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Mind. Blown. Emergence!

Written by Jeff Drake
2 · 07 · 21

Cold-hearted orb that rules the night,

removes the colors from our sight,

red is grey and yellow, white,

but we decide which is right,

and which is an illusion.

Moody Blues, “Days of Future Past”

 

The bad weather has finally subsided, at least for the moment. We are fortunate that the Oregon coast is beautiful regardless of whether it is basking in good weather or being assaulted by wind and rain. The one constant is, of course, the wonderful pounding of the surf, whose incessant sound is the one thing capable of permeating my first-cup-of-coffee haze.

Perhaps it is the hypnotic sound of the sea, but I am already puzzling once again over the things I am learning through my studies into a few of the biggest mysteries in science and, dare I say, life itself. Right now, I am thinking about the illusions surrounding me as I sit here writing this post (which made me also think of one of my favorite Moody Blues albums).

The definition of an illusion is simple: “…a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses.” (Wiki). Further reading shows that illusions can be optical, auditory or tactile, which implies that illusions can be experienced in many different ways and combinations.

If pressed, I am sure each of you can think of examples for each type of illusion that you have experienced at some point in your life. For example, artist M.C. Escher’s work almost defines the term as he bends our minds with optical contradictions and seemingly impossible structures. For an example of auditory illusions, take two seconds and search Youtube for many examples. One such is called the “Shepard Tone.” A more common auditory illusion happens when a train goes by, the sound of it getting louder as it nears and then falls away when it passes. As for tactile illusions, think back to being a kid at a party and being fooled into thinking that someone has broken an egg on your head, or feeling what is called the “cutaneous rabbit illusion.” So many illusions.

According to the definition, an illusion is something that is wrongly perceived” or wrongly interpreted. It begs the question as to what else might we be misperceiving or misinterpreting.

As I sit here looking out the window at the ocean, I realize that I am surrounded by illusions. I am sitting on a chair, but I know that science has proven that if you look at this same chair through an electron microscope, you will not see a chair at all. You will see a jumble of molecules and a lot of space between them. Walk to the shore, take a drop of sea water and put it under the microscope. Look at it closely enough and suddenly that drop is no longer even wet, but disappears and becomes yet again just another set of molecules with lots of space between them. Look at a cloud overhead, so billowy and pillowy, yet you know that it is comprised of a billion droplets of water (100 million drops per cubic meter) and if you looked close enough, the cloud too, will disappear, the water will disappear, and you are left once again with a set of molecules surrounded by space.

I wonder, are these in fact, illusions? Is it that we humans are perceiving these things wrongly? Or are we just perceiving them differently? Do the clouds, the waves and my chair really exist, or am I just fooling myself? The answer I’ve come to is that these things are very much real. The chair is real and so are the molecules that comprise it. What I am sitting on and seeing around me is just one level of reality within multiple levels of realities, if you will. The molecules that make up my chair are real, but exist on a different level of reality, one that is not visible to me without special equipment. A character in a science fiction series I read many years ago described his world as “wheels within wheels.” I like that and I feel it applies in this case.

My chair, the ocean outside the door with its crashing waves, the puffy clouds overhead, are all examples of what are called “emergent phenomena,” or just “emergence.” Emergence describes the process of things coming into view, being exposed, the process of something coming into being. In science and philosophy, emergence is a much-discussed topic. It is also a subject that kind of blows my mind.

Dive into a drop of water and look for wetness. You won’t find it. A single molecule of H2O is not wet! But get enough of them together and voila! Wetness! Yet, there is absolutely nothing in that molecule that would allow you to predict that when you get a lot of them together, you get a liquid. Look at air molecules, you’d never predict wind. Look at air molecules and water molecules together and there is nothing that would ever allow you to predict waves. Science shows us that virtually all complex entities, whether plant or animal, even technologies, us humans, or societies, cultures and economies, involve emergence. We are surrounded by emergent phenomena! When you actually sit and think about it, you begin to see emergence everywhere.

