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In Context #2 (Fall, 1999, pp. 3-4); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Can Phenomena Be Saved?
Stephen L. Talbott

The Nature Institute's letterhead reads, "for phenomena-centered research and education." If you want to understand what we mean by "phenomena-centered science," it may help to look at the phenomena-avoidance that figures so prominently in much contemporary research. Here is a simple illustration:

One of the early "Aha!" insights in the nascent discipline of artificial life (part of the larger field of complexity studies) had to do with the flocking behavior of birds. You can simulate a flock by letting blobs of light on your computer screen represent birds, and by programming the blobs so that each one follows these rules:

  • Stay a minimum distance from nearby objects, including other birds.
  • Match velocities with nearby birds.
  • Move toward the perceived center of mass of birds in your neighborhood.
If your program sets these simulated birds ("BOIDs") in motion and places a simulated telephone pole in their path, they will smoothly divide into two groups and flow around the pole, regrouping on the other side—all in a manner suggesting (to some people, at least) the behavior of actual flocks.

Ignoring Details on Principle

When researchers first saw this, some of them were thunderstruck. Here in these simplest of rules was hidden, so they concluded, a deep truth about bird behavior. Just embed the rules in a large collection of entities—birds or blobs of light—and out of the complex interactions of these exceedingly simple agents a striking and coherent collective behavior arises.

Moreover, this collective or "high-level" behavior could not easily have been predicted from the relatively simple rules the agents follow. Therefore the behavior is said to be emergent and its explanation non-reductionist.

The approach to understanding taken with BOIDs has been extended to numerous domains, from ant colonies to corporate organizational structures, from the evolution of economic societies to the collective behavior of the brain's neurons, from the chemical interactions of molecules to the cultural interaction of ideas or "memes."

What all these undertakings have in common is a drive toward the most austere abstraction possible. The qualitative richness of phenomena is intentionally blocked from view in order to get at the core principles. As John Holland, a pioneer of complexity studies, has put it, "Shearing away detail is the very essence of model building."

The problem is that this severe abandonment of detail is also an abandonment of the phenomena we started out trying to understand. This makes it easy to think we've achieved a "deep" explanation when in fact we may simply have turned our backs on almost everything that needs explaining. Where M. Mitchell Waldrop, in his book Complexity, could say that BOIDs show "startlingly realistic flocking behavior," and where Craig Reynolds, the developer of the BOIDs software, could press the abstraction further by claiming that his program captures the essence, not only of flocking behavior in birds, but also of herding behavior in sheep and schooling behavior in fish (a generality that many claim makes the discovery "deeper"), the reality is that the questions they are asking about these behaviors have evaporated almost to nothing.

Toward Depth—or Vacuity?

What, after all, do BOIDs tell us about real birds? You have probably seen the unsettled, swirling, noisy, seething flight of huge starling flocks at certain times of the year. Having once seen it, you are not likely to mistake the starlings for geese or chickadees—and not only because of the size of the birds. The flocking behavior is radically different: the boiling mass of starlings has little in common with the familiar V-formation of geese, and neither of these looks very much like a chickadee flock which, as it traverses the diversified landscape, tends to move across each open space "serially," in ones or twos.

Clearly, if you want to understand what makes a chickadee a chickadee, and what makes the entirely different starling a starling, you need to look at what is distinctive and particular about these birds. The hope of the complexity theorists, of course, is that, by abstracting away all the differences between species, they can arrive at the most fundamental principles, which will then be the building blocks for understanding the individual species. The greater the abstraction, they are convinced, the deeper and more useful the principles.

But the more evident reality is nearly the opposite of this. The greater the abstraction, the more vacuous the principles. Against the true spirit of an empirical science, you have simply ignored the phenomena requiring elucidation, preferring instead the mental manipulations that are most comfortable and clear-cut.

In this spirit you might just as well go the whole distance and content yourself with saying of everything—every X—in the universe, "X = 1" or "X exists." I suppose this most universal and abstract of statements is just about the "deepest" truth of all. But it doesn't get us very far. Or, rather, in order to get very far with it, we need to do all the work we avoided when we turned a blind eye to the details. That is, we need to consider not just what all X's have in common, but to look at each particular X and see what makes it not only like but also different from everything else. And, inescapably, this looking must be qualitative. We have no choice but to deal with the phenomena in their own terms.

Abstraction Versus Content

But don't underestimate the compulsions driving us toward abstraction. For example, the economic forces that are so powerfully re-shaping society today are everywhere encouraged to follow strictly quantitative guidelines. Trillions of dollars stream through the world's investment channels without any individual investors being in a position to ask: What will be the qualitative effect of my money upon the communities where it comes to rest? The question whether one's capital is working healthily or unhealthily receives no more attention than the BOIDs software gives to the difference between geese and starlings.

Similarly, in medicine the individuality of the patient disappears behind a veil of quantitative indices—results of tests designed to show what the patient has in common with a whole class of other patients rather than reveal who this patient is. And from politics (poll-based calculations) to sports (the mania for measurable records) to the Internet's widespread substitution of virtuality for place, the abstract threatens to drive out the concrete and qualitative.

That is the larger picture. Within its own sphere, The Nature Institute seeks to counter the prevailing habits of abstraction by restoring content to science. Our aim is not to "shear away detail" but rather to bring the concrete particular alive by articulating its context. The qualitative play of figure and background replaces the sharp-edged, machine-like interaction of "parts" or "particles" or "causes." As the feature article below on Kurt Goldstein suggests, the clear-cut mechanisms we so easily project into the phenomena are often artifacts of the experimental situation and our own habits of thought.


Original source: In Context (Fall, 1999, pp. 3-4); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Can Phenomena Be Saved?

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