The Life and Society Column

The next series of posts will consist of observations of and some might say rash and brash generalizations about the way that higher lifeforms, such as we take ourselves to be, organize into societies.

A general theme of this series is limitation of the free will of individuals. One theme will be the limitation of free will by societal constraints on the action and interaction of individuals. Another will be the limitation of our will to create whatever kind of society we dream of. What principles might act to limit the form of societies that will be stable?

When I broach this sort of topic, I either get a yawn or a firm objection. The objection is of the sort: Humans are, individually, complex thinking beings with a mind and a will of our own. How could there be any simple forces acting to shape our societies that we could not easily change? And how could any simple rules predict what will happen in a complex society of complex thinking people?

The sketch of the answer is that in large complex systems, constraints may be imposed by several factors:

One is physical laws, generally, and thermodynamics specifically. Persistent complex systems tend to need to be thermodynamically feasible. Systems naturally seek and find states where the least energy use is needed to maintain their form, and distortions of their form take additional energy input.

We may be able to find energetic stability arguments for certain forms of human society.

Second is the observation, proven in studies of a wide variety of complex systems, that the statistical properties at least of the system as a whole are predictable with a simple model of the constraints on the interactions of adjacent elements of the system. Such models typically ignore most properties of the individual elements, and model the collective effect of only a few essential properties of the elements as system-constituents. Many systems are complex enough that the exact evolution of any particular instance of such a system at any time is inherently unpredictable. So a statistical model (stochastic model) that provides probabilistic bounds on the system’s form and behaviour is the best that can ever be achieved. Those statistics are in some sense the essence of the stability that characterises the system. So the fact that the statistics of the system evolution may be determined by simple rules applied to a small set of essential properties of system elements is profound. It is an essential truth about many interesting complex systems.

Third is the observation that a stable or meta-stable complex system, while generated from the interactions of its elements, also becomes the environment of those elements. The whole imposes constraints on the evolution (the form and behaviour and arrangement, over time) of its elementary parts.

We will look to see examples of how society imposes constraints on individuals, and how in turn, these constraints contribute to the stability of society. We will see how upward causation (individuals acting in ways that create, constrain, and sustain society) and downward causation (society constraining but also sustaining individuals) lock together to create a stable complex societal system, but only if the form of the society conforms to certain simple principles.

By combining observations about systems seeking energy-use minima, and observations about mutually reinforcing patterns of upward and downward constraint and causation, we may arrive at a surprisingly simple predictive model of the form and stochastic behaviour of a wide class of complex systems, including human society.

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Explore posts in the same categories: philosophy, sociology

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