Emergence is probably the most amazing phenomenon I can think of. It is an area of great interest to me as it seems to cross the boundary between philosophy and science – it goes to the heart of many of the great questions we ask today. It is an area I think I might end up researching as a career because I believe it has the possibility to change the world.
For those who haven’t heard of it before, emergence is the process whereby a complex system can attain properties greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, thousands of tiny things interacting together in seemingly insignificant ways can create sum effects which are completely unexpected and different from their own efforts. A good way to explain this is through examples.
One good example is a neural system. Each neuron is on its own fairly unremarkable. It receives thousands of inputs from other neurons and sends out its own output depending on specific situations. The addition of all of these neural firings however is an organism which has complex behavior and even such high level workings as social interaction.
Another good example is a colony of ants. You’ve probably been told before that ants are slaves to the will of the queen of a colony. This is in fact wrong. The queen does not rule over a colony of ants with some omniscient or telekinetic power. Instead ant colonies work on extremely complex interactions formed by scents the ants use to communicate. Thousands of workers make notes of little things they note in the environment (output) and at the same time they modify their behavior through the notes they read from other ants (input). This seemingly mundane interaction allows them to solve amazing problems and work almost like a giant brain! The combined intelligence of the ant colony superorganism is far greater than the sum of the individual ant brains.
An important note at this point I need to make is the difference between Strong and Weak emergence. Weak emergence is simply a method of describing lots of things interacting together. When lots of things work together they can be modeled by weak emergence as a way of looking at the system as a whole. Strong emergence goes one step further though – a system which displays strong emergence creates properties which are irreducible. That is, something new is created by this interaction of many parts which is of a higher level than the original parts.
This raises a huge question to me – how is it that a emergent system can create something from nothing? How is it that these miracles can happen. To quote Mark Bedau:
“Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing.”
So is emergence a type of magic, a gift from God, or just a very special and important outcome of these specific systems?
Before moving on to that question I’d like to take an aside and look at an (possibly the most) important example of emergence – the conscious mind.
I think therefore I am. What are you? Do you associate yourself with your body, your brain, or your mind? Where is the mind in the body, is there a part of the brain which houses the mind? Is the mind – the soul – and its conscious element some area outside of our current scientific knowledge, or can we explain it. These philosophical questions are very old and still unanswered ones. In many ways they are some of the most important questions to us, as they intimately relate directly to us.
However it looks like consciousness is the result of emergence. There is no biological basis for a a “magical” mind. the brain is made up of simple neurons, which are in turn made up of simple inorganic elements. So how is it something as amazing, complex and wonderful as consciousness could develop? Strong emergence provides an answer (of sorts) to this question.
A series of neurons works on seemingly simple inputs and outputs, however the structure is so complex that it is able to create a phenomenon as complex as consciousness. This emergent property is irreducible – each neuron doesn’t have a bit of consciousness inside of it, only when they are all connected does the phenomenon exist. This is extremely significant, as it means we are the result of emergence. Our very being is an irreducible quality derived from the collaboration of these neurons in our body.
So to return to the question above, is this the result of magic? Is it a type of divine intervention which allows strong emergence to create such miracles? Or is this just another extremely interesting facet of the way the world works? I can’t answer these questions, others might be able to and I’d love to know the answers to them.
A Fresh Look at Reductionism
Reductionism is a process used in the sciences a lot. You reduce a problem further and further down to find the lowest most basic elements in the system and then once you have developed these, extrapolate up to understand the complex processes you were looking at in the first place. Reductionism is at the core of a “Theory of Everything” (the Holy Grail of physics) – the idea being that if we can figure out the most basic parts of the universe (currently string theory or the standard model depending on what you believe to be right) then we can extrapolate upwards to explain everything else in the cosmos. Essentially this would mean that a physics theory of everything could explain the nuisances of sociology given enough data and computational power.
However a reductionist view of everything has run into a few problems recently, chaos theory and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in particular. I’d propose that emergence poses just as much a problem to reductionism as these other areas. How can you extrapolate upward if complex interactions yield irreducible qualities?
There are two possible outcomes of this. One is that you can’t extrapolate upwards and reductionism just won’t work. In this case the only way to study such systems is on a macro-scale or through the use of more recent fields such as systems theory.
However I believe that it should be possible to scientifically understand how and why emergence works the way it does. If we copy emergent systems we see in the world already we can work on trial and error. What are the fundamental pieces required to make emergence work in different cases – and is it possible for us to find a pattern that underlies the entire process.
The Manipulation of Emergence
So to quickly recap, I believe we can understand why and how strong emergence works through the study of emergent systems we see in the world today. This makes the assumptions that there is an underlying system below these and that they are not just magical/unpredictable properties we can never understand. Assuming we can and do understand how emergent systems work – what would change? In other words, why study it at all – what is there to gain from doing so?
Well firstly, if we discovered how emergent systems worked then we would immediately know a lot more about ourselves. We would finally have a scientific answer to the question of “what is the mind”. Conversely, if we discovered emergent properties are fundamentally unpredictable this would increase the evidence for more religious or spiritual theories.
Perhaps more practical however is how we could manipulate emergence for our own means. Emergent properties are usually significantly more impressive than the structures they are made out of and its very possible that there are higher order emergent properties we have never yet witnessed but which could be extremely powerful/strange/exciting. We think consciousness to be important and special – just try to consider the implications of even higher order emergent systems.
One question is will the internet yield emergent features? It is made up of millions of humans and computers connected in a huge network. Nothing particularly special about the individual components – but as a whole it might be something more, something unlike anything we’ve seen before – or perhaps just conscious itself. But perhaps it won’t reach these stages unless certain conditions for emergence are met.
Speaking of consciousness, the understanding of emergent systems would give us the power to create new consciousness – from scratch. Computers are already very close to the brain, if we figure out exactly what computers need to create emergence then we might see the birth of the first conscious computers.
The applications are ambiguous certainly, but my bet is on them being amazing.