Dynamics in Action by Alicia Juarrero: Hermeneutic Wholes?

Section 1 of 4 – Ali the particle physicist: “covering-laws” and the hermeneutic approach

Consider Ali, the particle physicist. Unlike a physicist in the real world, he has no concept of the contained entity we call “the atom”. Imagine that Ali has identified and interpreted the dynamic interactive characteristics of subatomic particles, and yet still knows nothing of the existence of atoms. He informs us that these previously unknown mechanisms underlying subatomic dynamics are very complex. Despite having no knowledge of the atom, he is able to deduce that things called “atoms” might exist under certain specific dynamic subatomic arrangements. But would Ali also be able to predict the behavioural, reactive, or phase transition characteristics of different types of atoms or compounds of atoms, given their particular subatomic alignments? – I suspect that predicting behavioural characteristics would prove problematic. Importantly, this unpredictability would not diminish the importance of any “covering-law” that this particle physicist might elucidate to determine the underlying unity of atomic constructs or to explain the manner in which atomic constructs might interact.

In her explanation of the power of dynamics in action, Alicia Juarrero (1999 – Dynamics in Action) can be likened to Ali; the subatomic physicist that knows not of the atom nor how to deduce from subatomic understandings, specific types of atomic behavioural characteristics. Similarly, from her perspective, she concludes that an overarching “covering-law” approach is inappropriate to the study of this particular kind of complexity: she suggests jettisoning deductive explanation for hermeneutic reasoning which “explains by highlighting and showing the concrete and temporal, context-dependent dynamical interrelationships that give… action its unique character. ” p.231 – (1999 – Dynamics in Action)

    I propose that explaining complex systems, understanding human beings and their actions, must… proceed hermeneutically, not deductively. p.222-223 [this is a key argument made in chapter 14 of her book]

What Alicia Juarrero has identified is a dynamical process underlying certain ‘types of construct’ and has used this concept to indicate that these particular ‘types of construct’ exist with novel emergent behavioural characteristics. However, whilst these dynamic constructs differ to that of the atom, there is an equivalence: Juarrero’s complex components and mechanics do lead to dynamic wholes, and these wholes are unified constructs (see section 4 below) – just as the dynamics of subatomic particles interact to form the unified constructs of whole atoms.

Hermeneutic wholes and dynamics in action

Illustration to show Equivalence

Figure 1

Deacon expresses this equivalence in ‘Incomplete Nature’ (2012):

    we can draw a number of rough analogies between Newtonian dynamics and thermodynamics. First, the equilibrium state can be crudely analogized to a mass moving at constant velocity in a straight line, in the sense that a system in equilibrium is dynamically active, changing from state to state, and yet exhibiting no change in global (distributional) properties. Second, like a moving mass, a thermodynamic system at equilibrium will tend to maintain its dynamics within the same distributional parameters until perturbed… Third, like the inertia of a massive body, a thermodynamic system at equilibrium will resist being modified… p.209

Thus we have the sense that under certain situations thermodynamic minutiae lose their import whilst becoming the determinants for a single macro-physical global construct: a construct body that will honour Newton’s 3rd Law, irrespective of how abstract the extrapolated behavioural properties and characteristics become (I am thinking about subjective mental behavioural properties and characteristics here).

To summarise part 1, both Ali’s inability to understand the behaviour of wholes despite an intimate understanding of parts i.e., subatomic dynamics; and the notion that thermodynamic behaviour leads to singular identity, indicate that Juarrero’s call for a hermeneutic approach may be premature? She expresses the following sentiment in ‘Dynamics in Action’:

    The basic particles populating this mechanistic world of modern physics [One atom activates a second by colliding with it, thereby impressing an external force on the latter] are independent of each other and do not interact to achieve a goal or purpose as they would were Aristotle’s final cause still in place. Once Aristotle ‘s final causes were disallowed, Newtonian mechanics left no room for either objects in the external world or anticipated end-state to serve as intentional objects of desire and goals of action. p.21

I suggest however, that there is no less goal and purpose in the global body that is an atom – whose characteristics are determined by subatomic dynamic processes; than there is in Juarrero’s proposed global mental constructs – whose characteristics are determined, in her account, by thermodynamic related processes.

