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Social Complexity

Chapter 5

Mind and Knowledge

There has been a lot written about the evolution of man from homo habilis, or perhaps the australopithecines to homo erectus, to the various Neanderthals, and finally to homo sapiens.  However, we are not interested in man as a smart animal. Not the point where his brain case reached a certain volume or where he lost his brow ridges or began to stand up straight. We are interested in man as an entirely different kind of living creature; the emergence of man as we know him occurred when hunters went beyond finding a stone for scraping or drilling and improving it by chipping.  It is when men looking at a stone could see in it something that was not in any way involved in what the stone looked or felt like.  The ancient Greeks used to say that a sculptor could see the form of the statue in the stone and all he had to do was to remove the material that didn't belong there.  But we don't have to constrain ourselves to sculpture.  Any stone tool whose form goes beyond what is required for utility becomes an aesthetic object.  Man is not the only tool using animal and some, like the bower bird, can be quite creative.  However, to see something that is not there and to bring it forth like a statue from blank stone or a poem from a set of words, this is the province of man.  When did it begin?  When did man emerge?  In a book with the imposing title "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," Julian Jaynes offered an explanation of the psychological effect of the emergence of man. Because he used literary references from the third and second millennium BC, he dated the process to the third and fourth millennium.  As comfortable as I feel with his description, my research into prehistory and early historic periods does not support his dating. I would like to think that I am right in dating the event thirty five thousand years earlier, but I don't know of any way one could find evidence to support it. Artistic developments such as some of the  advanced chipped and flaked tools and  Gravittian figurines are about the only evidence for the earlier period.

As I have used the terms in this work, when I say that something is, or exists, I mean that a human being can identify it, name it, communicate about it to others:  not necessarily that any one has actually done so.  To experience something enough to realize that it is, and perhaps what it is, seems to be to create a thought in our mind concerning the object.  The term "mind," however, does not really have a single generally accepted meaning.  Aristotle said that the mind, in contemplating existing objects, extracts from our experience of these objects the essence or form of that which the object is. He meant more than just its physical appearance; he meant also what it is to man and particularly to the man experiencing it. The mind, as he explained it, must therefore have the ability to become itself the things that it thinks of.  He also said that the soul of a living entity was what it was to be that living entity.  If the soul of a man is simply what it means to be that man, and the mind is part of what it means to be that man, then the mind comes into being when it thinks of itself.  Thus, while every living thing has a soul, only man thinks of himself: therefore only man has a mind. The way that John Locke put the same idea was that the mind at birth is a blank slate, that it contains no ideas until it experiences.

Aristotle's concept of experience is through imagination, the image producing mechanism in the body that produces images of what the senses detect in the world around us. The mind, in order later to image those things it is contemplating or remembering, uses that same imagination to produce those images. What he thought the mind drew from experience was a lot more than just images. He thought of imagination more as a tool that the mind makes use of to extract from experience and not as a part of the body.  Descartes' description follows Aristotle's very closely particularly when he said that the mind imagines; but he considered imagination a part of the body. When, In "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," Locke began with the assumption that everything we know we know only from experience; what he was saying is that ideas are only derived from experience and the mind can not operate without ideas.  Locke missed this link that made imagination a mechanism of experience.  Although he never said it, one gets the impression from reading Locke that experience imprints external objects on the mind directly.  However, the imprint of an object is not an idea of the object and Locke is not clear enough on that.  Aristotle's approach makes more sense because, in his description, imagination extracts from experience what the object is and what it is is far more than just its appearance.  To accomplish this, more is required than a blank slate.  If imagination has extracted data from experience then it must make sense of that data and imprint it on the mind.  I will explore some of these processes as we go along.

John Dewey came up with what he called immediate empiricism.  Suppose you were sitting alone in a quiet room perhaps reading a book.  Suddenly you are startled by an unexpected sound.  You get up to investigate and you discover it was a gust of wind that caught a window shade.  Should the event occur again you are not startled. This first experience was immediate: there was no reference for it in the mind of the person having the experience.  The second, however, simply brings back the knowledge of the window shade.

