Conscious / Unconscious

Conscious       -      Unconscious
Outwards        -      Inwards 
Simple            -      Complex
Narrow           -      Wide
Centralised     -      Distributed  
Rational          -      Intuitive
Cortical           -      Limbic


The conscious, purposeful mind strives for completion. Taken to its extreme, it sees only order and denies anything that may disrupt that order. It is hostile to news of foreign lands. It believes it has a hold on things, that it can see the full picture; it mistakes its limited view for omniscience.

Yet every thing it creates - every story, plan, structure, or theory - has a hole in it, a place where something is missing. This hole is the gateway to everything else, to all those things that have been left out; and through it chaos can be heard, like a whistling wind. It is the gateway to our unconscious mind.

[...] the very meaning of "survival" becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in a circuit.

The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, may go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component on the contemporary ecology of ideas.

The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem.

This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by "God," but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.

Freudian psychology expanded the concept of mind inwards to include the whole communication system within the body - the automatic, the habitual, and the vast range of unconscious process. What I am saying expands mind outwards.

And both of these changes reduce the scope of the conscious self. A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being a part of something much bigger.

A part - if you will - of God.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p.467-8

Consciousness operates in the same way as medicine in its sampling of the events and processes of the body and of what goes on in the total mind.

It is organized in terms of purpose.

It is a short-cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want; not to act with maximum wisdom in order to live, but to follow the shortest logical or causal path to get what you next want, which may be dinner; it may be a Beethoven sonata; it may be sex. Above all, it may be money or power.

[With the capabilities of modern technology] Conscious purpose is now empowered to upset the balances of the body, of society, and of the biological world around us. A pathology - a loss of balance - is threatened.

On the one hand, we have the systemic nature of the individual human being, the systemic nature of the culture in which he lives, and the systemic nature of the biological, ecological system around him; and, on the other hand, the curious twist in the systemic nature of the individual man whereby consciousness is, almost of necessity, blinded to the systemic nature of the man himself.

Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. If you follow the "common sense" dictates of consciousness you become, effectively, greedy and unwise - again I use "wisdom" as a word for recognition of and guidance by a knowledge of the total systemic creature.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Conscious Purpose versus Nature'), p.439-40

The world of consciousness is inevitably a world full of restrictions, of walls blocking the way. It is of necessity one sided, because of the nature of consciousness itself.

No consciousness can harbour more than a very small number of simultaneous perceptions.

All else must lie in shadow, with drawn from sight.

Any increase in the simultaneous contents immediately produces a dimming of consciousness, if not confusion to the point of disorientation.

Consciousness not only requires, but is of its very nature strictly limited to, the few and hence the distinct [...]

We have to make do, so to speak, with a minimum of simultaneous perceptions and successions of images. Hence in wide areas possible perceptions are continuously excluded, and consciousness is always bound to the narrowest circle.

[...] everything subliminal holds within it the ever-present possibility of being perceived and represented in consciousness. The unconscious is an irrepresentable totality of all subliminal psychic factors, a "total vision" in potentia. It constitutes the total disposition from which consciousness singles out tiny fragments from time to time.

[C.G. Jung]
Psychology and the East ('Foreword to the Introduction to Zen Buddhism'), p.167-8

Dr Izutsu suggests thinking of Jung's Collective Unconscious as the consciousness of such a Collective Unconscious [if the Collective Unconscious were a thing, then it would be that thing's consciousness].

Jung chose that name because he was viewing it from the ego's perspective. If, in contrast, we start from the complete nondivision of Mind-Suchness [Buddha Mind, all things, the whole], we would then consider the Collective Unconscious also as conscious but at an extremely deep level where it is transpersonal, expanding to the whole of humankind.

This sort of transpersonal, total-consciousness field in The Awakening of Faith sutra is called "Shujo-shin," or "Collective Mind."

This Collective Mind has two aspects. It has the expansion of cognitive total-unity, which contains every kind of existence, including Jung's Collective Unconscious. At the same time, it has our ordinary daily consciousness.