Section 2 of 4 Micro and macro physical assumptions – Newtonian Third Law of Motion and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics: the entropy of an isolated condition never decreases but will evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium— a state of maximum entropy.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

What is of note concerning both the 3rd and 2nd laws are that they make certain assumptions. Both laws assume artificial purity or containment either in the bodies, constructs or the space for which the laws are said to apply:

In the 2nd law, the assumption is that the condition is one of containment and isolation. Furthermore, illustrations of the 2nd law often talk of heat exchange via atoms in confined spaces, where the assumption is that the atoms will adhere to Newtonian-like collision characteristics i.e., there is an assumption in the unwavering application of Newton’s 3rd law in illustrative examples of the 2nd law of thermodynamics – see figure 2 below:

Hermeneutic and thermodynamics

Illustration to show the Hermeneutic dependence on wholes

Figure 2

Newton’s 3rd law assumes no energy loss through friction, noise, heat etc. In some ways one might say that Newton is assuming that the two bodies are infinitely stable constructs. In so doing, he is ignoring the nature of the component dynamics of the bodies themselves. To go beyond this assumption in generalised terms, would be to incorporate the laws of conservation and all their consequential and varying complexities. But that would be to miss the point of the concept that singular constructs – regardless of their dynamic construction – obey fundamental covering laws: all idealised global-constructs or “bodies”, behave with the intention and purpose implicitly expressed in the covering law (see section 3 below on Newton, intention and purpose). Newton is saying, let us ignore the dynamic nature of the construct of our colliding bodies – let us simplify the scenario to determine general rules upon which we can rely for all constructs regardless of their dynamic constituent parts. In a way, Newton is ignoring micro-physical details, whilst the 2nd law requirement of isolation is ignoring macro-physical realities. Importantly however, both are about the nature of systems-constructs in terms of their global and compartmental details respectively.

The key point is that in global terms, all systems-constructs tend to adhere to Newton’s 3rd law. However, if one wishes to understand the dynamical nature of a particular systems-construct, then one must appeal to different principles of action: Juarrero focuses on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, whilst, if one were to seek to understand subatomic dynamics, one might wish to explore the principles of quantum mechanics. Perhaps, if there is a lesson to be learnt it is that the subject of life, and mind from matter, needs to be assessed and interpreted through the laws of conservation because no single global macro-physical systems-construct is infinitely stable and immune to the leakage of energy to and from its environment.

Section 3 of 4 Newton’s law and the intentionality, purpose, and goals of wholes

When two bodies collide, how do they ‘know’ how to react such that they take each other into consideration? What information do the two bodies exchange in order to assimilate the extent to which they should apply Newton’s law? Their behaviour is not random. When two bodies interact with one another, why is the ensuing reaction indicative of their expressive differential? What informative principle is at work that guides the coherent reactive intentions of the bodies? In the case of colliding atoms, somehow they can evaluate the nature of each others subatomic dynamics and direct appropriate reactive behaviours with intention and purpose – that is, their reactive behaviours are not arbitrary and directionless.

Remember Deacon’s point above?

    the equilibrium state can be crudely analogized to a mass moving at constant velocity in a straight line, in the sense that a system in equilibrium is dynamically active, changing from state to state, and yet exhibiting no change in global (distributional) properties” p.209

Though one may not know the constituent micro-physical details one can say that a coherent systems-construct – regardless of the nature of its dynamic complexity – possesses the intention and purpose in action, to negotiate for stability during interaction at the global level.

This is the essence of the Hierarchical Construct Theory (HCT – sometimes referred to as Hierarchical Systems Theory, HST) of consciousness. However,

    to speak of hierarchy in its proper sense with regard to systems, is to say something above and beyond the fundamentals of structure and organisation typical of all systems: in general terms, the independent units that comprise a system bear no ‘special‘ hierarchical relation to its system beyond structure. When I speak of ‘Hierarchical Construct Theory’, I talk of a special kind of hierarchy beyond the concept of structure and organisational complexities. With each hierarchical level that emergences from the previous, there is a paradigm shift in the nature of the systems-construct. c.f. ‘What is the Hierarchical Systems Theory of Consciousness?

In other words, what HCT demonstrates, is that we can think of “Newtonian Bodies” not as lumps of inert “matter” but as any incarnation of a physical whole made up from any type of dynamic component-construct – even of component constructs that us humans do not identify as material in nature. In this manner, we can say that HCT provides the covering-law explanation for global universalities.