Another example of immediate empiricism could be illustrated by an experience I had coming home from where I was working some years ago.  I came around a bend in the road and spotted a Convair 540 airplane sitting out in a field.  I recognized it because at one period in my life I spent a lot of time traveling in one and it has a very large tail unlike any other airplane I was familiar with.  As I came closer It became apparent that there was no airplane in the field at all.  It was just a farmhouse, a silo, and some trees.  The point in this case was that even though I knew that there was no airplane in the field, and that the juxtaposition of the silo, house, and trees did not even remotely look like a Convair 540 from any other viewpoint, every afternoon until fall changed the appearance of the trees, as I came around that bend I would see the airplane as clearly as if I was seeing it sitting on the runway at the airport when I was traveling. I would see it even though I knew it was not there.  You can see from this why idealists reject the reality of those things we experience.

John Dewey's immediate empiricism recognizes that the meaning of these experiences is the experiences themselves. To understand them, we must examine them and criticize our examination of them with the assumption that they are the only real interaction we have with the world outside. To accomplish this, we construct a model using the interaction of these serial experiences with the cognitive processes within our mind. The existence or nonexistence of real experiences outside the mind can only be detected from the result of these cognitive experiences as they relate to this model. Thus immediate empiricism deals with every imaginable kind of experience but that which relates to the development of knowledge; that is, the creation of accurate models of reality within the cognitive processes in our mind is only one particular kind experience, which we call the cognitive experience, and this experience is entirely internal.

What is true of the existential world must also be true of our internal models or else our interactions with the external world be consistently off the mark. In order to illustrate how this can occur we need to look at some of the special properties of the memory system of the human brain. While the internal operation of the human brain is still very much a mystery, the work of psychologists like Herbert Simon has given us some insight into its general structure. A proper appreciation of that structure requires an understanding of the two different kinds of networks involved in human memory.

The first is similar to the simplest of the modern microprocessors in use today. It is called a serial stack operation. Perhaps you can remember the early handheld calculators that required the use of RPN (reverse polish notation). This is similar to the kind of system used by our short term memory. Items to be memorized are taken in chunks (identifiable sets of data), which are placed in succession into memory. Without getting more involved in the operation of this little understood process, and indeed Simon suggested that it may be variable among human beings, I want to suggest that this amounts to a transition from a serial last-in first-out stack mechanism to a parallel three-dimensional neural network. The method of discriminating between information is quite different. In the serial stack, the information is arranged in chunks, which the mind has been trained to recognize and which are stored in the order that the mind has been trained to recognize and which are stored in the order in which they occur to the senses. In the neural network, the information is stored according to its relationship to information already stored in the brain. This accounts for the success of memory improvement programs, which simply improve the ability of the individual to recognize associations between data that is being memorized.

We can illustrate some of the properties of a neural network using the simplest possible neural structure, a cubical matrix of binary elements arranged in a three-by-three-by-three matrix. This would represent a single "neighborhood," the neighborhood of the central element, M (2,2,2). Each element of the matrix is a threshold logic element. By this I mean a binary device with a number of inputs, the state of which is determined in such a way that if the sum of the inputs exceeds a value called the threshold value, the state of the device will be one. Otherwise, the state will be either that of the last change or zero. In our simple model of a neural net each node (element) receives an input from each of the other nodes in its neighborhood that is a reproduction of the state of that node. In other words, in our simplest case, each node has twenty-six inputs, and assuming for the sake of simplicity that the threshold value is thirteen, then. if more than thirteen of the nodes in its neighborhood are ones, it will be, or it will change to, a one. Neighborhoods are continuous. This means a change in one neighborhood affects each of its adjacent neighborhoods. Information is stored in a neural net much the same as it is stored in the more familiar serial nets we use in our modern digital computers, through patterns of binary states. However, change in a neural net can be much more dramatic. In fact, the only true states of equilibrium in neural networks is either all ones or all zeros and both represent a freezing up of the network or what we might call brain death. The existence of patterns of states results in nodes whose inputs are close to their threshold value and thus the change of a single node can start a reaction that could result in the transformation of many neighborhoods.

