Synergy – Nature’s Magic?

Mentioned in a recent “systems sciences” post being recommended to read Peter Corning’s “Nature’s Magic”.

Well I’ve had it a couple of days now and like what I read. As a result of the original “see inside” skim I’d already discovered that Corning’s idea of nature’s magic is SYNERGY, essentially that the whole is more than – something other than -the sum of the parts. (The sum of the parts will also exist at some level, subject to conservation laws, free-energy principles, etc, but …) No argument there. As we’ve all been doing since Aristotle coined that thought – nothing new under the sun – is trying to establish an orthodox scientific justification and explanatory model for why that is the case or else shifting the scientific orthodoxy so that it can be accepted.

Interestingly Corning was writing this (published 2003) at almost exactly the point I was setting off on my own research. Great news he’s not dismissive of Dennett – in fact in passing he uses both his intentional stance on the reality of free-will and his memetic analogy for genetic Darwinian natural selection at the social / cultural / intellectual level. (He references “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” as well as the much misunderstood and ancient (1991) “Consciousness (Not) Explained“. Like mine, Dennett’s thinking has continued to evolve through “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” (2017) and beyond. Lots of the same reading in his reference bibliography Jablonka, Maslow, Margulis, Penrose, Sperry, Schrödinger, Schumpeter, as well as all the evolutionary biologists Maynard-Smith, Mayr, Szathmáry and more justifying group effects and that still haven’t really been accepted as the orthodoxy at even the genetic biological level, let alone memetic culturally. Interestingly, in 2003, he already includes Laland (now part of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis) Also, obviously given the context, a strong systems and complexity representation. (Philosophically very light, no James, Whitehead, Wittgenstein … anyone really. Haldane (JBS), Koestler and Kuhn in there.)

So what does Corning say that’s new and future-proof?

Good news. As well as the simplest Aristotelian statement of his synergy position, he also – like myself – makes his own statement of non-originality. There is nothing new to be discovered under the sun, quoting both Proust and Dawkins, and all that any of us are doing is finding new words and word-order in order to see differently – share a different view of – what the ancients and aboriginals have always seen in nature in their own ways, with or without words.

Lots of good and wide-ranging examples in his early chapters on the reality and potency of synergies working together. From alloys and amalgams to organisms at every level from the smallest biological to the largest human collaborations and civilisations. As I say – no argument here. So what is his hypothesis for synergy as the engine of evolutionary innovation? Where are the causal mechanisms?

He calls it a Holistic Darwinism. As already noted with Koestler’s “beyond reductionism” – and Dennett’s warning to beware “greedy reductionism” – it’s holistic because it posits the reality and causality of the wholes not being reducible to their parts. Not just the selfish gene, but the selfish (or intentional) genome. He notes the general rejection of such ideas in science, but signs of acceptance of “group selection effects” and “Lamarckian effects” – yet, a stalking horse actually seen as a pariah by the mainstream orthodoxy.

Although he doesn’t mention ergodicity – see previous post – he does clearly see history as part of the holistic mechanism. One argument against reductive determinism (the end state of every part determining the state of a whole) is that their process / path through time and space is also “part of” the whole. We’d get no argument over the idea that both means and ends matter in a socio-cultural context (as I’ve said many times) but orthodox science really doesn’t accept this possibility. (Also – as per the Woodstock reference in the previous post – he’s prepared to cite the likes of Stewart Brand / Kevin Kelly  “Whole Earth Catalogue” in support of his case. Alternative / Eastern worldviews against the western orthodoxy.)

I have to say, Corning’s whole case – in his tying up loose ends & conjuring the future concluding chapter – reads more like a plea than an actual hypothesis – that we must accept the masses of evidence of “group effects” and “system effects” even though the orthodoxy rejects them (for their very lack of reductive objective determinism). And it’s a plea reinforced – like so many other writers – with a warning about how much we’re getting wrong in the world because of this ignorance. It’s where I started.

I see now that Kevin Laland may have gotten the inspiration for his book title from Corning who refers to “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” – though Laland makes no reference to Corning – maybe there’s was a common source?

We’re all on the same page – but what’s missing so far is that the scientific orthodoxy has no place for the holism – the causal intentionality of wholes as complex adaptive systems. Fortunately more recent systems thinkers do now have “computational” mechanisms for how this emerges – but it involves both metaphysics and subjectivity.

A metaphysics that says the fundamentals to which the entire cosmos may be reduced does not stop at the physical (spacetime, material and energy, their properties and laws) but that physics itself emerges from information – the stuff of computational processes. And, a subjectivity that says the causal intentionality of wholes emerges systematically from that same stuff.

Science can either continue the denial, defending and living within its orthodoxy, or accept the changes above. Given the massive 21st C investment in science-led objectivity in everything human, science and its STEM sponsors may find it too big a risk to be seen to contemplate such change? If it won’t there needs to be a new naturalism beyond science. Something has to give or we continue down that path to hell in a handcart.

Corning’s book is a great contribution to the argument that the current orthodoxy is missing something massively important – synergy as holistic Darwinism – in the progress of humanity in the natural world. This remains true, even if I don’t see any solution here beyond his plea. If you’re not on that page yet Nature’s Magic will be worth a read.

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