Lenartowicz M, Weinbaum DR (Weaver), Braathen P . Global Brain Institute, Free University Brussels . Social Systems: Complex Adaptive Loci of Cognition . Emergence: Complexity & Organization, 18(2) . 2016
Human social systems are concrete non-metaphorical, cognitive agents operating in their self-constructed environments. This theory is an integration of social systems theory (Luhmann) with enactive cognition theory (Di Paolo) and theory of individuation (Simondon). It is marked by a number of shifts in thinking about social systems: 1. becoming rather than being, 2. three-layered understanding of the environment where identities of social systems individuate, 3. a reactive rather than a responsive approach to adaptiveness and 4. social systems are cognitive systems. Social systems are complex individuating communicative interactions that together constitute cognitive agencies. DPB: the text says: ‘sequences of communicative interactions’: from the network perspective, the interactions will most probably not be sequential; they might be from the perspective of the individual agents; they surely are from the perspective of the individual unities of communication (which go ‘from hand to hand’). The discussion about individuation should be in interaction EINT? The relation of these agents with their environments (including other such agencies) can be clarified through the Hayek-Hebb-Edelmann perspective and the Maturana-Varela perspective of perturbation-compensation. The theory is demonstrated by an example of a NASA communication showing how ‘.. a social organization undergoes a process of individuation from which it emerges as an autonomous cognitive agent with a distinct and adaptive identity’ [p 1].
Social systems are seen as complex in the sense that they consist of many parts that interact in a non-simple way (such that it is not trivial to infer the behavior of the whole from the properties of the parts). They are seen as adaptive, because they operate in their environment maintaining a set of their characteristics invariant. But they are not seen as cognitive: 1) the cognitive capacity of the human mind is typically involved, which can be viewed in a black-box manner (to encompass the supposed cognitive qualities of the social system) and 2) when invoked for an entire social system there is a risk of using it in a mystical sense. DPB: would cognition not also be seen as requiring physical sensory machinery, and so where cognition is invoked and individual people, then, given that they avail of the machinery, it must be them providing the cognitive functionality? But this paper supports the claim that social systems are indeed cognitive; this is approached through a re-conceptualization of the concepts of complexity and adaptiveness. Social systems are seen as sequences of complex, individuating sequences of occurrences of communication (events); their operating is approached from the perspective on systems adaptation of Hayek-Hebb and from Maturana-Varela, each revealing a different and complementary facet of the operation of the system, resulting in an integrated abstracted model of individuating, autonomous, and distributed cognition.
Concept 1: Components
It is often assumed that the basic component of social systems is the human being. Luhmann however proposes that social systems consist of sense-making, meaning-processing communications. Properties of human beings (the contents of her mind) play a role only when they are expressed socially, else it remains in the social system’s environment. The Heraklitian shift from being to becoming was elaborated by Nietsche, Simondon, Deleuze, DeLanda, Bergson to emphasize that not objects but processes are the basic elements of systems (‘even the most solid objects are networks of processes’ [p 3]); if this is the case then much of the fabric of reality is overlooked by delineating objects; and we are looking at what is happening within them and among them; looking at actions instead of agents implies looking at differences in states instead of fixed states. From this perspective the agent is left out of the observation, not treated as a component but as a catalyser: ‘an aspect or part of a state that is necessary for the action to occur’ (Heylighen, 2011:8)’ [p 3]. If the ontology is changed from agents to actions then, in Luhmann’s approach, the focus is on communication and not on humans, a communication as a difference-making selection process: 1. selection of information, 2. selection of the utterance, and 3. selection of the (mis)understanding of information and the utterance (Luhmann 2002:157). Only if all three are present communication occurs. DPB: this is how i’ve modeled it and this is also how I have come to understand Luhmann. It is quite different from what I understood form the article Individuation of Social Systems. That difference is important and I must discuss it with Marta. With regards to the NASA example: this illustrates the emergence of a unit of communication; what would be a valid and illustrative example concerning the operations of a firm? The three selections are in this example made by (subjective and changeable) human minds, but this selection can be deferred to objects, machines, AI &c; the selective processes take place regardless the properties of the substrate (chemical physical &c.). When the three selections have taken place then the event of a communication has taken place: ‘Nothing is transferred – Luhmann claims – Redundancy is produced in the sense that communication generates a memory to which many people can lay claim in many different ways (2002:160)’ [p 5]. Operation of these three selections is often imprecise, ineffective, associative, incomplete and inadequate: it is in other words more often than not made up of just-so stories. Given that these communications events interact between them (and via human beings) then their properties are different from those of human agents. Examples of the effects between the selections are: 1. the selection of understanding in one communication event will constrain and be conserved in the following ones, 2. the selection of an utterance in one event will be retained, refused or refined in the following, and 3. adhering to a shared form (utterance) will prompt selection of understanding in a coherent way. These selections lead to sequences that may under the influence of individuation lead to pattern of which a few examples are: organizations, languages, nations, organizations, discourses, &c.
