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Self-organisation in complex systems

So far a lot of attention has been paid to the characteristics of the structure of complex systems. In this chapter the focus will be on how that structure comes about, develops and changes. The notion of structure pertains to the internal mechanism developed by the system to receive, encode, transform and store information on the one hand, and to react to such information by some form of output on the other. The main burden of the argument will be to show that internal structure can evolve without the intervention of an external designer or the presence of some centralised form of internal control. If the capacities of the system satisfy a number of constraints, it can develop a distributed form of internal structure through a process of self-organisation. This process is such that structure is neither a passive reflection of the outside, nor a result of active, pre-programmed internal factors, but the result of a complex interaction between the environment, the present state of the system and the history of the system. 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 agentGod (as the ultimate designer) or some other a priori principlewas 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. That is what I hope to show in this chapter. Several examples of self-organising systems will be discussed later, but here a simple (and very limited) example will help to introduce the basic ideas of self-organisation. Consider a school of fish in a dam, and assume we can measure their general well-being by looking at the size of the school. The condition of the fish would depend on a large number of factors, including the availability of food, the temperature of the water, the amount of available oxygen and light, the time of year, etc. As these conditions vary, the size of the school of fish will adjust itself optimally to suit prevailing conditions, despite the fact that each individual fish can only look after its own interests. The system of the school as a whole organises itself to ensure the best match between the system and its environment. This organisation is also adaptive in the sense that the school will be sensitive to


Self-organisation in complex systems

changing conditions in the light of past experience. There is no agent that decides for the school what should happen, nor does each individual fish understand the complexity of the situation. The organisation of the school emerges as a result of the interaction between the various constituents of the system and its environment. A last introductory remark is perhaps necessary. The basic characteristics and principles of self-organisation described below are fairly general, and will of course overlap with the general characteristics of complex systems discussed in Chapter 1. They have been abstracted from a number of examples quite diverse in nature, therefore the full set of characteristics will not necessarily be present in each of them. However, the more complex the system is, the more of these characteristics will be apparent. The aim remains to provide an understanding of the dynamics of self-organisation as a general property of complex systems. KEY ASPECTS

Towards a definition of self-organisation Given the difficulty in defining complex phenomena, a working definition of self-organisation will be provided, illuminated by a number of characteristics and examples: The capacity for self-organisation is a property of complex systems which enables them to develop or change internal structure spontaneously and adoptively in order to cope with, or manipulate, their environment. The kind of system we are interested in is best exemplified by the brain. Within certain given constraintsincluding physical, biological and genetic onesthe brain has to develop an understanding of its environment, and be able to operate effectively in that environment. Since it is implausible that the brain contains, ab initio, a programme that can cope with all eventualities, we can safely assume that the brain has to have the ability to learn. The necessary changes in structure that enable the brain to remember what has been learnt must therefore come about spontaneously. Different systems that share the property of self-organisation will not necessarily exhibit the same range of characteristics. A living cell can certainly be classified as self-organising, but its internal structure will be more stable than that of, say, the economic system of a country. An economic system is self-organising in the sense that it changes its internal structure in response to a large number of factors (money supply, growth rate, political stability, natural disasters, etc.). Although the interaction of all these factors is too complex to allow the construction of a deterministic model, large-scale intervention in the internal structure of the system is possible (revaluation of the currency,

Self-organisation in complex systems


adjustment of interest rates, etc.). The effects of these interventions, however, are only predictable in the short term since the spontaneous adjustment of the system involves the complex interaction of too many factorsmany of which cannot be controlled at all. Another example of a self-organising system is that of language. In order to enable communication, language must have a recognisable structure. To be able to maintain its function in vastly different circumstances, the structure must be able to adjustespecially as far as meaning is concerned. Because many individuals are involved in using the same language, these adjustments cannot merely take place at the level of individual decisions. Change results from the interaction of large numbers of individuals.1 Systems of social interaction, i.e. cultural systems, share many of the characteristics of linguistic systems. The models of complex systems developed here have certain implications for theory of language, as well as for a number of more general philosophical and ethical issues. These will be discussed in the final chapter. These examples show that self-organisation can work at different levels and according to varying constraints. Despite differences between various instances of complex systems, however, the process of self-organisation has a number of general characteristics, to which we shall now turn. ATTRIBUTES OF SELF-ORGANISING SYSTEMS Despite important differences between various self-organising, complex systems with different functions, there are shared attributes that conform to the framework of the general model for complex systems. As we argued in Chapter 1, a complex system is constituted by a large number of simple units forming nodes in a network with a high level of non-linear interconnection. The behaviour of a system is not determined primarily by the properties of individual components of the system, but is the result of complex patterns of interaction. General attributes of self-organising systems include the following: (i) The structure of the system is not the result of an a priori design, nor is it determined directly by external conditions. It is a result of interaction between the system and its environment. The internal structure of the system can adapt dynamically to changes in the environment, even if these changes are not regular. Self-organisation is not merely the result of processes like feedback or regulation that can be described linearly. It involves higher-order, nonlinear processes that cannot be modelled by sets of linear differential equations. A thermostat that responds to its environment by switching on and off is not an example of self-organisation. Self-organisation is an emergent property of a system as a whole (or of large enough sub-systems). The systems individual components only operate on local information and general principles. The macroscopic

