I've been promising a series on emergence--the science behind it and what it potentially means for human civilization and spirituality--for some time. I wrote two posts on the topic (and promised to post them) but later decided that I needed to first improve my own understanding of this topic before offering any thoughts or conclusions to a broader audience. I'm now well in to that process (at the result of understanding now, more than ever, just how much about emergence remains unknown). With two caveats, I'm beginning my series on emergence--a topic that I think is central to the ongoing evolution of economics, politics, science, spirituality, and my own theory of Rhizome. The first caveat is that I continue to read and think about emergence--this series is by no means a simple presentation of ultimate conclusions. It is the chronicle of my process of learning about emergence, and my thoughts on the topic along the way. The second caveat is that, while I continue to work to publish a new post every Monday morning, I'm not optimistic about my ability to keep precisely to that schedule over the next few weeks. I have an 8-day jury trial starting March 1st. My preparation will be fairly intense--I'll be taking or defending three all-day expert depositions over the next 8 days alone--and at some point this writing will have to take a back seat.
That said, what's the big deal about emergence, anyway? The scientific community is primarily interested in emergence as a phenomenon present in psychology--specifically the study of human consciousness. Consciousness, along with developmental microbiology, occupy in my mind the top tier of the pantheon of great unknowns (I think theological unknowns will be largely answered if and when we fully understand these two sets of phenomena). As will become more clear after discussing the fundamentals of emergence, however, it is my hypothesis that human political and economic organization may be linked to the same set of macro-rules that govern both consciousness and developmental microbiology--something that I think could be a great accelerant to my theory of Rhizome, though not necessarily an essential element. That's why, aside from general intellectual curiosity about the "great unknowns," I think a discussion of emergence is relevant here.
British Emergentism and Configurational Forces
Where else to start but the beginning? While I (borrowing from others) have in the past suggested that emergence was a new field, it is anything but. It certainly stems back as far as Aristotle, though it has been part of the mainstream intellectual discourse since at least the late Nineteenth Century in a school called "British Emergentism." The British Emergentists hypothesized the notion of "configurational force," which is "that of a force that can be exerted only by substances with certain types of structures, where the forces are such that they canno be exerted by any kinds of pairs of elementary particles." The Rise and Fall of British Emergentism, Brian P. McLaughlin, at 1.4. This theory basically suggested that effects then mysterious such as physical chemistry, atomic bonding, etc., were not the result of "micro-structural" forces (the characteristics of the individual atoms bonding, for example), but rather their structure. Subsequent developments, especially in the field of quantum mechanics, pretty much took the wind out of the sails of the British Emergentists, but their several decades of prominence (roughly 1880-1930) laid much of the ontological groundwork for modern discussions of emergence.
What is Emergence?
It's often defined as the situation where a phnomenon is "unexplainable, or unpredictable, on the basis of information concerning the spatial parts or other constiutents of the system in which the phenomenon occurs." On the Idea of Emergence, C. Hempel and P. Oppenheim. In other words, even if you know everything about the "micro-structure" of the components of a system, you cannot explain or predict observable phenomena (emergents) of that system. Consciousness is perfect example--given everything we know about neurology, chemistry, biology, etc., we still cannot predict or explain consciousness. It is an emergent--a property of the system that emerges from the whole but that (at present) cannot be explained or predicted based on an understanding of its component parts.
Some have suggested that emergence is only a way of stating that we do not yet have sufficient understanding of the micro-structure of a system to predict the emergent phenomenon, and that this fact alone in no way proves that there is anything "emergent" about the as-of-yet unexplained phenomena--they merely represent an expression of our current limits of knowledge. The demise of British Emergentism as a theory to explain certain aspects of chemistry supports this view--the improved understanding of micro-structure via quantum mechanics made once unexplained and unpredictable phenomena fully explained and predictable. However, the fact that some emergent phenomena may be reducible to an improved microstructure theory does not prove that emergence is not also a stand-alone phenomenon. "Emergence" of a characteristic is not an ontological trait of certain phenomena--all or some may be ultimately reducible--but it is a means of explaining what cannot currently be explained through reductionism.
