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February 22, 2018

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: The Man in a Tailcoat by Tommaso Bolognesi [refresh]
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Author Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 20:20 GMT
Essay Abstract

In an attempt to prevent an unwholesome action and a deadly increase of local entropy, the author engages in a ‘singular’ nightly conversation with a silent interlocutor, trying to convince him that External Reality is only made of interacting computational mechanisms that populate a hierarchy of levels of emergence, and that purposes, conversely, are an illusory business. In biology, for example, goals are just a narrative trick for describing, a-posteriori, features of mechanisms that darwinian evolution developed without any a-priori blueprint. More generally, goals are a convenient product of human knowledge meant to offer practical, concise, easily understood and easily communicated representations of the mechanisms we produce and/or observe. The conversation touches upon program specification (goal) and implementation (mechanism), entropy reduction in a sorting algorithm and in cellular automata, and provides experimental evidence that cooperation, as opposed to individual action, may help keeping ‘life’ parameters within a safe region, at least for some individual (not for the Man in a Tailcoat, in this case).

Author Bio

Tommaso Bolognesi is senior researcher at ISTI, CNR, Pisa. His research areas have included stochastic processes in computer music composition, models of concurrency, process algebra and formal methods for software development, discrete and algorithmic models of spacetime. He has published on various international scientific journals several papers in all three areas. He obtained prizes in the FQXi Essay Contests of 2011, 2014 and 2015.

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Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 22:30 GMT
Hi Tommaso, I enjoyed your essay (both the science and the setting), and I agree with your viewpoint, mine is essentially in the same direction - though not as tragic! Thanks a lot.

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Mar. 3, 2017 @ 11:54 GMT
Thank you Ines. By looking at the abstract of your essay it really seems there are analogies. I'll take a closer look very soon.

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 17:46 GMT
Hello Mr Bolognesi,

I liked a lot your papper and how you have generalised the algorythmic simplicity.One of my favorites.

good luck in this contest;


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Joe Fisher wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 17:09 GMT
Dear Tommaso Bolognesi,

Please excuse me for I have no intention of disparaging in any way any part of your essay.

I merely wish to point out that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate.

Only nature could produce a reality so simple, a single cell amoeba could deal with it.

The real Universe must consist only of one unified visible infinite physical surface occurring in one infinite dimension, that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light.

A more detailed explanation of natural reality can be found in my essay, SCORE ONE FOR SIMPLICITY. I do hope that you will read my essay and perhaps comment on its merit.

Joe Fisher, Realist

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 23:51 GMT
Nice story like telling Prof Bolognesi,

Congratulations on winning many prizes in FQXi, best wishes for this also!

Your ideas and thinking are excellent, let me show few words like…..

"And goals? Do all mechanisms have a goal?" you may ask. (This seems to be a question of vital importance for The Man in a Tailcoat, tonight.)………

For fixing goals for Galaxies in...

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Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 16:23 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

that was very nice! Well-written, clearly argued, a pleasure to read. I would say your central point is that we can describe processes in macroscopic systems in different ways, either in terms of microscopic "mechanisms" ("mindless mathematical laws") or in terms of macroscopic "goals". These different descriptions are compatible. That's also a central point in my essay, the main difference being our different perspectives: Your views are rooted in computer science whereas I look at it as a physicist.

Good luck, Stefan

PS: You made me listen to Domenico Modungno. :-)

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Mar. 17, 2017 @ 17:39 GMT
Thank you Stefan!

about the distinction between the perspectives of Physics and Computer Science: under the hypothesis that the physical universe is an algorithmic mechanism, or a collection of interacting algorithms, the two perspectives might in fact coincide!

