Turtles to the Left of Me, Turtles to the Right: The Practopoietic Loop of Causation

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“I believe nothing, I have shut myself away from the rocks and wisdoms of ages, and from the so-called great teachers of all time, and perhaps because of that isolation I am given to bizarre hospitalities” – Charles Fort

infinite_loop

Causality. A hard pill to swallow.

We learn about causality to avoid dying.  This is generally a good thing.  Death is a suboptimal outcome.  We don’t touch hot stoves.  We don’t pet the saber-tooth tigers.  We stay out of dark forests.  In fact, we spend an inordinate amount of time calculating what cause produced which effect, mostly in the form of what product produces what currency, and “hey, who’s the new girl?”  You see my point.  We’ve extrapolated this and a measure of wishful thinking out into the universe.  It’s about control.  Of which we have little on the cosmic scale.  We like the revised direction of our influence i.e. cause precedes effect, action and reaction.  It makes us a player.  In this case, scientific method and prayer seem to have an uncomfortable lot in common.  That is, they are the input data for our risk-reward scenarios.  Or our worst-case scenarios.  Or decisions on our Tinder profiles.  The agency this affords underlays the enthusiasm with which we embrace scientific epistemology, our only viable alternative as a secular ontology.  Unfortunately, those pesky anomalies and heretical ideas that constitute the meat of strange phenomena, religion, and the grasping nature of consciousness force themselves upon us, for each “Theory of Everything” seems to require a companion “Theory of Everything Else”.

Why can’t we reliably catch ghosts on camera?  Where is Bigfoot hiding?  Are there monsters under the bed?  Was that a UFO?  Where is that large automobile?  My god, what have I done?  Okay, maybe not the last two questions, but let’s face the sad truth that skeptics are to some degree correct.  There.  I said it.  Loud and proud.  Empirical evidence of the supernatural is not forthcoming, despite some keen minds applying themselves diligently to the case over the years.  From the most scientific explanation to the most theologically arcane, perhaps we rely too heavily on the one thing we can’t have.  Causality.

While we all feel we have a solid understanding of cause and effect, most philosophers can agree (if upon nothing else) that causality is a subtle notion, implicit in ordinary language as we tend to live linearly, but requiring neither time or space.  In fact, a strict Aristotelian logic, which normally I avoid like the plague, actually has little to say about causality except as “explanation”, since every cause can be an effect (necessitating a notion of “progression”, sufficient but unnecessary for the fundamental idea that one thing leads to another – progression is simply one interpretation).  Aristotle was so fed up with this philosophical conundrum that he started inventing an entire taxonomy of causes: material, formal, efficient, and final (which if it exists doesn’t require the existence of any other type of cause).  This line of thinking has pretty much guided every scholarly body that imagines itself to be a formal intellectual organization from the Inquisition (have you seen the detailed reports those guys wrote…they’d all be intelligence analysts these days) to the National Science Foundation.

And it’s the final causes we are after, Aristotle’s prime, unmoved mover, a beautiful contemplation of indivisible perfection, a fantasy of orderliness and sensibility, a Causa di tutt’i Causa who will make you an ontological offer you can’t refuse.  Personally, I wake up with a philosophical horse’s head in my bed every morning, so when it comes to causality, I’m willing to “go to the mattresses”.  Now, I’ve left the gun, but brought the cannoli in the form of the Practopoietic Cycle (Loop) of Causation.  Mostly because I like to know my odds, even if they are a mathematical invention predicated on a unidirectional concept of time and rooted in an existential fear of the insolubility of the unmoved mover problem.  You see, causality requires it to be “turtles all the way down”, a reference to a description of Hindu cosmology by a 16th Century Jesuit in Chandagiri, Nepal, who related that the world was supported in space by seven elephants that do not sink as they are balanced on the back of a giant tortoise. It is said that when philosopher, psychologist, and scholar of religions William James was asked what the turtle itself stood on, he answered “there are tortoises all the way down”.

This is where it gets tricky, since we are borrowing a theory of system organization, which taken quite literally, mandates that in order to be a system, phenomena and noumena must be organized.  Therefore, when causality is breached, in great confidence about our significance in the universe and opportunities for human agency, we stumble into the comforting idea of supervenience, or rather the principle of “downward causation”, the convenient concept that higher level elements of a system can have causal relationships to lower levels of the system.  Mind affecting body or culture affecting behavior for example, from which it is only a short ideational hop to the shorthand of the mental affecting the physical.  But don’t be deceived.  Supervenience is a causality of explanatory convenience, but causality nonetheless.

How does anomalistics get out of the trap of supervenience, so initially attractive as it seems to encompass all manner of weird and occult phenomena, from magic to extraterrestrial visitation?  What we’ve stumbled into is the much ballyhooed philosophical “Explanatory Gap”, which fancy lads call ‘the non-physicality of qualia”, and the rest of us cover by saying, the “map ain’t the territory” or that the mind and brain are not identical phenomena.  Some may accuse me of creating a straw man out of a gap in understanding, rather than a gap in nature.  Screw them, I’m looking for turtles.

One might look for a solution in a little theory called the Practopoietic cycle (loop) of causation, which despite including “causation” in its name (mostly for effect I assume – see what I did there?) suggests that the basic element of human consciousness is divorced from causality.  Dr. Danko Nelik of the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research and Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies once wrote, “In a practopoietic system it is only the top level of organization that acts on the system environment. Lower levels act indirectly by affecting the higher levels first, which in turn then act on the environment. The situation with receiving feedback from the environment is different. There is no more need for mediation through higher levels of organization. Lower levels may receive their own feedback. Alternatively, lower levels rely on the same sources of feedback as higher levels but extract their own information from that feedback—i.e., information that is relevant uniquely for them…This type of dynamics is referred to as practopoietic loop of causation. One property of this dynamics is that monitor-and-act units at lower levels of organization tend to be activated less intensively/frequently than those at higher levels”.  But damn, when those higher levels activate, watch out.  There reside our ghouls and goblins and things that go bump in the night.  An infinite loop of causation is no causation at all.  And we don’t like this.  In fact, we suffer because of it.  When we see our control slip, when the cosmos defies our will, when the comforts of causality seem to molt and our vertigo or ennui seems existential, it is there where we find a bit of meaning, or as William Wordsworth said, “Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, and shares the nature of infinity”.

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