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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Good for the Individual & Society the Same

There is no difference between the good of society and good of the individual. The choice we face is between ill for the self and society (vice), or good for the self and society (virtue). There is no way to choose good for the society and ill for the self, or to choose good for the self and ill for the society - they are one in the same.

People often do believe that they are choosing good for themselves at the expense of society. What they are unaware of is that they are harming themselves. Sometimes the harm is obvious and direct, and other times the harm is subtle and insidious. But it is only because of ignorance that they do this. If they could see the truth, they would understand that they are harming themselves.

It should be noted here that people who live vice-filled lives of evil are unhappy - including those who may have riches or fame and appear happy to others. They may not know why they are unhappy. Furthermore, some people's entire lives are this way and it is all they know, so they may not even realize they could be happier. They just toss it up as "that's how life is". So, it is not necessary for them to realize it in order for them to be worse off because of their vice. In this way, the evil are naive of the good life completely. They imagine good people to be dupes who are as miserable as themselves, only more so because they lack their material wealth or perceived freedom. When good people tell them they aren't happy they laugh and wonder what foolishness the dupe is talking about.

Potentially innocent people may be fooled into following evil people because they can often be naive and ignorant enough to think that the evil person really is happy. I know of a woman who doesn't take care of her children, has no responsibility, is deep into drugs, lives with various low-lifes, in and out of prison, and is basically alienated from her family. She is quite obviously miserable because every time you see her, you see she is upset or ashamed or fighting. This cannot be a happy life.

Yet, her young teen daughter, when told that her mother is miserable said, "What do you mean? Her life seems happy?" Because her mother was always "doing whatever she wanted to do" the poor girl actually thought that her mother was having an enjoyable life. She hasn't learned yet what constitutes a good life and doesn't know the misery her mother lives with.

It is true that virtue is what's good for society. I only add that, it is therefore good for the individual as well.

It works the same in reverse. Some rulers have thought that they could do what was good for society while harming the individuals that make up that society. But this always comes back to haunt them in the end.

A society is made up of individuals, and you cannot impose something on a system that is opposed to the nature of its components. It is the nature of human beings to want protected rights and fair treatment. When a social system is imposed on individuals that is abhorrent to them, they will not function well in society and the society suffers. It is like thinking that we can have something which harms individual cells without it harming us.

This is why oppressive societies eventually crumble into violent rebellion, or simply stagnate due to the lost efficiencies inherent in an oppressed people.

A society is a system, and there is no such thing as a prosperous society made up of unprosperous individuals.

Addendum / Illustration:

As an illustration of the concept, imagine a needle gauge measuring the degree to which a society is more supportive of the individual (when the needle is far right) and the degree to which a society is more supportive of the collective (when the needle is far left).

Now imagine the needle balanced in the middle. If the needle begins to veer left, we imagine the society passing laws for the 'sake of the collective', which necessarily infringe upon individual rights to some degree. As the needle moves further and further left, the people become more and more oppressed, disgruntled, unproductive, and unsupportive of the society. Thus, the further left the needle moves, the greater the harm to the society because it's constituent components (individuals) are not optimal.

In the opposite situation, with the needle moving right, we see individuals are given greater and greater liberties such that they are allowed to pollute the environment, scam people, and eventually even assault others. Thus, the individual is harmed the further right the needle moves.

On the whole, we see that, if the needle moves left the society and the individual are harmed. If the needle moves right the individual and society are harmed. There is no way to harm one without harming the other. This, makes perfect sense when we understand that 'society' is just a term for a 'bunch of individuals', and when we understand the nature of inter connectedness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Cultural Conceptions of "Life"

I was just reading on about the
concept of autopoiesis. I've written here about
complex systems quite a bit, and as most would know,
all life forms are complex systems, but obviously, not
all complex systems are life in the conventional
understanding of the word. So what makes come complex
systems "life" while others are not?

Autopoiesis is a trait that some complex systems have
(but not all), whereby they are constantly remaking
themselves. They take in new material and use that to
rebuild themselves as they function so that, over
time, they are made up of completely new matter, and
yet the pattern, form, and function has remained

This seems like a wonderful way to parse out which
complex systems are life and which are not. It
obviously includes all living things.