Concept 2: Individuation
Individuation is a primary (to what) formative activity, where individuals are always intermediate, temporarily stable entities, undergoing ongoing change: ’Individuation is a process where boundaries and distinctions that define individuals arise without assuming any individual(s) that precede(s) them. The nature of distinctions and boundaries is subtle: inasmuch as they separate subject from object, figure from background, and one individual from another, they must also connect that which they separate. A boundary, therefore, is not only known by the separation it establishes but also by the interactions and relations it facilitates’ [p 7]. DPB: perhaps another way to formulate this brings a different perspective: ‘A boundary is established by the interactions and relations it’s component’s properties facilitate through their attractions to some and repulsion from properties of other components’ in their environment and within the system itself. In this sense the boundary is a resultant from the myriad attractors and repellers that may exist all along the outer surface of the system. And that outer surface also has an important contribution to the capacity of the system to be distinguished by other systems’. For him (Simondon), the individual is a metastable phase within the a continuous process of transformation, ever impregnated with not yet actualized and not yet known potentialities of being. .. a plastic entity, an on-going becoming’ [p 7]. DPB: this is my monad; but I have never defined the ontogeny of a monad and a individuation process does that. How can this network of communications form an assemblage (DeLanda, 2006) of interacting components? Communication (three elements) results in temporary boundaries: 1. information selection: marked-unmarked (information), 2. semiotic: signified-signifier (utterance), and 3. sense-making: sign and context (understanding). DPB: I am still not sure about the use of these kinds of boundaries, but between brackets the link to the three selections.
Concept 3 Environment
An environment of people is topological, an environment of communications is semiotic. A tentative definition of a communication event is: ’Whatever the communication refers to and is being referred to’ [p 11]. The environment is not the surroundings of the communication process, but the semiotic space delineated by the three meaning-creating selections (utterance, information, understanding). The nouns in an utterance describe (or characterize) the environment of a communication. Once a communication event has taken place, any future event may refer to the initial one as its environment: The environment is not only what it refers to or what is being referred to, but also all the communications that perform the referring. The possibilities for a communication to be referred to are, in ascending order: gestures, speech, writing, social media. ‘Since all communications are endlessly available to be referred to, also the environments that they delineate become available endlessly. Each such an environment has a potential of becoming evoked by a following occurrence of communication and thus, by the means of repetition of such occurrences, has a potential of becoming more or less stabilised’ [p 13]. DPB: reference to the mechanism of the process of individuation, where it produces temporarily stable entities. When communications interact they individuate and become more entangled and so do their (partly shared) environments; and the more a shared environment, the other communications (hetero-reference) and the communication itself (self-reference) are referred to by the various communications, the more stable they can become. As a consequence some communications belonging to each other and they belong to a particular environment: ‘Thus, the whole socially constructed reality (Berger & Luckmann, 2011) comes into existence’ [p 13]. DPB: this is an important argument in the formation of a stable pattern as a system. ‘At some stage of the process of individuation, the locus of control over the boundary between the environment and the individuating sequence of communications (which at this point can be called a system) has started to be positioned within it. This way the Luhmannian social systems arise, which ‘have the ability to establish relations with themselves and to differentiate these relations from relations with their environment’ (Luhmann 1995 Social Systems:13) (emphasis by the authors’ [p 16-7]. DPB: the ontogeny of an assemblage of parts individuating up to the point that they become a system in the sense that they self-organize and then at some point they (it) may get to the point that they (it) become(s) autopoietic: assemblage > self-organized system > autopoietic system. I am not sure about the term assemblage, because it sounds a kind of designed (an assembly is put together), whereas it should be thrown onto a heap such that they come to stick into a group.
