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Edward Berge has been studying all things integral since 1998. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. By profession he has been a massage therapist and is a retired professional liability insurance underwriter. By avocation he is dancer, researcher, writer, and art and literary lover and critic. He is an active participant in the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum and blogs at Progressive Participatory Enaction.

The Root of the
Power Law Religion

Edward Berge

A prime example of the power law religion is found in the model of hierarchical complexity (MHC).

A 'power law' refers specifically to a statistical relationship between quantities, such that a change in one quantity has a proportional change in another. One property of this law is scale invariance, otherwise known as 'scale-free,' meaning the same proportion repeats at every scale in a self-similar pattern. Mathematical fractals are an example of such a power law. Power laws are taken as universal and have been applied to any and all phenomena to prove the universality of this law.

However, a recent study (Broido and Clauset, 2019) claims that “scale free networks are rare.”[1] They conducted an extensive review of one thousand social, biological, technological and information networks using state of the art statistical methods and concluded what the title of their article states. To the contrary, “log-normal distributions fit the data as well or better than power laws.” And that scale-free structure is “not an empirically universal pattern.” Hence it should not be used to model and analyze real world structures.

scale free networks
Scale free networks (

So why the fascination with trying to fit nearly all phenomena into the scale-free paradigm? Holme (2019) reviews the above article and the overall power law issue and notes that “in the Platonic realm of simple mechanistic models, extrapolated to infinite system size, the concepts of emergence, universality and scale-freeness are well-defined and clear. However, in the real world, where systems are finite and many forces affect them, they become blurry.”[2] Klarreich (2018) reviewed an earlier version of Borodo's paper and noted that per mathematician Steven Strogatz, in physics there is a “power law religion.”[3]

So what is the root of this religion? Holme nailed it when he said the power law universally applies “in the Platonic realm.” This is a long-held, guiding myth that has remained strong in math. Lakoff and Nunez (2001) dispel this myth, noting that there is no proof of an a priori mathematics; it is purely a premised axiom with no empirical foundation.[4] Just like the conception of God it is religious faith. We can only understand math with the mind and brain, so it requires us to understand how that brain and mind perceives and conceives. Hence there is no one correct or universal math. There are equally valid but mutually inconsistent maths depending on one's premised axioms (354-55). This is because math is also founded on embodied, basic categories and metaphors, from which particular axioms are unconsciously based (and biased), and can go in a multitude of valid inferential directions depending on which metaphor (or blend) is used in a particular contextual preference. They dispel this myth of a transcendent, Platonic math while validating a plurality of useful and accurate maths.

However Lakoff & Nunez do not see the above as relativistic postmodernism (pomo) because of empirically demonstrated, convergent scientific evidence of universal, embodied grounding of knowledge via image schema, basic categories and extended in metaphor. They see both transcendent math and pomo as a priori investments. And they also affirm universal validity, but through empirical methodology, not a priori speculation.

Lakoff (1987) also points out the following:

"The classical theory of categories provides a link between objectivist metaphysics and and set-theoretical models.... Objectivist metaphysics goes beyond the metaphysics of basic realism...[which] merely assumes that there is a reality of some sort.... It additionally assumes that reality is correctly and completely structured in a way that can be modeled by set-theoretic models" (159).[5]

He argues that this arises from the correspondence-representation model, a model that has been legitimately questioned by postmetaphysical thinking.

Also see the above on the idealistic assumptions of modeling that came from a type of complexity theory that also assumed the universality of scale-free networks, while most actual networks do not display this kind of mathematical distribution.

A prime example of the power law religion is found in the model of hierarchical complexity (MHC). Commons (2008) admits the Platonic roots when he said: “The ideal truth is the mathematical forms of Platonic ideal.”[6] Granted he qualified this statement noting the difference between the ideal and the real, that we cannot know the ideal as pure form, only as it manifests in the real. And yet he further notes that Aristotle elucidated the real with postulates of logic, yet these too come from a priori axioms without empirical grounding. Yes, the logical entailments of his logic follow mathematical rules, but the axioms are presupposed a priori and taken as given. The MHC then is a combination of the ideal “perfect form, as Plato would have described it,” with the representation of that form in the real domain. The duality of the ideal and the real is apparent.

