Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 30 — Relevance Realization Meets Dynamical Systems Theory (Summary & Notes)

“It is correct to say there are many categories that we form for which we cannot generate a scientific theory or explanation precisely because those categories are not homogeneous. They don’t have an essence.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 29: https://markmulvey.medium.com/awakening-from-the-meaning-crisis-by-john-vervaeke-ep-aebe5706b84c)

  • There cannot be a scientific theory of relevance. Why not? It goes back to J.S. Mill on how science works. That is, through inductive generalization.
  • Science is the process of studying things and then make predictions & claims that that will be the case for all of that type of thing. It gives us a powerful way of reliably predicting the world. (This isn’t meant to be an exhausting account of science and what it gives us, just a description of how it works)
  • J.S. Mill pointed out that what this means is we need something called systematic import. That is, science has to form categories that support powerful (i.e. reliable & broad) inductive generalizations. To be able to do that is to have systematic import.
  • One thing we need for this is category members to be homogeneous. All the members of the category have to share properties, since this is how we’re able to make an inductive generalization that other instances will also have those important properties. The idea is that this helps us get to the essence of what something is.
  • Wittgenstein and Quine both have important things to say about this idea of ‘essence.’ We also talked about this when we talked about Aristotle too. Wittgenstein pointed out (we did this with the example of a ‘game’) that many of our categories don’t have essences. This isn’t to say that no categories have essences, just that some don’t. Triangles, for example, have essences.
  • But the essence of a triangle is mathematical. Quine argued that the essences of something like a triangle are deductive essences, but what science discovers is inductive generalizations. If powerful enough, science can give us the essence of something. (e.g. the essence of gold is the set of properties that will apply to all instances of gold.)
  • “Essentialism isn’t bad for things that have essences.” Things like games and tables don’t have an essence, but things like gold do. And that’s okay. But this means we can’t have a scientific explanation of everything. (e.g. we can’t have a science of ‘white things.’)
  • “It is correct to say there are many categories that we form for which we cannot generate a scientific theory or explanation precisely because those categories are not homogeneous. They don’t have an essence.”
  • Also: category membership needs to be stable. If there’s a constant shifting of what kind of thing is to be included in a category then we fall into equivocation. (e.g. the word ‘gravity’ used to mean falling down, as into a grave, and had to do with an important seriousness. But now we use the word to describe a mode of physical interaction/attraction.)
  • We also need the properties of the objects to be intrinsic or inherent. Many objects have properties that aren’t intrinsic but rather are in relation to us, and these are attributive properties. (e.g. something being ‘money.’ Things that are money are money because we all attribute moneyness to them, and treat them as money. And so, we can all decide that maybe gold is no longer money but we can’t decide that it has a different mass or atomic number etc.)
  • The thing to remember is many things we think are intrinsic are actually attributive. e.g. A thing being a ‘bottle’ is actually attributive, as what makes it a bottle is the way it is related to me and my usage of it. Or think about Tuesdays. There’s nothing intrinsic about “Tuesdayness” but that doesn’t mean it exists in some alternate dimension or is made of supernatural ectoplasmic goo, it just means it’s a different type of category of things on which science can’t be performed.
  • Relevance does not have systematic import. Relevant events are like ‘Tuesday’ events. Saying something is “relevant” is the same type of claim as a category of ‘white things.’ Relevance also isn’t stable, because things that are relevant to you in one moment or situation may not be relevant in another.
  • And so, relevance is not something for which we can have a scientific theory. Relevance is not intrinsic to something. There can be no ‘essence’ to relevance. Nothing is essentially relevant.
  • Our theory of relevance realization cannot be a theory of relevance detection. e.g. Darwin’s notion of evolutionary fitness. What is it about an organism that makes it ‘fit’”? To survive long enough to reproduce? Vervaeke argues there is no essential design on fittedness. (Some are big, some are small, some are fast, some are slow, some have feathers and fly, etc.)
  • “The environment is so complex and differentiated and dynamically changing that niches — ways in which you can fit into the environment in order to promote your survival—are varied and changing.” Darwin’s insight was that there is no essence to design or ‘fittedness’. “Fittedness has to be in a constant process of re-designing itself in a self-organizing fashion.”
  • If we make relevance analogous to biological fittedness, we could think of relevance as cognitive interactional fittedness. We don’t need a theory of this, what we need is a theory of how this evolves.
  • Our attention is getting constrained, our sensing is feeding back into my acting and is integral to our moving, and so sensing and moving are in a constantly changing/adjusting feedback relationship. A sensory-motor loop. “What if there is a ‘virtual engine’ [in your brain] that is regulating that sensory-motor loop so that it is constantly evolving its cognitive interactional fittedness to its environment?”
  • What we need for a theory of relevance realization is a set of properties that are sub-semantic, sub-syntactic, can establish the agent-arena participation, with processes that are self-organizing, multi-scale, originally grounded in an autopoetic system… these properties are bioeconomical properties.
  • Think of your biology as economic. Not in the financial sense. “An economy is a self-organizing system that is constantly dealing with the distribution of goods and services. The allocation and use of resources, often in order to further develop and maintain that economy.” Your body is a bio-economy. Ultimately Darwin’s theory was a bio-economic theory.
  • Economies are, very importantly, multi-scale. They work locally, globally, simultaneously bottom-up and top-down.
  • What kind of norms are at work in a bio-economy, regulating things? Logistical norms. Logistics is the study of the proper disposition and use of your resources. Logistical norms are things like efficiency and resiliency.
  • One way to put these things together — a bio-economy and the logistical norms regulating it — is to think of a multi-scalar way in which your bio-economy is organized to function. e.g. your autonomic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system that’s responsible for your level of arousal. Waking vs. sleep, etc.
  • The autonomic nervous system is divided into two components: your sympathetic and your parasympathetic. Sympathetic = biased toward looking for and interpreting evidence that you should raise your level of arousal. Parasympathetic = the reverse — when you should lower your level of arousal. Notice that they are opposed in their goals, but also interdependent in their function.
  • This opponent processing means your level of arousal is constantly evolving to fit the environment. It’s not perfect, but it’s a powerful way to get optimization.
  • Low let’s look at the logistical norms of efficiency and resiliency. The thing about them is they aren’t in an opponent relationship. Let’s use a financial analogy though, to understand the tradeoff going on here: say you have a business, and you want to make it more efficient, because if your business is more efficient than someone else’s you’re going to out-compete them — you’re going to survive and they’re going to die off. What you do is try to maximize the ratio between profits and expenditure (cost). How? Downsize. Fire as many people as you can so that what you have the most profit for the least labor cost. (Notice how efficiency is a selective constraint.)
  • The problem is, if you reduce all the fat and have all the efficiencies then if one person is sick no one can pick up the slack, because everyone is working to the max. What if there’s an unexpected threat in the environment — a new threat or opportunity? “I have no resources by which I can repair, restructure, redesign myself.” If you make a system too efficient you lose resiliency. They are in a tradeoff relationship. Resiliency is trying to enable you to encounter new things, and to deal with unexpected situations.
  • “What if I set up a virtual engine in the brain that makes use of this tradeoff relationship, that sets up a virtual engine between the selective constraints of efficiency and the enabling constraints of resiliency, and that virtual engine bio-economically — logistically — shapes my sensory motor loop with the environment so that it’s constantly evolving its fittedness?”

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Mark Mulvey

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