But emergence raises two important questions for science and those who want to know: Can an emergent phenomenon be completely understood, determined, or even predicted by analyzing its basic component parts or does it somehow exist as something new entirely, independent from its component parts? This distinction is captured by using two different terms: strong emergence and weak emergence.

Weak emergence is defined by our ability to look at a particular phenomenon and determine that this phenomenon is the result of the interactions of properties and the rules that govern these properties at a lower level. A simple way of thinking about weak emergent phenomena is that they are “amenable to computer simulation or other forms of after-the-fact analysis.” (Wiki). Put another way, you could analyze the resulting emergent phenomena and work backwards to get at the properties that comprise that phenomena.

Consider this example. Have you ever seen a bird murmuration (usually shortened to “murmur”)? It can be breathtaking! This photo shows a starling murmur:

Large common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) murmuration in the evening before roosting. Photographed near Yeruham, Negev, Israel

Overhead the starlings are flying to-and-fro, here and there; but suddenly, they get organized and begin flying in unison as one. It is an amazing sight! To see a murmur of starlings in action, look here.

As mind-blowing as this starling murmur is, it is an example of weak emergence. It is considered weak, because although the appearance of the murmur is a surprise event (I’d call it a “WTF event”), science has actually been able to figure out how a murmur happens and thus can explain it, which is pretty cool. Go science! I’m sure it took a lot of computer power to figure it out. But, the murmur also has another feature of weak emergence; that is, the resultant emergent phenomena (the murmur) does not exert any effect on the components themselves (birds, in this case). The phenomena is a one-way street. The murmur happens and then it is over as quickly as it began. Another way of saying this is that there is only “upward causation” present in the phenomena. The murmur is “caused” but the murmur itself does not “cause” anything to happen to the individual birds.

Be aware that there are phenomena that can be defined as weakly emergent that have either very many constituent parts or parts that are highly complex and are currently beyond our computing power to do a proper analysis. But enough is known about the parts of the phenomena that scientists feel confident that given enough computing power, we’d eventually get at the answers, so they are still considered weak.

Strong emergence, on the other hand, as mentioned above, is when the emergent phenomena cannot be derived from an analysis of the rules governing the lower-level constituent parts. To be sure, it is not that it is just more difficult to figure out the phenomena, it is more the case that there is no way in hell you could ever analyze all the component parts and determine or predict that the resultant emergent phenomena would ever happen. Plus, strong emergence includes “downward causation”, meaning that the emergent phenomenon actually has the ability to exert an influence over the parts that gave birth to it, if you will.

Strong emergence means that something truly “new” has emerged. You could say that for strongly emergent phenomena, the whole is truly other than the parts.

One example of strong emergence is quantum entanglement, but I won’t glaze your eyes over by explaining this one (although I hope to tackle entanglement in the future). A more down to earth example is one I mentioned previously – water. Analyze water at a molecular or quantum analysis level and you still won’t be able to determine or predict that the water we know and love at the beach would ever be the result. Although we can identify and know the rules that govern the lower level components of water, when it comes to the emergent phenomena we have to come up with a new set of rules just to describe it, separate from its parts.

Can you think of any examples of strong emergence I haven’t mentioned yet? I won’t hold you in suspense. How about consciousness? Think about it. Here’s another brain-burner: How about life itself?

I will continue reading and learning about emergent phenomena. It is just so fascinating! Science and philosophy both continue to discuss and research emergence. Recently – and this I find exciting – research is happening in physics right now around what some scientists now believe are two phenomena that may in fact, be emergent: space and time. This news is stunning and screams a question in my mind: “Emergent from what?”

Mind. Blown.

Let us know what you think…

Comments

1 Comment

  1. Don Head

    A primal mind presupposes a material substrate. A material substrate presupposes a creative mind. A creative, conscious mind could exist without any material substrate or boundaries of space and time. Such a mind could only be inferred but never properly identified as it exists outside our dimensional universe.

    Reply

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.