Re: The Tipping Point

From: Robin Faichney (
Date: Sat Apr 21 2001 - 17:28:12 BST

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    Date: Sat, 21 Apr 2001 17:28:12 +0100
    Subject: Re: The Tipping Point
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    In-Reply-To: <3ADF14D4.22259.23982B@localhost>; from on Thu, Apr 19, 2001 at 04:39:48PM -0500
    From: Robin Faichney <>
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    On Thu, Apr 19, 2001 at 04:39:48PM -0500, wrote:
    > On 19 Apr 2001, at 11:53, Robin Faichney wrote:
    > > "Greater than the sum of its parts" is extremely vague. If you look
    > > at it that way, every molecule, every cell, every entity that's not at
    > > the very lowest level of description (whatever that is) is greater
    > > than the sum of its parts. As you're so fond of saying yourself, a
    > > statement that applies to everything is not a useful statement.
    > >
    > Thw whole equals the sum of its parts plus their interrelationships.

    It looks like you responded to the first sentence of that paragraph and
    ignored the rest. My point was that, if everything is greater than the
    sum of its parts, then that concept is useless.

    > > And "must be considered" begs the question: for which purposes?
    > >
    > In order to have a more complete, hence more correct, conception
    > of the system as a whole.

    Is it really wrong to focus in on just part of a system?

    > > The "genesis of the tipping point idea" is too vague to be useful. I
    > > believe that, historically, sensitivity to initial conditions was
    > > first noticed in computer simulations of either weather or a simple
    > > pendulum-type arrangement. This is in one of the Complexity titles,
    > > but both of mine are currently out on loan. In any case, it's not
    > > relevant here -- the tipping point is certainly an example of it, but
    > > top-down causation plays no part in it.
    > >
    > So you would define the event of the straw breaking the camel's
    > back in terms of the straw alone, and not consider the weight
    > already loaded, or its distribution, or the condition of the camel's
    > vertebrae, or their discal interconnections.

    I really don't see how you get that from "top-down causation plays no
    part in sensitivity to initial conditions". And I don't think "define
    the event" is a meaningful phrase. The description or explanation
    of any event that's most useful depends upon the context, what the
    description/explanation is to be used for. And terms have to be defined
    to be useful, but events do not. They just happen, and can be looked
    at from many angles, metaphorical as well as literal.

    > > You would be perfectly correct if the question had been "what are the
    > > factors that contribute to the emergence of the tipping point
    > > phenomenon?" But it wasn't. Of course, to explain the tipping point,
    > > all that must be considered, but your claim is that the tipping point
    > > has a causal influence on individual grains, and you've yet to
    > > demonstrate that.
    > >
    > Sure I have. If the grains were not in a pile, the next grain to fall
    > would not make first contact as soon, and would not either stand or
    > roll depending upon the slope of the pile, for slope would nor exist.

    But the pile and its slope reduce to the individual grains and the
    relationships between them. As I said before (but you didn't respond),
    if the behaviour of an individual grain was programmed into a computer,
    with gravity and a tabletop, and the virtual grains virtually dropped one
    by one under the influence of virtual gravity onto the virtual tabletop,
    the tipping point phenomenon would emerge. It's a pattern that arises
    due to the characteristics of individual grains, and the slope will vary
    with the type of sand used. The tipping point is not something extra,
    imposed from above, but emerges from below.

    > > In fact, to do so is impossible, because the tipping point emerges out
    > > of the behaviour of the individual grains, and you can't say that two
    > > things both cause each other.
    > >
    > I can say that cause and effect, if understood linearly, are not the
    > proper terms to use to describe such a recursive feedback system
    > where the grains comprise the pile yet the properties of the pile as
    > a whole decide the course of the next grains to fall.

    The recursive feedback system is in your mind (in more ways than one!).
    There is absolutely none in the tipping point phenomenon. The reason
    you imagine it is that YOU are shifting back and forth between different
    levels of explanation as you think about it. Subjectivity is irreducible,
    but that is not true of such simple phenomena as the tipping point,
    and by trying to extend your mysticism that far, you're making it look

    What you do with the tipping point -- shifting between levels of
    explanation in your own mind, and imagining that's what's happening
    "out there" -- is exactly what you do when you invoke top-down causation
    to explain "mind over matter". Selection of levels is entirely in the
    mind, because in reality activity occurs on all levels simultaneously
    and continuously, and there is nothing to move between them but the
    focus of our attention.

    > >Or you can, but not without stretching
    > > the meaning of "cause" beyond breaking point. Of course, you've
    > > already demonstrated that's something you're very happy to do. I'm a
    > > little more conservative in that regard: I prefer my concepts to be
    > > useful.
    > >
    > But not at the cost of correctly reflecting the situation they purport
    > to represent; of course when that happens, as it frequently does,
    > their (the concepts') purported usefulness is itself an illusion.
    > >
    > > "Causation" implies a temporal sequence, so, until someone
    > > invents a time machine, it's a one-way relationship.
    > >
    > As I have stated before, the only temporality involved in causation
    > has to do with the pre- and post-event history; at the instant of
    > interrelation, the involved entities affect each other, and none of
    > them can be considered as either pure cause or pure effect.

    That's just semantics. "Purity" is absolutely irrelevant. It's perfectly
    obvious that what is a cause in one context is an effect in another.
    The instantaneous nature of actual causation is also irrelevant,
    because what we need to know about for all even remotely practical
    purposes is what you call "the pre- and post-event history", and that
    makes temporality essential. Non-temporal causation is what JR would
    call a useless hypothesis.

    > > Emergence is not separation, and only separate entities can affect
    > > each other. An emergent phenomenon is a pattern in the activity of
    > > lower level phenomena. If we make the common mistake of confusing
    > > emergence with causation, then we say this is bottom-up causation. But
    > > there is no temporal sequence, so it's not causation of any kind.
    > >
    > Emergent phenomena are in interrelation with their aubstrates, and
    > causation proceeds through interrelation. Do you have any
    > counterexamples of nonrelational entities in causal relations?

    You need to consider your demands more carefully, Joe. Anyone giving
    a moment's thought to this would see there's no way my case depends on
    "nonrelational entities in causal relations". Aren't you concerned about
    people thinking you silly? You're not stupid -- all you need to do to
    avoid that is spend a little more time thinking about what you write.

    Getting back to the point, emergent phenomena are not distinct from
    their substrates, but aspects of them, and so causation cannot proceed
    in either direction.

    > > If only you'd acknowledge the significance of subjectivity, you'd see
    > > there's no need for all these contortions, that willpower and even
    > > your self are perfectly safe without them. But you won't. Ho hum...
    > >
    > Acknowledge it's significance? It's all we know and experience in
    > our concrete lived real world. Objectivity is an abstract ideal
    > construct adopting a nonexistent god's eye view; human
    > subjectivity and intersubjectivity are the only -jectivities actually
    > extant.

    So why do you feel you have to invoke all that stuff about complexity,
    top-down causation, etc, to protect subjective phenomena such as freewill
    and the self? Aren't they self-evident?

    Robin Faichney
    Get your Meta-Information from
    (CAUTION: contains philosophy, may cause heads to spin)

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