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Modularity, antimodularity and explanation in complex systems

Abstract : This work is mainly concerned with the notion of hierarchical modularity and its use in explaining structure and dynamical behavior of complex systems by means of hierarchical modular models, as well as with a concept of my proposal, antimodularity, tied to the possibility of the algorithmic detection of hierarchical modularity. Specifically, I highlight the pragmatic bearing of hierarchical modularity on the possibility of scientific explanation of complex systems, that is, systems which, according to a chosen basic description, can be considered as composed of elementary, discrete, interrelated parts. I stress that hierarchical modularity is also required by the experimentation aimed to discover the structure of such systems. Algorithmic detection of hierarchical modularity turns out to be a task plagued by the demonstrated computational intractability of the search for the best hierarchical modular description, and by the high computational expensiveness of even approximated detection methods. Antimodularity consists in the lack of a modular description fitting the needs of the observer, a lack due either to absence of modularity in the system’s chosen basic description, or to the impossibility, due to the excessive size of the system under assessment in relation to the computational cost of algorithmic methods, to algorithmically produce a valid hierarchical description. I stress that modularity and antimodularity depend on the pragmatic choice of a given basic description of the system, a choice made by the observer based on explanatory goals. I show how antimodularity hinders the possibility of applying at least three well-known types of explanation: mechanistic, deductive-nomological and computational. A fourth type, topological explanation, remains unaffected. I then assess the presence of modularity in biological systems, and evaluate the possible consequences, and the likelihood, of incurring in antimodularity in biology and other sciences, concluding that this eventuality is quite likely, at least in systems biology. I finally indulge in some metaphysical and historical speculations: metaphysically, antimodularity seems to suggest a possible position according to which natural kinds are detected modules, and as such, due to the computational hardness of the detection of the best hierarchical modular description, they are unlikely to be the best possible way to describe the world, because the modularity of natural kinds quite probably does not reflect the best possible modularity of the world. From an historical point of view, the growing use of computational methods for modularity detection or simulation of complex systems, especially in certain areas of scientific research, hints at the envisioning of a multiplicity of emerging scientific disciplines guided by a self- sustained, growing production of possibly human-unintelligible explanations. This, I suggest, would constitute an historical change in science, which, if has not already occurred, could well be on the verge of happening.
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Luca Rivelli. Modularity, antimodularity and explanation in complex systems. Philosophy. Université Panthéon-Sorbonne - Paris I, 2015. English. ⟨NNT : 2015PA010529⟩. ⟨tel-01793458⟩

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