Notes on the Ecology of Knowledge

In a recent post, Tom Bertonneau sketched an ecology of knowledge – which I suggested should be called an ecognology – focusing mostly on the social aspects of that ecology. He began with a discussion of homeostasis, which formed the prompt for the following contribution to the ecognological project, which focuses more on its mental and physiological aspects.  

Minds homeostatically seek understanding of their ontological and practical predicaments; when they are disturbed, it is on account of factors of experience that they had not yet quite properly reckoned. They seek clarification of the turbidity that prevents their clear apprehension of things. In short, they seek knowledge. Attaining enough of it – for the time being – they rest – for a while.

In the limit, this search for understanding can attain complete rest only at the comprehension of Truth. While that rest is not something that our finite minds are themselves capable to achieve, we cannot but work at it, so long as we live. We arrive now and then at points of particularly sweet and refreshing rest; then we are disturbed, and the search begins again. All such searches have the Truth as their final end. Truth is the final end of minds, just as a full outermost shell of electrons is a final end of atoms.

Truth is in fact the strange attractor of acts in general, of all sorts of beings. Truth is the archetypal Form of strange attraction; it is that to which all acts, of whatever sort, are attracted, even when they err in their intensions; it is the basic ontological attractor, of which all other attractions partake, and on which they supervene.

So is Truth the superordinate epistemological strange attractor, for all the acts of the human mind and its brain. Beauty is what it feels like to comprehend and implement, enact, or embody Truth. Beauty is what Truth feels like. Goodness is the character of actual conformity of the understanding, and of the rational will, and so of life as lived – i.e., of the whole intellectual, cognitive, physiological and social system – to the Truth. Goodness, that is to say, is the value of Wisdom.


Consider a propositional system consisting of only two propositions, each predicating a value of a subject A along one of two dimensions, x and z. Rather obviously, the various conjoint values of x and z for A will specify a two-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system, each point of which will pick out the conjunction of two different propositions – e.g., “A is 5x and 3z,” or, “if A is 7x, it is 2z.” Each such point is a theory about A. A is the real that a given point in the coordinate system more or less accurately describes.

Now obviously, a propositional coordinate system can have any number of dimensions; the more dimensions, the more propositions in the system. The number of dimensions in the system will rise with the complexity of A. But to make visualization easier, we’ll stick with only two propositional dimensions for now.

We will however add a third dimension, along the y axis: truth value. If a proposition is true, its truth value is one; if false, it is negative one; if neither true nor false, its value is zero (as would be the case for propositions that are “not even wrong”). At any point in a system of two propositional dimensions, then, y can take only five values: -2, -1, 0, 1, or 2.

In labeling the three dimensions of our coordinate system, I have so far cleaved to the convention of using x and z for the horizontal dimensions, and y for the vertical. I depart from convention now in asking the reader to take the portion of the y axis that lies above the plane defined by x and z to be negative, rather than positive, and the portion that lies below it to be positive. If we now scribe a surface specified at every point by the values of x, y, and z, what we will get is an undulating surface, mostly flat, but dimpled or pimpled here or there. The dimples, or valleys, as the case may be, represent regions of the membrane where one at least of the two propositions is true. The pimples represent regions where one of them at least is false.

Dimples are nicer than pimples.

Now the interesting thing about this landscape is that almost all of it will represent the wintery uplands of complete falsehood, where both values of x and z are false, so that y equals -2. Almost never will neither x nor z be neither true nor false. Indeed, for most propositional systems that are not prima facie absurd in their very terms, there will be no points in the system with a truth value of 0 or -1. In a relatively few places, there will be points, or lines, where y = 1. In only one place will y be 2. That will be the one point in the whole system that accurately points at A: call it A’. We could equivalently say that only A’ maps to A, or vice versa; or, that only A’ fits A, or that only A’ is proper to A.

The landscape so far described is called a fitness landscape. A mind seeking to understand A is going to roam across the landscape until it finds a valley or, better, the one well sinking down to the whole truth about A, and there it will rest at A’.

A’ is called a strange attractor. The coordinate propositional system is sometimes called a solution space, to indicate that it represents the whole set of solutions to the problem of understanding A. But it can also be called a configuration space, because A’ picks out the specification of the configuration of the real properties of A, along with all the other conceivable configurations of those properties. We could also call it a possibility space, because it specifies the range of possible configurations of A.

