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I'm glad Kate Hayles paired her comment that humans could demonstrate
emergent behavior with a speculation into Marvin Minsky's agent-oriented
model of consciousness, because scraping these two comments against each
other helped clarify my sense of what it means to be an (in)dividual.
Kate wrote on 3 March:
"[T]hat individual humans are emergence systems * does not negate the
possibilities that groups of humans could also demonstrate emergent
behavior*. even the idea of emergence goes against authoritarian rule,
since ALL components of the system help to determine the resulting
After pondering this comment, I concluded that it's ok when human
collaboration is emergent in the strong sense--that is, when the
complexity of the whole is equal to or greater than that of its parts.
Unfortunately, this condition is more often satisfied when the parts are
simple (as in the case of the center-seeking "boids" Kate cites). It is
rarely true when the parts are as complex as a person (an example might
be the earth's ecosystem, which I can imagine to be near or greater than
the complexity of an individual human). I still think, however, that
collaborations based on the weaker criterion for emergence--i.e., the
mere condition that behavior on a large scale not be predictable from
the behavior on a small scale--are bad politics. Examples of weak
emergence would include a flock of real birds, a typical business, and,
to some extent, even a democracy without a bill of rights. I wouldn't
want to be part of any of those systems, for even though all the
organisms help determine the group behavior, it is only in the weak
sense of contributing to an average (at best) or being outvoted (at
Having come to this conclusion, however, I reread Kate's comment on
"[Francisco] Varela takes up Marvin Minsky's idea of consciousness as a
'society of mind,' a collection of more or less autonomous agents, each
of which runs its own little program. Varela points out that Minksy's
model doesn't at all explain how these agents can fit together smoothly
to create impression of continuous, uninterrupted thought."
I then realized on reflection that I had perpetrated my own act of weak
emergence on a psychic level. Reminded of Minsky's view of the mind as a
competition among conflicting agents at different levels, I remembered
that my initial reactions to Kate's post had not been quite as
monolithic as my conclusion above suggests, but had in fact been
multiple and contradictory:
*Agent A: Boy that Kate Hayles is smart! She's obviously right.
*Agent B: No way! You can't have emergence from things that are already
emergent. I think.
*Meta-Agent C: You're confused. You'd better read Stuart Kauffman and
John Holland books more carefully before you contemplate another post to
*Meta-Agent D: How can you even contemplate another post given how far
behind you are on your other projects?
*Meta-Meta-Agent E: When's lunch?
The fact that I can reconstruct this raucous conversation inside my head
leads me to believe that Varela's critique of Minsky may be misplaced.
Is it really true that the mind automatically channels contradictory
viewpoints into a "continuous, uninterrupted thought"? I rarely have a
completely unambivalent response to any news I hear. Sometimes, it is
true, when two or more agents collide, one gets the upper hand and the
other is completely suppressed. But it seems to me (or some of my
agents, anyway) that this weak emergence is often forced on the mind by
the social expectations or by the technological constraints of the media
by which we communicate. Just because my mouth, pen, or keyboard
structures my thoughts into a single linear flow doesn't mean they
started out that way.
P.S. It is precisely the search for a technology that accommodates
simultaneous yet conflicting points of view--whether for individual or
collective psyches--that motivates the work I do with Janet Cohen and
Keith Frank (see our "Multiple Choices" post of 27 Feb).
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