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 00:01 GMT
Gently floating, cradled by the waves, he slowly flows down under bridges towards the sea, towards the sea he goes. Who could it be, who could it be, that man in a tailcoat? Adieu, adieu, farewell world, farewell to memories of the past, to a dream never dreamt, to an instant of love that will never come back. (The man in a tailcoat (Vecchio frac), Domenico Modugno, 1955, retrieved from lyrics

Hi Tommaso, I like the way you have used the tale of the man in the tailcoat to add interest and cohesion to your presentation. Rather than being goalless, I think with the organisation and structure of his mammalian brain he can imagine a future outcome and plan to bring it to fruition. The same specialized structure providing motivation to act. Though his act may seem contrary to the imagined goals of all life, I think he may be seeking to escape the entrapment of his circumstances or escape from physical or psychological pain. He can imagine an end to his suffering that is better than his current state.These can be regarded as closely aligned to basic emotions.

I do like that in your essay you have explained that what are described as goals (in nature) are alternative descriptions given from an external point of view after the outcome, and can be anthropomorphism.( Sorry if I have not paraphrased that well, I don't have your essay open at the moment.) Perhaps the man in the tail coat can be regarded ironically as breaking the tyranny of goalless, purposeless outcomes, with his purposeful goal directed act. Thanks for an enjoyable essay.

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 09:51 GMT
Hi Georgina,

thanks for posting part of the lyrics. I was tempted to put the whole translation of Modugno's magnetic short story as an appendix, but I feared that it would distract too much attention from the technical issues of local entropy decrease in interacting, algorithmic mechanisms...

(On the psychological side, I do agree with you that those desperate acts may be motivated by the hope to somehow improve one's condition.)


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Georgina Woodward replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 19:53 GMT
You were right not to include the lyrics. I really like the epilogue as it is "... must have triggered a deadly flow of neural microstate changes in the head of the man, with visible consequences on the macro-variables characterizing both his facial expression and his precarious equilibrium on the parapet." (T.Bolognesi), is lovely. I like how epilogue fits so well with the prologue. Not showing the lyrics makes it intriguing. No need for the details.

I did read the essay entirely. I like the description "a narrative trick" when goals are used for externally considered outcomes.

Lots of very good, accessible descriptions along with the technical writing. Kind regards Georgina

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Giovanni Prisinzano wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 11:43 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

I'm glad to find you here again!

I read with great pleasure your new essay and, although I need to read it again to fix some details, I have appreciated the usual originality, elegance and great scientific competence. I share, although from a different perspective and with different motivations, your point of view that the existence in nature of purposes and intentions is unprovable.

Of course, like any Italian, I couldn't not know the song by Modugno, one of the most beautiful and poignant of our Twentieth century. I did not know that it was inspired by the story of Raimondo Lanza di Trabia, a Sicilian (although born and died elsewhere) of which you have led me to learn about his incredible life.

Grazie e un caro saluto,


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Mar. 17, 2017 @ 17:52 GMT
More than unprovable, I meant 'illusory'. In particular, the mother of all goals in the biosphere -- reproduction -- is there because a subsystem that accidentally happens to be very successful in reproducing itself will eventually take power, in a population of non self-reproducing and transient (non eternal) subsystems. As Rovelli puts it: "what functions is there because it functions".

In light of these facts, the notion of 'goal' loses its magical essence and tends to become, in my view, illusory -- just a convenient narrative trick to summarize the described mechanism.


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Joseph Murphy Brisendine wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 00:44 GMT
Thank you Tomasso! This was a pleasure to read. There are a few other essays I have enjoyed all of which have broadly made similiar points to my own, but yours is unquestionably the most well-written and moving. You have a wonderful sense of timing and pace to your writing, and you write not just to communicate the technical points of the reasoning but also to illuminate the consequences of your thinking for our real, lived experience. Ines called it tragic, and it is perhaps, but I think the appropriate word is beautiful. Simply beautiful work!


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Mar. 17, 2017 @ 18:01 GMT
Wow! Thanks so much! Between 'tragic' and 'beautiful', my idea was to write an ending that sounded mainly humorous: maybe it is not completely clear, but the responsibility for tragic fall of the man from the parapet is mainly ... mine!

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Yehuda Atai wrote on Mar. 25, 2017 @ 13:02 GMT
Hi Tommaso

What a brilliant idea to open and close the essay with this strange meeting.