Lakoff and Johnson (1999, Ch. 7) show that abstract set theory has no connection to embodiment:

“Spatial relations concepts (image schemas), which fit visual scenes, are not characterizable in terms of set-theoretical structures. Motor concepts (verbs of bodily movement), which fit the body's motor schemas, cannot be characterized by set-theoretical models. Set-theoretical models simply do not have the kind of structure needed to fit visual scenes or motor schemas, since all they have in them are abstract entities, sets of those entities, and sets of those sets. These models have no structure appropriate to embodied meaning-no motor schemas, no visual or imagistic mechanisms, and no metaphor."

However Lakoff and Nunez note that math per se is not merely socially constructed:

"In recognizing all the ways that mathematics makes use of cognitive universals and universal aspects of experience, the theory of embodied mathematics explicitly rejects any possible claim that mathematics is arbitrarily shaped by history and culture alone. Indeed, the embodiment of mathematics accounts for real properties of mathematics that a radical cultural relativism would deny or ignore: conceptual stability, stability of inference, precision, consistency, generalizability, discoverability, calculability, and real utility in describing the world" (362).

Nonetheless, the MHC used a particular kind of set theory were sets cannot be members of themselves but in other set theories they can:

“There are lots and lots of set theories, each defined by different axioms. You can construct a set theory in which the Continuum hypothesis is true and a set theory in which it is false. You can construct a set theory in which sets cannot be members of themselves and a set theory in which sets can be members of themselves. It is just a matter of which axioms you choose, and each collection of axioms defines a different subject matter. Yet each such subject matter is itself a viable and self-consistent form of mathematics. [...] There is no one true set theory" (WMCF, 355).

Commons, Ross, Miller (2010) note that Axiom 1 of the MHC is based on set theory and the orders are scale-free.

“Axiom 1 of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (Commons, Goodheart, et al., 2008) posits that consistent with Piaget, that higher order actions are defined in terms of two or more lower-order actions. In terms of set theory, A = {a, b} where A is the higher order set, and a and b are lower order actions that are elements of that set A.. Note that the element a cannot equal the set A. An element cannot equal a set formed out of that element.”[8]

Sara Ross (2014) goes further in that the MHC's orders are scale-free and fractal.

"To possess 'universal, scale-free' properties means the MHC's orders of hierarchical complexity are fractal. Fractal means the repetition of self-similar patterns at different scales. Behavioral scales from the micro-biological to large social systems evidence the orders of hierarchical complexity (see Commons & Ross, 2008). The fractal transition theory is proposed as a universal, scale-free general model as well.”[9]

Here we are seeing the power law religion in action, given that the MHC's orders are ideal and they develop from scale-free power laws. And yet as Broido and Clauset noted above, real networks rarely display scale-free power laws. They further noted that given the empirical data, different models would be required to explain these other networks, that the scale-free model, while perhaps applicable for a few real-world networks, was inadequate to the task.

One example of a real world network is the human brain connectome. Gastner and Odor (2016) note that the connectome is not scale-free, so why use scale-free models to measure it?[10]why then extend scale-free models to everything? As noted above, is it a power law religion of the ideal imposed on phenomena?

"The structural human connectome (i.e. the network of fiber connections in the brain) can be analyzed at ever finer spatial resolution thanks to advances in neuroimaging. Here we analyze several large data sets for the human brain network made available by the Open Connectome Project. We apply statistical model selection to characterize the degree distributions of graphs containing up to nodes and edges. A three-parameter generalized Weibull (also known as a stretched exponential) distribution is a good fit to most of the observed degree distributions. For almost all networks, simple power laws cannot fit the data, but in some cases there is statistical support for power laws with an exponential cutoff."

A recent neuroimaging study (Smith et al., 2019) on brain connectome hierarchical complexity (HC) seems to support my notion that, like basic categories in cognitive science, HC arises from the middle out as 'bridges' rather than bottom-up or top-down. E.g.

"Dividing the connectomes into four tiers based on degree magnitudes indicates that the most complex nodes are neither those with the highest nor lowest degrees but are instead found in the middle tiers. […] The most complex tier (Tier 3) involves regions believed to bridge high-order cognitive (Tier 1) and low-order sensorimotor processing (Tier 2)."

