Causality: It works for puzzles not for mysteries

February 16, 2011

Well you can’t really fault to location (morning view from my room shown) and the company is interesting, an eclectic mix of academics and academic/practitioners. The workshop title is Influencing the Causality of Change in Complex Socio-technical Systems, which is a real mixture of words, concepts and intellectual traditions. It also became clear that that is no clear agreement on what a system is. I define it as any network with coherence, others see it as something with boundaries. The system of systems ideas came up as predicted, with one protagonist arguing that there was no distinction between complex and complicated systems, seeing them ends of a spectrum The clear implication being that complex systems are simply ones that we have not yet managed to model properly which is disturbing.

Day one of an event like this is all about positioning (and possibly some posturing) as people work out where they are coming from and differences in the use of language. We opened with Aristotle’s four causes and a series of examples of retrospective coherence, looking at historical events to see if cause could be identified. Debates followed on the significance of Picketts charge and the relevance of modeling intent. We had some good stuff on upwards and downwards causation and the importance of context. Downwards causation (DC) is interesting and David Batten gave a good summary of Ellis’s five classes which I summarise below:

  1. Algorithmic DC where higher-level variables have causal power over lower-level dynamics by way of system structure, for example the ignition of a compressed gas mixture in a diesel engine.
  2. DC via non-adaptive information control where higher level entities influence lower level to attain pre-determined goals such as a thermostat.
  3. DC via adaptive selection where living entities interact (per Holland) and Darwinian evolution is an example.
  4. DC via adaptive information control which is a combination of 2&3 and covers pavlovian conditioning and Bee responses.
  5. Intelligent downward causation where language is used for communication and abstract symbolism (reference to Deacon here)

Now all are interesting, but the fifth relates to a point i made several times namely that human complex systems are distinguished by intentionality, intent and intelligence which makes them radically different. Batten also introduced the importance of plasticity and his draft chapter for the book which will come out of this has some good material on cognitive science.

In the afternoon we had Robert Hoffman, a close associate of my good friend Gary Klein who introduces a key aspect of causality, namely the implication of blame (and I would add responsibility, learning and judgement to that). He talked a lot about Macrocognition which is important here in terms of intervention as much as understanding of complex systems. One key quote It works for puzzles not for mysteries. A few delegates want things to be puzzles because they can then hold out the promise of solving them, mysteries on the other had require an acceptance of ambiguity.

Finally we split into four and worked on different areas. I was in the group dealing with Management with Uncertainty; we started by changing the title to Working within Uncertainty to make a point! A lot came out of that with some important points on the need to create resilient architectures to manage uncertainty and I introduced my three heuristics: distributed cognition, finely grained objects and disintermediation. Architecture is a form of constraint and we need to talk more about constraints over the next two days. The other key issues we raised were the need to move towards thinking about plausibility not probability; shifting from anticipation to anticipatory awareness; internal complexity v natural complexity and the fact that distributed cognition is not distributed decision making.

Interestingly there is a lot of counter-intuitive stuff hitting those participants from a systems engineering background who are not familiar with some of the major implications of complex adaptive systems theory. A lot of norming and education going on in conversations which is good. A lot more took place but those are the highlights, more tomorrow.

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