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Complex Systems, Brain and Consciousness  

Reading Group of the Doctoral School in Philosophy and Human Sciences



Complex Systems, Brain and Consciousness

Convener: Daria Vitasovic


Committed Students: Chiara-Camilla Derchi, Francesco Della Gatta



An a priori definition of complexity cannot be given, nor is it viable to propose one for the reason that every complex system differs in character and organization. Thus, the only possible course of action in understanding complex systems is by observing the characteristics those systems exhibit. However, some features have been deemed necessary (although not sufficient) for regarding a system complex as opposite to complicated or merely simple systems. A working definition of this sort describes a complex system as a composite organization of many interdependent parts that are displaying rich array of nonlinear interactions and/or adaptive relations that result in complex (‘emergent’) collective behavior.

In this sense, it is important to distinguish complex from complicated systems since complicated systems can and often do have many components and perform highly sophisticated operations. For example, the Large Hadron Collider is a complicated system; we can deconstruct it to its constituent parts and account for their function within a system. By doing so we are able to predict the systems behavior. On the other hand, a flock of birds is a complex system. Given the part’s properties, i.e. single bird, one cannot fully account for the properties of the whole, i.e. the flock, making those systems more than just the sum of their parts.

Complexity talk has become fashionable over the recent decade or so. Its applications are numerous. One of them is in the Cognitive Neuroscience research project. This is mostly done through the framework of complex dynamical systems which presents a radical shift of methodology. However, there are two problems emerging from this and, thus, two main aims of this reading group.

Firstly, the very concept of ‘complexity’ is complex. Can we talk about complexity as an umbrella term or are there only specific cases of complexity? Similarly, should this, and in what way, change the application of the theory itself to the particular systems? In addition, complex systems theory uses opaque concepts such as emergence that are heavily burden philosophically. Hence, the first order of business is to understand complex systems and, subsequently, examine them from a philosophical perspective.

On the other hand, theories like Integrated Information Theory (IIT) have recently emerged in this framework. These theories aim to account for phenomenology and capture the notion of consciousness. However, the main issue remains the same throughout the theories: the very application to “higher order” cognitive processes is questionable, since complex dynamical systems don’t necessarily account for ‘how things work’ or ‘why things happen’. Hence, our second aim is to examine some of these theories more closely.


Proposed Schedule

Part I. Introduction - What is a Complex System? (1 meetings, 2 readings)

  1. 1. One classical introduction paper (Weaver W. (1948). ‘Science and Complexity’, in: American Scientist, 36, p. 536-544.)

One contemporary introduction paper (Ladyman et al. (2013). ‘What is a Complex     System’, in: European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 3(1), p. 33-67.) 

Part II. Understanding Complex Systems (5 meetings)

Basic introductory readings are chapters from:

Mitchell M. (2009). Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford: OUP.

Bar-Yam Y. (1997). Dynamics of Complex Systems. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

  1. 2.      Topic:Hierarchical Organization and Causation

Keywords: Downward causation, layer cake model, interactions within and between sublevels, decomposition.

Reading: Simon H.A. (1962). ‘The Architecture of Complexity’, in: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106 (6), p. 467-482.

  1. 3.      Topic:Dynamics and Feedback

Keywords: Non-linearity, feedback loops, robustness and perturbation, chaos.

Reading: Mitchell, ch. 2, p. 15-39.; Heylighen, F. (2001). ‘The science of self-organization and adaptivity’. The encyclopedia of life support systems 5.3, p. 253-280.

  1. 4.      Topic:Adaptation

Keywords: Evolution, systems biology, dynamic, open systems.

Reading: Mitchell, ch. 18, p. 273-288. (Optional reading for historical introduction: Mitchell, ch. 5); Kauffmann S. (1990). ‘The Sciences of Complexity and "Origins of Order"’ in: PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2, p. 299-322.   

  1. 5.      Topic:Information processing

Keywords: Information, computation, pattern, central controller. 

Reading: Bar-Yam, ch. 0.5.2. p. 12-14; Mitchell, ch. 12, p. 169 – 185; Tononi et al. (1998). ‘Complexity and coherency: integrating information in the brain’. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2 (12), p. 474-484. Optional reading for historical introduction: Mitchell, ch. 3 & 4.  

  1. 6.      Topic:Emergence

Keywords: Micro and macro level, causation, property, anti-reductionism.

Reading: Goldstein J. (1999). ‘Emergence as a Construct: History and Issues’

Emergence: Complexity and Organization 1 (1), p. 49-72; Hoel et al. (2013). ‘Quantifying causal emergence shows that macro can beat micro’. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (49), p. 19790-19795.

Part III: Complex Systems in Mind and Brain Sciences (4 meetings)

  1. 7.      Topic:Dynamical Systems Hypothesis

Reading: Thompson E. and Varela F. J., (2001). ‘Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness’, in: Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5 (10), p. 418-425.

  1. 8.      Topic:Neural Networks

Reading: Bar-Yam, ch. 2.1., p. 296-300.; Sporns et al. (2004). ‘Organization, development and function of complex brain networks’, in: Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8, p. 418-425.

  1. 9.      Topic: IIT : Integrated Information Theory

Reading: Oizumi M., Albantakis L., Tononi G., (2014). ‘From the Phenomenology to the Mechanisms of Consciousness: Integrated Information Theory 3.0’, in: PLoS Comput Biology 10(5)), p.

  1. 10.  Topic:IIT : Integrated Information Theory

We will have a Skype session with Garrett Mindt, a PhD student at Central European University who is working on IIT as his PhD project. Garrett will present some of his work and philosophical worries with IIT.

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