Colby Clark

CJCL234's picture
  • Philosophy
1402/1406 Patterson Office Tower
Research Interests:

My dissertation, The Primacy of Openness in Ecological System Theory, is being written under the supervision of Ted Schatzki and Tony Stallins. My primary research interests are in environmental philosophy and the philosophy of complex systems theory. I am interested in how different ecosystem properties are defined and applied, especially resilience. By obtaining a more robust understanding of resilience’s ontological foundations, more targeted approaches to address altering ecosystems may be developed. Also, a philosophically grounded evaluation of resilience as an ecosystem property enables a comprehensive ethical analysis of humans’ responsibility to nature and each other.

Most discussions of ecosystem properties within the last half century focus on the principle of emergence. This owes to the incorporation of complex systems theory, which has been referred to as “the science of emergence.” My contribution to the literature is that I emphasize a different principle in analyzing ecosystem properties, openness. Openness pertains to the movement of matter and energy between an ecosystem and its environment such that a dynamic equilibrium results. Complex systems theory acknowledges openness as one of its guiding principles, but little has been done to detail the significance of openness or connect it with emergence. My dissertation addresses this topic directly.


Chapter-by-chapter synopsis of my dissertation:

Chapter one outlines complex systems theory’s history with the concept of emergence. Since the mid-20th century, emergence has been the philosophical basis for complex systems theory. It is almost impossible to read an article or book on the subject without running into the term. Over the decades different accounts of emergence have been offered ranging from the merely epistemological (i.e., something is too complex to explain by appealing to the simplest parts) to the genuinely ontological (i.e., something that exists as a qualitatively distinct individual). Openness, on the other hand, has not progressed beyond its original definition: the movement of matter and energy between a system and its environment. I argue that complex systems theory struggles to agree on single account of emergence because openness has been severely neglected.

One of the reasons that complex systems theory has been so enamored with emergence is because of the topological modelling techniques it employs. Feedbacks appear to be the default currency. Chapter two argues that topography is the appropriate dimension for interpreting openness. Topographical features function as regulators of dispersal such that an ecological community hovers around a steady state number of species. I use MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory of island biogeography as the basis for this claim. It is necessary to recognize the role of openness in setting the initial conditions and how the emergent ecosystem remains sensitive to changes in topography. Otherwise, ecosystems appear as disembodied entities controlling their own development. The probabilistic nature ecosystem dynamics is seemingly lost. It all becomes teleological.

Chapter three investigates interpretations of resilience in the ecological literature. I use openness and emergence as the fundamental principles for my investigation. Most interpretations are decidedly structured around emergence. They assume ecosystems form closed systems whose internal feedbacks keep it stable even as disturbances occur. I argue that this interpretation of resilience is misleading because it denies the importance of openness in maintaining stability. Outside species can immigrate into an ecosystem after a disturbance to restabilize (i.e., the rescue effect). An ontologically flexible definition of resilience that combines descriptive elements (i.e., topography) with analytical modes of explanation (i.e., topology) is preferred because resilience will function differently from one place to the next.

The fourth chapter explores the role of resilience in environmental ethics. As a scientific concept with sociological implications, resilience serves as an appropriate starting point for evaluating the moral permissibility of actions and designing policy. However, I argue that resilience cannot function as an absolute moral standard because of its complex nature, especially given an ecosystem’s openness. The inclusion of resilience into ethical discussions should follow pragmatist traditions insofar as it helps sort through the complexity of a specific situation and evaluate its moral dimensions.