I agree with you that it is all ontological and basically assessing the potential information that exists in the relation between particles.(See also my essay: "we are together, therefore I am")

Thanks for your interesting and challenging essay

All the best

Yehuda Atai

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Mar. 27, 2017 @ 10:20 GMT
Hi Yehuda,

thank you for you message. I am indeed not too sure that it was a good idea to add the fantasy ingredient. I imagine that some readers may regard it as a distracting element, and having the title directly refer to it rather than, say, to the idea of local entropy reduction being achieved by the interaction of cellular automaton mechanisms, was perhaps an unfortunate choice. Good lesson for the next contest! Anyway, I am starting right now to read your essay... Regards


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Yehuda Atai replied on Mar. 27, 2017 @ 15:50 GMT
Hi Tommaso

Well, it did worked for me and it caught my attention to zoom in.

I saw your great and challenging questions in my essay and I will answer them shortly.

Thanks again


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Yehuda Atai replied on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 10:11 GMT
Hi Tommaso

Here is my long answer I wrote to you in my essay site, and I decided to paste it here so you get a notice.

I am glad to remind you some ideas of Teilhard De Chardin which I don't know him well @ deeply. It seems, that he was both Dualist - body vs spirit and held to the principle of Causation, and the Cartesian belief in the total existence of perfect God.

I am a...

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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 05:05 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

Your art and physics is a nice mix. I appreciate it, particularly when contrasted with the "bland determinism" dominant in this contest. I imagine the man in the tailcoat is a mathematician, since they have a well earned reputation of tragic endings.

This essay reminds me of Heinz Pagels who was rumored to have ended his life mountain climbing (no one knows for sure), after his son's death. In Heinz's last book "The Dreams of Reason" he develops the "in Theory" vs. the "In Practice" dichotomy of "reality".

You Say:

In practice, however, as the mechanisms (IN THEORY) become more and more complicated, a compact logic formula (IN PRACTICE) is much more preferable for concisely characterising the process at hand, and for referring to it in human-to-human communication.

I do not think you are as much of a determinist as your essay suggests!

Please visit my essay where I tried my hand at...(art?)

Good to be in another contest with you!

Don Limuti

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Anonymous replied on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 09:16 GMT
Hi Don,

interesting remarks.

I would be curious to know what gave you the impression that I am not much of a determinist as my essay suggest (all the examples in the essay are indeed deterministic).

As you write, the dualism theory/practice is perhaps another way to look at mechanisms vs. goals, although I still prefer to look at them in terms of ontology vs. epistemology.

Thank you!


P.S. You say that mathematicians have a well earned reputation of tragic endings. I don’t know the exact profession of the person to which Modugno’s story was inspired - Raimondo Lanza di Trabia. I know he was a noble and a dandy. In my setting, though, his suicide is somehow linked to that of a great physicist (Boltzmann).

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Vladimir F. Tamari wrote on Apr. 1, 2017 @ 03:10 GMT
Hi Tommaso - I enjoyed reading your essay - first because it started with a beautiful painting, and second because all your arguments were embedded in elementary Cellular Automata (ECA), a concept that is central to my Beautiful Universe Model . Moreover you start with a quote by Wolfram, one of my heroes!

Having said that I must say that the mechanisms in my brain are not that well-versed in the actual mathematics you use, and the details (but not the conclusions) of your arguments were lost to me. Its OK - your essay tried to answer the essay contest Question and seems to have done so very elegantly.

In my fqxi essay I also start out with a river scene, but one more joyful than yours! Poor Boltzmann. Cellular Automata do appear in the very last section, but they are not Elementary - rather than on-off or three-state 2D cells they are spherically orientable dipolar units that act as qubits acting on their adjacent neighbors. As I mentioned Gerard 't Hooft has just proven that Quantum Mechanics can emerge out of CA!

