Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 58! It’s Not Top Down, Nor Is It Bottom Up: On Immanence And System Causation...
Good morning fleeting moments of the night,
At the end of some weeks you can tell what you’ve been up to by looking at the table — what books, articles and printouts are piled up, what notes, diagrams and sketches sit on the surface of things. Mixed in is the mail, a random assortment of tools, wires, and projects underway. Hats and scarves as winter comes to sit with us. Restaurant and shopping receipts. Life’s wind shuffling the week into the future.
Many lines of experimentation blowing across our worlds.
Some opening into more distant futures and others close to the now.
Resting on the surface is a half sheet of paper with:
"The word experimental is apt, providing it is understood not as a descriptive of an act later judged in terms of success & failure, but simply as an act the outcome of which is unknown."
~ John Cage; Silence p13
It keeps floating up to the surface. I see it tucked under things and bring it back to the top. Experimentation works with an unknowable horizon.
It reminds me with great humor of one of our posts on LinkedIn being labeled this week as “derivative… not overtly wrong, but not right either” — which is an apt description of where every experiment sits in its nascent life. The new, as an exaptative process, is a co-option of what exists — literally derivative in its infancy — and to look from a distance of judgement is to see only the known. To become other than what it literally is — is to use it in a way which the outcome is unknown — which is to exceed the predetermined “wrong and right.” Of course, one can police the truth, and there is merit in this, but our tables and their delightful piles of ongoingness call to us in other ways…
Last week in the newsletter we began a new exploration on Causality, and the productive/creative nature of constraints. The newsletter was an introduction to the qualitative difference between linear causality and non-linear causality. If you are new to the newsletter it might be worth a detour back to last week.
We ended with:
“Moving away from linear causality is to move to a systems-causation approach. To talk only of “non-linear” causality is to leave this qualitatively distinct causality with only a negative definition: it is not that it is just nonlinear — it is something entirely distinct from linearity — this has a name: it is systems causation.“
This week we continue this exploration.
In the general discussion of non-linear causality one of the central features that makes it distinct is often described as being “top down”.
Classical models of causality are usually defined in terms of being linear, additive and proportional: “this effects that which effects that which leads to this”.
Non-linear models stress that in emergent processes this additive process becomes indirect, non-proportional and that the relational whole that emerges is “more than the sum of its parts”. This is often described as “bottom-up emergence” or simply, “bottom-up.”
The second unique feature of such non-linear systems is that the emergent whole — the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts — has a “downward” effect, shaping and transforming its parts. This is termed “top-down”. These two terms have become part of the standard vocabulary and concepts of emergence and non-linear causality.
But, this language of imposition is a flawed one — it is still the language and logic of linear causality. Framing processes as “top-down” or “bottom-up” causal situations (as well as the use of the language of “constraints”, “governing” and even “more-than-a-sum-of-its-parts”) are continuations from a linear perspective.
The philosopher John Searle wrote a really interesting paper “Consciousness, Free Action, and the Brain” on the topic of free-will. In it he makes a number of powerful observations and arguments about the assumptions built into this language of top-down and bottom-up.
“At this point it seems to me we have to examine critically the assumptions built into our diagrammatic representations with its metaphors of “bottom-up” and “top-down”…”
He goes on to say that the problem is that whatever the higher level or emergent “more-than” feature is, this metaphor paints a picture of it as resting on the outer surface or distinct from whatever it has emerged from in a “bottom up” manner. As he puts it in an apt metaphor “like paint on a table”.
“All of this is wrong,” he goes on to say — Emergent qualities (in his argument, consciousness) are “no more on the surface of [things] than liquidity is on the surface of water”.
An emergent quality or feature is rather, a feature of the whole system “and is present — literally — at all of the relevant places of the system in the same way that the water in the glass is liquid throughout… the whole system moves in a way that is causal.”
“The right way to think about this is not so much “top down” but as system causation. The system, as a system, has causal effects on each element, even though the system is made up of elements”.
This brings us to how we speak of emergent causality as bringing some “thing” that is “more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts” into being.