As we are describing the process in our brains, not just as a neural net, even one vastly more complex than our simple example, but as the interface between a serial net and a neural net, we need another mechanism for our mode to approach the kind of dynamics we are discussing. We can simulate this by considering each node in our neural net to also be an element in a serial network. The state of that node would be affected by an ongoing interaction with events outside the network. Thus, the state of each node would be determined by the output of a this temporal sequence of binary activities. The susceptibility for such a transformation, the probability that the external influences would determine the output value of the node, might be a factor of the ratio of the inputs from other nodes and its threshold value, making the resulting pattern either a controlling or a constraining factor of the serial events.

I don't suggest that this is a realistic description of the human brain, but as a description of the interface between a simple serial network and an elementary neural network, it does illustrate some of the mechanisms that create the activities that are peculiar to complex change. Returning to our description of the nature of the cognitive experience, we first assign the role of the serial component to immediate empiricism, or the accumulation of data about our world through the moment-by-moment interactions we have with our environment through our physical senses. Now we have already determined that information is encoded in our brains according to association. At the same time, since this is in a neural net, the information is distributed, that is, it is fitted into the matrix by modifying the information already there as well as by creating new nodes. We never just memorize new data; we add it to our model of reality by modifying that model to include that information. The new differs from the old by more than just the inclusion of more data. It includes the changes in the model created by its adjustment to the new information. Also, since this implies a system in constant flux, every interaction with the outside world is with a different model.

If we were nothing but receptacles for new knowledge, the resulting changes would be complex enough, but because we are constantly faced with problems we lack sufficient data to solve, we create in our minds models of reality that are to some extent guesses about what that reality is. Science is one system we have developed to improve those guesses, but it is effective only when it is directed toward those interactions that the scientific paradigm was developed to deal with. Cognization in general is applied to all experiences and not just to those things that are considered scientific. Every experience is a two-way interaction with the world outside. Our internal model interacts with the existential universe through immediate experience. When elements of that experience can be associated with structures developed in our internal model, that model is expanded to accept the new data. This is true regardless of whether this data is empirical fact or the results of a vivid imagination.

In order to understand how this translates into a comprehensive theory of knowledge, we must turn to two different approaches to complexity. When we study complex natural phenomena, we normally choose a subset of instruments with which we make measurements over a period of time. This provides a series of what Robert Rosen called relative descriptions of the phenomena. If we need a fuller description, we repeat the series using a different subset of instruments, perhaps several such repetitions. It is from the parallel interaction of these serial data that our improved cognition of the phenomena emerges so that in our minds we are experiencing the transition of a set of linear transitions into a parallel neural network. In order to tell whether the resulting mental construct does or does not model real-life phenomena, we must test it against reality. We accomplish this by inventing tests we can apply mentally to our model and directly to the real phenomena through immediate experience to determine if the model faithfully reproduces the dynamics of the real phenomena.

This is where the relationship between cognization and knowledge becomes important. It matters not one whit to the neural processes of the brain if a structure within the internal model was developed with a close resemblance to the real world or if it was developed purely out of imagination. The result is the same. Ideological concepts developed without any regard to the existence of contrary forces in reality have the same force in the act of cognization as do well-developed and tested scientific or artistic models. Therefore, data collected during immediate experience that associates with these structures does strengthen them by providing empirical corroboration. There is only one way to separate false mental pictures of the outside world, and that is to provide clear tests to be accomplished through immediate experience that will result in demarcating what is clearly imagined from what is clearly represented in reality.

Science has traditionally come as close to accomplishing this as is possible by limiting its subject matter to those things that can be clearly demarcated, but the greater detail a scientist includes in his observations, the more difficult it becomes to clearly mark off the real from the imagined until all that is left are mathematical structures that describe the dynamics of reality at the cost of structure. When we leave the domain of science, we enter a world where the structure of reality may not consist of physical entities but rather of relations between entities, not of things but of organizations. To make matters worse, these organizations may not be the efficient result of specific causes. They may include arbitrary organizations that create their own necessity and become their own causes.

