Circular Arguments and a Complex World

Mika Aaltonen

Mika Aaltonen of the BIT Research Centre at the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland argues that at the very fundamental level, human beings are storytelling animals, this premise may seem obvious but arises not because we like fairytales and fables but because of the way we perceive cause and effect. By learning from this revelation it might be possible to understand life stories, consciousness, biological systems, climate economic and business models, and countless physical processes that do not follow the simplistic beginning-middle-end narrative model of cause and effect.

Writing today in the International Journal of Management Concepts and Philosophy (2007, 2, 183-193), Aaltonen explains that our current view of causality is seriously limited because of our intrinsic need to frame a sequence of events as a kind of narrative even when such a storytelling approach does not fit with observations. The concept of time is usually used to connect information explain feedback loops and to provide a logical chronology for causes and their effects. However, things are not so simple in the real world.

Firstly, the way we perceive time is different from culture to culture and across human history and comes with its own baggage. For instance, some cultures have no concept of time at all, others see time as a river along which we flow looking to the future while others imagine our walking backwards away from past events. Modern physics too has destroyed any simplistic interpretation of time in relativity, gravitational theory, and quantum mechanics, in which time becomes not a steady stream from alpha to omega but a framework in which are embedded probability waves, matter, and energy.

Secondly, stretching back as far as Aristotle, and perhaps beyond, there were notions of cause not simply being a one thing must follow another scenario. This is not to suggest that there is anything mystical going on, but just that when we lay down strategies and plans these are often engineered again and again from a top-down position, like the re-working of a fairytale or fable. New characters and happenings may be incorporated but the gist of the process is simply to begin with a “Once upon a time…” and to end with an “…and they all lived happily ever after.” This is not the way things really are.

Aaltonen suggests that the discovery of complexity theory in science and the concept of chaotic and nonlinear behaviour show that cause and effect are much more complicated. However, if we can re-engineer the old philosophical tools we might better understand modern problems and find solutions to them. He suggests that there are three drivers, or forces, of causality – final cause, sensitivity to initial conditions, and circular cause.

“More than imagining and presenting the future as an extrapolation of the present, we should be looking for approaches that allow us to see and influence the future by responding to and influencing what is emerging,” Aaltonen told Sciencebase. This is the first force of causality, the sensitivity to initial conditions. The challenge and the inspiration for sense-making and strategic decision-making, he adds, lie in identifying and influencing the initial conditions of a system as they are emerging. We must prepare ourselves for coming change by identifying the initial conditions so we can shape the future to our advantage. We need foresight in other words!

In addition, circular causality can be used to model causal patterns. Activities on the very small scale do give rise to behaviour we can observe on the large scale. “The general term used for this phenomenon is ’emergence’,” explains Aaltonen, “Consciousness is an emergent property of the brain (and the rest of the body), inflation is an emergent property of an economic system, and meaning is an emergent property of language. Emergent properties are not, however, merely effects, there is multi-way communication.” He points out that phenomena on the large scale (macro level) can affect activity on the small scale (micro-level). “Causality,” he adds, “does not simply work from micro-causes to macro-effects. There is also a top-down process at work which means that causality in complex systems is circular.”

He suggests that if something outside an organism is seen as a final cause, a goal or objective, then voluntary behaviour embeds the organism in the environment. “People’s goal-seeking activities become sensitive to final conditions,” he explains. Small variations in the way a larger environment responds can and should dramatically influence how we ourselves respond to those changes. “This way, final cause becomes a target formed from continuous reflection,” he adds.

Understanding the interplay between these three causal forces is key to planning. It is ironic, he says, that we seem to place a natural emphasis on stories as efficient tools for understanding the world, given that strong stories of the past and the future themselves focus our attention and goals and so are reductive in nature, essentially bringing nothing new to the table.

“There is a need to integrate multiple views into strong and dominant stories and into sensemaking in order to add sensitivity to our understanding of the changes occurring in our world,” he argues. Moreover, strong stories actually drive us towards unobtainable goals in almost every walk of life whereas the essential properties of final cause, sensitivity to initial conditions and circular cause and their interplay demonstrate that causal relationships are shifting shapes in a nonlinear world. “If we are to understand the environments we live in, we require approaches that are reflexive, self-critical and nonlinear,” Aaltonen adds. That sentiment applies equally to stifling poverty and responding to climate change, managing a business or carrying out a scientific experiment.

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12 thoughts on “Circular Arguments and a Complex World”

  1. Causality is a concept that needs to be considered with care as the way we comprehend it has significant practical implications for the sciences as well as in business.

