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 International Conference on Complex Systems (ICCS2007)

Evolving Function, Purpose, and Agency

Evelyn Fox Keller
Department of Science, Technology and Society, MIT

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     Last modified: October 22, 2007

The term self-organization was originally introduced to refer to those properties that were thought to mark organisms apart from both machines and non-living physical systems, namely, agency, function, or purpose. Ironically, however, what are commonly referred to as ‘self-organizing systems’ today are notable for the absence of these properties. Agency, function, and purpose all remain conspicuously missing from the kinds of systems with which physics deals – indeed, from all the emergent phenomena of non-linear dynamical systems, and no one has succeeded in offering an account of how they might emerge from non-linear interactions between simple elements, however complex the dynamics of their interaction might be. Rather, they seem to require an order of complexity going beyond such analyses – a form of complexity that Weaver, Herbert Simon, and now John Mattick and John Doyle have dubbed organized complexity. This talk is a meditation on what that might involve.

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