Free Capitalist Network - Community Archive
Mises Community Archive
An online community for fans of Austrian economics and libertarianism, featuring forums, user blogs, and more.

Douglas Hofstatder, Hayek and emergent order

rated by 0 users
This post has 4 Replies | 1 Follower

Top 500 Contributor
Posts 133
Points 2,580
Alex Habighorst Posted: Fri, Jul 30 2010 5:13 PM

Today, I returned to an idea I was facsinated with when I was younger. That is, Douglas Hofstatder's works in particular his ideas of the emergence of consience through emerging 'self refrential loops' that as they complexed eventually came to refrence the self and conscience emerges. At least, that is his argument as I interpred it at the time and I admit I could have it wrong.

So, in thinking about this today I immediatly drew a parallel to the work of Hayek and others on the concept of emergent and sponteaneous order as knowledge dispersed etc. I was curious if anyone else drew any kind of conncetion and what they thought about it.

"Man thinks not only for the sake of thinking, but also in order to act."-Ludwig von Mises

  • | Post Points: 35
Top 50 Contributor
Posts 2,552
Points 46,640
AJ replied on Sat, Jul 31 2010 4:02 AM

I have thought the same. Emergent order is everywhere: common law systems, webs of symbiotic relationships in the natural world such as between plants and soil microbes and between fruiting plants and animals, and of course in advanced (or even primitive) market economies. I think this is the strongest argument available for anti-statism. It's especially effective for environmentalists, who already realize that interventions into one kind of natural order (nature itself) are liable to produce harmful effects. 

Anyone who's ever seen the old TV series The Prisoner probably has thought of how the conscious mind is more like a committee than a singular entity. In some sense, personality seems to be an emergent order arising from competition and trial and error among competing factions in one's mind. 


One huge problem is the fuzzy notion of natural. Below I offer a tentative but precise definition of natural. It makes concrete the intuitive sense we have that "natural is better," and exactly in what sense it is better, or why natural systems produce some things far superior to our best technology.
Here is a rough sketch of a possible theory (not up to my usual posting standards for rigor because it's copied from an email and I don't have time to re-write):
It's always bothered me that there certainly is something "better" about nature but that it's always so vague and seemingly airy-fairy or new-agey when people try to defend the natural against the technological. Perhaps most remarkably, I've found common ground for both the staunchest environmentalist and the staunchest free-market capitalist, and a way for them to see that they are actually in partial agreement and that their desired systems are not that far from being an ideal match.
Here's the key definition:
Natural (v.) - of or pertaining to [the result or product of] a long history of intense competition on a rich marketplace*, culminating in a highly interconnected matrix of symbiotic, win-win relationships or interactions. 
*"Marketplace" in the metaphorical sense where applicable.
Something is more natural if it is the result of a longer history of more intense competition on a richer marketplace, and less natural is it is the product of a shorter history of less intense (or no) competition on a less rich (or nonexistent) marketplace. A general principle is that the more natural a system is - by the above definition - the greater the average benefit for all the "actors" or participants in that system. The benefit for a particular actor is higher the more deeply or broadly integrated into the system that actor happens to be. 
In cases where there is little opportunity for win-win interactions, the last resort is predation. Depending on the field, this could be thievery, eating vegetables or meats (because the plant or animal doesn't want to be eaten*), coup d'état, or unquestionable decisions by dictators.
*not saying this is good or bad, just that it's technically predation in the model
The predator can adapt (or evolve) to get more benefits from predation, but those being predated upon don't necessarily co-evolve or co-adapt. In other words, mice don't make themselves tastier to cats and easier to catch. If anything they would evolve in the opposite direction. Still, many relationships that started out predatory, after a long evolutionary "arms race," have turned cooperative/symbiotic (I'm guessing, haven't looked into this in detail yet).
Here is one of my favorite writers on political theory, John Hasnas at Georgetown U., talking about how the concept of "rights" came about:
In the absence of civil government, most people engage in productive activity in peaceful cooperation with their fellows. Some do not. A minority engages in predation, attempting to use violence to expropriate the labor or output of others. The existence of this predatory element renders insecure the persons and possessions of those engaged in production. Further, even among the productive portion of the population, disputes arise concerning broken agreements, questions of rightful possession, and actions that inadvertently result in personal injuries for which there is no antecedently established mechanism for resolution. In the state of nature, interpersonal conflicts that can lead to violence often arise.

