I'm a philosophy student that tends to post about really serious things unseriously and about really unserious things seriously.
I was once described as a "beautiful, intelligent iguana".
This is the essay I wrote, because (like I said earlier), narcissism. :)
Indecision Concerning ‘Feedback’ and ‘Competition’ in Johnson’s “Simply Complexity”
Complexity science is in an unstable state. As a newly emerging type of science, it lacks the grounding principles and definitions that tend to characterize more established scientific disciplines (for example: classical mechanics, and the Newtonian laws that dominate it). Even such necessary components as a definition of the limits of complexity science, or even a set criteria that would allow scientists to differentiate complex from non-complex phenomena are completely lacking in its current state. In the spirit of trying to clear some of the air surrounding this new discipline, I wish to engage with Neil Johnson’s Simply Complexity# in order to flesh out some of ground of complexity, and to problematize some elements he proposes to be essential. Specifically, I’ll be focusing on the elements of “feedback” and “competition” within a system that help give rise to its complex character.
First of all, though, I’d like to address why Johnson’s book is worthy of examination towards this end. As can probably be inferred from the title, the book falls under what usually would be called ‘pop science’, and is something more likely to be read by a nonspecialist than by someone trying to delve deep into the problems of complexity. Although I don’t wish to delve into the problems that arise in the characterization of literature as ‘high’ or ‘low’, especially within scientific publishing, it is a fair question to ask: why this book, rather than a more rigorous one, especially when we’re trying to investigate the essentials of this science? The best reply seems to be that when trying to investigate the principles that ground a new practice (scientific or not), sometimes the best procedure is to look at how the practice is being characterized by those trying to find the fundamentals of that practice, so as to figure out the absolute essentials that might get glossed over in the highly specific quibbles of specialists.
That said, let’s continue on to getting some definitions established. First, let’s establish what is meant when we speak of ‘competition’ within a complex system. In the terms of Johnson’s book, ‘competition’ occupies a strange place. Competition is never addressed as an essential component of complex systems#, it isn’t included in the list of the “key components of complexity” (p. 13-16), but the terms ‘compete’, ‘competition’, and associated terms such as ‘decision-making objects’ litter the text of the book. It’s safe to assume that Johnson considers competition to be an essential grounding for complex phenomena. What exactly characterizes ‘competition’ though?
Johnson never gives a full definition in the book, preferring rather to define the term by demonstration, but for the sake of simplicity, here’s an attempt at a definition: according to Johnson, competition is the driving force of a complex system, it is the element that emerges from objects within a system fighting for some finite resource, and is what makes it a system at all, instead of some formless apeiron of merely interacting nodes within a network. A simple example of the function of competition is the example Johnson gives of trying to decide whether or not to go to a bar on a Friday night (this example begins on p. 72). For sake of illustration, imagine that this is a bar that you attend semi-regularly, so that you have past information concerning the attendance of the bar (this point will become more important later). Your decision on whether or not to attend the bar is predicated by the fact that you only want to go on the condition that it’s not too crowded. (that is, there’s an attendence limit, and once the attendance becomes too high, going to the bar would have a negative outcome). This is where competition comes in: the ‘x’ factor of competition, in this case ‘space in the bar’, is the driving force that gives rise to the complexity of the situation. Were there no competition - that is, were space not a valued, finite resource - then everyone that wanted to attend the bar would, and whatever drive there was to form (or rather, “that forms”) the emergent social phenomena in this situation would be gone.
Another (non-social) case of competition within complex systems is the fight over available sunlight hitting the forest floor in rainforests. It seems doubtful that anyone would deny that a rainforest is a complex system taken as a whole (from the level of plant/animal interaction, to the systems that create heavy rainfall, to many different levels above, below, and in-between), but even this more minor element gives rise to complex phenomena. Tall trees making up the canopy level of a rainforest take up the majority of the solar energy, so that plants living at the forest floor must adapt mechanisms to harvest the extremely small amount of residual sunlight - for example, large, meaty leaves that can capture whatever energy may grace the forest floor. Thus we can see that competition over finite resources is the driving force of complex plant adaptations within this area of rainforests.