Concept 4: Adaptability
Social systems self-maintain their own coherence and identity through their own operations: when a change in the environment occurs, the systems adapts. According to the theory of Hayek-Hebb the system responds and according to Maturana-Varela the system reacts to a change in its environment. The responsive approach claims that the system develops a model of its environment as per a pattern in internal interactions; but this is known not to exist (perhaps something in a functional and abstracted way). The theory of reactive adaptation claims that the system is operationally closed: the operational responses only depend on internal processing and hence on the internal structure of the system, in turn depending on its internal states. If the environment changes then the state may change and the reaction at the next click changes.’It follows, that the system-environment interactions take place only in a way that allows just that: the system’s recursive production of its own identity pattern under ever-changing conditions. Whenever a change in the environment forces an internal shift in the system, the shift is compensated by some other internal changes’ [p 18]. DPB: not very new but well worded. The choice is for the reactive model, given its relevance for biological systems but its controversial status concerning its application for social systems. The center stage position for human beings is no longer required after the Luhmannian explanation of communication; the concept of systems autonomy is a sufficient theoretical justification for the perturbation-compensation mode of adaptation to be derived for social systems: ‘What is needed for such an application is merely understanding the dynamic of systems as structurally defined i.e. that they will not be able to produce any consequent behavior which is not not encoded already in their current structure and state’ [p 19]. DPB: disagree, there is n need for that, it has been shown to not be required.
Concept 4.1 Responsive adaptation
In terms of the Hayek-Hebb responsive adaptation model, the system’s internal model gets updated as a result of a change in the relations between the system and its environment: some get stronger, others weaker. The problem with this approach is that it takes the boundary between system and environment as a given, whereas that boundary can change because of the changes in the environment (the relation between the map and the mapped territory, the interaction between the map and the mapped &c.). The Hayek-Hebb theoretical approach does not allow tracking of the emergence of the boundary between an individuating sequence of occurrences of communication and its multi-layered environment.
Concept 4.2: Reactive adaptation
‘The ‘reactive adaptation’ approach posits that operational responses of a system in relation too external changes (perturbations) depend only o the inner structure and the state of the system and can only induce further changes to its inner structure and state’ [p 24]. In order to observe a reactive adaptation in sequences of communications, one observes how a communication X points at a previous communications Y using its selections as a rationale to understand how the systems refers to a perturbation in the environment. So, the reference of X to Y reflects the reaction of the system to the change in the environment. X and Y being related as per some criterion, ‘belong’ to the same sequence of communications. DPB: perhaps this is the sequence with the hooks between the events (as a commonality of flavor) that Marta mentioned to indicate the relation between memes and (the individuation of) communication? This theory predicts that a change in the environment leads to a sequence of communications. DPB: this reminds of the Wagensberg model, where a change in the environment leads to changes in the complexity of the system and/or of the complexity of the environment and also to an increase in the amount of information at the boundary. What needs to be addressed is how it can be known whether communications X and Y ‘belong’ to the same sequence of communications: this can be known by the signifier selecting the communications in the entire sequence. The above method of observation using the signifier renders the reactive adaptation method takes a more relaxed stance towards the signifier (someone claims that..), and hence it is much more suitable for the process ontology of social systems. ‘Should a pattern of reactive adaptation be detected in such a fluid realm, this may imply (prove) a temporary existence of an individuated sequence, coherent enough to display an adaptive behaviour’ [p 26]. DPB: I like this, it is a spot-on explanation of the way a firm can be start (while not yet founded) and already takes shape and represents a body of thought. ‘The fluid, processual milieu populated by various occurrences of communication is exactly where the boundaries of the individuating assemblages are formed. It happens by distinguishing between the communications that belong to or are owned by a specific system and those which do not’ [p 27]. DPB: this can explain more specifically how a firm is formed, namely that the ideas belonging to the organizing of the specific production plan are owned by the owners of the firm.
