The Emerging Science of Emergence

Artwork: Sun | Edvard Munch

It’s not hard to find a half-baked YouTube video about emergence. They are out there. And sadly they are often much more interesting than any footage of actual experts discussing the matter.

Some of these nonsense videos even feature the same experts edited in such a way that they seem to be suggesting whatever it is these random YouTubers are trying to pass as science.

Emergence is not about some wacky universal consciousness.

It doesn’t have anything to do with holographic pseudo-realities.

Nor does it posit some idealistic underworld in which we are all hallucinating matter into existence.

I think the reason we see such a dog pile of pseudo science in this area is because it is so new and no one has really wrapped it up into anything usable by the scientific community.

And yet it seems to be attracting attention from experts from a wide variety of fields. None of them with anything like an actual definition for what emergence actually means.

Every legitimate video about emergence I have seen features some bearded, elderly white man apologizing as he fumbles with his projector giving you poorly executed metaphors about ant colonies or snowflakes.

And even at the conferences and talks where actual experts are trying to explain real emergence everything goes to hell as soon as they open up the floor for comments.

“Like I just feel like our thoughts… um … they have shapes and we create our reality and I just wondered about the spiritual implications of what you’re saying.”

So What is Emergence?

Emergence is the idea that new ‘layers’ of interaction arise from simpler systems which defy any explanation based on the rules and identified objects of those simpler systems.

To some extent it is a conglomeration of the doubts that have been arising with our typical analytical/reductionist methods in the sciences. We break apart everything into its simpler bits and describe how they all fit together and see if we can come up with what we’re seeing in the macro world.

However, in fields like biology, cognitive science, quantum physics, philosophy and even certain corners of mathematics we’re finding problems that seem absolutely unsolvable at present.

Some are beginning to feel that more of the same sorts of thinking and research will never yield any progress.

There is one group that feels it is simply impossible to describe everything in terms of its smallest bits. This is called ‘soft’ or epistemological emergence.

Others believe that some things actually arise from within systems of smaller bits and literally do not exist when you zoom in too far. But since the main take away from either group of theorists is that we cannot design rules for how these systems work the conversation has not gotten much farther.

So is That IT?

Personally, I think that ontological emergence goes a bit too far. Reality is not separated into layers. Reality is reality. If something arises within reality then it is also reality.

What seems to be happening is that even with the best measurements our ability to systematically describe the world based on observations only goes so far. Eventually the math escapes us.

At that point if we want to describe more complex phenomena we have to pack our bags, forget what we have learned and start observing all over again from a better vantage point.

But the idea that we as limited beings observing the world have to view it in layers is beyond dispute.

Biology begins with life and the assumption that there is a complicated chemical environment which it cannot yet explain.

Philosophers struggle with thinking about deterministic cause and effect on the one hand and imagining us all as autonomous actors on the other.

Physicists have to divide the world of astronomy and that of quarks and cannot seem to derive the mathematics of the one from the other.

Unless we want to hold off all progress in psychology, biology, chemistry, and astronomy for a few hundred years for quantum physics to collect all its data we’re stuck.

It’s even worth asking why we always view the smallest interactions as somehow causing the bigger ones. All of reality is simultaneous.

In a sense the atomic reactions within the sun are not causing it to shine. It just is. Both ‘layers’ are different ways of describing the same thing. The distinction is ours not the universe’s.

Honestly, whatever method of understanding gets us to the answers in a particular matter is probably the one we ought to use. We may need to accept that in order to arrive at answers to our questions we need to begin on shaky foundations and set down more solid roots as we go.

And you may have noticed that all of this is very vague and speculative. It is. That’s where the conversation is at the moment. And until someone comes along and encapsulates the whole thing in a more precise way that’s all we have.

Until then you’ll just have to trudge through TED videos filled with confusing metaphors lost in a sea of YouTubers trying to lure you into the occult.

Godspeed.

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