Monday, December 31, 2012

Simple vs Complex Definitions 2

In my last post, I started listing the problems I have with simple, reductionist, essentialist definitions and suggesting ways that complex definitions provide better, more workable results. The list of issues that I want to present is in no particular order, as my thinking is not yet ordered enough. I mentioned in that post that I have problems first with definitions as an end-point rather than a starting point and then with definitions that disregard the human point of view rather than incorporate it. My next problem with simple definitions is that they aim for the absolute.

In the extreme case, people want definitions that are true for everyone, everywhere, for all time. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, so I deeply understand the attraction of this desire. Once we have our sock drawer arranged (well defined), then we want it to stay put. Once we know the formula for either eternal salvation or the speed of light, then we want it to stay put, and we become very unsettled when anything threatens that order. More to the discussion: once we know the formula for tenure, then we want it to stay put. We post-structuralist academics may pride ourselves on being open and fluid, but just mess with one of our primary relationships, our favorite word processor, or our retirement strategies, and see how quickly the knot of fascism swells in our hearts. We all want definitions that persist in the face of Life's flux, and we will move heaven and earth to make Reality conform to our definitions.

This very human desire for the absolute is, of course, a part of Reality, but Reality doesn't appear to take it too seriously. Reality won't stay put, or as Robert Frost says it: something there is that doesn't love a wall. We have come to see that a stable Reality is the result of truncated vision. We think that the arrangement of continents is stable only because we cannot see over long enough periods of time. When we extend our vision through technology, then we see that the very ground of our being is constantly shifting beneath our feet. This is not good. We want St. Louis to stay where we put it, damn it.

Complex definitions, then, incorporate the heuristics for change and development. This is very much the way DNA works: we have a set starting point for any human being, but the way that DNA unfolds and blossoms within its environment is critical to that human being. The starting point is necessary for the definition of a human, but hardly sufficient. The process of emerging, which is an interaction of both internal and external processes, is just as important. The starting point limits an entity (it prevents a given zygote from becoming a rabbit or a chimpanzee rather than a human, for instance), but it does not define the entity. Complex definitions allow for infinite variations in snowflakes and humans. They allow for black swans.

Then, simple definitions mishandle boundaries. In reductionist thinking, a boundary is a line that separates one kind of entity from all other entities, rendering an entity discrete from its environment. In complex thinking, a boundary is a zone of engagement between the entity and its environment. This is a radical difference in visualizing Reality that cannot be overstated. A simple definition isolates an entity from Reality, while a complex definition integrates an entity within its environment. Complex definitions take into account the dynamic exchange of energy and information at the boundaries of an entity, recognizing that what a thing is depends a great deal on the kinds of energy and information it exchanges at its boundaries. This is obvious at the biological level, but it is just as true for rhetoric. This post, for example, acquires most of its meaning from the information it exchanges with other posts (both my own and other bloggers) and conversations. This post has no discrete meaning. Its meaning comes only from the interactions with its environment.

Finally, at least for today, I have trouble with simple definitions because they ignore networks. This is perhaps another way of saying what I just said about mishandling boundaries, but I think the concept is worth introducing into this discussion, and anyway, it's been inherent in much of what I've already said. Meaning is a function of complex, multi-scale networking. As near as I can tell, all Reality is a function of complex, multi-scale networking, so definitions are as well. The definitions we have in our minds are networks of neurons firing in a fractal pattern, and this may seem dynamic enough, but thoughts are more dynamic than that. The neuronal network that represents the concept of, say, Christmas is dynamic. If Olaf Sporns is correct, each brain recreates the Christmas neuronal network with whatever neuronal resources it has available to it at the moment. Thus, Christmas is not associated with a fixed set of neurons firing in a fixed pattern—certainly not across all our brains, but not even within a given brain; rather, Christmas is a somewhat fresh, self-similar firing of available neurons each time I think it. The physical substrate for the thought Christmas is a dynamic, multi-scale networking (I'm using the verbal form rather than the nominal form of network to try to capture the dynamic nature of the concept).

Simple definitions, on the other hand, try to reduce entities to discrete chunks, whole within themselves. I don't think such chunks exist except in the coarsest level of Reality. They exist in conversation only as a convenient shorthand, a manner of speaking, but we should never be surprised when our simple definitions have slipped their moorings and we have to map reality all over again.
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