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On Subsystems and Selves

Simple diagram of The Application of Object-Oriented Design Techniques to the Evolution of the Architecture of a Large Legacy Software SystemIn a later post I'll tell you about the subsystems in the game Puzzle Strike, but first I thought we could discuss subsystems in general. Disclaimer: this post is intentionally labyrinthine because that's how thinking about things works.

Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander wrote the book on subsystems back in 1964 and it's still very much worth reading. He explained that sometimes a system is made up of a web of deeply interconnected relationships, or in other words: a mess. If changing any part of a system means you disrupt everything else, it's very hard to tinker with and improve without ruining something. On the other hand, it's easier to deal with a system when its made up of subsystems that (though they might themselves have interwoven webs of connections) do not have many connections among each other. This way, if you tinker with subsystem A, you probably won't ruin subsystem B by doing so.

Computer programmers are well aware of this concept. The Model-View-Controller architecture is one example in that it separates 1) the stuff the user interacts with, 2) the stuff the going on behind the scenes, and 3) the stuff the user sees. If you need to rewrite the stuff the user sees, this hopefully has little effect on the other two subsystems.

Another point Alexander brings up is that when we encounter some system, we naturally try to view it as a collection of subsytems, but the way we choose to carve things up can be based on our personal biases. In fact, it can even be determined by the language we speak. The set of all possible subsets of a system is usually so large that it far exceeds the number of words in our language. If our language happens to have a word that describes something, we're more likely to carve things up THAT way, just because we have a way of talking about it. Some languages have more words than ours does for snow, or more words for happiness, or more words for types of small rivers, etc.

As an example, imagine we were going to build a building. That's a very complicated system. What are the subsystems? Maybe plumbing, electrical, and load-bearing materials are three of the subsystems. After all, each of those things has a lot going on within the subsystem but relatively few connections between subsystems. But we could slice things up differently. Maybe some of the plumbing is made of copper pipes. Maybe some of the electrical has copper, and perhaps some other part of the building uses copper, too. Maybe copper parts are subsystem, all related in that they are susceptible to rust and water damage over time. Or what about simply "the bathroom" as a subsystem? Everything in a bathroom must work together, fit, be functional, not cost too much, be aesthetically pleasing, etc, even though it contains plumbing, electrical, and load-bearing materials.

Alexander's point with all that is actually that the best way to carve up a system tends to be the way that gives you the most disparate (as in not tightly woven) subsystems.

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to talk with Will Wright, and I read Notes on the Synthesis of Form on his recommendation. I saw on his whiteboard a diagram of the subsystems of The Sims Online. I couldn't help mentioning the idea that perhaps there was some other set of subsystems, and perhaps the ones written there were simply easier to SAY, as opposed to being the best ones. He said yes, good point, and looked at the diagram. Then he said, "actually, the instant messenger isn't really listed here, it's part of several of these subsystems but maybe it would be better to think of that as its own node."

Susan Blackmore

The ultimate in systems is the human brain (apologies to aliens out there with more advanced brains; we have not discovered you yet). Blackmore's 400 page textbook on consciousness is a baffling exploration of how the subsystems of our brain come together to create consciousness. Not baffling because it's poorly written (it's well-written, in fact) but baffling because the topic itself is so complex and hotly debated by experts.

Let's take a simple example like watching a frisbee fly through the air. How long does it take to recognize that what you're seeing is, in fact, a frisbee flying through the air? This is a much more complex question than it first appears. We expect there is some answer, such as 0.8 seconds or something, where we cross a threshold of knowing what we're looking at. In fact, many different subsystems of the brain are working independently here. The visual system tracks the movement of the object with jerky eye movements called saccades that you don't even know you're doing. Another system processes the color of the object, another the shape, and another the contrast. Another figures out how far away it probably is, which then gives you an idea how fast it is traveling. These systems work together to produce an answer "that is a frisbee."

But there are brief moments when some of these subsystems have figured out their parts, but the subsystems haven't yet formed a coherent whole of an answer. Can we say that you know it's a frisbee at this point? Not consciously, not yet. Your interpretation of what you're looking at slowly forms as brain subsystems form a better and better overal picture, but it's hard or impossible to say you go from not knowing to knowing it's a frisbee at any particular moment.