(ii) (iii)



Self-organisation in complex systems behaviour emerges from microscopic interactions that by themselves have a very meagre information content (only traces). By confining your analysis to the microscopic level, it becomes possible to explain the behaviour of each element in terms of a number of simple transformations. Simple, local interactions can result in complex behaviour when viewed macroscopically. Self-organising systems increase in complexity. Since they have to learn from experience, they have to remember previously encountered situations and compare them with new ones. If more previous information can be stored, the system will be able to make better comparisons. This increase in complexity implies a local reversal of entropy, which necessitates a flow of energy or information through the systems. The increase in complexity may also form part of the explanation why self-organising systems tend to age. Since these systems are bound by the finite constraints of the physical world, they inevitably become saturated at some point. Self-organisation is impossible without some form of memory, a point closely related to the previous one. Without memory, the system can do no better than merely mirror the environment. A selforganising system therefore always has a history. This diachronic component cannot be ignored in any description of the system since previous conditions of the system form vital influences on present behaviour. Memory, on the other hand, is impossible without some form of selective forgetting. Just piling up information without some form of integration renders it insignificant. Integration is not performed through some form of decision-making within the system. Information that is not used simply fades away. This process not only creates space in memory, but, more importantly, it provides a measure of the significance of the stored pattern. The more something is used, the stronger its representation in memory will be. Use it or lose it. Self-organisation is only possible if the system can remember and forget. Since the self-organising process is not guided or determined by specific goals, it is often difficult to talk about the function of such a system. As soon as we introduce the notion of function, we run the risk either of anthropomorphising, or of introducing an external reason for the structure of the system, exactly those aspects we are trying to avoid. When a system is described within the context of a larger system, it is possible to talk of a function of the sub-system only within that context. We can talk about the function of the endocrine system of a lion with reference to the lion, but then it is difficult to simultaneously talk about the function of the lion itself. We can talk about the function of predators in an ecosystem, but then not of the function of the ecosystem. The notion of function is intimately linked to our descriptions of complex systems. The




Self-organisation in complex systems


process of self-organisation cannot be driven by the attempt to perform a function; it is rather the result of an evolutive process whereby a system will simply not survive if it cannot adapt to more complex circumstances. (viii) Similarly, it is not possible to give crudely reductionistic descriptions of self-organising systems. Since microscopic units do not know about large-scale effects, while at the same time these effects manifest themselves in collections that do not involve anything besides these microscopic units, the various levels of the system cannot be given independent descriptions. The levels are in principle intertwined. The resistance to using a reductionist discourse when describing emergent properties does not, however, imply any resistance to materialist principles. In a nutshell, the process of self-organisation in complex systems works in the following way. Clusters of information from the external world flow into the system. This information will influence the interaction of some of the components in the systemit will alter the values of the weights in the network. Following Hebbs rule (discussed in Chapter 1), if a certain cluster is present regularly, the system will acquire a stable set of weights that represents that cluster, i.e. a certain pattern of activity will be caused in the system each time that specific cluster is present. If two clusters are regularly present together, the system will automatically develop an association between the two. For example, if a certain state of affairs regularly causes harm to the system, the system will associate that condition with harm without having to know beforehand that the condition is harmful. As the system encounters different conditions in the environment, it will generate new structures to represent those conditions, within the constraints determined by the amount of memory available to the system. This process can be described mathematically (Grossberg 1987, 1988; Kauffman 1993; Kohonen 1988), but it does not differ in principle from Freuds neurological model of how the brain develops its structure (Freud 1950). What remains to be discussed now are the actual principles by which the interactions within a system are adjusted. Basic principles of self-organisation Self-organisation can be modelled in more than one way, but most models rest on a system of simple processing units that are interconnected in a network. I will stick to the neural network model. 2 To repeat briefly, a neural network consists of a number of simple neurons, interconnected by synapses. These synapses have different strengths, which means that the neurons interact with each other in a complex, non-linear way. The system is best visualised as a network of interconnected nodes where each


