Archive for the ‘philosophy’ category

Upsizing Social Friction: Energetic Considerations in Social Dynamics

March 22, 2008

How To Keep Yourself Together – Once More With (Semi) Formality!


This article is not based on scientific experiment. It contains diagrams and numbers meant only to illustrate general concepts, which are merely hypothesized as pertaining to the operation of human society. Ideas about how to test the hypotheses laid out here are welcome.


Hierarchical societal grouping is a stable configuration for resource-processing intelligent agents (such as human beings and other animals).


a. Hierarchical societal grouping results in reduction of “social friction” energy losses of individuals, through upsizing and outward movement of social friction to the boundary of the group, which leads to higher survival probability of individuals in the group.

b. Aggregated, co-ordinated, aligned and specialized effort allows invention of new complex, more energy efficient living processes within the group.

c. The hierarchical topology of the arrangement yields stable manageability of processes essential to the operation and continuation of the group.

Use of Energy By Individuals Without Society

Tribes protect members and conserve energy for survival

Kingdoms provide even more safety and energy conservation

(larger image)

At the next level of detail:

a. Hierarchical societal grouping reduces per-capita frictional losses of energy to social conflict, by aligning the activity of members of the group via enforced agreements on constraints on individual behaviour; that is, the rule of law, pressure to adhere to social conventions, and development of a shared ethos, within the group. Social friction, therefore, tends to be upsized in the sense that, in the ideally aligned group, it occurs only at the border of the social group, where the group impinges on other groups and may have interests that conflict with those of the other group.

b. Aggregation and co-ordination of effort of individuals within the group allows the invention of new efficient resource extraction and utilization processes, enabling the group and its members to more efficiently use their environment to ensure their survival and growth, to more efficiently defend against environmental threats and other groups, and to transform parts of the environment into subprocesses of the group as a living process.

As the number of individuals and co-operating sub-groups increases, the vocabulary (alphabet and grammar) of process combination increases. Complex processes use hierarchical co-ordination and constraint to corrall together process elements, leading to innovations like supply and distribution chains, scientific and technical process development, and specialized agricultural or manufacturing processes.

The result of innovative combinations of a large vocabulary of societal metabolic processes (i.e. economic activity) can be more efficient than any smaller simpler subsistence process could be.

c. Stable Manageability – Hierarchical social grouping is efficiently manageable (each manager manages only a relatively small and simple sub-domain of the whole complex system, requiring the manager to use only a simple network of communications, and making such management feasible). As well, hierarchical social group activity coordination accumulates surplus resources toward managers (more rewards going toward managers with responsibility over larger, higher-tier domains) yielding stability of the hierarchical co-ordination (management) regime if managers are self-interested.

The consequences of a. b. and c. combined:

Each individual group member must pay a group membership tax, in order to support the functioning of c. hierarchical management and policing of the group’s activities. This tax may be a real monetary payment toward the next levels up in the group control hierarchy, as in modern human societies, or it may be only a metaphor for the opportunity cost the individual pays by constraining their behaviour to conform to the group’s norms and laws. Outlaws can make a good living, for a time, but the law eventually “gets its man”.

But in a successful form of society, a. (friction reduction on survival activity), and b. (emergent efficient complex regulated economic processes), combine to produce a tamed, secure, and “edible”, “shoppable” environment for the individual member; an environment in which they can achieve increments of increased survival probability at considerably less marginal energy expenditure than if they were not cocooned within the society.

Hierarchical groups are stable when Energy Savings (a. + b.) are greater than Energy Tax(c. flow of energy in central direction for group maintenance)

If this is the case, then being in the hierarchically organized group conserves the individual member’s energy so they will have more to use for basic survival, health, welfare, reproduction, and guardianship of offspring. Being in the hierarchical group is beneficial, in terms of survival probability, to each conforming member. From an evolutionary perspective, belonging to the group, and acting according to its constraints, is adaptive.

How To Keep Yourself Together

March 22, 2008

That is really the prime directive of any living being. How do I keep myself together, in good shape, able to function in ways so I can, well, continue keeping myself together. How do I keep myself together long enough to convince that very similar but more beautiful form and function over there that I really know how to keep us together, so that we can unite our forms in function so as to produce a younger, less run-down, and just that little bit better unit of our form and function? Seems circular? Well it is. Life is cyclical, and the definition of its essence is too.

Why do I need to keep myself together; to keep my form and function toned? Well because other things want to break me down. Sometimes it’s just general entropy, raw cruel physics and time, slowly breaking down my cells and randomizing my DNA. But other times, there’s other matter patterns out there near me, or even inside of me, and they; they are actively working, some of them actively scheming, to bring me down, wipe me out, use my land or my own energy for their own evil purposes. There’s tigers, wolves, rats, army generals and rulers of foreign countries, or street thugs and gangs of a different stripe. There’s bacteria and there’s viruses. And each one wants to take my form, and my energy, and, regardless of how I need it to be, they just want to use it themselves. They want to re-pattern me right out of existence. It’s a mean nasty world sometimes. It’s a good thing I have my wits to protect me. It’s an even better thing I have some friends.

