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Archive for February, 2007

Agency

To understand the concept of agency and emergence thereof, it helps to think about very pure systems that exhibit agency emergence. One such system is Conway’s Game of Life, a kind of cellular automata system which exhibits some uncanny life-like behaviors. You should read the synopsis of Life as well as watch various simulations of it unfold so you get an understanding and an intuition about what’s happening. A remarkable aspect of Life that the rules that govern everything that happens in the system are extremely simple and only apply to a local neighborhood on a grid. What emerges as a run of Life unfolds could hardly be called simple though.
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Evolution & Emergence

Evolution and emergence are not the same thing. Evolution is the process of change within a particular level. Emergence is the creation of a new level of organization through the coming into existence of one or more self-sustaining systems, or agents. These agents often co-exist in populations of other agents which are more or less similar to one another, for instance a species, a tribe, or an ecology of organisms from a variety of species.
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Emergent Causality

For whatever reason, perhaps a pervasive simplicity bias,* we as humans like to think of causality in very basic terms: each event has one and only one cause. Multi-causal explanations seem unsatisfying. We like to know who (or what) to blame or credit. Shared responsibility seems somehow not as real. In cognitive psychology experiments it is well-documented how a crowd of people will stand by watching someone else in distress without anyone offering to help. Yet any one of those same witnesses would invariably take action if nobody else were around. The literature explains this as a sort of “tragedy of the commons” in personal responsibility, i.e. each individual in a crowd of 20 is only 1/20th responsible. Furthermore, everyone assumes that somehow the other 19/20ths of the responsibility will take care of it, if they haven’t already.

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For one full day, whenever you are in physical proximity to another person, be they friend or stranger, look them in the eyes, hold their gaze and smile.

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There is a story about several wise men fumbling around in the dark trying to understand the nature of an elephant by each feeling different parts of the body (leg, trunk, etc). This strikes me as analogous to an approach to understanding the mind that tries to isolate mental functions by mapping them to physical regions of the brain.

Sure, we’ve known for years that regions of the brain are correlated to mental functions like language, vision, controlling distinct parts of the body, et al. And we observe that gross damage to these areas correlates to loss of function. But the observations show many exceptions and edge cases, such as functional compensation during brain damage. An illuminating aspect of brain damage is the continuous (as opposed to discrete) loss of function, which contrasts sharply with damage to human-engineered systems like cars and computers. With technology, generally speaking if a physical region gets damaged, the function it was serving is totally gone. With biological systems, and especially the brain, function degrades “gracefully”, which is to say, you may be dsylxeic or a pour speeler, but y0u still by g3t qui find 99% of the time.

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