Sunday, February 08, 2009

Emergence 3: Emergence and Collapse

The Oil Drum ran a post last week discussing complexity and collapse which briefly touched on the notion of emergence.  I think it's illustrative of the failure of theories of social complexity to address emergence, and to distinguish between strong and weak emergence.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the crux of understanding the behavior of social complexity is understanding emergence--both what it is, how it works, and what actions are available re: emergence. My first two posts in this series address the nature of emergence and the difference between weak and strong emergence.  In short, there may be two very distinct types of phenomena labled "emergence":
1. Weak emergence: these are systemic phenomena that are theoretically reducible, but not practically reducible due to complexity. Most complexity theory (e.g. modeling, simulation, system laws, etc.) study this form of emergence without noting the differentiation with:
2. Strong emergence: these are systemic phenomena that are fundamentally not reducible, but that are ontologically distinct and can exert downward causation on the system from which they emerge. A possible example is consciousness (though the theoretical problem with strong emergence is that, until we understand *how* it works, we can't rule out that we just haven't yet learned how it is reducible--e.g. what were once viewed as emergent properties of elements seen in the periodic table now appear to be reducible to quantum mechanics). Complexity studies, for the most part, ignore strong emergence, or fail to differentiate strong vs. weak.
Why is this relevant to the question of complexity in civilization and the question of collapse? I think there is an important interface between emergence and the collapse of complex societies as noted by Joseph Tainter and others.  Viz., that one evolutionary strategy for managing complexity is hierarchy, this is the strategy that has dominated human history because it allows centralized control over the complexity, but it also tends to result in collapse because hierarchies are structurally driven to growth and intensification. In contrast, complexity can be managed by the system via emergence, but this removes control from the center. One function of intensification of [hierarchal] complexity is to deal with information management and coordination. However, if consciousness is a guide, this may also be possible via (strong?) emergence in a decentralized system rather than via hierarchy. Such systems could manage complexity, could optimize functioning over time, but without intensification, therefore removing the driver of collapse. Compare, for example, the information processing and coordination function of hierarchal systems with something analagous to "synchronicity" as a strongly emergent coordinating and information processing phenoemenon. The role--and more importantly potential future role--of strong emergence in human systems has been almost entirely ignored.

Any general law of complexity, and any attempt to apply complexity theory to social systems must address emergence directly, and in my view must specifically address the distinction between weak and strong emergence.  I think that current writing on complexity theory, especially as it applies complexity theory to civilization, almost entirely fails to consider the role and impact of these key features.  My writing going forward with this series will be an attempt to address that gap.  Unfortunately, while I hope to continue some kind of posting for the next three weeks, anything requiring more than about 15 minutes effort is unlikely before March 15th...

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.


TH in SoC said...

I've been following your posts on emergence, though I haven't been able to do more than just skim them. (Been pretty busy lately...)

One thing comes to mind. Your framing of emergence sounds very much like the concept of the gestalt, that is, a structure or pattern whose properties can't be derived by summing its parts. Am I right?

If that is so, I have a further question. How can gestalt entities be comprehended or analyzed in a left-brained, sequential way? Or do we need to shift to a right-brained approach to understanding emergence and collapse? How would people make the shift?

mczilla said...

Kind of shooting from the hip here, but is it possible that the basic assumption about "consciousness" - that it is somehow an emergent phenomenon - is fundamentally inverted? Perhaps what we consider to be reality, in all it's various manifestations and dimensions, is an emergent of consciousness. The great wisdom traditions, as well as the fringe areas of quantum physics and subjective experience, seem to make that suggestion.

John Howley said...

Under weak emergence, we can improve our forecasts of future events through ever more clever and complex models. The future is probabilistic.
Under strong emergence, we cannot assign probabilities to future events; the future is fundamentally unknowable. Hence uncertainty.
So Taleb is a proponent of strong emergence?