Feedback is a related but notably different element from competition. Feedback, unlike competition, is given a definition within Johnson’s book: feedback “means that something from the past affects something in the present, or something going on at one location affects what is happening at another” (p. 14). This definition needs to be fleshed out. Taken at face value, this definition seems to imply that any system that takes time into account expresses feedback - thus any ‘open’, temporal system would have feedback. This is far too open a definition. A more apt definition would include the fact that feedback works within a system to help it adapt to changes in time - it’s the ‘memory’ of a system. So it’s not just that the “past affects the present”, but also that present adaptations in complex systems are responses to events that occurred in the past. Thus, by Johnson’s account, feedback raises the complexity of a system by increasing the amount of bifurcations. Put another way, if the only thing going on in a complex system was competition, then there wouldn’t be much that was ‘complex’ about it - the system would be linear, the goal would be obvious, and it would be rather easy (relatively) to predict which element within a system would ‘win’ (that is, which would reach the goal). It’s once multiple agents are able to react to previous attempts (both their own, and others’) that complexity rears its head.
Returning to the Johnson’s bar example from earlier, we can see how an element of ‘feedback’ raises the complexity of the situation. Were there no feedback in the decision to go to the bar, then the decision would be completely random: all one could do is flip a coin and follow through with the results from week to week. Once you allow for the agents within a complex system to have some sort of ‘memory’ of their past decisions, and have them act accordingly, the results become complex, but non-random (an important aspect of all complex systems). This is why it was important to note that in our bar example, the person in question attends the bar semi-regularly: that is to say, they’ve been to the bar beforehand, and they have some notion of how many people regularly attend. Say that the bar is usually very crowded: then the question becomes whether your desire to go to the bar outweighs the highly probable situation where you’ll be uncomfortable due to the amount of people there. A single person deciding to go to a bar isn’t very complex - once you add, say, 100 people to the equation, though (all of them competing for the same resource, all of them asking themselves the same “should I/shouldn’t I” question), then the decision making process becomes highly complex, and the end result (whether the bar was/wasn’t crowded; whether it was/wasn’t a good idea to go) becomes separate from the choice of any one, lone actor within the system. Thus, for Johnson, the coupling of competition and feedback is what actually generates the complexity of complexity science.
Given the other example above, of plants competing for finite solar energy, we can see that while feedback adds complexity to a situation, it also adds structure. If the plants in question didn’t have some sort of feedback mechanism - which in this case is the weeding out of structures that don’t help the plant survive in a harsh environment - then the ecosystem would just produce organisms with any imaginable variation of structure. Plants would emerge that required large amounts of sunlight in one generation and then others that would have the same probability of getting those same characteristics in the next generation (since it would all boil down to millions of little coin flips at the molecular level of the organism). Thus plants (or any other organism) wouldn’t be adapting to their environment at all: they would just be producing random variations and possibilities of those original plants with no regard to the ultimate viability of either the species as a whole, or any individual plant#. Thus, while this feedback mechanism makes things a lot more complex (it’s probably the main source of complexity for biological science), it also provides the structure necessary for studying any of these systems in the first place. That’s the double-edged sword of feedback: it makes things highly complex, but also makes them researchable in a scientific way at all.
It’s at this point that I’d like to raise some problems with Johnson’s account of complexity, specifically his reliance on the ideas of ‘feedback’ and ‘competition’ as being central to any sort of complex system. First off, though, to stay consistent to the framework of Johnson’s presentation of complexity, it’s necessary to note all the factors that he says make up a complex system:
To this list, we should probably add again that Johnson values competition just as highly as any of these elements. If the counterexamples raised in this essay are able to satisfy a decent amount of the above criteria (to an arbitrary degree - note that Johnson’s own examples of complexity don’t always fulfill all these criteria), they should at least be taken seriously as challenges to his idea of complexity. I won’t specify how every example relates to these conditions - so as to keep this essay somewhat readable and brief - though I hope that the examples will be strong enough that the reader will be able to look back and fill in the gaps for themselves. First, this essay will raise issues with the notion of feedback, and then it will go on to problematize the necessity of ‘competition’.
Against the idea of ‘feedback’ I wish to only offer a simple counterexample: water turbulence. Turbulent water systems are generally seen as a prime example of a complex system (strange water flow structures emerge from the high speeds, small variations in the initial conditions of the water flow can produce tremendously different effects, etc.), but they don’t particularly have a form of feedback. Small changes, like the erosion of the soil that the water flows over, can affect things like the general speed of the water, the shape of the water flow, the size of the river/stream/etc., and so on. But the flowing water doesn’t have any ‘memory’ about its previous conditions, and those conditions don’t directly affect the turbulent water system. Outside forces bend and shape the turbulent flow, and strange (but in some ways static) structures emerge at certain critical points of intensity, but these emergences and structures have little to do with any feedback that the water may somehow be ‘receiving’ within this system. This is at least one example against the idea of feedback, though I feel there may be many more.