Bearing all this in mind, let us now consider a landscape with thousands of dimensions, representing a system of thousands of propositions. Each point in this unimaginable volume represents a complex theory about A. Collapse them now into just two compound multivariate propositions, each quite long: e.g., “A is b & c & d & e …” and “A is u & v & x & w …” Now you’ve got an easily imagined two-dimensional system again, with the difference that y can take on many different values, so that the relief of the landscape is often quite steep, and can vary considerably. The landscape is now punctured by tremendously deep vortices of truth, but although many of them might reach down quite close to the ground of truth in actual fact, still only one of them maps exactly to A, and only there at A’ does the landscape fit itself exactly to A.

The bottom of the well of the strange attractor of Truth is Peirce’s terminus ad quem of science. Only there can the questing mind come completely to rest.

Why should this be? Why should A’ be attractive to the mind? Why in the first place do we try to understand things?

The strange attraction of Truth is not merely subjectively felt. It is objective (it is actually there to be felt, rather than interpolated), because a brain that believes only truths is going to be more efficient in its use of neural resources, and more successful in its operations, than a brain that is saddled with all sorts of falsehoods, that each require lots of unprincipled exceptions if things are going to keep working at all. Like a society governed by true laws, the true mind will need fewer policies and control systems to get along, and these will be simpler and more effective, so that the brain will not need to devote as much RAM to the administration of quotidian life. Memory will improve, accuracy will improve, and all sorts of physiological state variables will improve: blood pressure, heart rate, nightly REM, etc. The true brain will have a lot more time in the day than the brain saddled with falsehoods, even as it gets more done, and more important stuff done. Its family and work life will be better; it is likely to be wealthier, by the measures of wealth that matter most.

An increase in the efficiency of neural operations is an increase in thermodynamic efficiency – in the work that the brain can accomplish per calorie of food. It is a reduction in net anxiety, and releases neural resources for productive work or enjoyment that had formerly been allocated to the wasteful, noisy task of managing contradictions and administering unprincipled exceptions and lies.

And the increase in thermodynamic efficiency of the brain works out as an increase in the thermodynamic efficiency of a life. It translates into better health and vigor, and into greater social power.

So the strange attraction we feel toward truth is an instance of the strange attraction of the cosmos toward thermodynamic efficiency, toward the least path.

Some theories feel elegant, and are parsimonious; the elegant feel of theoretical parsimony is an inditium of truth. But, NB, it is a consequent, rather than an antecedent; the spoor of the quarry, rather than the quarry itself. In other words, not all elegant parsimonious theories are true; but all true theories are elegant and parsimonious.

They are likewise powerful, and adequate. True theories explain phenomena that had not been under investigation, resolve problems that had not been thought connected to the domain of inquiry that gave them rise (or even yet detected), and reveal hitherto unsuspected connections between such domains. They are, in a word, supererogatory; they deliver more than had been asked for in the specification of the criteria for the successful propositional system established at the outset of a research project, or search routine, or process of deliberation.

Yet such supererogatory power and adequacy too are spoor, rather than quarry: all true theories are supererogatory, but not all supererogatory theories are true.

A propositional fitness landscape can be dimpled in lots of places by theories that are mostly true, and that therefore work pretty well, but that are somehow false, so that in the final analysis, or when push comes finally to shove, they fail catastrophically, as having fatally misguided policy. These wells of attraction are hard to get out of. Liberalism is one such well. So are the too simple or overdetermined reductive theories, like materialism, nihilism, Marxism, gnosticism, libertarianism, neo-Darwinism, scientism, etc., that arrive in the mind with blinding brilliance and power, seeming to explain everything by recourse to just a few factors, and to offer a coherent and hearty way forward.

People get addicted to the hedonic rush that these not-quite-true theories provide, and they are very loath to surrender them. Indeed, they will defend them tooth and nail. And this zealous defense of hard won understandings is not at all inappropriate. To climb out of a deep and comfortable well in the fitness landscape and begin again the laborious journey across its barren pitiless uplands toward an unknown destination that will reform the mind in new and uncomfortable ways is terrifically expensive. It can involve completely overturning a mind, and with it all its arduously assembled social, economic, physical and indeed physiological habiliments and habitations. It should be undertaken only for the most urgent and compelling reasons.

But for the mind stuck in a deep well of attraction that is yet not quite deep enough, those reasons will sooner or later arise. What addicts experience as “hitting bottom” is the crisis of arriving at the bottom of a false well of attraction and encountering the painful, radical error at the heart of it, that reveals the falsehood of its basic suppositions that have steered behaviour disastrously wrong. Only at that crash can the addict to error understand the urgent necessity of climbing up, out, and away from his former cherished notions. The same thing can happen to a scientist as he gnaws bootlessly at a flaw or lacuna in the Standard Model, or to investors buying track record generated by yesterday’s natural economic history, or to a liberal “mugged by reality,” or to generals fighting the last war. Only the most nimble and powerful minds are able to negotiate radical paradigmatic revolutions with equanimity, and only creative genius of the highest order can manage it with élan. Everyone else hates them, or ought to.

