first is 
that weak emergence is universal and results from any relation of 
processes. This may not be obvious because in the Laplacian tradition 
deviations from the unequivocally determinant "norm" is dismissed as a 
meaningless statistical anomaly that need not be explained (the Gaussian 
distribution is described but not explained).

The second is that, despite a great deal of philosophical effort, 
there is no consensus for how a weakly emergent level can or does 
influence the properties of its base (here, man and machine). In my 
own biased view, the whole notion of complexification and emergent 
level is highly suspect to begin with, as Wendell might be implying. 
Why are not weakly emergent effects simply improbable changes in the 
interacting processes themselves? The (arguably) standard answer 
appeals to a local hidden variable (randomness of basic elements such 
as molecular motion and genetic mutation, functionalist explanations, 
hypostatization of relations as in extreme structural realism, etc.) 
The existence of local hidden variables has been experimentally 
disproven of late in physics, but non-local hidden variable theories 
(such as offered by David Bohm) still stand, although are unpopular.

For emergence to result in "autonomy" in the sense that an outcome is 
a "thing" that can influence constituent factors without reducing to 
them brings up what is known as strong emergence. It is very 
controversial. It was long dismissed as metaphysical or an appeal to 
the supernatural (as in the classic case of Henri Bergson). However, 
the trend of late has been to admit it as a fact, as in biological 
life and consciousness. For example, it is familiar in 
"far-from-equilibrium systems". However, attempts to explain strong 
emergence are not just failures as is the case of weak emergence, for 
the task has hardly been ventured in any serious way (and I include 
Prigogine in this assessment).

For example, while human social being is a strongly emergent "thing" 
that can exert an independent influence on its constituent processes, 
man-machine interaction may not be, and I don't believe it is because 
it lacks the specific requirements for strong emergence.

My point is that one must decide if this "co-evolution" represent a 
weak or a strong emergence, for they give rise to quite different sets 
of problems. The former addresses the relation of a base and an 
emergent level and really should even ask if these cognitive 
constructs really exist. The latter must addresses how strong 
emergence can arise in the first place, how something can be 
"far-from-equilibrium" (or radically improbable in non-thermodynamic 

Haines Brown

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