What happens when they do? The existence of the predatory minority causes those engaged in productive activities to band together to institute measures for their collective security. Various methods of providing for mutual protection and for apprehending or discouraging aggressors are tried. Methods that do not provide adequate levels of security or that prove too costly are abandoned. More successful methods continue to be used. Eventually, methods that effectively discourage aggression while simultaneously minimizing the amount of retaliatory violence necessary to do so become institutionalized. Simultaneously, nonviolent alternatives for resolving interpersonal disputes among the productive members of the community are sought. Various methods are tried. Those that leave the parties unsatisfied and likely to resort again to violence are abandoned. Those that effectively resolve the disputes with the least disturbance to the peace of the community continue to be used and are accompanied by ever-increasing social pressure for disputants to employ them.
Over time, security arrangements and dispute settlement procedures that are well-enough adapted to social and material circumstances to reduce violence to generally acceptable levels become regularized. Members of the community learn what level of participation in or support for the security arrangements is required of them for the system to work and for them to receive its benefits. By rendering that level of participation or support, they come to feel entitled to the level of security the arrangements provide. After a time, they may come to speak in terms of their right to the protection of their persons and possessions against the type of depredation the security arrangements discourage, and eventually even of their rights to personal integrity and property. In addition, as the dispute settlement procedures resolve recurring forms of conflict in similar ways over time, knowledge of these resolutions becomes widely diffused and members of the community come to expect similar conflicts to be resolved in like manner. Accordingly, they alter their behavior toward other members of the community to conform to these expectations. In doing so, people begin to act in accordance with rules that identify when they must act in the interests of others (e.g., they may be required to use care to prevent their livestock from damaging their neighbors' possessions) and when they may act exclusively in their own interests (e.g., they may be free to totally exclude their neighbors from using their possessions). To the extent that these incipient rules entitle individuals to act entirely in their own interests, individuals may come to speak in terms of their right to do so (e.g., of their right to the quiet enjoyment of their property).
In short, the inconveniences of the state of nature represent problems that human beings must overcome to lead happy and meaningful lives. In the absence of an established civil government to resolve these problems for them, human beings must do so for themselves. They do this not through coordinated collective action, but through a process of trial and error in which the members of the community address these problems in any number of ways, unsuccessful attempts to resolve them are discarded, and successful ones are repeated, copied by others, and eventually become widespread practices. As the members of the community conform their behavior to these practices, they begin to behave according to rules that specify the extent of their obligations to others, and, by implication, the extent to which they are free to act at their pleasure. Over time, these rules become invested with normative significance and the members of the community come to regard the ways in which the rules permit them to act at their pleasure as their rights. Thus, in the state of nature, rights evolve out of human beings' efforts to address the inconveniences of that state. In the state of nature, rights are solved problems.
This pretty much encapsulates the "common law" aspect of the model.
Of course, the most natural system in the world is what we just normally call "nature," because it's had billions of years of competition and cooperation in incredibly biodiverse ecosystems. But we can coherently call even human systems more or less natural using the above definition, which would allow people to speak meaningfully of exactly in which aspects something's level of naturalness might be expected to equate to that thing being superior. The excerpt above shows how or what respects a legal system that is made based on a long process of trial-and-error in competition with 
other legal systems, always optimizing for minimum level of continued disputes, can be superior to modern "judge-made" law or legislated law. 
Another example, this time for business relationships, is how we could say that a pencil produced by Dixon Ticonderoga would probably be far higher quality, cheaper, more durable, etc. than one custom-made by a lab somewhere that didn't specialize in that. (See,_Pencil) By integrating ourselves into that matrix of symbiotic business relationships with its several decades of history of intense competition on a rich (global) marketplace, we get a much better pencil at a much better price than if we try to fashion on ourselves or order it custom-made from a company that is completely outside that web of interactions. 
In some sense the game of life, whether you are a human, a plant, or a bacterium, seems to be to integrate yourself into the richest, most ancient matrix of win-win interactions you can (and if you are a human you can actually create new win-win interactions) in as many aspects as you can. When there is a scarcity of win-win interactions in the natural order, you may benefit more from going it alone. For instance, given the current population density, it makes sense to have sewer systems even though it would be more "natural" to just go anywhere we wanted to (moreso for urban dwellers of course). This is because there is a scarcity of free land in the city - just a totally random example, but of course there are zillions more.
Fruit plants and fruit-eating animals have a multi-billion-year relationship, with fruit plants competing for animal "business"* for all that time, resulting in fruit becoming the tastiest, healthiest and most easily digestible foods for certain animals (provided they stay fully in that matrix, with all the soil microbes and earthworms, etc. being another supporting matrix of interactions that can boost all these good aspects of fruit even higher).
*What the fruit plants get in return is the "service" of animals scattering the seeds, by throwing away the apple core, expelling the strawberry seeds in their feces, etc.
F.A. Hayek, who won the Nobel prize in economics, spoke of the "natural order" or "spontaneous order" of economic interactions (Adam Smith's "invisible hand") and the development of common-law structures based on competitive courts. 
It's basically just showing that systems of competing and cooperating actors - if they are rich and diverse enough - tend to work themselves out in a way that maximizes the average benefit for all actors. It's why wild fruit can taste so much better than what you get in the supermarket and is nutritionally far superior to modern farmed fruit with NPK fertilizer, why the richest entrepreneurs (and the most successful politicians) are those that build a broad and/or deep array of win-win relationships*, why fruit is the best food for humans in terms of nutrition and digestibility, why free market economies always raise average wealth level far more than the less free economies, and why competitive common law systems are the only ones that seem to have ever produced laws that actually "work" (why they actually minimize disputes better than any legislated laws ever do**).
*If it were not for the great ability to predate on others through the mechanism of the state monopoly
**The US law system is also based on British common law, which evolved over several hundred years from a competing system of for-profit courts that citizens could select from among for the resolution of their interpersonal disputes. For more on this concept as it pertains to common law and political systems, see here).
  • | Post Points: 5
Top 50 Contributor
Posts 2,552
Points 46,640
AJ replied on Sat, Jul 31 2010 7:23 AM