Rightly so. Most men are ill equipped to juggle cosmogonies, and work out their implications for quotidian life. Such juggling fills them with an appropriate anxiety, indeed with terror, so that they bungle their juggle, and things fall apart for them and theirs. The genius is not perhaps so subject to anxiety at the prospect of radically new ideas, but that does not mean he is any safer than his less intelligent, more fearful brethren. Indeed, rather the contrary is true, for his self-confidence can mislead him into hidden dangers that his less adventuresome fellows would never have dared, or so encountered.

This is yet one more reason that tradition is rightly so highly to be valued: as specifying a theory that has long worked to overwhelmingly prevalent success – reproductive, economic, military, and so forth – tradition represents epistemological, moral and practical safety, and preponderant success.

Epistemology is just the logic of ontology as carried into the practice of becoming. The problem of what to do next – of what it is best to become, to implement ontically – is an epistemic problem.

Now we can see why Truth is a strange attractor to creatures in all their acts – particularly to rational creatures like men and angels – and why disagreement with Truth is for them so dreadfully painful and abhorrent, and destructive; for, only in Truth can they quite fully live, move, or have their being. Only the Truth can be Beautiful, and only the Beautiful Good.


A supererogatory tangent of the foregoing, and a sign (not a demonstration) of its Truth: I have elsewhere compared the Trinity to a three-dimensional volume. The volume as a whole cannot appear at all unless all three of its dimensions are positively present, so that each presupposes and entails the other two. None of the dimensions are coterminous with the volume; yet each of them terminates upon the same volume, and describes the whole of it; so that all three of these descriptions are implicit in each of them. None of the axes or circumferences of the volume can be scribed except by means of an explicit scription of all of them; for, each dimension specific to a volume can itself be fully described only by recourse to a description of all the dimensions of that volume.

The Father is the Good. The Son is the knowledge of the Father, which is to say that the Son is the Truth. The Holy Spirit is what the Truth of the Good feels like: Beauty. And the Father is the Good of Beauty, the value, power, and Glory of Beauty.

Yet in any one of these Three are we given all of them. There is pervasive circumincession among them, so that because they are all Three given at once from all eternity, and by mutual implication, so is each of the Three Beautiful, Good, and True.

The mind that rests at the terminus ad quem of the strange attractor of Truth, as having by that rest in the knowledge of Truth having throughly informed itself thereby and so conformed itself thereto, feels the Beauty of Truth as Good. It feels itself participant in Truth, Beauty, and the Good – in the life of the Trinity. It feels that life manifest in its own. Such is adoption as a Son of God; such is clothing with the Resurrection Body of the angels; such is theosis, the fulfillment and maximum of creaturely being..

16 thoughts on “Notes on the Ecology of Knowledge

  1. Pingback: Notes on the Ecology of Knowledge | Neoreactive

  2. A’ is called a strange attractor.

    Why? Does A’ has a fractal i.e. non-integral dimension?

    I mean are you using the term “strange attractor” in its techincal sense? Otherwise the term has no meaning whatsoever.

    • Good question. I mean to use the term in its technical sense because as I have approached A’ in respect to some A it has seemed fractal. Self-similarity at different scales often seems to be a feature of A’. And iterated valid logical operations on veridical data or well-defined terms seem to “push” the rational procedure toward A’, from many different starting points. So A’ at least *behaves* fractally.

      I actually have a hunch that finality as such is fractal, but it’s only a hunch so far.

  3. Pingback: Notes on the Ecology of Knowledge | Reaction Times

  4. Truth, in other words, is teleological – is that right? It “pulls from the future” rather than “pushing from the past.”

    • Yes. Or rather, more precisely, becoming is teleological, and Truth is its telos. Becoming is motivated by the urge to get to A’ – i.e., face to face with A. It is that urge which is the “oomph” of efficient causation, that pushes us. We are indeed pushed, but only toward a telos: all pushing is directed, aimed; so there is no urge arising from the past to effect becoming without that telos in its future to aim it.

  5. Kristor,
    I recommend “Means to Message” by Stanley Jaki. It is not possible to reduce reality, the things that constitute reality, to sets of propositions. You seem to be making a scientistic type of fallacy.


