James R Simms – A Measure of Knowledge

It’s a book I borrowed from Dennis Finlayson, so I scanned the summary pages before returning:

James R Simms “A Measure of Knowledge- Ch8 Epilogue”

I’d not heard of Simms or his work before (Copyright 1968) but it contains lots of the stuff I’ve been using these last 20 years. The references include Bohr, Ashby, Shannon, Minsky and Schrödinger, which themselves include the Boltzmann and Gibbs references.

Entropy (and Negentropy) are naturally fundamental to the story – Boltzmann, Shannon and Schrödinger in the Foundational Concepts chapter – though I can’t for the life of me find any mention in that summary. He recasts the whole story in terms of “knowledge” and “energy that may usefully be directed” – total energy minus entropy, presumably, the energetic complement of entropy, negentropy – basically suggesting that Boltzmann’s thermodynamics will be too alien to biologists.

As well as quantifying such knowledge (per Joule) he provides bases of classification – a method of classifying all substances – amounts of knowledge and type, organisational, exchange and environmental.

He’s using “systems” language, and the organisation of available energy, internally and externally (environmentally). So far so good.

This is he:

This is also his

In 1978, when the book Living Systems was published, it contained the prediction that the sciences that were concerned with the biological and social sciences would, in the future, be stated as rigorously as the “hard sciences” that study such non-living phenomena as temperature, distance, and the interaction of chemical elements. Principles of Quantitative Living Systems Science, the first of a planned series of three books, begins an attempt to fulfil that prediction.

The view that living things are similar to other parts of the physical world, differing only in their complexity, was explicitly stated in the early years of the twentieth century by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. His ideas could not be published until the end of the war in Europe in the 1940s. Von Bertalanffy was strongly opposed to vitalism, the theory current among biologists at the time that life could only be explained by recourse to a “vital principle” or God. He considered living things to be a part of the natural order, “systems” like atoms and molecules and planetary systems. Systems were described as being made up of a number of interrelated and interdependent parts, but because of the interrelations, the total system became more than the sum of those parts. These ideas led to the development of systems movements, in both Europe and the United States, that included not only biologists but scientists in other fields as well. Systems societies were formed on both continents.

Although I didn’t know him, he was well known to Dennis and other members of the ISSS (and wider) Systems Community.

Anyway, continuing the Measure of Knowledge, he makes only the one mistake – or leaves one gap – that I can see. In that epilogue, he summarises what he calls “The Semantic Problem”. Strangely, he doesn’t use the word “meaning” at all, but makes his distinction between “directing” and “willing”. Noting that not just most actions caused in the natural world, but even many human actions, are caused (directed) without being willed. Willed or otherwise he does point out the massive scale of knowledge and direction open to humans, beyond any other natural or living thing, and yet he doesn’t attempt to elaborate the “willed” element. The idea of purposeful intent arising from our conscious will. He concludes:

I feel that the greatest potential for [my “measure of knowledge” theory] lies in the field of behavioural and social sciences.

Given that he is so obviously right, it’s sad that he doesn’t get beyond the basic “resource economy” of human life – Malthus plus mathematically processable, quantifiable, objective knowledge – cybernetics as a set of algorithmic objectives. He omits – effectively denies – the conscious will of subjective human intent individual and / or collective. Intended meaning.

Like all orthodox scientists, he fails to cross Solms’ subjectivity Rubicon. Not surprising since his primary goal was to make human affairs scientific – “rigorous hard science” in his own words. It was Mike Jackson I last noted expressing this scepticism, that social sciences and human behaviour, within our cultural as well as natural environment, could be reduced to the mechanistic causal models of orthodox science?