As unsatisfying as that admission may be, it has potentially critical ramifications: if an "Emergent" (an irredudible phenomena that emerges from a broader system) is fundamentally unreducible, then several interesting results follow (discussed below). If, however, a phenomena later proves to be reducible, then its ontological value is significantly changed. Take consciousness, for example. If consciousness is an emergent--that is, it can never be reduced to mere operation of component neurons, etc.--then that tells us something very significant about the human condition, both scientifically and theologically. However, if we eventually learn that consciousness is fully explainable and predictable based on its micro-structure of neurons, then any discussion of "soul" or "individual" seem to end, at least in my mind. If people have personalities for the same ultimate reason that leaves are green (i.e. in both cases, if the result is completely reducible to and explainable by the micro-structure), then there is nothing fundamentally unique about two people beyond that which is unique between two leaves. If, however, consciousness is an emergent (unreducible to microstrucutre, unexplainable and unpredictable based on that microstructure), then we are left with significant mystery, but also significant understanding--specifically, that there is some part of humanity that, by definition, transcends our bodies.
Hierarchy and Emergence
It seems, however, that emergence informs far more than theology. The identification of an emergent is not the end of the investigation--far from it. First, an emergent cannot be "identified" any more than we can prove a negative--investigation into possible microstructural causes must continue as the ability to conduct those investigations improves. However, an equally interesting any revealing question presents itself: even if an emergent isn't explainable or predictable by the microstructure, can we understand what microstructures give rise to (or tend to give rise to) emergents? One core idea of our modern understanding of emergence is that "as systems acquire increasingly higher degrees of organizational complexity they begin to exhibit novel properties that in some sense transcend the properties of their constituent parts, and behave in ways that cannot be predicted on the basis of the laws governing simple systms." Making Sense of Emergence, Jaegwon Kim.
In other words: as complexity increases, at some point emergent properties of the complex system seem to present themselves. This process will be the focus of my discussion in later posts, but for now I want to pose a hypothesis: some kinds of complexity are more conducive to generating emergence than others. That sounds pretty simple, but consider the importance of a possible extension of this: non-hierarchal (topologically "flat") complexity is more conducive to emergence than is hierarchal complexity. I think there is support for this from one of the key examples of emergence listed above: consciousness, which emerges (presumably) from the very non-hierarchal structure of our brains. Compare this to the massive but hierarchal corporate structures in our economy which do not appear to exhibit emergence (and, conversely, the far less hierarchal global structure of human interactions which, may hypothesize, facilitates the emergence of the noosphere, or "global brain"). Can we foster, or guide emergence from human strucutres? Is hierarchy an evolutionary mechanism to control (reduce/eliminate) emergence in human political or economic systems? Why would it matter? Specifically, what could be the effect of emergence that would make it relevant to the structure or functioning of our economic or political systems?
Emergents and Downward Causation
At the cutting edge, and among the more controversial parts of emergence theory, is the notion that "emergents bring into the world new causal powers of their own, and, in particular, theat they have the powers to influence and control the direction of the lower-level processes from which they emerge." Making Sense of Emergence, Jaegwon Kim. This notion of "downward causation" is critical. If emergents cannot exercise downward causation, then the emergent is either (1) nothing more than an as-of-yet unexplained but reducible phenomenon, or (2) useless as an ontological formulation (because what does it do or tell us?). As Jaegkown Kim asks, "For what purpose would it serve to insist on the existence of emergent properties if they were mere epiphenomena with no causal or explanatory relevance . . . [if emergence] supposes something to exist in nature which has nothing to do, no purpose to serve, a species of noblesse w hich depends on the work of its inferiors, but is kept for show and might as well, and undoubtedly would in time be abolished."
The controversy over downward causation seems to stem from the mental gymnastics demanded by a feature that emerges from itself while simultaneously influencing the sourced of its genesis--what some have suggested is an unacceptable circularity. I don't have any problem in principle with this formulation, but proponents have also developed a modification of the theory of emegence that seems to satsify even the skepitics: diachronic reflexive emergence, or emergence where the emergent at time T influences the micro-structure at T+1, which in turn results in possible modification of the emergent at T+2, etc.
Certainly, if one accepts consciousness to be an emergent, then the downward causation of consciousness (acting upon the physical body and brain structure) is clearly documented (this specific example matches the model of diachronic reflexive emergence mentioned above).
There you have it--a whirlwind tour of the fundamentals of emergence as both a philosophical and scientific doctrine. We're just scratching the surface (though human understanding doesn't seem to go much deeper at this point). To whet your appetite for future discussions: can different human economic or political configurations exhibit different abilities to produce emergents, and can those emergents in turn exert downward causation on the operation of the underlying structure? Can we structure our economic or political systems in a way that facilitates emergents--even emergents that then open the door to new functioning of the underlying political or economic system through the exercise of downward emergence? Is this playing with fire? (Or, perhaps more appropriately, playing god?)
Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.
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