It’s great that my friends and I can work out stable and trustworthy and predictable ways that we can spend some of our time and energy co-operating to protect each others’ form and function. It’s a life saver.

If I didn’t have stable, mutually reciprocal agreements with my friends, or the friends of my great grandparents who formed this great friendly nation of ours, I would seriously be spending half of my hard-won food energy every day on fighting off all those aforementioned varmints trying to put me down and steal my resources or my very body or its labours and energy. I’d be burning or stealing their crops, eating their berries, and they’d be burning or stealing mine. The chance of me and mine surviving that? The chance of my form and function continuing hale and healthy over the generations to come? Not very likely.

I’d be wasting the energy I need to be gathering food with on fistfights and factional neighborhood wars. I’d be wasting the time and energy I need to be brooding how to fix things up to be easier for me, mine, and all of us, on petty, exhausting squabbles. I’d be going west, and you’d be coming east on the same path, and we’d have to fight to settle it right then and there. That kind of small scale social friction is exhausting. I don’t know about you, but it would be enough to undo me.

I’m going to join that happy band over there, that mutual protection society, that seems to have got its proverbial **** together. If they’ll let me in. I wonder how I’ll have to behave to get them to let me in to their group and stay in? I wasn’t cut out to be a rugged individualist all the time. I might even agree to pay some tax to the great chief depending on the social contract. I’ll work for us instead of just me some of the time. I guess, if that’s what it takes to keep from being booted out into the cold again. Why? Because over time it’s not quite as exhausting as going it alone in the dark and cold with those beady-eyed varmints all around. Those people all dressed the same over there seem to have it so easy, hundreds of them sittin’ there feasting and dancing together around their campfire with nothing but a few guards on the lookout around the edge of the circle. Now there’s form and function. They’ve got it made.

It’s not fight or flight. It’s fight or flight or build! Build a co-operative society so we can reduce the per-capita energy we waste on fighting and flighting, and get down to some serious friendly competition with civilized rules to keep everyone’s formed and functional limbs attached, some serious time for sharing with rules, so we can specialize our labour. Then we can invent new larger more efficient collective processes for catching and processing our food, building our shelters, making our tools. It could be paradise. It could be the great kingdom. Now if we could just convince someone to be King Kahuna, Queen Bee. Who’s going to be the hero? Who’s going to get us going in more or less the same direction to make all this happen? Who’s going to invent the new organism that is we? Who’s going to shepherd it through growing pains and redefinition? Why would anyone just trying to keep themself together paint that giant “leader” target on their behind? They must think it’s going to make it easier for them and theirs to survive. Seems like a gambler’s strategy.

The Life and Society Column

March 22, 2008

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.

Denying We Are Animals

March 8, 2008

The biggest error of our historical, civilized period as humans is that we deny that we are animals. Our dominant cultural teachings insist that we actively deny this. To ascribe animal behaviour to a person is a grievous insult.

In our capacity for abstract thought and imagination of ourselves and the future, we have transcended the capabilities of other animal species on Earth, to be sure. Yet most of what motivates us, much of the time, are concerns and desires that we share with the other animals. We are driven by needs for food, drink, shelter, personal security, and reproduction, as are all other animals. We spend much of our “bandwidth” managing and optimizing co-operation and competition in the quest for surer survival, by forming complex hierarchical social groups, as do most “higher” animal species. Occasionally, we have the time to muse about, or futz about with “higher” concerns like literature, cosmology, and baseball, that other animal species can’t get around to. Occasionally.

Plato separated the ideal from the real. Descartes the mind from the body. But notions of soul and body, of sacred and profane, long predate these, probably being included among the earliest forms of abstract thought. It is one thing, though, to notice a separation between the human soul or mind and its thoughts on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other, but quite another thing to denigrate the latter and exalt the former. Certainly not all belief systems did. West Coast North American spiritual belief places human people as equals among bird people, bear people, and tree people, and I suspect most “Animist” religions did the same. The grand denial occurs only in the more “advanced” religions and philosophical and legal systems.

By denying we are animals, we lose a lot. We fail to understand the reasons for our conflicts, and for our societal structures. We fail to understand the raison d’etre for the moral guidance that our cultural stories provide us; that they glue our societies together against individual organismal selfishness; that they provide ancestral wisdom needed to reign in the dangerous combination of our animal motivations and our big brains’ imaginative capacity to invent many forms of unsuccessful life story.

By denying we are animals living animal-motivated lives of varying abilities and fortunes, we fail to acknowledge the primary causes of despair, depression, schizophrenia, and addiction, and we fail to appropriately counsel our young and our troubled.

By denying we are animals, we fail to understand the interdependency we have with the eco-systems we live in. We naively assume we can engineer something better, without understanding the essence and value of what we are destroying in the process.

This is not a very high form of transcendent intelligence, that misguides itself so.