15 thoughts on “James R Simms – A Measure of Knowledge”

  1. Agreed on the gaps you pointed out; looks like this gentleman bit off a lot more than he could chew.

    The closer you get to this kind of thermodynamics, the more you may want to make use of the literature survey I’ve already performed for you. I suggest going straight back to 1910 (even before Lotka’s maximum power principle), for these ideas from Wilhelm Ostwald:

    “Since our opinion as to what constitutes a higher and a lower organism is doubtless arbitrary, let us ask whether it is not possible to find an objective standard by which to measure the relative perfection of the different organisms. The question must be answered in the affirmative when we take into consideration the following. Since the quantity of available free energy upon the earth is limited, the organism which transforms the energy at its disposal more completely and with the least loss into the forms of energy necessary for the function of life, must be regarded as the more perfect organism. In fact, we observe that with increasing complexity of the organisms there is for the most part also an increasing improvement in that direction, and we can therefore speak of some beings as more perfect than others. This view-point is especially significant in the evaluation of human progress, appearing, as it does, as the general standard of all civilization.”
    Wilhelm Ostwald, Natural Philosophy (1910)

    “The effect of the knife, the spear, the arrow, and of all the other primitive implements can be called in each case a purposive transformation of energy. And at the other end of the scale of civilization the most abstract scientific discovery, by reason of its generalization and simplification, signifies a corresponding economy of energy for all the coming generations that may have anything to do with the matter. Thus, in fact, the concept of progress as here defined embraces the entire sweep of human endeavor for perfection, or the entire field of culture, and at the same time it shows the great scientific value of the concept of energy.”
    Wilhelm Ostwald, Natural Philosophy (1910)

    Now after you read Mr. Ostwald’s book, you may say here’s another orthodox scientist who fails to cross Solms’ Rubicon. In which case I will have more to say about that Rubicon.

  2. Hi Tim, thanks for the comments.

    You may have to remind me of “the literature survey you’ve already performed for me” ?

    “Biting off more than one can chew” – is something I’m very conscious of right now and for several years. It’s simply an occupational hazard as you approach metaphysics or fundamental physics as some kind of theory of everything – meta-theory / framework anyway. I still think it’s a valid quest – angels in the abstractions, etc.

    “Nothing new under the sun” is another common adage for me, so I’m not surprised to find the Ostwald reference, even though I’d not heard of him before this comment 🙂

    A common denial amongst orthodox purists that higher-lower organism distinction is “arbitrary”. Can’t quite see what point he’s making in that quote, so somebody else I need to add to the reading list. (That bit about perfection and human progress sounds – cynical?)

  3. Well I can’t quite agree with “nothing new under the sun;” I believe that in the ongoing ascent of our civilization, each idea is new exactly once. The idea of using thermodynamics to interpret evolution was new in 1910, but not in 1968.

    Once I decided that Robert Pirsig’s hierarchy had thermodynamic roots, I set out to find the prior elucidators on that path. According to my chronology, Ostwald is second-to-last on the list.

    In spite of the occupational choking hazard you mention, I think Pirsig masterfully chewed almost everything he bit off. The one exception was his position on the physical source of Dynamic Quality itself, which he claimed “did not like the laws of thermodynamics.” But let’s not go there now.

    I’m not sure what you find cynical about either of the Ostwald quotes I shared (they both mention perfection and human progress). To me these ideas are perfectly aligned with the Pirsigian hierarchy, in which higher levels of complexity improve the efficiency (and competitive stability) of evolving static patterns. So I’m interested to hear what you mean.

  4. Originator of idea? Can’t argue, but each idea evolves from previous ideas, often in new language of a new paradigm, like thermodynamics, so earlier “similar” ideas in different language would be harder to recognise. BUT we’re (I’m) not really interested in the social celebrity of who had the idea, just the essence of what it is and its relation to other ideas. That said, I am interested in where Ostwald fits, as I said, and what you mean by “second to last” – you mentioned something you’d written previously? (For me thermodynamics has informational / computational roots, as you know.)

    The occupational hazard? Pirsig? Almost indeed. He got the DQ right (the percept, the radical empiricism) and saw the evolutionary structure, the evolution of complexity and emergent layers, but I think he got the social/intellectual layers a bit “contentious” too, but as you say, let’s not go there. No one person gets the whole story right in one idea, not even one book so far.

    Sounding cynical? Not sure, just the disembodied quotes I guess – like I say, I need the refs to better understand the significance in context.