As an example of this kind of organization, we can examine Ptirim Sorokin's concept of "Logico-Meaningful Union," or the cultural mentality of an integrated culture. Sorokin claims that if a culture is integrated as opposed to being simply a congery of individuals, all of its aesthetic output will reflect a single central idea, or cultural mentality.

Sorokin stated that the heterogeneity of individual experiences, together with other factors, leads to a multiplicity of modes of perception of the same phenomena by different persons. For some, he points out, reality is only that which can be perceived by the organs of sense. At the other extreme, are those persons for whom true reality lies hidden from the sense organs. The former try to adapt themselves to those conditions that appear to the sense organs, the latter try to adapt to a true reality that is beyond experience, whether this is called God, nirvana, or ultimate reality. Sorokin's cultural mentality is derived from mechanisms that develop from interactions that are successful in increasing aesthetic experience. It was through an analysis of the aesthetic output of Western culture that Sorokin developed his Logico-Meaningful union. It was his contention that integration occurs only when this cultural mentality is reflected in a pure form of one of three varieties of mentality: The ideaistic or pure spiritual, the sensate or pure carnal, and the idealistic or a perfectly balanced combination of both. The purpose of his great masterpiece, "The Dynamics of Social and Cultural Change," was to show that these three forms could be clearly demarcated through a study of the art, philosophy, and architecture of Western Civilization as it evolved from the Greek to the modern period. We do not necessarily need to accept Sorokin's idealized models to see the importance of his concept. That is, that from the shared attitudes toward the very basic questions of reality, a level of constraints emerges that limits the variety of cultural meanings to those in concert with these constraints. As Sorokin pointed out, the aesthetic output from such a culture reflects this union and, in doing so, reinforces it. The sets of shared attitudes are essentially serial networks evolving over time in each individual autonomously within the limits of these constraints. The logico-meaningful union is a parallel associative neural network that forms a common model of life that is shared by members of the culture and through which they gain heightened aesthetic pleasure.

Applying the principles we have recently discussed, the serial moment-by-moment experience of individuals in a culture forms a two-dimensional network that changes in time. The interrelationships among the members form a three-dimensional parallel network of which a neural net is but a crude analogy. If, from the interactions of this three-dimensional network, its environment, and the general characteristics of the serial events, there emerges an arbitrary structure that constrains the serial events in such a way that it increases the probability of further structural development, then this will result in the formation of a logico-meaningful union and an integrated culture. The cause of the culture will be an emergent property of that logico-meaningful union. It is teleological in the sense that the end creates its own cause, but it does not constitute a true telic structure because it does not determine its own constitution, only the direction of its change. It is a feed-forward system, not a feedback system. Such a system is goal directed, but toward a goal that exists in an uncertain future. To accomplish this, the model of reality we carry in our minds includes a future as well as a past. That future is a projection of our imagination from the raw material of our past.

If, as I have suggested, the aesthetic experience reinforces those elements of our model that pertain to our cultural heritage, then the cognitive experience must reinforce those elements that successfully model the reals that exist outside the brain. However, if a structure, such as a social or cultural system, exists only as relationships between things and the organization of those relationships that are, to a great extent, arbitrary, then how can we determine if in fact our models are of reality or of an imagined structure we impose on reality? The answer can be found in the relationship between Simon, Rosen, and Dewey. We develop arbitrary models of these complex relationships of our own and impose them on the outside world, we set up a Rosen type hierarchical structure, then we test them against nature through immediate empiricism, a critical appraisal of immediate experience through cognitive reasoning. To the extent that these tests show that the dynamics of our model mirror the dynamics of real world events, and to that extent only, the models we have developed are in fact models of the real world and indicate just how well the real universe is hierarchically structured as Simon tells us it is. However we develop, imagine, or invent these arbitrary structures, it is only by testing them against our only reliable communication channel with reality, immediate experience, that we can improve them and in doing so improve our internal model of the world outside, which is the ultimate goal of knowledge.

