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From the Wikipedia definition for "reductionism":

"Reductionism can either mean (a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents."


"The limit of reductionism's usefulness stems from emergent properties of complex systems which are more common at certain levels of organization."

It's not that reductionism is wrong, but rather that it's only part of the story. Additional understanding can be gleaned through a bottom-up, emergent explanation which is orthogonal to the top-down reductionist explanation of the same system.

It is important to take seriously the reality of higher level models (maps). Or alternatively to admit that they are just as unreal, but also just as important to understanding, as the lower level models. As Aaron Boyden points out, it is not a foregone conclusion that there is a most basic level.


Humanity is facing multiple species-level extinction threats right now, and I gotta tell ya, there ain't a lot of people steppin' forward.

While I am hesitant to be part of the problem by sounding like an apologist or offering rationalizations, I have personal reasons for hope. Fittingly, one of the reasons for hope is that the process of evolution/emergence seems to introduce and sustain latent heterogeneity -- in the gene pool, in the idea pool, etc. This heterogeneity acts as a hedge, making the evolving population of agents more robust as a system. Burton Vorhees defines this as "virtual stability" and his recent work models it generally. So, even while there is reason for hope, this should not stop us from taking the threats you allude to seriously and actively seeking to eliminate those threats. Such vigilance is the diversity/hedge in the memeosphere against extinction due to complacency.

What is missing from this discussion is the complementary dynamic to natural selection, often called emergence, which is responsible for creating new, higher levels of system organization. As Stuart Kauffman argues, one of the ways emergence happens is through a generalized process of autocatalysis. But it also comes about through other means, namely cooperation of agents at lower levels.

When a new level emerges, given that it has yielded a population of higher-level agents (as opposed to just one or a few), and given that the population has the feature of agent replication with differential fitness, then natural selection (NS) occurs at the higher level. But NS does not stop at the lower level(s), it continues, as you point out for example in the case of populations of cells in the body of multicellular organisms (which can lead to cancer), populations of alleles (which include transposons), and so on.

NS occurs at all levels simultaneously as long as the preconditions of the dynamic are met. However, it is the case that stability of the higher level partially depends on the constraining NS at constituent lower levels. As you point out, multicellular organisms can only exist because they've evolved powerful internal mechanisms to outlaw evolution. If the cells start evolving, they rapidly evolve to extinction: the organism dies. Similarly, in the population of ideas/memes, the higher level of culture and ideology constrains which memes survive and thrive.

While nothing says that higher levels always emerge and that lower levels can't become unstable and devolve, but the tendency is for new levels to emerge and over time and constrain activity that would be destructive to the higher level agents. The process is inherently non-linear and volatile, and yes we may destroy ourselves before higher levels constrain us from doing so, but to me the trajectory looks promising. As Steven Pinker points out, violence has been in decline since recorded history, contrary to popular belief.

If we do survive the existential threats, what worries me more (as a lower-level agent) is the effect of higher level constraints on the human spirit and individual fulfillment. What's good for the organization isn't necessarily good for the individuals within the organization. We see examples of this everywhere, from small, loose communities to multinational corporations, governments, religions and ideologies. And as higher-level structures become more complex and "real", it will be harder for us as individuals to assert our rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Beinhocker argues in Origin of Wealth that the appropriate unit of selection is not the corporation but rather the generalized concept of business plan. While Elezier's preconditions for evolution are a bit more extensive than the normal set, I believe Beinhocker's business plans (not to be confused with the artifacts that float around Sand Hill Road) meet all of Elezier's criteria, and hence the population evolves via natural selection.

On public proof...

1) "Order of Bayescraft" not likely to be seen as anything other than a self-help cult, like Scientology or Landmark.

2) A single spectacularly huge public success will be unconvincing and considered just a normal scientific breakthrough or luck.

3) If there existed techniques that could be taught easily, would they not already have been discovered? And what about the more-harm-than-good landmines that exist everywhere?

To call a de-biasing program a success, one or more individuals would have to show repeated scientific breakthroughs and be able to document how in each case known biases got on the way of the breakthrough, and how the de-biaser(s) got around these biases and saw the truth more clearly. An dojo would probably help, but "systematically more successful" would not be a sufficient criteria to distinguish it from a self-help school. Systematic breakthrough would.

Why has no serious effort been mounted to recruit and appeal to women in this forum? Relatedly, what forms of bias are typical of male thinking/communication and what forms are typical of female (or is this a false dichotomy) ?


Matthew C's comment appears to be sarcastic and thus I interpret it as meaning the opposite. Regardless, I will request that a discussion be stared on the different sorts of biases that exist in a reductionist (i.e. standard scientific) paradigm. This is a hard one to discuss given everyone's background and the nature of human language. Relatedly, what does a complex systems or emergent paradigm tell us about reductionist biases?

So why, then, is this blog not incorporating more statistical and collective de-biasing mechanisms? There are some out-of-the-box web widgets and mildly manual methods to incorporate that would at the very least provide new grist for the discussion mill.

I didn't know whether to post this reply to "Black swans from the future" or here, so I'll just reference it:

Good post, Eliezer.

Um, how come nobody is focusing on the fact that he LIED to get the mortgages? Surely that's the more grave mistake. Had he applied legally, he might not be in debt that he can't repay. He should be in jail for fraud, not lambasted by bloggers for his failure to admit defeat.