    BTW you could be very helpful to me – in correcting / elaborating the final bullet / last para in this post – as a very brief summary.
    (And notice the exchange with Artun below that).

  5. Hi Ian, sorry, I got busy for a while.

    What I meant by “second to last” is that Ostwald is the penultimate contributor on my list (which starts with Heraclitus and ends with Pirsig) of elucidators of what I call the Motive Power of Fire. Their historical contributions are described in four middle chapters of the book by the same name. It is not on your wish list, but if it ever gets there I will send a copy. You mention disembodied quotes and I think of every piece of correspondence I’ve ever sent you as disembodied.

    I spent some time thinking how to comment on the final bullet of your other post (and on Artun’s morality question) as you requested. I’m aware of the idea that FEP is a kind of first principle of biology, but that’s just not the order I would use, and need to figure out what I should say about it. Will take some more time. I may also have something to say about your Pirsig summary, which I enjoyed, thanks.

  6. Hi Tim, thanks for coming back.
    (Ostwald is actually on my wish list – maybe refresh / delete cache ?)
    Motive Power of Fire – you mean Carnot? Intriguing – thermodynamics is pretty central here – I’ll add that too, but still mainly in writing / not reading mode for now.
    Take care.

  7. Just a stray thought: Many of our climate-crisis inducing inventions, such as the automobile, the jet, and, say, the leafblower, came after Oswald’s time, but surely they count, along with the knife and the spear, as “purposive transformations of energy.” If so, the suggestion that they represent more “perfect” efficiencies (an oddly teleological word) is at least moot.

  8. In the first quote above, Ostwald defines “more perfect” in terms of efficiency of converting “energy necessary for the function of life.” That may be teleological but it doesn’t strike me as odd.

    Since our more-or-less legitimate functions of life now include, in some cases, global supply chains, we have some need for advanced transportation, and I don’t think Ostwald’s point is moot for those cases. But leafblowers can only be an abomination.

  9. I read Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 2010 and learned a lot. I don’t consider our climate to be in crisis. But I do like the world the way it is, and I think oil should stay in the ground if possible. Biking is always my first choice rather than driving, but whenever the complexity of our society dictates that I need to drive, I do it without regret. I definitely agree that having such options is not a bad thing.

  10. Yes. I’m with Lomborg, follow him to this day.
    The main “crisis-inducing” activities are those of the environmental / climate extremists (Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, etc al.)

    The Oil Co’s are begging to be taxed. We should leave fossil “fuels” in the ground “where possible” – and there are some great incentive schemes available (in my case “People’s Climate Lobby” – fee and dividend scheme) – but oil and gas (even coal) are a lot more than fuel – modern life has massive dependencies on hydrocarbon products.
    If we need to burn stuff, we should be burning waste (incl. hard-to-recycle plastics).
    If we need to extract or process fossil fuels we should be doing it “in our own back yards” – YIMBY. This is the bit climate extremists don’t get.
    We will need energy-dense liquid motor fuels, for a long time – pedal and electric power can only ever be a partial solution.
    I rarely drive these days, since we have such good public transport, Cycling is difficult for my knees(!) 🙂

    Anyway – back to The Motive Power of Fire … 🙂

  11. If a Hummer is an inefficient means of transport, and a leafblower is an inefficient means of piling leaves, and if this squandering of energy is typical of modern civilization, then human activity is less than optimally efficient, and therefore humans are less perfect than creatures who don’t rely on such wasteful technological extensions. This seems contrary to Ostwald’s humanistic optimism.

  12. My point was that they’re wasteful. I consider the climate to be “in crisis,” and the signs of this to be increasingly obvious, but that is an anthropomorphic view. In some other sense, I’m sure the climate is just fine.

  13. Don’t know anyone in their right mind owns a Hummer as a means of transport.

    My quiet, efficient, rechargeable Leaf-blower was a god-send at our previous property, even though we had large areas left wild, have no need of one now.

    Efficiency has to be measured in terms what humans do with their tech prosthetics and their privileged time on earth. Nothing is but one option.

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