"The results show that hub nodes (Tier 1(t)) and peripheral nodes (Tier 4(b)) are contributing less to the greater complexity exhibited in the human brain connectome than middle tiers. In fact, this is particularly true of hub nodes."

Also note that "this concerns wholly separate considerations of topology to the well-known paradigms of small-world and scale-free complex networks," being one of those new models that responds to the empirical date rather than trying to fit the latter into a one-size-fits-all scale-free model.

George Lakoff
George Lakoff

This appears to be a matter of the guiding metaphors used in defining worldviews, which over time transcend and replace their forbears given new information in a different time and context (Berge, 2019).[12] Sociological worldviews form a continuum in the broad categories of pre-modern, modern, postmodern and metamodern. The modern, scientific worldview is based on a mechanistic worldview, with later iterations extending that metaphor based on the computer. Both are premised on dualisms of various sorts, like the difference and separation of body and mind, ideal and real and with computers, on and off with one pole in the duality being source, the other it's logical result. It's an either/or logic of the Aristotelian type noted above, itself based on a priori axioms.

The postmodern metaphor turned this dualism around, claiming that the ideal was fantasy, that only the concrete, real world had validity, the ideal just being so much hierarchical power relations over the real without any basis. However, the metamodern worldview syntegrates this dualism by acknowledging duality, but also everywhere in between the poles. In fact, it quits thinking in terms of poles altogether, e.g. Abramson (2014):

"But a still more intriguing question is whether antipodal analyses are any longer useful, or whether the time has come to speak of multiple dimensions of reality, actualities that are irresolvably contradictory and deliberately incalculable, and a state of affective response in which contemporary humans feel perpetually overwhelmed, but not critically degeneratively so. Whereas postmodern theories of hyperreality invariably metaphorized erasure of the line between fact and fiction as a gradual process of degeneration, collapse, and decomposition, metamodernism approaches contradiction, paradox, and ambiguity as reconstructive forces, and emphasizes not singularity qua collapse but multiplicity qua transcendence. […] The question to be asked of and into contemporary culture, then, is [...] indeed a transcendent metamodern condition in which the poles themselves have disappeared and we, collectively and individually, have found in the middle space between them an entirely new site of 'reconstructive deconstruction'" (7-8).[13]

This is consistent with Lakoff and Johnson's cognitive science, a reconstruction of an empirical plurality of mathematics, allowing for their “contradiction and paradox,” yet grounded in our universal embodiment in the spaces between metaphysical paradigms.


[1] Anna D. Broido & Aaron Clauset, "Scale-free networks are rare", Nature Communications, volume 10, Article number: 1017 (2019)

[2] Petter Holme, "Rare and everywhere: Perspectives on scale-free networks", Nature Communications, volume 10, Article number: 1016 (2019)

[3] Erica Klarreich, "Scant Evidence of Power Laws Found in Real-World Networks",, February 15, 2018

[4] George Lakoff, Rafael Nuñez, Where Mathematics Come From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being, Basic Books; 1st edition (August 16, 2001)

[5] George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind, University of Chicago Press, 1987

[6] Michael Lamport Commons, "Introduction to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity and its Relationship to Postformal Action", World Futures, 64: 305-320, 2008

[7] George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge To Western Thought, Basic Books (October 8, 1999)

[8] Michael Lamport Commons, Sara Nora Ross, and Jonas Gensaku Miller, "Why Postformal Stages of Development are not Formal, but Postformal",, January 2010.

[9] Sara Nora Ross, "Fractal model of nonlinear hierarchical complexity: measuring transition dynamics as fractals of themselves", Behavioral Development Bulletin, 19(3), September 2014

[10] Michael T. Gastner & Géza Ódor, "The topology of large Open Connectome networks for the human brain", Scientific Reports, volume 6, Article number: 27249 (2016)

[11] KeithSmith et. al., "Fractal model of nonlinear hierarchical complexity: measuring transition dynamics as fractals of themselves", NeuroImage, Volume 191, 1 May 2019, Pages 205-215

[12] Edward Berge, "From capitalism to the collaborative commons", Integral Review Journal, 2019

[13] Seth Abramson, "On Transcendent Metamodernism",, July 27, 2014

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