The Self

There's a concept all our brains have latched onto that some think is purely an illusion: the concept of self. In The Meme Machine, Blackmore explores the concept of a meme: an idea transmitted and copied from mind to mind analogous to how genes use organisms to reproduce themselves. The "O rly? owl" is an example meme. A certain picture with words that has been copied many times and lives in many of our minds.

Sometimes a collection of lots of memes can glom together into a huge thing that gets copied over and over. Together, this bundle is more successful at being copied than the separate pieces would have been. Blackmore calls this a memeplex. Any religion is a great example, but I won't dwell on that. "The self" is another example.

She calls the concept of self--the selfplex--the ultimate memeplex. She asserts that consciousness is definitely a feeling--there is such a thing as "what it feels like to be me, what it feels like to drive a car, etc," but that it does not actually do anything. The powerful illusion of self is a story we make up to explain what has happened. The story we make up that defines us is not even necessarily very accurate. We come up with wrong reasons for why we did things, we see ourselves differently than we really are. The whole business of "self" (the human kind of consciousness) is a merely a construct that memes have created in us so that we transmit them, she says. Here's a quote from The Meme Machine:

Second, I emphasize that consciousness cannot do anything. The subjectivity, the 'what it's like to be me now' is not a force, or a causal agent that can make things happen. When Benjamin poured out his cornflakes he may have been conscious, but the consciousness played no role in making him do it. The consciousness simply arose as what it was like to be that human being, taking those decisions, and doing those actions, and with a memeplex inside saying 'I am doing this'. Benjamin may think that if 'he' did not consciously make the decision then it would not happen. I say he would be wrong.

Surely you feel it's your turn to argue (there is no 'you' by the way), but really, that's not the point of all this. I have not even remotely presented a well enough picture of that theory for there to be anything to argue against. And it's the kind of thing we hope is wrong even if it's right, because we cling so dearly to the concept of self that any threat to it is terrifying.

Another problem with concept of self has to do with subsystems. There is part of our brain that compels us to find food, and a different part that compels sex. We like to achieve things. We like to be lazy and do nothing. We are a bundle of conflicting desires and wants. Think back to the frisbee example where all those subsystems work together to create a coherent picture ("frisbee flying through the air"), but that is not what it's like to be a "self." A self is an ever-conflicted set of subsystems, debating over which food, which sex, which achievements, which socializing, and which type of laziness we should pursue. Are "you" the lazy person who watches tv on your couch? Are "you" the student who seeks knowledge? What if you enjoy the adrenaline rush of sky diving, or riding a motorcycle, is that "the real you" who experiences those, and the rest of the time it's not "the real you"?

These are troubling questions, and I think we all experience the internal struggle of conflicting brain subsystems fighting over what your "self" really is. Sometimes we want food (that we know is bad for us). Sometimes we want fun experiences (that we know are dangerous, stupid, too expensive, etc, etc). Sometimes we want sex that "the real you" wouldn't want (there is no "real you"). Some enjoy alcohol or gambling too much, is the gambler or drinker the real you, or is the other you that doesn't think about those things the real one? The Buddhist answer is the same as Blackmore's: there is no self, that self is a box we put "ourselves" into to explain the experiences we have. We ebb and flow between states and that is all we are, no more or less.

You're confused now, but that's the point. It's the proper state of mind to be in when thinking about such a deeply interwoven set of subsystems as those that compose our selves, whatever those are. Next time, we'll look at the slightly simpler interwoven subsystems of a game: Puzzle Strike.

Reader Comments (12)

Couple of broken links there.
Was a good read though, inspired me to read those books. Can't wait to read the puzzle strike article.
I'm intersted to know whether you designed from that point of view or alternately changed the design to fit a good sub-system model. Whether you looked at other games and tried to analyse their subsytem-nets to learn about them. I can think of so many big-budget games where obviously no one had the thought put into your work, why cant you get a job at a big ass company and churn out a good high budget game, not that that would neccesarily be better than what you are doing now but...