That is, it is constantly swinging back and forth between ordinary consciousness and the transpersonal, cosmic cognition.

[Hayao Kawai]
Buddhism and the Art of Psychotherapy, p.126

Part of the reason that the bible is full of internal contradictions, is the same reason that a dream is full of internal contradictions.

Imagine you have an impressionist painting: it’s messy, and the image emerges - and you might say, ‘well, we could replace that with a nice clean line drawing, or even a sequence of stick figures, and get the basic point across.’ Well, you would, but the inarticulable richness would be lost in the premature attempt to bring logical closure to the phenomena.

That may be the difference between dreams and waking thought: waking thought sacrifices completeness, for coherence; dream thought sacrifices coherence for completeness.

Precise thought excludes too much, and imprecise thought is not sufficiently coherent. So we do both.

Precise thought: left hemisphere, linguistically mediated, sequential, logical.
Incoherent but complete thought: imagistic, emotion-based, right hemisphere.

The right hemisphere even has a more diffuse structure - it’s like the right hemisphere is trying to get a picture of everything. It’s not going to be a very detailed picture, because it’s a picture of everything, full of contradictions. But at least it’s a picture of everything.

And the left says, ‘that’s not good enough for precise action.’ And it’s not. So we narrow it to precision, but lose the richness.

You need both, so there’s an interplay. The documents that the Bible is composed of are half dream and half articulated thought, and they have the advantages [and] disadvantages of both. To the degree that it’s articulated, it’s in a dogmatic box; to the degree that it’s a dream, it’s still incoherent.

The problem is, you have to move through the entire world, even though you don’t know it in detail. So you need detailed knowledge, where detailed knowledge is necessary; and you need vague-but-complete knowledge where that’s necessary. Its a very uncomfortable balance. We have to face everything, even though we don’t understand anything completely.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'2017 Maps of Meaning 10: Genesis and the Buddha'

[…] that’s what consciousness is doing all the time. You’re laying out an automatised routine, and if that doesn’t produce the intended outcome, you stop [and] become conscious. There’s nothing like an error to make you conscious. Then you do a high-resolution analysis of the space in which the error emerged, [and] you [recalibrate] to make that error go away.

To some degree the purpose of consciousness is to make you functional unconsciously. You don’t want to be conscious of most things.

If you’re good at something, you hardly have to be conscious of it at all. So consciousness is something like an error-detection-and-rectification system.

[Being conscious means] always attending to your errors. If you’re always attending to your errors, you’re always improving your automated adaptability.

Your consciousness seems to be continually building your unconscious.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'2017 Maps of Meaning 6: Story and Metastory (Part 2)'

If it is fashionable today to minimize the importance of the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place, this is closely connected with the smaller importance which is now attached to change as such.

Indeed, there are few points on which the assumptions made (usually only implicitly) by the "planners" differ from those of their opponents as much as with regard to the significance and frequency of changes which will make substantial alterations of production plans necessary.

Of course, if detailed economic plans could be laid down for fairly long periods in advance and then closely adhered to, so that no further economic decisions of importance would be required, the task of drawing up a comprehensive plan governing all economic activity would be much less formidable.

It is, perhaps, worth stressing that economic problems arise always and only in consequence of change. So long as things continue as before, or at least as they were expected to, there arise no new problems requiring a decision, no need to form a new plan.

But those who clamor for "conscious direction"—and who cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is precisely how to extend the span of our utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.

As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, "It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."

[Friedrich Hayek]
'The Use of Knowledge in Society'

In general terms, then, the left hemisphere yields narrow, focussed attention, mainly for the purpose of getting and feeding. The right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, the purpose of which appears to be awareness of signals from the surroundings, especially of other creatures, who are potential predators or potential mates, foes or friends; and it is involved in bonding in social animals.

