Sunday, March 08, 2009

Emergence 4: Strong Emergence and Entropy

Back to the Emergence Series now, and the path is set for the final four posts.  This post will consider systemic entropy (the Second Law of Thermodynamics that entropy is always increasing) in light of strong emergence.  The following two posts will look at what causes emergence--I will argue probably strong emergence--in first human society and second human cognition.  The concluding post in this series will argue for how a Rhizome structure can be modified to facilitate (strong) emergence regardless of whether it is a stand-alone social network or merely an influence on and component of broader society, and how emergent properties can specifically enhance the operation of that network.

I should note at the outset that I am not arguing that strong emergence somehow invalidates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or even that it is a true "exception."  However, I do think that the operation of strong emergence may interface with the energy demands of society in interesting and potentially useful ways.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says, in a nutshell, that in any closed system (e.g. the Universe) entropy (disorder) is always increasing.  The practical result of this is that the Universe will eventually die a cold death because the useful forms of energy need for organization of complex systems (e.g. life) will be used up, and there's no reversing that arrow (unless, of course, there's enough dark matter for the Universe to collapse back in on itself again, there's some unknown interaction with other parallel universes making *our* Universe a non-closed system, or many other possibilities that are best left to the cosmologists and theoretical physicists).  From a more practical perspective living in an essentially closed-system planed (with the notable exception of a known/fixed rate of solar energy input), and for a society facing an energy crisis, we need to figure out where to get the energy to power our civilization going forward.

These may seem like two entirely separate areas of inquiry--strong emergence and the energy crisis facing our civilization.  I'll admit that this is a bit of an aside from the previous thrust of this series to understand emergence itself, but it will act as a segue to the "so what" of the series--what good will it do to understand emergence?  The ultimate answer will come in the seventh post in this series, where I lay out a picture of how we can structure our society to facilitate emergence and reap the advantages of strongly emergent phenomena.  But this post will look at one simple possibility:  that strong emergence may facilitate coordination and communication within our civilization in a manner that is far more energy-efficient than our current mode of hierarchal and mechanical communication, and perhaps that even works around, if not actually contradicting, the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Our civilization's current schemes for economic coordination and communication are extremely energy intensive.  If you think about it, accepting politics as the process of distributing limited resources in an environment of unlimited wants, our entire political superstructure is an energy-hungry mechanism for economic coordination.  Yes, our economy is driven by many individual actors, but these actors act upon an infrastructure and a rule-set that is provided by this superstructure.  And, as I have argued elsewhere, epiphenomena related to this superstructure are what drive our civilization's perpetual growth an unsustainability.  In a future of decreasing net energy availability, this superstructure will become increasingly non-viable, and we will need to engineer a replacement.

How can we move away from this energy-hungry and undesirable superstructure without losing the critical ability to communicate and coordinate economic and social activity?  After all, while it is theoretically possible to simply revert to a latice of self-sufficient nodes, without a powerful and social system of communication and cooperation between these nodes, we will either pave the way for a re-aggregation into oppressive neo-feudal states or, at a minimum, we will abandon many of the important fruits of complexity such as medicine, engineering, and vast reserves of technical knowledge that will be needed to optimize quality of life going forward.  Especially to the extent that surplus energy is a limiting factor, I think that strong emergence may offer a superior means to economic coordination and communication than do our present hierarchal and mechanistic structures.

How can strong emergence facilitate communication and coordination?  Consider our brain (a model of facilitating strong emergence) vs. a computer (modeled after our civilization's current system of hierarchal and mechanistic coordination and communication).  Admittedly, our brains use a fair amount of energy, but because information processing (consciousness) emerges from them, rather than being the mechanical result of a massively hierarchal information processing system, our brains produce the kind of information processing and communication capability that would require thousands of times more energy if replicated by a mechanical computer system.

Why is this?  Do strongly emergent systems operate within our current understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?  Are they, at a minimum, far more efficient at communication and coordination (albeit not in the clear and hierarchal manner we're accustomed to) when measured by the amount of entropy produced per "unit" of resulting communication?  I think that, anecdotally, the answer appears to be "yes."  I'd love to measure this empirically, but until we truly understand (if ever) how strong emergence functions, this will remain unmeasurable.  I don't think, however, that this is reason enough to ignore the potential to use strong emergence as a means to remodel our civilization in a way that will allow us to reverse the arrow of hierarchal complexity, and move continually toward a more connected, more fulfilling, less energy-consuming civilization.

That will be the focus of the remaining posts in this series:  to look at how our brain and our civilization do manifest emergent properties in order to understand how to increase the role of emergence in our future civilization, and then an explicit discussion of how we can do this to move toward a more sustainable and fulfilling society.

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.


TH in SoC said...

Hi Jeff.
Your writing certainly takes us in unexpected directions - strong emergence as a way of circumventing the Second Law of Thermodynamics in order to reduce the energy required for large scale coordination and communication. I also read a post by Big Gav at Energy Bulletin regarding the Tea Party movement. How can the facilitation of strong emergence help present American society to realistically face the predicament of energy decline? And how can the facilitation of strong emergence enable enlightened individuals and communities to defuse potentially damaging and extreme mass movements engineered by rich people? Or are these issues that must be addressed by other processes?

usofc said...

I have also explored similar systems in my studies of consciousness and I have an intuition you could be right. If strong emergence can happen in consciousness-creating neural-environmental interfaces as I have observed then it could also happen in the humanity-Gaia interface. In short, lower energy states can produce the same effect as a higher degree of complexity when there is a contextual resonance which coordinates the functions of holons. Those nodes can cooperate in order to solve each other's local problems by sharing a grammar. Nature does this with DNA and it led to us and our kind of consciousness. We can do it with informational systems if we have the right grammar - if we create the holons/nodes appropriate to the problem to be solved - in this case the problem is how to create human-scale communities (nodes) which cooperate in maintaining high complexity technologies while consuming solar-bio energy at a level sustainable by the planet.

Mark David Bailey said...

Hi Jeff,
I like it...An article in PlOS Computational Biology called Broadband Criticality of Human Brain Network Synchronization presents some documentation that's arguably in favor of strong emergence in individual minds, and Chris Sinha seems to have some some documentation of evidence for strong emergence in at-large humanity.