The problem is that it also includes things like the
red spot on Jupiter, which has been around far longer
than the time any one particle of gas has spent within
it. It also might be said to include corporations,
which are constantly changing out individual workers,
buildings, etc. but maintain their organizational form
and function.

Furthermore, it includes the entire planet earth - and
not just the life forms or ecology of planet earth,
but all of the non-biological material, from
volcanoes, to weather, all interacting in one complete

Many would take this as a failure of the endeavor to
use autopoiesis as a definitional marker of life.
However, there are many who seem undaunted and
maintain the integrity of the definition. As I will
explain, I remain uncertain about this.

These folks say that we might be more accurate in
seeing that the earth and other autopoiesetic complex
systems really are examples of life, even if different
from purely biological life. They maintain that there
can be great advantages to seeing life in this manner.

Unfortunately, this concept (called Gaia when
referring to the earth as a life form) has been
misrepresented by many New Age groups who take it to
mean there's some vital life force of 'mother earth'
and so on.

When I pointed out to my wife how the processes of the
earth and those of a life form are identical in a
complex systems sense, both being autopoiesetic, she
simply said, "I don't like that". I asked her why and
what the difference was and she couldn't say. She
just said, "I don't know but I don't like it".

I think we all have a sense that lizards and people
and cats and trees are alive and rocks and clouds and
rivers are not. It seems like it's almost self
evident and there's something extremely intuitive
about it. So much so that we figure there MUST be
some rational and logical formula that should clearly
delineate why one is alive and the other not.

But that got me thinking, is it really self evident?
Is it really intuitive or obvious even? Or, might the
difference between what is alive and what is not
simply be a cultural convention?

As the biological sciences developed, it seems we've
been told since elementary school that x is alive and
y is not. That's a very early viewpoint that's
explained to kids if memory serves. But in many
primal cultures, the idea of other moving systems
being alive (or perhaps they might say, being infused
with spirits) seems commonsensical and intuitive to
them. While I don't believe in spirits and vital life
"forces", the fact that these cultures saw such
systems as intuitively alive makes me question our own
intuitions in that regard; especially now that
complexity science is having trouble finding real
concretely measurable validation of our conceptions.

Maybe the only reason we "don't like" the idea of
other autopoiesetic complex systems being alive is
simply due to an ingrained cultural predisposition
concerning what is thought to be alive and what isn't.

As I said, I am a strict materialist with no notions
of spirits, souls, the supernatural, or even natural
vitalism (life forces). But when we look at life as a
process of Complexity involving natural elements
interacting according to natural laws, it is a
two-sided proposition, for it inherently begs the
question of why other such systems are NOT to be
considered alive. Maybe they should?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Big Deal About Complexity

A good fellow named Gich on the International Stoic Forum asked me,

You've mentioned [Complex-Systems Theory] in the past and obviously consider it useful. It's new to me. Could you give a brief outline of the Theory so that others can possibly see its use or potential, in the same way you clearly do. :-)

This was my response (more or less)...

Complexity is a fairly new field that has brought together professionals from a multitude of vastly different disciplines.

It seeks to study what are called "complex adaptive systems", which as it turns out, tends to be just about everything that is interesting about the universe. Furthermore, I believe the study of complex systems theory, mathematical and scientific though it may be, is exactly what Heraclitus was referring to in his descriptions of the Divine Fire, and exactly what the Taoists were referring to with their concept of organic pattern or “Li”. And, unlike retrofits where some religious folks sometimes take the latest scientific theories and say, “hey that’s what x is in my religion”, I think that in this case, the thing being discussed by the ancients and that which Complexity addresses really are the same phenomena. So much so, that I consider Complex Systems Theory to be the modern continuation of the Stoic investigation into the Nature of the Logos.

A complex system is one where you have multiple agents interacting according to their own individual rules and, as a result, this large system operates in a very ornate and even “intelligent” way without orchestration from a top-down hierarchy. Complex systems include things like: the economy, the ecology, individual biological organisms, the weather, some computer networks, flocks of birds, and our brains. Complex systems even include the ebb and flow of cultural traits and other meme-based intellectual concepts which interact with one another over time.

