May 12, 2013


A note about “Supervenience”

I was studying medical anthropology and logic, as well as human ecology at the Australian National University. Deep in research into Supervenience (my mentor was Richard Sylvan) I realised that the search for cause (the keystone of western medicine) itself could be a misdirection under certain conditions—that attention to simple symmetry and redressing any imbalances presenting in the body provided a way of working that did not require the identification of cause. Some of my initial insights can be found HERE in the article “Supervenience, massage,  and stretching”. It was prepared for the Journal of the Australian Association of Massage Therapy, but I can’t search their journal database (they appear to not have one) and I do not recall if they actually published it. Ah; it was: HERE is the link to the published article.

The original title of the article was Supervenience and the natural therapies. The back story is that all therapies that rely on some kind of intervention on the surface or deep musculature, or superficial or deep fascia use the supervenient relation to do their work. This includes acupuncture, massage, Rolfing… all physical therapies, in fact.

Please read the article for more detail, but for now the relation can be stated simply: in complex systems, there can be no change at one level without a corresponding change in the subvening levels. So in the case of becoming more flexible, for example, we don’t need to know whether it’s the fascia that has changed, or the innervation that has changed, or the muscular structure itself has changed, or something in the relations between all of these comprising parts. What we know is that a particular approach to stretching is likely to provoke changes in the system that will be experienced as becoming more flexible. It is very likely that the actual causal story is extremely complex. The lovely aspect of supervenience theory is that we do not need to concern ourselves with these complexities, except when we do have a clearer idea of the causal story (for example, piriformis syndrome). And if the cause of the problem can be identified in the sense it simply makes the treatment more efficient. Speaking more formally now, it is accurate to say that the set of causal relations in a complex system is a much smaller set than the set of supervening relations. We work with what we have.

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