Concept 5: Cognition
This final argument is that social systems áre cognitive systems, and so the argument goes beyond a mere metaphor: ‘a communication-constituted social system is a cognitive system and its on-going constitution is a process of cognitive development (emphasis by the author)’ [p 28]. The argument is 1. that all individuating processes are cognitive processes (following the enactive cognition approach of DiPaolo e.a. 2010) and 2. this approach is used to ‘explicate the intrinsic cognitive nature of communication constituted social systems’ [p 28]. The activity of cognition is ‘naturally associated’ with agents in environments whose operation can be described as an on-going problem-solving activity. But how does this set-up of agents, objects and their relations in an environment emerge? Even though they might be vague and not (yet) fully clear, determined and they can merge or even disappear completely: ‘Crossing this, often unseen, boundary between the unknown and the known, the unformed and the formed is what we call sense-making. Sense-making is the bringing forth of a world of distinctions, objects and entities and the relations among them. Even primary distinctions such as ‘objective-subjective’ or ‘self – other’ are part of sense-making. A relatively new appearance on the sage of cognitive science, the so-called enactive cognition approach, regards sense-making as the primary activity of cognition. The term ‘enactive’, synonymous with ‘actively bringing forth’, makes its first appearance in the context of cognition in the book “The Embodied Mind” (Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1992) and has since been the subject of many developments and debates (Stewart, Gapenne, and Di Paolo, 2010; Thompson, 2007; Di Paolo, 2006; De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007). A guiding idea of the enactive approach is that any adequate account of how the body (i.e. any embodied system) can either be or instantiate a cognitive system must take into account the fact that the body is self-individuating: […] By saying that a system is self-constituted, we mean that its dynamics generate and sustain an identity. An identity is generated whenever a precarious network of dynamical processes becomes operationally closed.[…] Already implied in the notion of interactive autonomy is the realization that organisms cast aa web of significance on their world. […] This establishes a perspective on the world with its own normativity [.] (Di Paolo, Rohde, and De Jaegher, 2010, pp. 38-9, 45). The enactive theory of cognition therefore incorporates the idea of individuation rather naturally as it asserts cognition to be an on-going formative process, sensible and meaningful (value related), taking place in the co-determining interactions (i.e. communications in our case) of agents and their environment (Di Paolo, Rohde, and De Jaegher, 2010)’ [p 28-9]. The concept of sense-making means 1. cognition as a capability of an already individuated system and 2. the individuation of cognition as intrinsic to cognition itself [p 29]. DPB: I believe this is all the same thing: it can have started with fluids or even gases that found themselves to cluster around certain attractors (and away from repellers) and to then form clusters of ever more complex molecules with regulating functionalities to form cells, small organisms &c. But before anything else the elements in each of the clusters must ‘make sense of’ their environment such that they can manage to be attracted by this or repelled by that. The formation of their regulatory functionalities = their organization = their self-individuation = their cognition. Concerning point 2 above: ‘The latter meaning of sense-making is the one corresponding to the acquisition and expansion of concrete cognitive capacities and it also generalizes the concept of cognitive development beyond its psychological context (Piaget, 2013) and makes it applicable to general individuating systems (Weinbaum & Veitas, 2014). Furthermore, in the broadest sense, every individuation process where boundaries, distinctions and relations are progressively determined, is a sense-making process and therefore is cognitive’ [p 29]. DPB: I fully agree. This is an important element in the understanding of the emergence of organizations and firms. Now I know how they come to be, and I already knew how they come to ‘pass away’. But the million dollar question is Why, what is the relation of these events of emerging and dying to the production of information on a cosmic scale, what is its utility? The theory of enactive cognition assets that a relatively stable and autonomous individual is required for sense-making: ‘In contrast, we argue that the broader understanding of cognition as sense-making precedes the existence of systems as already individuated identities (cognitive agents) and is actually a necessary condition to their becoming. Only that at this pre-individuated stage there is still no one for whom sens is being made’ [p 29]. DPB: this is a crucial argument. It is somewhat mistaken (or misleading), because it tacitly assumes that consciousness is required for the sense-making to take place. If the next step is also taken (or what is stated above is followed on) then the sense making is just the processing information in general; if it is about conscious systems, then that has the sense of the processing of the communication events by the mind. In other cases, it is the processing of information, such as the figuring out what to do by some chemicals leading up to the Beloesov-Zhabotisnsky reaction after a shock is administered, having found out that other chemicals are in the vicinity. ‘Our understanding of cognition derives from the broader sense of social systems as individuating systems that enact sense-making via on-going communications. .. Even more importantly, if cognitive development is intrinsic to cognition as argued by Weinbaum & Veitas (2014, 2015), cognizing is not only a core activity of social systems but also a vehicle for their evolution. Embodiment can be understood as a combination of the ‘raw material’ constituents, in our case communications instances, and their coordinated organization, in our case the way communications are related and associated reflecting complex distinct structures. The situatedness of a social system can be understood as the totality of its immediate interactions over already established boundaries. In other words, the situation of the system is the immediate circumstances of enacting its sense-making. Of course for social systems both embodiment and situatedness are distributed and fluid’ [p 30]. DPB: this reminds me of the Situations of the Logistical Model: I had defined them as the change of one meme in the mind of a person. If the sentence in bold above can be taken to mean the forming of a thought (for a person) then the meaning of the two definitions might not be far removed, because to enact its sense-making means to use a ‘tool for thought’ to make sense (process information) of the immediate environment (circumstance?). ‘In a communication-constituted operational domain, the process of individuation may be initiated by a difference of strength of association between a few contingent communications (see also (Weinbaum & Veitas, 2015, pp. 19-23)). A recurrent set of occurrences of communication which are more or less consistent and coherent constitutes a semiotic boundary or part of it’ [p 30]. DPB: this reminds me of my model of the associative relations between memes, connotations. This above does explain that they are contingent, and so there is no certainty or anything goes; it does not explain how these associations can gain strength &c.