Something that is completely orderly is inert and static, and something that is completely chaotic is random and haphazard. But complex systems lie in balance between these two extremes, maintaining an order that is dynamic.

The fascinating thing about Complexity, and why there can be a single field at all, is that all of these systems operate by the same fundamental principles. It’s all much more mathematical than I as a layman can really appreciate fully, but as these various equations and laws are discovered, we find that they can be applied to both neurons in the brain, as well as organisms in an ecology or corporations in an economy. What this suggests is that Complexity is not merely pointing out analogies, but that all of these manifestations portray an underlying order that governs how matter in our universe organizes itself. Traits of complex systems include:

• They undergo spontaneous self organization.
• They are adaptive to the environment around them.
• They are dynamic, unlike snowflakes and computer chips, which are merely complicated but static.
• They result in emergent properties.
• Once they reach sufficient complexity, there is no way to mathematically deduce their behavior from the base rules by which the individual agents operate, even using every particle of the universe as a bit in a computer that runs for the lifetime of the universe. The quickest and only way to see how they will perform is to simply run and observe the system. They are effectively "indeterminate".
• The smallest of changes in initial starting conditions can lead to enormous differences in behavior of the system.
• They tend to bifurcate into layers of organization, where module-like systems work as single agents in larger, more complex structures.

What Complexity teaches us is how simple components acting on just a few basic rules of interaction, can lead upwards to greater levels of complexity. This addresses divergent questions such as:

• Why and how did the Soviet Union collapse overnight?
• Why did the stock market crash more than 500 points on a single Monday in 1987?
• Why do ancient species and ecosystems remain stable for millions of years and then transform or die out in a geologic instant?
• Why do rural families in a nation such as Bangladesh still produce an average of 7 children, even when the villagers are aware of the ill to society and birth control is freely available?
• How did the primordial soup of amino acids emerge into the first cells?
• Why did individual cells form an alliance into the first multi-cellular organisms?
• How can Darwinian natural selection lead to intricate structures such as an eye, whose components require simultaneous development?
• What is “life” exactly?
• What is a “mind” exactly, and how does a 3 pound lump of matter give rise to one?
• Why is there something rather than nothing?
• How is the cosmic compulsion for disorder matched by an equal compulsion for order?

In fact, Complexity science is now having an impact not only in multiple previously unrelated scientific fields such as artificial intelligence, sociology, and economics, but also in several new business and corporate concepts. Some people think this is all about math and science, and don’t see the enormous philosophic implications of what’s actually being addressed here. Consider the following, from “Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos” by Mitchell M. Waldrop (from which I have been paraphrasing, and by the way, will change the way you look at the universe)...

“I’m of the school of thought that life and organization are inexorable,” he says, “just as inexorable as the increase in entropy. They just seem more fluky because they proceed in fits and starts, and they build on themselves. Life is a reflection of a more general phenomenon that I’d like to believe is described by some counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics – some law that would describe the tendency of matter to organize itself, and that would predict the general properties of organization we’d expect to see in the universe.”
(bold mine)

Now, when we consider the words of Heraclitus, who originated the concept of the Divine Fire, he tells us of a process that never rests; an everliving fire in an unceasing process of eternal flux. He speaks of the way upwards (order/peace/harmony) and the way downwards (entropy/chaos/disorder). Paradoxically, the everliving fire which creates this flux also secures its stability. This eternal exchange is the same for both microcosm and macrocosm alike (layers of organization).

Nearly every feature of complex systems is spoken of by Heraclitus and I find it impossible not to think that Heraclitus was observing the very same sort of activity in Nature that Complexity scientists study today, although not as nearly refined or informed. Even his famous statement that one cannot step twice into the same river, is essentially a description of Autopoiesis (a process where some complex systems are constantly remaking themselves with new material, while keeping the same form).

This everliving fire, the creative force in the universe, seems to me to a description of what Complexity scientists call the counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics. The Taoist Li, or organic form, are those structures in nature which the artist thinks about in his compositions, and which we all appreciate the beauty of. These are forms that are not completely orderly but you know them when you see them. They have an order to them and include cloud formations, and the structures and tissues of living creatures. This is how the Taoists described Li.