It might be then that the division of the human brain is also the result of the need to bring to bear two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time, one narrow, focussed, and directed by our needs, and the other broad, open, and directed towards whatever else is going on in the world apart from ourselves.

In humans, just as in animals and birds, it turns out that each hemisphere attends to the world in a different way - and the ways are consistent.

The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focussed attention. 

This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, in and their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a 'whole': something very different.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 27-8

Perhaps inevitably Heidegger’s last writings are in the form of poems. Wittgenstein also saw the true process of philosophy as a way of transcending or healing the effects of philosophy in the philosophical mind: philosophy is itself a disease, as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis, for which it purports to be the cure. 

Merleau-Ponty, more explicitly than either, held out the hope that we could learn to see things again by a process of surréflexion, hyper-reflection, which would help redress the distorting effects of consciousness by making us conscious of them. This idea had already occurred to the Romantics. 

At the end of his famous essay ‘On the Upper Theatre’, Kleist offers the possibility that the crippling effects of self-consciousness may be transcended through a form of still further heightened consciousness, by which we might regain a form of innocence.

‘Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god.’
‘Therefore’, I said, somewhat bewildered, ‘we would have to eat again from the Tree of Knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’
‘Quire right,’ he answered. ‘And that’s the last chapter in the history of the world.’

With that his essay closes. In this last phrase Kleist may be warning us, as Holderlin does, that what we crave can be had only in another world, where there are gods. But his essay also confirms that we can move only onward, not backwards, and that by doing so we might transcend our situation and in this way return to something lost.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and His Emissary, 451


Humans, acting collectively, can make systems that might otherwise be complex or chaotic into known systems; we impose order through laws and practices that have sufficient universal acceptance to create predictable environments.

On the negative side, the imposed structure can continue beyond its useful life.

In this domain we categorize incoming stimuli, and once categorized we respond in accordance with predefined procedures. 

Leadership tends to a feudal model, with budget having replaced land as the controlling mechanism.


We do not yet know all the linkages, but they can be discovered. This is the domain of experts, whose expertise enables us to manage by delegation without the need for categorization.

Again there is a human imposition of order but it is more fluid than in the space of the known.

A major issue in the space of the knowable is entrainment of thinking. The very thing that enables expertise to develop, namely the codification of expert language, leads inevitably to entrainment of thinking. Exhortations to remain open to new ideas are unlikely to succeed.

Management of this space requires the cyclical disruption of perceived wisdom. The common context of expertise is both an enabler and blocker to knowledge creation, and from time to time context must be removed to allow the emergence of new meaning.

In this space we sense and respond based on our expert understanding of the situation while the leadership models are oligarchic – requiring consent of the elders of the community and interestingly oligarchies are often less innovative than the idiosyncrasies of feudalism.


The nature of the complex domain is the management of patterns. We need to identify the early signs of a pattern forming and disrupt those we find undesirable while stabilizing those we want. If we are really clever then we seed the space to encourage the formation of patterns that we can control.

These patterns are emergent properties of the interactions of the various agents. By increasing information flow, variety and connectiveness either singly or in combination we can break down existing patterns and create the conditions under which new patterns will emerge, although the nature of emergence is not predictable.

Entrepreneurs manage in this space instinctively while large organizations find it more uncomfortable. In this domain leadership cannot be imposed, it is emergent based on natural authority and respect but it is not democratic, it is matriarchal or patriarchal.


Chaos represents the consequence of excessive structure or massive change, both of which can cause linkages to sunder. As such it is a space that requires crisis management and is not comfortable or entered with any enthusiasm by other than the insane.

However it is one of the most useful spaces, and one that needs to be actively managed. It provides a means by which entrainment of thinking can be disrupted by breaking down the assumptions on which expertise is based.

It is also a space into which most management teams and all knowledge programs will be precipitated; however, regular immersion in a controlled way can immunize the organization and create patterns of behavior that will pay dividends when markets create those conditions.

We also need to remember that what to one organization is chaotic, to another is complex or knowable. 

In the chaotic domain the most important thing is to act, then we can sense and respond. Leadership in this domain is about power – either tyranny or charisma. Both models impose order, and if order is imposed without loss of control, then the new space is capable of being used to advantage.

[Dave Snowden]
'Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness'

The more orderly, less random, patterned, and narratized a series of words and symbols, the easier it is to store that series in one’s mind or jot it down in a book so your grandchildren can read it someday.

With so many brain cells - one hundred billion (and counting) - the attic is quite large, so the difficulties probably do not arise from storage capacity limitations, but may be just indexing problems. Your conscious, or working, memory, the one you are using to read these lines and make sense of their meaning, is considerably smaller than the attic. Consider that your working memory has difficulty holding a mere phone number longer than seven digits.

Change metaphors slightly and imagine that your consciousness is a desk in the Library of Congress: no matter how many books the library holds, and makes available for retrieval, the size of your desk sets some processing limitations.

Compression is vital to the performance of conscious work […] By finding the pattern, the logic of the series, you no longer need to memorise it all. You just store the pattern. 

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 68

System 1, the experiential one, is effortless, automatic, fast, opaque (we do not know that we are using it), parallel-processed, and can lend itself to errors. It is what we call “intuition” […] It produces shortcuts, called “heuristics,” that allow us to function rapidly and effectively. Dan Goldstein calls these heuristics “fast and frugal.” Others prefer to call them “quick and dirty.”

System 2, the cogitative one, is what we normally call thinking. It is what you use in a classroom, as it is effortful, reasoned, slow, logical, serial, progressive, and self-aware (you can follow the steps in your reasoning). It makes fewer mistakes than the experiential system, and, since you know how you derived your result, you can retrace your steps and correct them in an adaptive manner.

You have to make an effort (System 2) to override your first reaction. Clearly Mother Nature makes you use the fast System 1 to get out of trouble, so that you do not sit down and cogitate whether there is truly a tiger attacking you or if it is an illusion. You run immediately, before you become “conscious” of the presence of the tiger.

Emotions are assumed to be the weapon System 1 uses to direct us and force us to act quickly. It mediates risk avoidance far more effectively than our cognitive system.

Note that neurobiologists make, roughly, a similar distinction to that between System 1 and System 2, except that they operate along anatomical lines. Their distinction differentiates between parts of the brain, the cortical part, which we are supposed to use for thinking, and which distinguishes us from other animals, and the fast-reacting limbic brain, which is the centre of emotions, and which we share with other animals.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 82

'Inattentional blindness' - we do not see what we do not expect to see.

The most anybody [...] will scan of the available data before you make a decision is about five percent. That’s on a good day, if you’re really focused. If you’re Chinese it is ten percent (there are actually different evolutionary processes in the brain as a result of symbolic as opposed to non-symbolic language).

You then make a decision based on a first-fit pattern match privileging your most recent experiences - that’s called conceptual blending. You scan five percent of the data, that causes trigger of memories of your own experience - things you were taught, things you learned from other people in narrative form - you blend that together and you come up with a unique form of action.

That’s how you make decisions - unless you’re fully autistic. The only people who make rational decisions by assessing all available data are autistic, which is why they can’t operate.

If you think about it in evolutionary terms, you can see why this happens. If you imagine the first hominids on the savannahs of Africa, something large and yellow with very sharp teeth runs toward you at very high speed. Do you want to autistically scan all available data, look up a catalogue of the flora and fauna of the African veldt, and having identified ‘lion’ look up best practice case-studies on how to avoid lions?

We evolved to make decisions very quickly based on a partial data scan, privileging our most recent experiences.

In modern cognitive science we don’t call these biases, we call them heuristics. Evolution doesn’t produce things that have no utility. So-called biases are actually heuristics that allow us to make decisions faster.

[Dave Snowden]
'Dealing with unanticipated needs – Dave Snowden'

Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this - the most superficial and worst part - for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication, and this fact uncovers the origin of consciousness.

In brief, the development of language and the development of consciousness (not of reason but merely of the way reason enters consciousness) go hand in hand […] The human being inventing signs is at the same time the human being who becomes ever more keenly conscious of himself. It was only as a social animal that man acquired self-consciousness—which he is still in the process of doing, more and more.

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man's individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility. 

Consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, "to know ourselves," each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but "average.” Our thoughts themselves are continually governed by the character of consciousness - by the "genius of the species” that commands it - and translated back into the perspective of the herd. Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that. But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.

This is the essence of phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand them: Owing to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface and sign-world, a world that is made common and meaner; whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, sign, herd signal; all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalisation. 

Ultimately, the growth of consciousness becomes a danger; and anyone who lives among the most conscious Europeans even knows that it is a disease.

We simply lack any organ for knowledge, for “truth”: we “know” (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd, the species: and even what is here called “utility” is ultimately also a mere belief, something imaginary, and perhaps precisely that most calamitous stupidity of which we shall perish some day.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 354

Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong. 

Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary, "exceeding destiny," as Homer puts it. If the conserving association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish of its misjudgments and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity - in short, of its consciousness; rather, without the former, humanity would long have disappeared.

Before a function is fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and it is good if during the interval it is subjected to some tyranny. Thus consciousness is tyrannized - not least by our pride in it. 

One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate, and most original in him. One takes consciousness for a determinate magnitude. One denies its growth and its intermittences. One takes it for the "unity of the organism."

This ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all too fast development of consciousness. Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it; and things haven’t changed much in this respect. 

To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible; it is a task that is seen only by those who have comprehended that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 11

The purpose of consciousness is to create coherence in your perceptual representations, remove conflicts, predict the future, [and] construct counterfactual representations so that you can coordinate your actions and so on.

[Joscha Bach]
'Joscha Bach: Nature of Reality, Dreams, and Consciousness | Lex Fridman Podcast #212'

When the reformers tell us that society can be improved by education, by increasing men's knowledge, by projecting the correct program and then taking action to realize that program, they are wrong because men in society do not act that way.

Their actions, their socially decisive actions, spring not from logical but from non-logical roots.

Pareto not only shows that non-logical conduct is predominant; his crucial point is that the conduct which has a bearing on social and political structure, on what he calls the “social equilibrium," is above all the arena of the nonlogical.

What happens to society, whether it progresses or decays, is free or despotic, happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, is only to the slightest degree influenced by the deliberate, rational purposes held by human beings.

Taboos, magic, superstition, personified abstractions, myths, gods, empty verbalisms, in every culture and at every period of history express man's persisting non-logical impulses. The forms change, but the fundamentals remain.

Gods and goddesses like Athena or Janus or Ammon are replaced by new divinities such as Progress and Humanity and even Science; hymns to Jupiter give way to invocations to the People; the magic of votes and electoral manipulations supersedes the magic of dolls and wands; faith in the Historical Process does duty for faith in the God of our Fathers.

[James Burnham]
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, p.158-9, 63

Humans are capable of reason yet most of our thinking is intuitive and emotional, both prone to systematic confirmation biases and various other heuristics.

Empirical data has proven David Hume right, that reason is the slave of the passions. The vast majority of reasoning proves to be post-hoc justification for decisions already made by instinctual intuition. Furthermore, our relative blindness to these heuristics leads to a systematic overrating of our capability, our contributions to projects, our capacity to assess risks, and our capacity to predict the future.

Humans are thus guilty of endemic hubris, which likely explains why the tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, was codified into a narrative by ancient wisdom.

 [Academic Agent]
'Groyper Meta-Analysis Part 2: Replying to Keith Woods'

In a truly distributed representation, the informational content of any specific weight is the result of such a dispersed process that it cannot be said to constitute anything specific. There are definitely not different kinds of weights (nomic, constitutive, inductive, etc.).

