Movement and Thought: A Bestiary


A story at i09 a few days ago was about what’s called the centipede’s dilemma also known as the problem of hyper-reflection. The problem comes from a nursery rhyme written in 1871 in which a centipede, following a questioning toad, thinks too much about how it moves all its legs and then forgets how to move at all. Several decades after the rhyme was initially written the British psychologist George Humphrey popularized the phrase ‘the centipede’s dilemma’ and it is also became known as Humphrey’s Law. The dilemma is a low-level or perhaps more physiological version of analysis paralysis, the problem of over-analyzing to the detriment of decision (Hamlet being the privileged example here). To add to the pantheon of animal dilemmas one can also think of Buridan’s Ass or Aesop’s The Fox and the Cat.

Several other versions of the rhyme have appeared over the years some of which replace the toad with the spider (that great animal of cunning) who manipulates the centipede into thinking too much and tripping over itself. A verse of the rhyme appeared in an article by E. Ray Lankester a British zoologist (one of the two scientists present at Karl Marx’s funeral) who discussing the photography of Eadweard Muybridge wondering what it would be like to apply it to the centipede suggesting, albeit playfulling, that it might cause disastrous results.

Over thinking the complexity of movement was part of Lankester’s larger project most notably discussed in his text Degeneration, when he explained that one efficient strategy of Darwinian evolution was to simplify in order to take the most from one’s environment. Lankester discussed parasites as the most obvious example of this.

(An Interesting political aside: Marx saw in Lankester’s concept of degeneration a political weapon against the political connections made between Darwin and Malthus which, of course, were largely a result of Marx’s over-reliance on Malthus’ work in The Origin of Species though in a statistical, and not overly political, mode. Furthermore, to bring things round again to the centipede, a version of the story was written by Gustav Meyrink as The Curse of the Toad…Meyerink being the author of The Golem, a favorite metaphor of Hardt and Negri).

Degeneration and the centipede’s dilemma, suggests collective action (whether at the level of a singular entities’ limbs or a group of swarming insects, or a political collective etc.) while at the same time being a cautionary tale of over thinking. It also praises hive mentality warning against (what can easily be seen as) anything resembling independent thought, thereby combining the supposed virtues and fears of communism or any kind of collective action. Or, to put it another way and bring things to philosophy, there is the extreme inaction of Hamlet envious at the marching of Fortinbrass on the one hand, and the justified paranoia of Caesar looking at Cassius: “He thinks too much, such men are dangerous.”

Pointing back to my last post, it is a question of cunning in relation to simplicty and complexity or, following Berthoz, a question of simplexity – of how living organisms impose rules, as a kind of experiment, in order to simplify the world. Or as Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart put it simplexity is the process whereby a system of rules engender simple features, the emergence of large scale simplicities. This should be thought in conjunction with the exportation of entropy as a fundamental behavior which leads to intelligence that is then accelerated by intelligence. A recent paper by the physicist Alex Wissner-Gross (and discussed here) suggests that instead of worrying about intelligence leading to a cyber-dyne Terminator style take over, that intelligence is the result of a form of life trying to take over the world through a maximization of its degrees of freedom. Or, one could take this as in the spirit of the opening line of Maimon’s Essay on Transcendental Philosophy: if to exist is to persist in one’s being that to be a thinking being means to increase one’s thinking.

One question which arises is: how does one unground and then properly formulate the difference between intellectual and embodied manipulation of others and of oneself? Or what’s the means of understanding the unintentional and the intentional forms of entropic exportation from the swamp in which they are mixed together? These forms become harder and harder to separate over evolutionary time. Tool making becomes an obvious way of exporting and simplying physical labor, followed by chemical practices such as cooking whereby the costly process of digestion is essentially relocated to the camp fire and the pot etc. Of course unconscious behaviors allow us degrees of freedom which we would not recognize till long after the fact. The dogged pursuit that early humans practiced to run their pray to the point of exhaustion, came about due to our bi-pedal nature (which restricted our speed)  that was counterbalanced (however oddly and indrirectly) by our ability to sweat thereby allowing us to heat-regulate on the move better than most.

The real complex knot is how exactly unintentional and intentional manipulations cross, mutate, and breed with known and unknown constraints. Furthermore, manipulations of course create (intentionally and unintentionally) constraints in turn. To either eschew all constraint or to claim (crypto-conservatively) that some core of human existence or being resists constraint. Furthermore, emergences and generations must be de-philosophized and reassesed in terms of physicalism and pragmatism. Local intensifications can speak for the overly romantic ontological capacities still heavily relied upon – immanence and transcendence should become means of describing and translating their philosophical histories into non-philosophical terms. Immanence becomes local manifestations whereas transcendence becomes symmetry breaking generates which generate new grounds, new rule sets. They are descriptive regimes of movement insofar as thought can capture them.

The problem with philosophy, as Laruelle has aptly pointed out, is that it can think about itself endlessly without ever tripping.


2 Responses to “Movement and Thought: A Bestiary”

  1. 1 jimrhiz

    To focus on only one thread of your interesting post, would you please be able to elaborate on what you mean by “the exportation of entropy”?

    Wissner-Gross’s work seems to me important for understanding intelligence, and the development of complexity more generally. But I’m having difficulty reconciling an intelligent goal of maximising the production of entropy with the impression that greater entropy entails more disorder, rather than the complex order that intelligence might be hoped to engender.

    • 2 Ben Woodard

      Thanks for your comment-

      There’s is some degree of perspective involved in that the importing of order (or negentropy) can be viewed as the exporting of disorder. The latter makes more sense to me as the creation of order is something attributed to life in an abstract sense, whereas the exporting of disorder speaks to the underlying physical constraints on life in that life is not a total rupture in the physical but a kind of high risk investment or acceleration of physical constraints. This is why Francis Bailly and Giuseppe Longo talk about anti-entropy instead of negentropy because it’s just a spreading out or relocation of disorder instead of some form of creation which is not exactly understood. So life is something like short term stability which creates more chaos (most forms of life fail) in the long term.

      I suppose the central issue is when any form of life exports work to the environment…is this order or just a different form of disorder? In the short view it seems like order but that order then invites new forms of disorder. A bird’s nest might seem like order up till the eggs hatch…

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