My recent investigation into the Taoist Chuang-Tzu was for a very specific reason. I was trying to think of just how these incredibly interesting notions of Complexity can or should play a role in our approach to life. So, since Complexity seems to be the modern incarnation of the Logos and Li (and in some ways the Tao itself), then I wondered how knowledge of the Li and/or Tao in Taoism lead to conclusions of how we live our daily lives. I was informed that Chuang-Tzu addressed this very issue.

After making some notes on it, I came to see that the arguments he makes for how we approach life, based on the Nature of the Li and the Tao, hold up quite well and, incidentally, are incredibly Stoic in nature. Most fascinating though, I found that they DO indeed apply in connecting Complexity-based perspectives to our approach to life, just as I had suspected.

I have not yet formulated the Chuang-Tzu arguments into a presentable Complexity-based form yet (working on it). However, it is my belief that, if we are to look at Stoicism as segmented into Physics, Logic, and Ethics, that for modern Stoics, Complexity Theory IS the Physics branch of Stoicism.

Here are some good links for learning more about complex systems:

Note to all on a similar topic:
Especially look at the section on Autopoiesis on the prototista site below, as it relates to the definition of life, and references to the nature of consciousness:

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

By the Beard of Zeus!

I have just stumbled upon a most amazing and interesting website on Complexity. Behold...

Monday, August 8, 2005

Ideas on Consciousness

I saw an interesting news article today on ideas about Consciousness. Chalmers ideas are mentioned, a few others.

CLICK HERE for the article.

Monday, August 1, 2005

Neo-Confucian vs Christian Concepts of the Soul

Below is a link to an article on how Neo-Confucians viewed Christian teachings on the soul. Many thanks to Malcolm Schosha over at the International Stoics Forum for informing me of this.

I read this article and it was incredibly interesting. It seems that the scientific perspective on the human mind has a lot in common with the Neo-Confician model.

In my view, the mind is the function of the brain. Or an "attunement" to use Socrates' analogy to the relationship between music and an instrument (an analogy which he unfortunately discounted).

In this sense, the mind is not physical, and one might therefore even call it metaphysical, but it is not supernatural either. It is more like the word "economy" or "capitalism" or "democracy" or "tyranny". These things are all metaphysical in the sense that they are not physical objects either, but are names of processes. As the article states...

The Sino-Korean term Ricci adopted for the immaterial, muhyeong, meant "without form" and referred in Neo-Confucian texts to either primal ki, before that material force had been directed by li into specific shapes, or to li and other abstractions which subsisted rather than existed and so were not considered concrete beings or actual entities.

The mind subsists rather than exists as a concrete being or entity. A perfect description of the modern biological/scientific view of the brain and mind.

Such an assumption was perplexing to Hudam and other Neo-Confucians who defined the soul more as an activity than as an object.

Here is another good example...

...Attacking the Buddhist doctrine of metempsychosis, Fan argued that:

The body is the substance of the soul; the soul is the functioning of the body....The relationship of the soul to its substance is like that of sharpness to a knife, while the relationship of the body to its functioning is like that of a knife to sharpness. What is called sharpness is not the same as the knife, and what is called the knife is not the same as sharpness. Nevertheless, there can be no knife if the sharpness is discarded, nor sharpness if the knife is discarded. I have never heard of sharpness surviving if the knife is destroyed, so how can it be admitted that the soul can remain if the body is annihilated?

What I found equally interesting was the explanation of how the nature of our language lead to processes being turned conceptually into entities (which presumably leads one to think they can then exist separately)...

The Thomistic philosophy of the Jesuits classified reality into nouns (substances), on the one hand, and adjectives and verbs (attributes) on the other. This metaphysical schema was probably generated by the linguistic pressure in the Indo-European linguistic community toward "entification", the nominalization of verbal concepts.(13) In the European languages which framed Catholic metaphysics in terms of substances and attributes, the noun occupied the center of gravity. Nominalization was commonly used to create abstractions drawn from verbs. To exist turned into existence, live into life, and to think into thought.

But I highly recommend giving it a read: