In the first Mimetic Fractals post we looked at the relatively obscure connection between the Mimetic Lens and the Fractal Lens that had not yet been explored. I recently came across an excellent series of essays collected in a book edited by Scott Garrels called Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, which "provides an overview of some of the major findings and interpretations concerning human imitation across the diverse disciplines of developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neurophysiology, comparative psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, literary analysis, and philosophy."
In particular, in Chapter 10, "Naturalizing Mimetic Theory", Professor Jean Pierre Dupuy looks at the development of Mimetic Theory as a science apart from its philosophical and literary origins. Dupuy first summarizes the current state of social theory and cognitive science, the latter of which we explored in detail in the post about Professor Gazzaniga's work, including the discovery of mirror neurons as the physical mechanism for mimetic desire to occur. He notes:
"[S]ocial theory and cognitive science, in their recent developments, converge, or rather grope towards, two fundamental conclusions. Firstly, the autonomy of the human subject posited by classical modern philosophy, from Descartes to Leibniz, is just an illusion (“Descartes' error,” to quote from Antonio Damasio.) Secondly, no center of control is responsible for the transition from disorder to order in the case of human collectivities."
Dupuy notes that Mimetic Theory supports and complements this view:
MT is resolutely non-reductionist, as we shall once again verify in the next section of this paper. To what extent it can afford being eliminativist, that is to say, non-mentalist, is still an open question. What can be said with certainty is that MT falsifies a basic assumption of the desire-belief model; namely, that beliefs and desires, if we decide to maintain this terminology, preexist the action."
Dupuy next considers Mimetic Theory in the context of Evolutionary Theory and notes that many, including Frederick Hayek, long felt that the theory of "self-organizing systems" actually was an idea from Adam Smith and that these were both precursors to what we now see and know through the Fractal Lens as complexity theory:
"Among the Darwinians before Darwin whose thought had a powerful influence on the author of On the Origin of Species, Hayek singled out the Scottish Enlightenment in general and Adam Smith in particular. It was not the economist or the fledging discipline called political economy that had the major impact on Darwin's thinking. The book that interested him most was the treatise in moral philosophy that Adam Smith published in 1759—that is, exactly one hundred years before On the Origin of Species. This book was titled The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), and it preceded by 17 years the publication by the same author of the first work of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN).
It must be added that Smith always considered the former, TMS, a much superior work, where the key to the latter could be found. What did Darwin find so essential in TMS? He found something absolutely stunning: a remarkable discovery equal to the most fabulous accomplishments of the human mind. He found that it was possible to conceive of a complex order, of its genesis and evolution, without any recourse to the postulation of a designer, God or Man. Another member of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Ferguson, had used a memorable formula: “Social order is the result of human action but not of human design.” Darwin saw there how he could conceive of a natural order, capable of complexifying itself ever more, without having to posit that a demiurge, a grand clockmaker, or a grand architect planned or designed it according to His will. That discovery was overwhelming and had nothing to do with the economic frivolities that go today by the name of Social Darwinism and are the result of the brutal application of biological ideas to society: the market is the place where the weakest are eliminated and only the fittest survive, capitalism is synonymous with struggle for life, and the like.
Smith's account was a brilliant precursor of what would be called, in the second half of the twentieth century, theories of complex, self-organizing systems, autopoietic systems, or, in Hayek's terminology, spontaneous orders. It turns out that MT itself is a theory of self-organizing complex systems, no less than Darwinism and ET. The mechanisms that it analyzes are morphogenetic: they are capable of generating new forms. They are simple, but their simplicity brings about complexity."
Dupuy goes on to discuss how mimetic models neatly mirror the sort of models that are the stock and trade of modern complexity theory, in which a simple, recursive function working through a feedback loop -- much like Mandelbrot's fractal generating formulas or repeatedly drawing colored balls from an urn -- , can create systems of seemingly infinite complexities, but also often head in one particular direction or mathematical value, which is known in complexity theory as the "attractor".
As it relates to Mimetic Theory, "This self-reinforcing process is very much akin to the mimetic pattern that Girard calls “double mediation”: imitating a desire that is itself imitating one's own desire, as we have seen above. There is no original desire, and the object on which rival desires converge is the emerging production of the mechanism itself. (Think of two absent-minded professors going together to attend the same event. Neither of them knows the venue; each one believes the other knows. A trajectory emerges, endowed with some stability, from the fact that each partner follows in the other's footsteps.)"
And thus, Dupuy brings Mimetic Theory into view under the Fractal Lens as an archetypical example of a complex system:
"This scheme is consonant with an impressive series of scientific and mathematical discoveries made during the second half of the twentieth century that have completely changed the way in which we conceive the trajectory of a material system subject to purely causal physical laws. It is well known today that complex systems, made up of many elements interacting in nonlinear ways, possess remarkable properties—so-called emergent properties—that justify their description in terms that one should have thought had been forever banished from science in the wake of the Galilean-Newtonian revolution. Thus it is said of these systems that they are endowed with “autonomy,” that they are “self-organizing,” that their paths “tend” toward “attractors,” that they are “path-dependent,” that they have “intentionality” and “directionality”—as if their paths were guided by an end that gives meaning and direction to them even though it has not yet been reached; as if, to borrow Aristotelian categories, purely efficient causes were capable of producing effects that mimic the effects of a final cause."
Stated another way, human societies are an emergent property of natural mimetic desire, fed back through itself across the minds of the members of that society. In some instances, they spin out of control with escalations of violence that lead to breakdowns. But the ancient societies that "survived" in the Darwinian sense were those that gravitated toward a particular attractor, namely the Scapegoat Mechanism described on the Mimetic Lens page. From that page:
"The Scapegoat Mechanism. In Girard’s psychology, internal mediation and metaphysical desire eventually lead to rivalry and violence. Imitation eventually erases the differences among human beings, and inasmuch as people become similar to each other, they desire the same things, which leads to rivalries and a Hobbesian war of all against all. These rivalries soon bear the potential to threaten the very existence of communities. Thus, Girard asks: how is it possible for communities to overcome their internal strife?
Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence. When mimetic rivalries accumulate, tensions grow ever greater. But, that tension eventually reaches a paroxysm. When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
Girard calls this process ‘scapegoating’, an allusion to the ancient religious ritual where communal sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat, and this beast was eventually abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed to the gods (in the Hebrew Bible, this is especially prescribed in Leviticus 16).The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships."
As Dupuy puts it, bringing the scapegoat mechanism under the ambit of complexity theory:
An essential feature of MT, which unfortunately is overlooked or misunderstood by many who are exposed to it, is that all the accounts it provides are entirely causalist, as befits a scientific theory. And nevertheless, they are capable of explaining why human history, in spite of its fury and apparent madness, is not a tale told by an idiot, but displays features that evoke intentionality and directionality. The genesis of the scapegoating mechanism—to take up the figure that is at the core of Girard's anthropology of violence and the sacred, but also one about which radical misunderstandings abound—was not invented by humankind in order to keep its violence in check. It constitutes one possible attractor of the dynamics of violence.
Dupuy thus shows how complexity theory provides the mechanism to explain how Mimetic Theory works from a scientific perspective, which is consistent with all of the natural self-organizing systems that we see when we look through the Fractal Lens, from coastlines to carnivores.
But as one of my physics instructors at Caltech used to say, "How else could it be?"
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.