For our purposes, that is, understanding the meaning of human freedom and responsibility, we have enough background now to see the relationship between man and the process of evolution that began at the instant of the Big Bang.  Physical forces acting on the hadrons resulted in the emergence of first atomic elements and later inorganic molecules.  Most elements emerged in the interior of stars, which then went nova and spread the atoms across space, and the same physical forces acting on these atoms lead to the emergence of planets.  In the earlier years of the planet Earth, these same physical forces in the primordial soup brought about the emergence of amino acids and later life.  In each of these cases, what emerged from the pattern of physical forces was what we call Complex Hierarchical Constraint, the pattern of forces that bind the emerging objects to form identifiable existences.  In each step in the hierarchical process the possible variety of emergences becomes greater.  The more complex constraints we find in living things increases the possible variety to an even greater extent.  With the advent of man, we have something we call mind.  The brain is a physical structure that all higher animals possess.  It too has emerged through the interplay of physical forces.  Animals, too, interact with their environment in quite complex ways, but it is only man who can see in a stone something that  is more than simply an improvement in the stone's utility that is not obvious in the stone's appearance and then, through creative talent, make that thing come into being.  It should be obvious that this opens an entirely new world of possibilities.

When an object emerges, that is comes into existence, something else has emerged with it.  It is an organization of physical laws that constrains the collection of constituents in such a way that they produce a higher order of existence that can be identified, acted on, and treated as though it were a monolithic entity.  Any time the same set of constituents are brought together under the same energetic conditions, the new object will come into being.  Hierarchical control programs in living things are simply a more sophisticated form of constraint that provide for a greater variety of outcomes.  With the emergence of man, the emergence of higher level structures is no longer simply an outcome of physical forces.  Aristotle saw imagination as the image-forming part of the human soul.  But it is more than that.  In the act of imaging, it adds something no other living thing has, image creativity.  When we image something in our mind we image much more than the inputs we receive from our senses.  When we sense something in our environment, we must do more than record its existence.  We must place it in its proper place in the model of our world that we have created in our mind.  Its fit with the model is more important than the details of its existence. 

Consider an early human in the jungle.  Suddenly out of the blue he hears the growl of a saber-toothed tiger.  This is an example of immediate empiricism.  There is no time for cognition.  The saber-toothed tiger must exist in his world model already so that his immediate reaction is to take cover, to run.  The same would be true of other animals. But there is a difference for man.  Since the last encounter with a tiger, he has expanded his knowledge of the tiger through further experience and mental deliberation.  Consider, too, saber-toothed tigers are extinct, man is not.  The problem is that the environment that man lives in is not the outside world at all.  It is the model he has created in his mind.  This is a major step in evolution.  This internal world is also held together by Complex Hierarchical Constraint.  However there are no direct physical laws to form the constraint.  Man must create them himself through his creative imagination. 

W. Ross Ashby brought up the concept of requisite variety.  What he said was that a controlling system must have within its control more variety than the controlled system.  Modern systems theories, operations research, cybernetics, information theory, etc., have been developed to solve problems in the control of directed, deterministic, manmade systems. The purport of Ashby's law of requisite variety is simply that the variety in a controlling system must be at least as great as that in the system under control. Men face Natural systems that are awash in a sea of excess variety. Child psychologist Eleanor Gibson said, "In the normal environment, there is always more information than the organism is capable of registering." The question as to how they exist other than at the whim of their environment is not very readily apparent under mechanisms developed for simpler deterministic systems. In particular, processes for reducing variety generally used to maintain control of cybernetic systems are not valid when the variety exceeds some minimal amount.

The problem of man, then, is how to reduce the amount of excess variety he must contend with.  The answer to that problem will bring us to the next level of hierarchical constraint, that of social systems.