Philosophy and Simulation Hardcover – 20 Jan 2011
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The topic of this clearly written and well-documented text is the philosophical concept of emergence... Imaginative defences of philosophical realism are certainly to be applauded, and given the critical role that mathematical modelling occupies in both scientific and technical practices today, questioning computer simulation is undoubtedly important. Philosophy and Simulation does an interesting job of the former via the latter. --Radical Philosophy
About the Author
Manuel DeLanda is a distinguished writer, artist and philosopher. He began his career in experimental film, later becoming a computer artist and programmer. He is now Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. He is the author of the bestselling books War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, as well as A New Philosophy of Society and Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, also published by Continuum.
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That all said, this isn’t quite your typical work of popular science, if indeed it could be called that at all. While pretty much avoiding any reference to the math behind it all, DeLanda writes at a level barely one step removed from invoking it, which is to say that the writing here is both concise and complex, if nonetheless ultimately accessible to the motivated layman. Indeed, as the title gives away, and as anyone who has followed DeLanda’s intellectual trajectory to date would know, Philosophy and Simulation is unquestionably a book of - what else? - philosophy. As such, while the work remains entirely able to stand on its own merits, its true brilliance lies in the way serves to flesh out the Deleuzian inspired ontology that DeLanda has been developing across his works for a while now.
What then, of this ontology? Well, following the contours of DeLanda’s naturalised, scientifically informed Deleuze (who here barely rates a mention save for the appendix), things come to be as they through a dual process involving both (1) ‘mechanisms of emergence’ on the one hand, and (2) 'mechanism-independent' components on the other. While each chapter here more or less explains and demonstrates how a particular ‘mechanism of emergence’ functions (be it that of the learning capacity of animals, or the formation of life out of the ‘prebiotic soup’), the true virtue of simulation, for DeLanda, lies in its ability to illuminate the functioning of the second prong of individuation: mechanism-independent singularities which structure the space of possibilities by which things come to be.
That last sentence will no doubt be a bit of a garble to anyone unversed in the systems science lingo employed by DeLanda, but the basic idea is that these mechanism independent components serve to explain how it is that different systems, composed of vastly different material components (in this case, 'natural' systems and artificially simulated ones), can nonetheless manifest very similar, if not identical behaviour. It’s only by admitting the reality of these mechanism-independent structures that we can explain, in other words, the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’. Thus it is that the real protagonists of Philosophy and Simulation are modelling systems like genetic algorithms, neural nets and artificial chemistries, all of which are detailed by DeLanda in exquisite fashion.
Like much of DeLanda’s works, detail adorns the pages here in abundance, with DeLanda parsing the nitty gritty of his subject matter in a manner both exhausting and captivating. So much so in fact, that it’s easy to lose sight of larger picture while grappling with the flood of information discharged herein. DeLanda also has a tendency to 'argue by illustration’, as it were, letting his scientific vignettes do the philosophical work for him, while leaving some of the finer points of argument unilluminated. For instance, despite all the work of exemplification, the central concept of the book, emergence, felt surprisingly under-developed at the conceptual level. Still, whatever one makes of DeLanda’s carefully constructed worldview, Philosophy and Simulation remains a profoundly impressive work of scientifically literate philosophy.
But Manuel DeLanda has been living on this island for a very long time. He's been busy excavating the conceptual soil underlying the sciences of complexity, and he's made some intensely interesting discoveries. Where other thinkers' best efforts have foundered at the threshold of mysticism, DeLanda has hewn relentlessly to scientific materialism and, in so doing, has found objective patterns and significance in the logic of the complex.
But don't expect it to come easy. The reason for DeLanda's success is his aggressively ecclectic outlook, and it may be a bit difficult to see through his goggles. He's a continental philosopher who writes about science, and a dogmatic materialist who thinks like a medieval scholastic theologian. One can't help but feel that this book is the fruit of his different way of thinking. The back blurb describes this book as a new "Organon" (echoing Aristotle and Bacon). I can't put it any better. This is, quite simply, "what's going on" behind complexity/chaos/emergence. Sadly, the concepts can't be summarized for purposes of a book review, but it's breathtaking.
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