What we can say of all dynamic constructs is that,

i) their containment is formed by and formed within their environment;
ii) they are not isolated from their environment i.e., they interact with it; and
iii) they are not an all-embracingly infinitely stable construct i.e., energy leaks into and out of dynamic constructs.

Section 4 of 4 The Classification of global-construct hierarchies

Click here to see a visual representation of the following 4 global constructs.

Global-construct type-1

All matter may be classified as representative of one type of systems-construct:

Atomic elements are formed, emerge, and evolve within the intense environments of stars. Atomic compounds are formed, emerge, and evolve within planetary settings. In so far as their constructs are formed within particular types of environment within certain particular conditions, material constructs that are stable, can be viewed as being informative, of the nature of those particular formative environments.

Atomic elements interact with the environment and in doing so will modify their structure during the maintenance of structural stability. Thus the maintenance of stability can be regarded as the purpose and intention behind atomic reactive behaviour; the ultimate goal being to acquire an all-embracing absolutely stable material construction.

The intention to maintain stability in a changing environment leads inexorably to the evolution of increasingly complex atomic compound structures.

By whatever relevant dynamic mechanisms at play, this increasing complexity leads inevitably and unintentionally to the emergence of constructs that can replicate.

Global-construct type-2 (On the origins of life)

All replicative organisms may be classified as representative of one type of systems-construct.

Replicative systems-constructs transcend the life of their individual representative structures. An unintended consequence of their interaction with the environment over generations is the formation, emergence, and evolution of adapted qualitatively relevant physiologies. Selective pressures ensure that adapted physiologies possess information about the relative value of environmental properties i.e., an adapted physiological construct possesses knowledge about the good and bad of environmental conditions – good and bad in terms of their effects on structural stability. Consequently, the replicative systems-construct can be conceived as a body whose intention and purpose is to maintain its representative structures’ stability; the ultimate goal being to acquire an absolute, all-embracingly stable physiological knowledge about the environment.

By whatever relevant dynamic mechanisms, continual physiological adaptation leads inexorably and unintentionally to the emergence of structural-constructs that can assess, evaluate, and respond – on a realtime basis – to the qualitative relevance of the good and bad of environmental conditions.

Global-construct type-3 (On the origins of consciousness)

All structures capable of assessing experiential qualitative relevance may be classified as representative of one type of systems-construct.

The most ubiquitous example of this type of systems-construct, which can rapidly assess qualitative relevance, is afferent and efferent neural complexes. An unintended consequence of the interaction of neural complexes with environmental conditions, is the formation, emergence, and evolution of realtime adaptive behaviours. In their rapid assessment of the good and bad of environmental phenomena, an assessing systems-construct possesses information about the quality of experience i.e., an assessing systems-construct possesses an understanding of the qualitative relevance of realtime environmental experiences.

This type of systems-construct – in all its incarnations – can be conceived as a single body whose purpose and intention following interaction, is to maintain its representative structures’ behavioural stability; the ultimate goal being to acquire an absolute, all-embracingly stable understanding about the environment.

By whatever relevant dynamic mechanisms, increasingly complex behavioural capabilities lead inexorably and unintentionally to the emergence of cognitively structured-constructs that can assimilate conceptualised principles governing the nature of the experienced phenomenon of reality.

Global-construct type-4 (On the origins of personal identity)

All mechanisms capable of assimilating principles underlying the nature of the experienced phenomenon of reality, may be classified as representative of one type of systems-construct.

An unintended consequence of the interaction between assimilated principles regarding experiential phenomena, is the formation, emergence, and evolution of inventive, contemplative thought and application. One can consider the conceptualising systems-construct as possessing information about the principles governing experiential reality i.e., One can interpret a conceptualising systems-construct as possessing ‘wisdom’ about the nature of reality.

This type of systems-construct can be thought of as a body whose purpose and intention during interaction, is to maintain its representative structures’ conceptual stability (which, in the case of each individual, includes the identification of “it” as a “self” existing in the context of its worldview); the ultimate goal being to acquire an absolute, all-embracingly stable wisdom about reality.

By whatever relevant dynamic mechanisms, increasingly complex inventive thought leads inexorably to the emergence of constructs that can… I leave this sentence unfinished for the reader to contemplate an answer; because this is the next emergent step that the human mind is yet to realise.


1. If you are interested in the philosophy of consciousness, you must read Alicia Juarrero’s ‘Dynamics in Action’.

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