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEB

They say psychoanalysis on its true form only continues to exist in two different countries: France... and Argentina. I feel lucky I was born on the last one (though I'm sure being French is also trés cool). I'm usually happy because as a South American you get to read comics and comics theory from Japan, the US (i. e. Scott McCloud) and France/Belgium (i. e. Thierry Groensteen), which is to say, authors who are not aware of each other. But today I'm happy because I grew up believing that all conscious decision-making is shaped by two primal desires: to be loved, and to be allowed to love. Go Freud!

June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSan


Contrary to Blackmore, it is trivially easy to say at which moment a person goes from not knowing to knowing. Knowledge, as with all psychological attributes, is ascribable only to the organism as a whole. The logical criterion on which we justify the ascription of knowledge to an organism is that the organism can behaviorally demonstrate that it has the knowledge in question.

For example, a human being can demonstrate that he knows an object is a frisbee when he can answer the question "What is that?" by saying "A frisbee." If he gives this correct answer, we ascribe to him the knowledge that the object is a frisbee. But if he answers "I don't know" then we do not ascribe to him the knowledge that the object is a frisbee. There will be a precise moment at which he will acquire the ability to answer this question correctly. It is at this moment that he goes from knowing to not knowing (he doesn't actually have to answer the question, he just needs to acquire the ability to do so). This moment may be difficult to pinpoint in practice, but in principle it is obvious that this moment exists. There is logically no such thing as 'half-knowing' or 'partially knowing'.

Blackmore's conception of consciousness is also incoherent. Defining consciousness in terms of 'what it is like to do X' or 'what it is like for A to do X' is a recipe for confusion. I must recommend the eye-opening book "Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience", written by M.R. Bennett and P.M.S Hacker and first published in 2003. No one with an interest in psychology should bypass this amazing work. Don't worry if you have no interest in neuroscience per se. The book is almost entirely about psychology.

June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMrEmpirical

> I have not even remotely presented a well enough picture of that theory
> for there to be anything to argue against.

So if theres more to it than just one another of these unscientific "we have no free will" theories, please tell us so. If Blackmore presents the reader with a clearly defined Hypotheses that might be falsified or proven true with scientific methods than her book might actually be worth a read.
Otherwise i´d simply file it under "philosophy" or "publish or perish". Such claims are simply a dime a dozen.

June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterQuaelgeist

Instead of re-researching and thoroughly explaining theories to incredulous anonymous posters, theories you can easily read for yourself, I will struggle to run my business. Maybe someone else can do better for you. Nice assumption of academic wrongdoing though.

June 4, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

>Instead of re-researching and thoroughly explaining theories to incredulous anonymous
>posters, theories you can easily read for yourself, I will struggle to run my business.
>Maybe someone else can do better for you. Nice assumption of academic wrongdoing though.

Well, excuse me for assuming you had the time to answer what essentially boils down to a simple yes or no question. (Whether there is more to this or not).
Will not happen again.

So long and thanks for the fish.

- An anonymous internet user :-p

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterquaelgeist

Notes on the Synthesis of Form is an excellent book. I saw it recommended on this site a few years back and it remains one of the few books that really changed how I think about the world, and especially about design problems.

I second the recommendation on that, though I can't speak for the neuroscience stuff. Pop neuroscience is a field that appears to start off in solid research and quickly overreach to wild conclusions (much like the "multiple dimensions" video Sirlin posted earlier).

June 6, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternaroom

@quaelgeist: Well, it's 400 pages and talk about how subsystems create consciousness. So simply by reading Sirlin's article you would know that the answer to your question is, "yes there is more." It explains how something happens, and does not simply make a claim that humans are deterministic. These are very different things, yes?

@MrEmperical: Your counterexample idea of asking the guy what the thing is is terrible. It take a significant fraction of a second to ask the question, time to understand the meaning of the question, time to decide on a conceptual answer, and time to word the response. I could ask you this question before you knew it was a frisbee but still figure it out in time to answer within an acceptable amount of time. The question is not whether the guy has enough information to realize it's a frisbee (yeah, he probably does), but the EXACT time when he knows it. This is a precise question that could never be answered by speech level interaction - it is conceivable it could be answered by monitoring the brain, but what Blackmore is saying is that it's difficult even then.

