books:catataxis

# Catataxis

When More of the Same Is Different
John Brodie Donald

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This book is a highly readable synthesis based on a well-informed worldview. Level Confusion is at the heart of many intractable questions such as the existence of free will and the nature of morality, and the author argues with some success that more worldly matters such as overfishing and the interactions between nation states and corporate multinationals can also be understood from this perspective.

The concept of level confusion, which the author has named “Catataxis” is an important one, and one that is indeed intertwined with emergence (more is different.) While there are numerous books about emergence, I don't know of any other book about level confusion.

I read the book in one sitting, and found it quite entertaining. I found the principle that “still waters run deep” to be thought provoking. In a financial market or a bureaucracy, the apparent stability is a consequence of countless competing decisions by individuals that nearly cancel out, while market bubbles and crashes or groupthink organizational blunders are the consequence of a peculiar state of agreement. This is somewhat paradoxical, in that you'd suppose that the quasi-equilibrium of markets and bureaucracies in normal times would be caused by a consensus that “we're on the right track”, rather than a failure to agree on which direction to stampede in.

In its organization and style, this book is rather like The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It's a somewhat quirky romp through the mind of someone who from reading and life experience has come to a very interesting way of seeing the world. It would have been nice if there could have be a clearer intellectual construction proceeding from observations through analysis and on to conclusions. As it is, I had a feeling I'd been in a long fascinating conversation, but wasn't entirely clear on what I had learned. Yet to expect a neat wrap-up and disposal of the problem of level confusion would be too much to ask, considering that philosophers have worked some of the same ground and produced the concept of supervenience, which is simultaneously trivial and dauntingly technical.

I also recommend the author's website, especially the what is catataxis page, which seems to have some content that wasn't directly expressed in the book, notably the “Five maxims of catataxis”.