[Humanist] 31.339 different from the sum of its parts

Willard McCarty willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Oct 6 08:47:06 CEST 2017

However, in response to Tim Smithers' response to me: following Claude 
Bernard's work, going back to Hippocrates, on the environment within 
organisms (milieu intérieur), a question. If we put into parallel a 
biological organism such as ourselves and a computing machine, which 
rewrites its own code depending on events at a higher level, even 
exterior to the machine, where is the difference? I'm not saying there 
isn't any, rather asking for clarity.


On 06/10/2017 07:16, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 339.
>              Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>          Date: Thu, 5 Oct 2017 13:24:15 +0200
>          From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
>          Subject: Re:  31.335 different from the sum of its parts?
>          In-Reply-To: <20171005051657.8F2CC7EC9 at s16382816.onlinehome-server.info>
> Dear Willard,
> This may well be a distraction from what you really ask.
> Machines, including computers, are, I think, best understood
> as level hierarchies, and not as ecosystems.  Complicated
> machines, like computers, are designed and built this way.
> Here ...
>   "... A level consists of a medium that is to be processed,
>    components that provide primitive processing, laws of
>    composition that permit components to be assembled into
>    systems, and laws of behavior that determine how system
>    behavior depends on the component behavior and the structure
>    of the system. ..." (p 95)
> These words are taken from
>   The Knowledge Level by Allen Newell, 1982
>   PDF available here:
>   <http://cs.uns.edu.ar/~grs/InteligenciaArtificial/Allen%20Newell%20-%20The%20knowledge%20level.pdf>
> This paper is, I think, an example of good writing about how
> computers work as machines.  It is a foundational paper in AI,
> though it's never been very widely known, let alone well
> understood in AI.
> Using his level analysis of the computer as a machine, Newell
> introduces a new concept of knowledge: as a capacity for
> rational action.  This formed the starting point for work on
> Knowledge Modelling and Knowledge Management that came out of
> AI in the 1980s and 1990s.  As a concept of knowledge it
> differs strongly from the classical notion of knowledge as
> "verifiable true belief," used by others who developed
> (competing) approaches to Knowledge Management.  A similar
> level-based approach is used to design and building database
> systems, and David Marr used a level hierarchy closely related
> to Newell's, as a basis for understanding vision.  (A no
> longer current theory of vision today.)
> There's no talk of ecosystems here, nor of "the whole is more
> than the sum of its parts," or even "the whole is different
> from the sum of its parts."  Levels do hide the details and
> complicatedness of some of the machine functioning, thus
> allowing us to understand and treat what the machine does, and
> can be made to do, in ways completely abstracted from these
> details and complications.  This, I would say, is what makes
> something a machine, and it necessarily involves combining
> components, components that themselves can properly be
> considered as machines.  Machines are hierarchically composed
> of machines to make different machines.  This is essentially
> the same story W Brian Athur presents in his book "The Nature
> of Technology what it is and how it evolves" (2009).
> An important difference between machines and ecosystems, I
> think, is that in machines (composed of machines) functional
> dependency is unidirectional, whereas in ecosystems,
> functional dependency is often bidirectional.  In machines,
> such as computers, the proper working of a machine (at some
> level) depends upon the proper working of the machines that
> compose it, but the working of these component machines do not
> depended upon the proper working of the machine they compose.
> Not usually, at least.  And if they do, it usually means the
> machines is badly designed, or that something has gone wrong.
> The interesting thing about ecosystems is that they are not
> composed this way.  Component parts do inter-depend to work,
> sometimes as pairs, but also in networks.  This is, of course,
> what makes ecosystems harder to study and understand, and what
> gives rise to the kinds of complex behaviour sometimes
> described using phrase like "the whole is more than the sum of
> its parts."
> One last thing.  The thoroughly confusing effect of this
> phrase, on our understanding of things like ecosystems, is not
> "the whole," it's "the sum."  The idea that the combining of
> parts involves some sort of summation notion, even only by
> analogy, goes against how we see the way the world is put
> together, when we really look, and come to understand it.
> Summation is, I would say, completely the wrong notion here.
> So, it's hardly surprising that we find complexity
> complicated.  Ecosystems display compositions of
> inter-dependent nonlinear functionality, not summation, which
> is a linear unidirectional affair.
> Now.  If we network computers together, what do we get?
> Ecologies?  Perhaps?  But not ecologies much like we might be
> ecologies, I'd suggest.  Networking computers may give us
> ecologies of machines.  We, like other living things, appear
> to be ecologies made of ecologies, not ecologies made of
> machines.  It's only if we insist on seeing natural things as
> machines that ecologies might seem to be made of machines, or,
> worse, to think that brains are computers.
> Best regards,
> Tim
>> On 05 Oct 2017, at 07:16, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 335.
>>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>>         Date: Wed, 4 Oct 2017 09:20:20 +0100
>>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>>         Subject: the sum of the parts
>> Robert Jervis, in System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social
>> Life (Princeton, 1997) and Frank Golley, in The History of the Ecosystem
>> Concept: More than the Sum of the Parts (Yale, 1993), argue, as Jervis
>> writes, that "If we are dealing with a system, the whole is different
>> from, not greater than, the sum of the parts." He cities work across
>> several disciplines, pointing to biology as the starting point of many
>> scholars who have reached this conclusion. What about the disciplines of
>> computing?
>> Our machine, comprised of numerous 'black boxes' whose inner dynamic
>> workings are in principle unknowable, would seem to me an example worth
>> our consideration. It was explicitly designed as such an 'ecosystem',
>> though in the language of human neurophysiology (von Neumann 1945). Its
>> user-interface is obviously not more than but different from all the
>> operations which sum to it. (Indeed, from an engineering perspective,
>> those operations are clearly more than what they sum to.) Golley writes
>> that "There was an exact moment of birth" for the concept of an
>> ecosystem, "when the English ecologist Arthur Tansley created the word
>> and presented it in a technical paper" in 1935. Here's the passage:
>>> [...]
>>> Clements' earlier term "biome" for the whole complex of organisms
>>> inhabiting a given region is unobjectionable, and for some purposes
>>> convenient. But the more fundamental conception is, as it seems to
>>> me, the whole system (in the sense of physics), including not only
>>> the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors
>>> forming what we call the environment of the biome - the habitat factors
>>> in the widest sense. Though the organisms may claim our primary
>>> interest, when we are trying to think fundamentally we cannot
>>> separate them from their special environment, with which they form
>>> one physical system.
>>> It is the systems so formed which, from the point of view of the
>>> ecologist, are the basic units of nature on the face of the earth....
>>> These ecosystems, as we may call them, are of the most various kinds
>>> and sizes.
>> (Tansley, "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms",
>> Ecology 16.3, p. 299)
>> There is the historical question when we extend Robin Gandy's
>> "confluence of ideas in 1936", i.e. "the almost simultaneous appearance
>> in 1936 of several independent characterizations of the notion of
>> effective calculability" (in The Universal Turing Machine, ed. Herken),
>> among which was Turing's, to the systems-thinking of the above. But
>> there's also the question of computer systems as ecologies
>> that include and perhaps now come close to defining us.
>> Who has written along such lines?
>> Yours,
>> WM
>> -- 
>> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor emeritus, Department of
>> Digital Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western
>> Sydney University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
>> Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)
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Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor emeritus, Department of
Digital Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western
Sydney University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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