Self-organisation in complex systems

interconnection has a certain strength or weight. Since the nodes are all basically similar, the behaviour of the network is determined by the values of the weights, values which can be adjusted. Adjustments are determined by simple rules based only on information available locally at the nodes involved. One such rule would be to increase the value of a weight if both neurons interconnected by it are active (Hebbs rule). In such a way, the network can develop patterns of activity based on the dynamic structure of the interconnections. But how can the structure of a system also develop in response to conditions in the environment around it? This is only possible if information can enter the system from outside. At least some interconnections therefore have to terminate in sensors or transducers that can sense aspects of the environment and stimulate the system accordingly. 3 Some event in the environment will now cause some activity inside the system, and this activity can be used to alter the structure of the system, again only by means of information available locally at each nodea global perspective is not necessary. On condition that the information is not fed into a homogeneous network in a symmetrical way, the nodes of the network will be activated irregularly. Certain groups of neurons will be more active than others. By simply increasing the weights associated with active nodes, and decreasing the rest, this pattern of activity will be reinforced. If the external event does not occur again, this pattern will eventually fade away (be forgotten) or be eroded by other patterns. If the event is significant, in the sense that it occurs often, the pattern will be reinforced each time the event occurs. In this way the system develops a stable structure that enables it to recognise important events through a process of self-organisation. Since the most important aspect of self-organisation is the emergence of structure through the activity of microscopic units that do not have access to global patterns, the principles that determine the behaviours of weights and nodes locally are very important. The following list provides a number of preconditions for self-organisation in any system and they are fundamental to the understanding thereof:4 (i) The system consists of a large number of microscopic elements or units that are relatively undifferentiated initially, i.e. there is no need for predefined structure.5 In neural network terms this means that the network starts off with random values for all the weights. The strengths of interconnections change as a result of local information only. These changes are often self-maintaining (positive feedback is involved), and cause the system to move away from the undifferentiated state. There is competition among the units. Competing for limited resources is the basic driving force behind the development of structure. Stronger units thrive at the expense of others. If resources were limitless, i.e. if



Self-organisation in complex systems


growth could take place unrestricted, no meaningful structure would evolve. Boundaries, limits and constraints are preconditions for structure. (iv) There is also co-operation among at least some units. If only single units won, the resulting structure would be too simple for selforganisation to evolve. Co-operation is also necessary to form associations among patterns. Mutual reinforcement and co-operation are preconditions for a rich, meaningful structure. (v) The interactions among units have to be non-linear. Small changes must be able to cause large effects, and the combination of patterns should result in the formation of new ones, not merely in linear combinations of the constituents. (vi) An important secondary principle is symmetry-breaking. If the initial state of the system is fully homogeneous, the evolving structure could be too symmetrical. This will inhibit the development of complex structure. Symmetry-breaking is usually achieved spontaneously by means of missing or incorrect connections (or other happenings of chance), as well as by the non-linearity of the system and the resulting sensitivity to small fluctuations. (vii) Another secondary principle is that of entrainment. Some patterns will catch others in their wake in the sense that they will start appearing in concert.6 This process increases the order in a system and facilitates the formation of associations through resonance. (viii) A last, and a most important, principle requires that the memory of the system be stored in a distributed fashion. The importance of memory has already been stated, and in neural networks the connection strengths, or weights, perform the function of storing information. Specific weights cannot stand for specific bits of symbolic information since this would imply that the information should be interpretable at the level of that weight. Since each weight only has access to local levels of activity, it cannot perform the more complex function of standing for a concept. Complex concepts would involve a pattern of activity over several units. Weights store information at a sub-symbolic level, as traces of memory. The fact that information is distributed over many units not only increases the robustness of the system, but makes the association of different patterns an inherent characteristic of the systemthey overlap in principle. (The notion of distributedness received detailed attention in Chapter 5.) The way in which these basic principles enable the process of self-organisation will be elucidated as we continue, especially when we discuss the selection theories of brain development. In the following section an argument will be presented that claims not only that complex systems will organise their structure, but that they will tend to do so in an optimal way.