Wishing you all success in your work and in the contest,


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Peter Jackson wrote on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 12:32 GMT

Good essay. But I'm not sure the man in the tailcoat didn't further confuse a rather complex construction of what is surely a very simple, if important, truth; 'The universe consists of (hierarchical interacting) mechanisms, and a 'goal' is just a convenient lower order description.'

Does that not abridge the story? I don't criticize the hypothesis but agree entirely, including with it's central importance. But I felt that when clear analysis of how small scale mechanisms could produce the effect was about to emerge the dark and confusing fog, abundant in these parts, seemed to close in. Perhaps I missed some important other point?

Does what we call an 'aim' not simply emerge as an upper level 'decision', or choice informed by running scenario's from (memories & imagination) giving feedback, with implications on lower level choices (all using the same feedback)?

I anticipate you agree as it employs the "universal architecture of emergence" you refer to. But, if not, can you elucidate?

None the less I think you hit some fundamental salient points, right on topic, and very nicely written in plain English. For me those points alone should put the essay rather higher than it is and my score should help.

I hope you'll read and comment on mine which I see as compatible and complimentary. I link the upper problem of cognitive operations with the smallest 'quantum' scale, identifying a real classical mechanism able to reproduce the 'choice' complexity required.

very best


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 15:04 GMT
Dear Peter,

your essay is one of the very few left in my folder, and I will certainly read and rate it before the deadline of April 7.

I am not sure I understand precisely your first remark, ending with: 'The universe consists of (hierarchical interacting) mechanisms, and a 'goal' is just a convenient lower order description.' (Looks like a quote, but I did not find this in your...

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Peter Jackson replied on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 10:16 GMT

Thanks for the response and comment on my page. I'll respond here to those here.

Re; "The universe consists of (hierarchical interacting) mechanisms, and a 'goal' is just a convenient lower order description." means; At the smallest scale (highest 'order') EVERYTHING is made of quanta, interacting, so ALL bigger things & concepts are emergent, in the 'levels' we both identify, as your 'narrative trick'. I identify PDL (or quantum 'modal' logic) as the consistent logical system, which expands on my 'bracketing rule' analysis last year.

A " compact logical characterisation of a mechanism is indeed then a 'lower order' or 'one larger scale up' (yes, 'higher order' as in maths can confuse things!). Like trying to describe the true workings on a computer by just summarising whats on the screen and how the mouse and keyboard affect it. The description may be 'compact' but everything's relative!

" you hint at top-down causation Only as 'aims' in the 'strata'; i.e. You have a choice A or B. run an imaginary scenario, trigger biochem releases etc. which give feedback, so you choose B. You then have a cascade of consequential choices of how best to meet B (so looping back each time) B has become what we call an 'aim'! The 'upper' strata has dictated lower level choices (and responses) right down to the quantum level 'switches' I identify. Does that not work for you?

That 'hierarchy of levels of emergence' and 'feedback' are consistent with many of the better essays here and gives a consistent overall mechanism producing what you term as the 'trick' of goals.

Sure you have a different way of looking at it and expressing the structure, we all have, so penetrate the mist to different depths and reach different conclusions. Isn't that how we evolve!



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George Gantz wrote on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 20:51 GMT
Hello Tommaso - It is a pleasure to read another of your essays The most entertaining of the bunch, I have to say. Although, the apparently bad end of the object of your story may not bode well for the success of your theory.

As I understand it, the all-in-all is driven by mundane mechanism, and grandiose goals are just algorithmic short-cuts. In the language of my essay (The How and The Why of Emergence and Intention), this would put you in the camp of those seeing meaning and purpose as epiphenomenal. I must be looking at this from the other end of the micro/telescope - where you see epiphenomenon, I see cosmic intentionality!

I submit that we both have achieved "proof of concept" - but the fact that two mutually exclusive speculations are both plausible may not yield much wisdom. Before we make our final choices, perhaps you would be willing to dismount the parapet and join me at a nearby cafe for a cappuccino...

Sincere regards - George Gantz

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George Gantz replied on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 15:25 GMT
Tomas -

Thanks for the extended reply which you provided in the comment thread for my essay. I have replied there. I am just letting you know here - because I assume you also only get emails when items are posted on your own essay and not when replies are posted to your comments...