In a similar vein, the first argument I have against ‘competition’ as a criteria for complex phenomena is the metaphorical nature of this term when applied to non-biological systems. Metaphors aren’t necessarily to be avoided in themselves, though the introduction of a metaphor - especially in emerging scientific discourse - should be taken with a grain of salt, and should be examined rigorously. When speaking of financial markets (a favorite example of Johnson’s), ‘competition’ is an apt term, for there are willing agents acting toward some common goal. The notion of ‘will’ here is important. If the term ‘competition’ is extended to non-biological entities, and the metaphor isn’t kept explicit, then we’re led to the conclusion that phenomena like the dynamics of bodies in Poincaré’s “three-body problem” emerges from the “competition” between so-called celestial bodies and gravity, or that the self-regulating mechanics on many modern airplanes’ wings (to account for turbulence - see p. 92) are ‘competing’ for flight equilibrium. The notion seems absurd, and would lead to an extreme form of vitalism, a position that I don’t believe Johnson wishes to take.
The problem exists outside the metaphorical realm though, and even in biological systems. As an example, I wish to propose the event of a fungi releasing spores into the wind. The individual fungus is displaying a form of competition in this act (the attempt at procreation is done within a general competition for resources), and the wind may be the result of a metaphorical ‘competition’ - as already discussed - though I can’t seem to understand how the actual movement of spores is defined by any notion of competition. The amount of variables going into this phenomena - the exact speed/intensity of the wind, the general temperature, the size and weight of every individual spore, the height that the spores are shot up, the possibility of individual spores sending the other off course during travel, etc - are enough to make it a highly complex system. And if this phenomena were studied in a systematic way, I feel certain# that structures related the way the spores are carried in the wind would form, and that at certain critical points (maybe in amount of spores, maybe in the intensity of the wind), surprising, emergent phenomena would come to view. Though, if this all is true, then I fail to see how the individual, or even collective, spores are competing for anything: they’re just ‘riding the wave’, so to speak.
For a less speculative example, though, let’s consider social networks, specifically Facebook. Facebook is most definitely a complex phenomena, made up of hundreds of millions of interacting agents, forming a vastly complex network of social interaction. This network is particularly good at forming emergent phenomena as well, generally in the form of cultural ‘memes’, the structure and influence of which can vary on a multitude of factors. The question is: what are the individual actors in this network competing for? Followers, maybe? Though some may desire that, it seems unlikely that every person on facebook is on there just to collect the most amount of followers possible. Even if that were the case though, what would the finite resource? Followers? That’s not a finite resource though: every actor can add as many people as they desire (or tolerate) to their ‘friend lists’. Even in the absence of some element of competition, though, complex networks do form out of the interaction of many people on this website. Especially in today’s day and age, this seems like a particularly pertinent example to Johnson’s argument, especially with how concerned he is with human networks forming complex, emergent phenomena. Facebook’s lack of competition does raise serious concerns in regards to Johnson’s criteria though - concerns that need to be adequately addressed before we can put too much stock into Johnson’s thesis.
None of this is meant to discount Johnson’s work wholesale, though. He’s achieved a marvelous feat: he’s taken the various fragments of a field loosely called ‘complexity’, and has tried to tie them together in a book that non-specialists can read. This act shows considerable advancement and acceptance of the idea that complex, nonlinear phenomena could play a large part in the scientific research to come in the next few decades. Even if the ideas of ‘competition’ - as the binding agent for a complex system - and ‘feedback’ - as the regulative control and force of such phenomena - do have potential problems as necessary criteria for complex systems, they do give us insight into a great many events that we have come to accepts as ‘complex’. This alone should be enough to give us pause over these ideas, and should give us reason to continue research into the foundations of this emerging field of complexity.
1. Johnson, Neil. Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010. Print. All cited pages refer to this book.
2. Except for in one passage, on p. 71, which I will ignore in this essay, for it only establishes that competition drives complex systems by giving the agents a ‘goal’.
3. Not that plants actually have this concern; I’m speaking structurally
4. All of this is taken from the list of the “key components of complexity” mentioned above (p. 13-16).