Friday, April 07, 2006

Process Ecology

Dr. Robert Ulanowicz is unaccustomed to speaking to audiences in halls the size of the Schnitzer, with his name on the marquee, but he pulled it off, with a highly philosophical attack on a caricature of Newtonianism, deliberately exaggerated for rhetorical effect.

Reductionism, or bottom-up explanations of phenomena, have never worked very well in ecology or biology, except in niche areas. Now that biology is in ascendency, some scientists are getting more explicit (and less apologetic) about their need for some top-down heuristics. Wholes select the parts somehow. Auto-catalytic bootstrapping occurs in nature, not just in our computers.

Ulanowicz cited Karl Popper a lot, including in the form of a projected quote or two, which I snarfed up with the ISEPP video camera. If your thinking has no room for noncomputable leaps, it won't survive over the long haul, was the gist of Popper's advice here. I think Roger Penrose (our previous ISEPP lecturer) would've approved.

At the Heathman dinner afterward, Terry generously invited me to the speaker's table to share ideas about synergy in connection with Bucky Fuller. I couldn't resist bringing up Wittgenstein though, because of the Popper connection, and because I think such table talk is more of the ecology of mind Bateson was talking about (Gregory Bateson was among the first sources Bob cited in his talk). Here we were: sipping wine, eating salmon, and processing.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from LW's PI:
We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential, in our investigation, resides in its trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language. That is, the order existing between the concepts of proposition, word, proof, truth, experience and so on. This order is a super-order between -- so to speak -- super-concepts. Whereas, of course, if the words "language", "experience", "world", have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words "table", "lamp", "door". (PI 97)
We use these heavy duty words, but still, they're words, memes, a kind of currency but with biological properties. Some ideas fit better with others. Like, Rick Grote, also at our table, was saying "synergy" and "process" go well together. Like cookies and cream?

And on the topic of Bucky, I tried to give the flavor of his Synergetics: not only did he accept free agency but thought he had 12 ways to go at each juncture (537.50). Saying such a thing'd typically be a career-blowing move for most academic scientists. The peers just wouldn't allow it, at least not in any flagship journal of repute.

Fuller was referring to the 12 vertices of the cuboctahedron of course, thinking of himself as a piece on the board in some isomatrix-based multi-dimensional chess game. The image is more a metaphorical verity than a fact perhaps. I was sharing some of the coin of my realm, banking on Terry's kind introduction, and no one seemed to mind that much, or find my process too offensive.

Indeed, I was in a pretty happy and bubbly mood last night. Our oncologist gave me some hope to feed on, using terms and concepts I'm able to believe in. I love my wife and want her to enjoy a good quality of life for as long as possible. Thinking she might have at least another couple good years with the new hormone treatment was a big boost for me.

I realize that it's a non-deterministic ecology we're talking about, and the humans aren't entirely in control. We serve a steering function but we don't have the final word. Our job is to prove our resourcefulness, to manifest our ability to adapt, less so to dictate or boss.

Along these lines, I mentioned the Tower of Babel story again (one of my favorites), suggesting Dr. Ulanowicz might work it in when addressing more Biblically-schooled audiences. He agreed that his style of science, although still completely naturalistic and devoid of transcendentalism, is nevertheless kindler and gentler with respect to God talk.

I also suggested the process ecology ideas had a Buddhist flavor (I mentioned Nagarjuna's treatise on causality, reminiscent of Hume's). Given Portland sits here on the Pacific Rim, we feel the intellectual currents from Japan. Bob found this observation interesting, having just picked up a book by the Dalai Lama for airplane reading.

Don said Bob reminded him of Gene Lehman. I could see what he meant.