June 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Conkle


If researching and presenting quasi-philosophical quackery to incredulous internet schmucks wasn't your goal, and struggling to run your business was, what was the point of this blog post?

Pardon my Aristotelian douchebaggery, but it's only because I hold you in such high esteem that I place unreasonable standards on you. I am counting the days until Puzzle Strike is released.

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThatguy

@Mark Conkle: MrEmperical's point isn't what you think it is. His point is that is that there is in fact a discrete time when our brains can differentiate that an object is a frisbee or it isn't. That being said, his point is still sort of untrue. It's a somewhat proven (well, testable) fact that we can see an object, guess that it is probably a frisbee, and act on that knowledge - then have the frisbee turn out to not be a frisbee, but instead be a basketball.

Think that's crazy? Remember that in ST people used to do fireball traps that were terrifying, and before the fake fireball of HDR, Ryu players used to fake with a stand short to get people to jump. At some point, our brains see that stand short, think it is a fireball (because our brain hasn't processed all the data yet) and act on it being a fireball - then get punished for it. There is a discrete period where we are unsure as to whether our opponent's action is a fireball - it might be a fireball, or it might not. The HDR fake fireball is also an example of that, although it is literally identical to the fireball in most ways until long after our brains have responded to it, making it much more deadly.

There is definitely a time in our brain where an entity might not explicitly be known as a frisbee, and where we might be able to answer "it's a frisbee" before we actually "know" it's a frisbee. Obviously, by the time we start talking our brains have figured it out, but that's not the point. If our brain is taking a simpler action like "jump or not jump" which is one chunked joystick input that requires virtually zero thought to execute, it's easier to say "it's a frisbee" when you actually saw a basketball.

@anyone else: The "sense of self" stuff is a little harder to swallow, partly because as Sirlin and Blackmoore claim, attacking your own sense of identity is terrifying. I think that what he is trying to communicate (I'm not sure though, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) is that our brains are composed of a huge number of complex elements/subsystems, and there is no "me" subsystem, but rather a whole lot of other unrelated brain functions that end up working together to make "me." The argument is that is why we have urges that don't run parallel to our sense of ethics and our desired plan for ourselves - because not all of our brain subsystems work in concert.

I think. I might be wrong. It's the best conclusion I can come up with.

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAuspice

Auspice: to all your questions, yes that is what I'm saying.

June 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Ah dear, so much confusion... Okay, let's take things one step at a time:

Mark Conkle: You need to re-read my comment. I said:

"There will be a precise moment at which he will acquire the ability to answer this question correctly. It is at this moment that he goes from knowing to not knowing (he doesn't actually have to answer the question, he just needs to acquire the ability to do so)."

Of course it takes time to be asked and to answer a question! But there will be a precise moment at which one will acquire the ability to answer the question. Once this ability is acquired, the person is said to have acquired the relevant knowledge.

Imagine you're looking at a distant object. You're trying to figure out what it is. You're scrutinizing it carefully. Soon, you will realize what it is. I keep asking you "What is it? Do you know what it is?". There will be a moment before which you'll answer "I don't know" and after which you'll answer "Aha, I see what it is. It's a frisbee!". By definition, you acquired the knowledge of what the object is at some point during this moment. In practice, this moment is hard to pinpoint. But in principle, we could increase the resolution of this exercise to identify the exact moment when you acquire the knowledge in question. This isn't a scientific fact. Rather, this fact follows logically from what it means to say that someone knows such-and-such.

Auspice: Our brains do not differentiate objects. Human beings differentiate objects. If you doubt this, please tell me what criteria you could possibly use to say that a brain has differentiated two objects. Of course, without our brains we would not possess the ability to differentiate objects, but this unremarkable fact does not justify the ascription to the brain of human powers and capacities.

June 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMrEmpirical
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