Regards - George

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Member Larissa Albantakis wrote on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 04:30 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

I finally got a chance to finish reading your very interesting essay. I enjoyed reading it a lot and also appreciated the poetic story around it.

Is the fact that a random input fed into a randomly chosen algorithm tends to produce more orderly outputs a consequence of the probability distribution of possible algorithms? I.e. that algorithms with biased outputs are more likely than algorithms with maximum entropy outputs? For example there are 70 (?) elementary cellular automata with 4 outputs = 1 and 4 outputs = 0 (if I'm not mistaken), but, in any case, many more rules with an uneven distribution of 0s and 1s in their outputs.

It's something I didn't really think about yet, but it makes a lot of sense. Thank you for making this point.

All the best,


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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 5, 2017 @ 09:02 GMT
Dear Tommaso Bolognesi

I appreciate your essay. You spent a lot of effort to write it. If you believed in the principle of identity of space and matter of Descartes, then your essay would be even better. There is not movable a geometric space, and is movable physical space. These are different concepts.

I inform all the participants that use the online translator, therefore, my essay is written badly. I participate in the contest to familiarize English-speaking scientists with New Cartesian Physic, the basis of which the principle of identity of space and matter. Combining space and matter into a single essence, the New Cartesian Physic is able to integrate modern physics into a single theory. Let FQXi will be the starting point of this Association.

Don't let the New Cartesian Physic disappear! Do not ask for himself, but for Descartes.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential in understanding the world. To show potential in this essay I risked give "The way of the materialist explanation of the paranormal and the supernatural" - Is the name of my essay.

Visit my essay and you will find something in it about New Cartesian Physic. After you give a post in my topic, I shall do the same in your theme


Dizhechko Boris

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Member Marc Séguin wrote on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 05:44 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

After meeting you last summer at the FQXi conference, it was nice to read another great essay of yours in this contest. I love how you always frame them inside a story, even if this time, since you had a lot of ground to cover, the story was kept more in the background! I liked how you framed the concept of goals within "the upper level of the universal architecture of emergence" and used elementary cellular automata as examples. I agree with you that "mechanisms exist in nature as the fundamental building blocks of External reality: they enjoy the most respected ontological status. Goals don't." That's why, as a physicist who likes to tackle foundational issues in terms of ontology and metaphysics, I found this year's essay topic quite challenging --- but I finally found a way to address this year's question by exploring the possibility of "co-emergence" between mindless mathematical laws and conscious agents possessing goals and intention.

Thank you for your very substantial, level-headed and perfectly on-topic approach to this year's essay question. I wish your essay does at least as well as last time!


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 6, 2017 @ 10:50 GMT
Thank you Marc.

A very challenging theme indeed, this time. Yes, I have a tendency to add stories, but I think these ingredients should really be kept to a minimum... Anyway, YOU did a tremendous job! See my comments at your page.



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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 09:21 GMT
Dear Sirs!

Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of Newton returned as the New Cartesian Physic and promises to be a theory of everything. To tell you this good news I use «spam».

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which on the corpuscle is equal to the product of Planck's constant to the speed of light.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential for understanding the world. To show it, I ventured to give "materialistic explanations of the paranormal and supernatural" is the title of my essay.

Visit my essay, you will find there the New Cartesian Physic and make a short entry: "I believe that space is a matter" I will answer you in return. Can put me 1.


Dizhechko Boris

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 01:37 GMT
Thanks Tommaso..

This is interesting. I greatly enjoyed your essay, except for the tragic end for the title character. You appear to be saying we actually see mechanisms not goals, for the most part, but goals are an easier way to store and remember what we are supposed to do. I like the notion that cooperation of ECAs results in higher survival rates and an apparent decrease in entropy. I would love to discuss the directionality of the Mandelbrot Set as an example of extreme compressibility of a goal-like structure. But only after the rating period has expired perhaps.

All the Best,


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