It is also a misunderstanding of the nature of distributed representation to think that it implements concepts or features by using clusters of components. That would merely be a refinement of a system of local representation. Instead of having one set of symbols with specific semantic interpretations, you now have another, perhaps with more symbols. Distributed representation allows you to discard this whole theoretical framework.

Instead of working with concepts or clusters of concepts, you work with a system of relationships at a sub-conceptual level that cannot be given, or rather, is not in need of a semantic interpretation at all.

'Distributed representation does not give you an invariant, context-independent representation.’ Since the initial state of two systems may vary, they will never be able to represent exactly the same concept. This is of course only a problem if you think that invariant, context-independent representations are necessary or should exist.

Postmodern or post-structural theories of meaning deny this by claiming that both synchronic and diachronic contexts are not only necessary, but constitutive of meaning. Since there are no theoretical limitations on the amount of information that can be fed into a network (given that the network has sufficient capacity), one can include as much of the context as one wishes.

Moreover, since the information is distributed, no explicit distinction between concept and context has to be made - they are encoded together; context is always already part of the representation.

Adding up the characteristics of distributed representation we have now worked through, it becomes clear that the very notion of representation has been undermined.

A distributed representation is not a representation in the conventional sense of the word. It dispenses with all the components of a representational system. There are no symbols that 'stand for’ something, there are no grammatical relationships between them, and the system itself has no need of a semantic level of interpretation at all.

Most philosophical positions throughout the Western intellectual tradition have been sceptical about the spontaneous emergence of order and structure.

In the absence of a rational explanation for such emergence, some kind of organising agent - God (as the ultimate designer) or some other a priori principle - was usually postulated. Yet self-organisation is neither a mystic process nor a random one, and should not be in conflict with any of our normal sensibilities [...] We need neither a central processor nor an outside observer.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.71-2,  89

A self-organising system reacts to the state of affairs in the environment, but simultaneously transforms itself as a result of these affairs, often affecting the environment in turn. Processes in the system are therefore neither simply passive reflections of the outside, nor are they actively determined from the inside. The very distinction between active and passive, as well as that between inside and outside, comes under pressure.

In a complex system, control does not emanate from a single source. Should this happen, the system would become degenerate, lose its adaptability and survive only as long as the environment remained stable.

Since the certainty with which the future can be predicted has been greatly reduced, any plan of action has to be adapted continuously.

If the plan is too rigid - too much central control - the system will not be able to cope with unpredictable changes. On the other hand, it will also be disastrous if the system tries to adjust itself to every superficial change, since such changes may easily be reversed without notice. The system will waste its resources in trying to follow every fluctuation instead of adapting to higher- order trends.

Being able to discriminate between changes that should be followed and changes that should be resisted is vital to the survival of any organisation (or organism). This is achieved optimally when the control of the system is not rigid and localised, but distributed over the system, ensuring that the positive dynamics of self-organisation is utilised effectively.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.108, 110

Does a theory of self-organisation claim that it is possible to describe human behaviour without recourse to a general system of values? If this question refers to values that are separate from, or prior to, the contingency of our existence, the answer has to be yes.

There is, however, another understanding of values which is not only compatible with a theory of self-organisation, but which can be viewed as a result of it. In this view, values are understood as emergent properties of the social system.

We have seen that distributed, decentralised control makes a system more flexible, and therefore increases its survivability. If we apply this notion to social systems, it would seem that we have an argument against rigid, centralised control mechanisms in, for example, the management of a company or the running of a state. Once again, this kind of critique against autocratic management or a fascist government is based not on the idea that these things are 'bad' per se, but rather on the knowledge that they will ultimately lead to the degeneration of the system in question.

Do these properties imply an ethics of self-organisation? I would be very hesitant to use the word 'ethics' here, unless it is an ethics in the sense of ‘principles that constitute a system', closer to the way in which Levinas would use the term.

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.111

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