Here's another post that references the idea of a "committee of conscious selves" by one SarahC in reply to an interesting LessWrong article.

I think this dualism, this image of the "technical guy" versus "George Clooney," reason versus the passions, is oversimplified. Why only two selves?

When I think about the problem of the "divided will," the issue isn't really that my actions are hijacked by my subconscious. It's not a rational good guy overcome by an irrational bad guy. The issue is that there are different, incompatible lenses through which to see the world, and most human beings haven't picked a single lens.

Think of a single decision -- should I go on a cross-country charity bike trip? My experience-seeking self, my vain self, and my humanitarian self like the idea. My danger-averse self, my professionally responsible self, my people-pleasing self, and my brutally honest self despise the idea. The decision I make will depend on which selves are dominant at the time. How much I regret the decision afterwards will depend on which selves are dominant afterward -- for example, if someone yells at me for neglecting my academics for a dumb-ass bike trip, my responsible self will pop into the foreground, and I'll regret my decision.

The point is, it's not just the "real you" versus "your brain." You don't have only one "real you"!

Sometimes (procrastination, addiction) it's pretty clear cut that there's a smart self and a stupid self. But sometimes even on reflection it's not clear which "self" is superior. The article makes a good point that "selves" that require deliberative thought tend to be weaker. But that doesn't mean that there's a single "technical guy" or that he's always right.

  • | Post Points: 5
Top 25 Contributor
Posts 4,532
Points 84,495
Stranger replied on Sat, Jul 31 2010 10:36 AM

Emergence is becoming much less esoteric and much more formal as time goes on. That doesn't stop the scientific establishment from crying bloody murder about it however.

For the physics of emergence, the gold standard is Wolfram's A New Kind of Science.

  • | Post Points: 20
Top 50 Contributor
Posts 2,552
Points 46,640
AJ replied on Sat, Jul 31 2010 4:35 PM

They do cry blood murder, don't they.

A common objection seems to be (and this is true as far as it goes): there is nothing in the "emergent" phenomenon that isn't - in principle - contained in the micro-level theory. Well yes, but that's like saying there's nothing in chemistry that isn't contained in physics theory.

The other big problem is when looking at any particular piece of the puzzle in isolation, scientists will determine (through fairly accurate but still quite imperfect methods) that that particular puzzle piece agrees with theory or paradigm X. Then they will do the same for all the other puzzle pieces, one at a time, each conclusion about the other puzzle pieces serving to reinforce paradigm X and provide even more evidence to prove the next puzzle piece is also explained by paradigm X. And although each conclusion must by logic be only provisional, they often will not acknowledge that a study that considers all pieces of the puzzle might yield very different results. Basically, the method of science as generally practiced (not the scientific method itself per se) is weak against paradigm shifts that can only be seen when viewing several puzzle pieces at once. 

Perhaps the solution is simple: stay ready for paradigm shifts by always remembering that all conclusions are provisional and have some non-100% degree of certainty (and that slight fudge factor could add up), and routinely examine several aspects at once to see if a combination of data sets might more strongly suggest an entirely different paradigm. I'm surprised how rarely this type of analysis is addressed in scientific literature, although it could just be that I don't read much of it.

  • | Post Points: 5
Page 1 of 1 (5 items) | RSS