    “because a brain that believes only truths is going to be more efficient in its use of neural resources, and more successful in its operations, than a brain that is saddled with all sorts of falsehoods, that each require lots of unprincipled exceptions if things are going to keep working at all.”

    Brains do not have beliefs. Minds do. Minds use brains to do certain computations just as they may use electronic calculators. A calculator is unaffacted by whether the calculations it is performing correspond to some sensible program or nonsense.

    You are equivocating on “strange” : starting from a technical usage, you move to ordinary meaning:

    “So the strange attraction we feel toward truth is an instance of the strange attraction of the cosmos toward thermodynamic efficiency, toward the least path. ”

    Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to mix physics and philosophy.

    • Thanks, Vishmehr; for, while they are off base, these are welcome and useful criticisms, because in responding to them I can elaborate on some of the discussion in the post.

      It is not possible to reduce reality … to sets of propositions.

      I didn’t. You weren’t reading carefully enough, it appears. Indeed, you misconstrue the fundamental argument of the post. The post didn’t say that reality is nothing but propositions, or anything of the sort. Indeed, it didn’t engage in reduction at all. The post was about the *correspondence* of a set of propositions to reality.

      Brains do not have beliefs. Minds do.

      I take brain states to be the corporeal implementations – the fossils, as it were, or relics, or products – of mental activity; as I take all corporeal facts to be the products of acts of becoming. Brains then believe in rather the way that rocks weigh.

      You are equivocating on “strange”: starting from a technical usage, you move to ordinary meaning …

      Actually I mean to do the reverse. It seems likely to me that all “ordinary” attractions are quite strange. Indeed, I devote the whole fourth paragraph of the post to that notion. And one of the basic arguments of chaos theory is that its discoveries have application to all sorts of things that we don’t think of as strange – clouds, markets, the immune system, and so forth – and indeed, perhaps to every sort of thing.

      • Your point, if I understand correctly, is
        “The strange attraction of Truth is not merely subjectively felt. It is objective because a brain that believes only truths is going to be more efficient in its use of neural resources, ”

        This is a reduction of metaphysics to physics–it is a wonder that you do not see scientism in play here. Any statement begining “brain believes” is likely to end in mischief. Brains have nothing to do with beliefs. We do not know even roughly relations between brain state and mental activity.

        And beliefs can not be reduced as filling a propositional space. This is again a kind of positivism of the sort that the meaning of a sentance is obtained by summing over its constitutent words.

      • Vishmehr, you keep whacking away at things I did not say. To say that mental acts have consequences in states of the nervous system is just not the same thing as to say that such acts are nothing but such states. That’s just the sort of simplistic conflation of categories to which materialists are so prone. I.e., it is a category error. You should take more care to avoid it.

        Brains have *absolutely nothing* to do with beliefs …

        That’s an extremely strong assertion – indeed, an incredible assertion – and you give no reason why we should agree with it. I don’t agree with it. It seems obviously false – like suggesting that hands have nothing to do with manipulation.

        … beliefs can not be reduced as filling a propositional space.

        Again, I engaged in no such reduction. I did not say that beliefs fill a proposition space. I said only that propositions do. A proposition is not the same thing as a belief in that proposition. To suggest otherwise is to fall prey to yet another sloppy conflation of quite distinct categories.

        Criticism is all very well, but if you want it to gain any traction – if you want it to be even apposite – it behooves you to be more careful as you go, making sure that you are criticizing arguments that have actually been made.

  6. Vishmehr: Kristor’s exposition is not a reductio. It is articulated around the concept of free will, which includes the phenomenon of perversity. The concept of free will is essential to every non-materially-reductive anthropology, including Christian anthropology. Truth attracts by persuasion, not coercion; to be persuaded is to consent. A magnet attracts a hat-pin by coercion; the hat-pin has no choice so that there is no such thing as a perverse, or a convinced, hat-pin.

      • So, dynamics of brain states towards the energy minimum is an example of free will in action?


        With nominalism, the Cartesian notion that matter is dead, utterly mindless, pointless, motiveless, and completely determined in its motions, is at the root of the modernism that has more and more infested the West, confusing philosophy and so confounding morals.

        The coercion that Tom notices in the hat pin is I would argue more accurately described as a persuasion so overwhelmingly compelling that it cannot in practice be gainsaid other than by a descent into insanity, which is a species of substantive nonbeing. Our minds are subject to that sort of persuasion when we encounter a truth of mathematics or logic. Such truths are so compelling that we cannot but agree with them, even though we are free to believe their contraries (as indeed some people do, before they learn to understand them properly).


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