    I think that the way we think about cause and effect is the most important cognitive framework we have. Cognitive frameworks are products of, and simultaneously can produce, an interactive process of instantiation. Yet, they are relatively seldom explicitly evaluated.

    This article tends to provide new ways to describe how the future arises, evolves and is influenced. It is based on work and discussions with experts and colleagues, so perhaps one can call it esoteric, but it is also of interest to governments and major corporations.

    Mika Aaltonen

  2. Ian, Aaltonen’s affiliation got hacked off in the final edit – Mika Aaltonen is the Head and Chairman of the Board of StraX (the research unit for strategic intelligence and exploration of futures) at the Helsinki University of Technology. As far as I know he’s not an -ologist but an -onomist (you can fill in the blank), I have to admit it was an interesting exercise and something of an experiment to interpret this particular paper. Intriguing that it has already generated more comments than the double slits experiment article, which I hope was a little more articulate albeit in discussing an even more esoteric subject.

  3. Am I the only one amused by the irony of a particularly verbose and vague “ologist” urging us all to be more self-critical?

    If you want someone to tell you that happiness equals the absence of story, or that story equals the absence of happiness (which appears to the thrust of the final paragraph), read Tolstoy, and especially his “Confession” (although much of his fictional work resonates with this). To say nothing of Buddhism. Both are much more articulate than this guy.

  4. Jordan, I think essentially you hit on the root of religion in your comment. The ultimate quest for a causal agent…

  5. Have a look at “When They Severed Earth From Sky” by Barber and Barber, who list a number of “principles” by which actual real-life events become myths and legends. One of these “principles” is the idea that the human brain looks for a “willer” (a root cause) for every event — a constant search for causality.

  6. Trying to sound like the devils advocate for a moment: could we not argue that the kids are the random variables we need to plan around?

    But yes, I agree with Jim, if it is a question of story telling (and a lack thereof), we’ve lost the art…

  7. Interesting point Jim, which brings the conclusion of this rather esoteric research paper back down to earth with a crash.

  8. “human beings are storytelling animals, this premise may seem obvious but arises not because we like fairytales and fables but because of the way we perceive cause and effect” – when does cause and effect kick in? judging by the spate of gun/knife killings, we’re not telling the kids enough tales these days… or the effects are not effective enough – cf The Bourne Conspiracy and other films/games of this ilk – blown up, beaten up, shot at, thrown all around the place and just a dinky cut on the eyebrow to show for it… just watched some kids mindlessly attacking a new fence around a school – cause: ?boredom; effect: probably not even thought about (would not even say “trying to damage” – “mindless” sums it up – they weren’t even thinking about the whys and the what’ll happens…)

  9. “How does one anticipate a random drought or a flood, for instance?”

    It’s not so much an anticipation, but the effort to make provision for, by building stores for perishables. That too has been going on for thousands of years.

    Setting food aside for lean times is up their with language and tool usage — the very stuff that separates us from the vast majority of the other animals.

    Moving forward, meeting greater environmental challenges will present problems we as a species are either incapable of, or because of certain political issues aren’t prepared to make the right and proper decisions for.

    Then it’s Mother Nature’s turn to separate the wheat from the chaff…

  10. I have to agree. As I was doing the write-up on this research paper it did occur to me that a lot of the underlying explanation seemed to be written in quite a complex way itself. I think one thing that maybe doesn’t come across fully in my write-up but should have, is that it’s not simply a matter of planning ahead for known goals but to ensure that we sidestep the idea that there is some kind story that the human race is following.

    It’s not.

    Moreover, farming is more a cyclical endeavour than one that anticipates changes. How does one anticipate a random drought or a flood, for instance? One can have a contingency plan to cope with such eventualities, but our agrarian ancestors could not second guess nature, they had to assume the seasons were constant and that major environmental disasters would be a freak happening they would have to face but couldn’t necessarily plan for.

    I think with the uncertainty about future climate, the falling fresh to salt water ratio globally, the rapid spread of deserts, huge deforestations and freak weather events, we must look to the future not as some kind of predestined goal that we have always been aiming at, but a shifting target we won’t necessarily hit.

  11. I’m not sure what to think about this. When all is said & done, it’s just a guy expounding (in deeply analytical terms) that we should all plan ahead.

    And, that we should be aware of ’emerging’ trends. However, we’ve been doing this for our entire history.

    The human race began its long journey to civilized society from agrarian origin. Farming is the physical act of planning ahead and anticipating emerging changes…

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