On the face of it, this is correct — when processes come together in a relation dominant manner they become something that is qualitatively different from if each discreet “part” was simply gathered in one place. But what emerges is, as Searle goes to great lengths to make clear — is not some “extra” thing in the system — it is the state of system — “in the same way that the solidity of the wheel is not an extra element of the wheel in addition to the molecules. It is just a state the molecules are in.”
System causation and the state of the system that emerges is not something extra but is the system itself — it is what it has become, and this is fully immanent in the system. What is true of Searle’s example consciousness is true of all emergent qualities. We can abstractly define them and name them “capitalism” “consciousness” “dispositif” “the health system” “thought” — but these are not distinct entities — they are fully and wholly immanent.
"There are no literal words, neither are there metaphors... there are only inexact words to designate something exactly..."
Our language is a historical language that reflects the legacy of linear causality, and its metaphorical reach is equally patterned to that of linearity, thingness, and essences.
It is interesting that two important philosophers of creativity and innovation, Alfred Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze both were strongly critical of such practices of analogy and metaphor.
For Whitehead the danger is one of “misplaced concreteness” — we confuse our abstractions with the underlying issue and perform an act of substitution: we now study our abstraction. Which is an ever present reality in the language of emergence, and what emerges.
For Deleuze, metaphor and analogy subordinate difference (genuine novelty) to sameness, resemblance and identity. He is famous for saying that concepts are not metaphors, but must be taken literally. To which he adds, “There are no literal words, neither are there metaphors… There are only inexact words to designate something exactly”.
Deleuze proposes a language and a set of tools that should be considered purely qualitatively (as intensities). This is helpful in utilizing language as a tool for worldly experimentation — perturbation and activation.
In our cultural context of where metaphor and analogy are both widespread and everywhere subordinate difference to identity, their refusal can be challenging. It certainly is for us in this case…
The thirty spokes converge at one hub,
But the utility of the cart is a function of the nothingness (wu) inside the hub.
We throw clay to shape a pot,
But the utility of the clay pot is a function of the nothingness inside it.
We bore out doors and windows to make a dwelling,
But the utility of the dwelling is a function of the nothingness inside it.
Thus, it might be something (you) that provides the value,
But it is nothing that provides the utility.
~ Chapter 11 Daodejing (Ames & Hall, translators)
There are two other aspects of system causation which are seemingly paradoxical that are worth mentioning as we come to an end of the this week's newsletter:
1. What makes an emergent systems feature or quality different than the mere sum of its parts is nothing we can point to — it is not in any thing — it is in the practice — in the relations. Looking inside each and every component will not give you a sense of the whole. Nor will any attempt to trace causality back to a source. “It” only exists in its use — in action taken as a non-decomposable whole.
Wu (nothing) and You (something) are, as the translators point out, existential relational verbs that relate to having in the sense of “to be around” and “to not be around” rather than ontological categories of being and non-being — which the english terms of something and nothing are.
The outcome of systems causation is a relational something that is also a nothing — a nothing more than that is qualitatively different from a sum of what is.
2. Terrance Deacon, who makes a similar point, stresses that this “more than” of emergence is in reality a “less than.” What emerges from systems causality is a statistical constraining of all the degrees of freedom that the individual components might possess. The emergent quality is a productive less-than.
Thus, the new and the different that might emerge from a systems causational process is both a “productive less-than” and an “active nothing that is an active something”…
What something is and what else it can do are a radically productive less-than-nothing.
Next week, we will explore how to productively extend these ideas by considering how we can engage with constraints and system causality creatively.
Till then — keep your tables messy, live your best, most active and most experimental lessness and nothingness — and have a good week
Till Volume 59,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
🧨 P.S.: We facilitate workshops and the accolades are overwhelming.
♥️ P.P.S.: Love this newsletter? We'd be grateful if you heap a bit of praise.
🔥 P.P.P.S.: Find the newsletter valuable? Please share it with your network
🙈 P.P.P.P.S: Hit reply - feedback of any kind is welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution
📚 P.P.P.P.P.P.S.: Go deeper - Check out our book which is getting great feedback like this: