On Decisions: Whitehead, Privacy, Complexity

by Christopher Vitale

What follows is in my next post is admittedly a mix of Whitehead, contemporary quantum theory, and my own thoughts . . .

Each event/concresence, for Whitehead, is necessarily more than the sum of its parts. Granted, he argues that generally, events do what is expected of them. Two billiard balls, each made of inumerable events, hit each other (another, more macro event), and they tend to scatter in predictable ways. Quantum particles are less deterministic than the average billiard ball, however. While the most likely paths which quantum particles may take between any two events is generally the ones it does take, there is always a chance it takes a much more roundabout path. Why is it that quantum particles appear so much more random than billiard balls?

Scientists still debate where quantum ‘wierdness’ comes from, though there is a school of thought (ie: David Bohm), to which I am quite sympathetic, that argues that the influence of the whole of the context of a quantum particle ‘weighs in’ to the more immediate factors impacting a particle. The jury is not out on this, nor is it likely to be in the near future. But this remains one of the major schools of thought on the production of quantum wierdness.

Either way, no matter what the cause of quantum wierdness, it certainly seems, from the outside at least, that quantum particles make ‘decisions.’ In the manner that humans, animals, and physical systems like vortexes and ‘the wave’ do. That is, given a set of options, over many trials, they do not always make the same choice, or even the same predictable set of choices, due to factors which are unavailable to observers. This is what is meant by privacy. Quantum particles, humans, animals, vortexes, ‘the wave’, they all have privacy to them. And in fact, all matter, made up of quantum particles, has privacy. And yet it seems that some entities are more unpredictable than others. Why might that be?

When a quantum particle does something relatively unpredictable, there is little to support its deviation from script. It’s one simple particle out of place, so to speak. Complex systems in matter, however, are societies of events which are ordered. The more complex a system, the more it is structured so as to put macro and micro into communication. One tiny perturbation at the right place and time within a complex system, and that perturbation ‘gets to decide’ for the whole. To put it into systems language, micro disturbances have macroeffects which are greater than the sum of their parts. That is, one micro disturbance might be at the right point in the structure of the whole that its decision synechochally carries the weight of the whole. Similarly, Napoleon’s whims had a huge influence on Europe, but this is simply because he was in the right place at the right time to become the ‘world historical person’ he did. Was he born a few minutes later, he might’ve been a stable-boy, and some other douche’s whims would be ruling the French Empire. Which isn’t to say that Napoleon’s particular talents weren’t perhaps very important here. It’s always a multiple way street.

The point is, however, is that the more complex a material society, the more likely it is able to extend micro-events into macro-events. The human brain is a perfect example. It can retrieve exactly the right association to an experience so as to point out possibilities in response to that experience. I may have not thought of that particular associated content for years, and yet, my brain can grab info from a neuronal patch in its own backwaters rather quickly, and amplify its ability to grab my attention so that when I need it, that little neuronal patch is elevated to ‘decision maker’ in relation to the exigencies of the present.

The same it is, in fact, with democracy. We’ve seen that, even in our corrupt recent elections, a few precincts in Ohio or Florida can end up deciding the whole thing. If all the other votes are in, and we’re waiting in a tied race for one precint, it decides. If all precincts come in at the same time, and one candidate wins by one vote, everyone who voted for that candidate ‘got to decide.’ Granted, not every decision is this close, and not every decision made needs to seem unpredictable to the outside. But systems that can shift between these modes are perhaps the most complex out there.

Hopefully its obvious that when I ask the question ‘who decides’, I’m not merely emphasizing the human. With Whitehead, I believe that each event – from quantum particle to human decision to national election – takes in a series of data from all its inputs, and merges those with its own nature, its own limitations, preferences, blindspots, etc. This filtered data stream is then combined, yet always in a manner in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We don’t know if there are parts to some of the quantum particles out there (though it seems that there’s a fractality to the quantum world, for every time they find a final particle, at higher energy they then find it is made up of yet smaller parts), but we do know that quantum particles act as if they had parts, or, that they act as if they weighed the incoming data, their inputs, in a manner which combined them to produce results in excess of the sum of their parts. And this ripples up the chain, everything made of quantum events necessarily is composed of events that are more than the sum of their parts.

This is what is meant by privacy, this ‘more than the sum of their parts’ that permeates the concresence of events at every level of scale.

Humans seem to have the most privacy of anything yet encountered, because our brains are the most complex material entities known to exist. Human brains are large resonance chambers, we amplify the privacy of micro-events so that they become macro-events. We extends and support the complexity of our mirco-parts so they have ever greater macro-effects in the world.

For Whitehead, privacy is the source of freedom. While quantum particles are incredibly free, in a sense, they are not free to extend their freedom in the world. Only complex physical systems do this. The human brain is much more free, in this sense, than a quantum particle, because it can influence the very situations in which quantum particles actualize. Quantum particles have more potential freedom than a chair, but a human brain has more actual freedom than both, because it has a body, which can extend its decisions into the alteration of the material environment in which that brain exists.


~ by chris on December 14, 2010.

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