Mechanisms in dynamically complex systems

Meinard Kuhlmann

in Causality in the Sciences

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199574131
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191728921 | DOI:
Mechanisms in dynamically complex systems

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In recent debates mechanisms are often discussed in the context of ‘complex systems’ which are understood as having a complicated compositional structure. The chapter wants to draw attention to another, radically different kind of complex system, in fact one that many scientists regard as the only genuine kind of complex system. Instead of being compositionally complex these systems rather exhibit highly non‐trivial dynamical patterns on the basis of structurally simple arrangements of large numbers of nonlinearly interacting constituents. The characteristic dynamical patterns in what this chapter calls ‘dynamically complex systems’ arise from the interaction of the system's parts largely irrespective of many properties of these parts. Dynamically complex systems can exhibit surprising statistical characteristics, the robustness of which calls for an explanation in terms of underlying generating mechanisms. However, the chapter aims to argue, dynamically complex systems are not sufficiently covered by the available conceptions of mechanisms. The chapter explores how the notion of a mechanism has to be modified to accommodate this case. Moreover, the chapter shows under which conditions the widespread, if not inflationary talk about mechanisms in (dynamically) complex systems stretches the notion of mechanisms beyond its reasonable limits and is no longer legitimate.

Keywords: mechanisms; complex systems; dynamics; non-linear interaction; (statistical) self-similarity; robustness; econophysics; congestive heart failure

Chapter.  11162 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Logic

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