Sunday, May 17, 2009

Emergence 8: (Interim) Conclusions

I've decided to wrap up my Emergence series, not because I've explained how emergence works, but just the opposite:  we don't have any answers yet, but that doesn't mean we can't take something away from its study.

Here's a Table of Contents for the series:

Emergence 1:  Fundamentals
Emergence 2:  Weak vs. Strong Emergence
Emergence 3:  Emergence and Collapse
Emergence 4:  Strong Emergence and Entropy
Emergence 5:  Emergence Facilitated by Social Structure
Emergence 6:  Learning from the Structure of Our Brains
Emergence 7:  Global Workspace Theory

I've been promising that I'll explain why the study of emergence is relevant to the creation of sustainable, resilient communities.  I'll get to that (promise), but first a few concluding thoughts on emergence.

Right now I'm reading Rupert Sheldrake's "Morphic Resonance," which is fascinating not because it explains emergence at all, but because it highlights just how fundamentally incomplete our understanding of our world still is.  I've long argued that there are at least two remaining "great" mysteries that modern science has no viable explanation for:  morphogenesis (how one cell turns into such different, complex, and specific forms), and consciousness (an example of emergence).  Sheldrake's book is fascinating because it shows just how fundamental these two gaps in our understanding are.  We don't understand almost everything with a few minor holes.  Rather, we fool ourselves into thinking we understand almost everything despite the fact that these two gaps arguably swallow up any confidence that we deserve to have in any of our "conclusions."  Sheldrake's discussion of morphogenesis demonstrates that we may have causation completely wrong--not a minor affair, that causation thing.  Our failure to understand consciousness, is also a failure to understand causation.

That said, accepting that we don't know how consciousness (or other forms of strong emergence) "work," I think we can gain a great deal of practically applicable lessons from their study.  It's actually a bit like the practice of the occult--you don't need to know exactly how or why something works to understand that "from certain actions, certain results tend to follow."  The first lesson of our failure to understand emergence and morphogenesis is that we really don't know why anything happens, and that when we think we "know" the cause of something, it's just ignorance.  We should instead focus more on the occult mindset:

From certain actions, certain results tend to follow.

Here's a corollary:  From certain structures, certain results tend to follow.

If you haven't guessed on my argument for the relationship between emergence and "rhizome" (scale-free self-sufficient, resilient, sustainable human communities) yet, you probably can now, but I'll explain what I'm thinking regardless:

In civilizational structures, one attribute is the ability to effectively coordinate and communicate.  Hierarchy is one structural solution--the division of labor and responsibilities allows for extreme specialization and expertise, as well as the ability to manage far more information and knowledge than any one person can possibly be aware of, let alone be proficient at recalling and using.  However, hierarchy also has structural side-effects:  devaluation of the masses, massively inefficient information processing "overhead" (middle-management, management, and "the rich"), and most importantly it suffers from the Problem of Growth--the need to perpetually grow and intensify that makes it fundamentally unsustainable.  In contrast, rhizome leverages scale-free self-sufficiency, non-hiearchal organization, and peer-to-peer communication to attempt to coordinate and communicate effectively without suffering from the symptoms of hierarchy.

The question, however, is whether rhizome can coordinate and communicate effectively given the vast quantities of information and specialized knowledge that exist today in order to achieve an acceptable quality of life?  I think the answer is yes based on pure P2P network theory, a reprioritization of the value/quantity/type of material goods we expect to consume, and a shedding of the huge information processing burden of hierarchies.  However, I've always had a hunch that there was a more fundamental strength of rhizome as an organizational form.  The real purpose of this series on emergence is to explore the potential to leverage strong emergence to make "rhizome is to hierarchy" like "the human brain is to a computer."

Borrowing from the "from certain actions, certain results follow" mantra, it seems like a reasonable hypothesis to me that human communities structured more like the human brain (or other examples that lead to strongly emergent phenomena) will themselves produce strongly emergent phenomena, whereas our current civilization (crude analogy, but structured more like a computer) will not.

What could these phenomena be on a civilizational scale?  First and foremost, I'd say it's what Jung called "synchronicity."  We didn't and still don't have a means to explain this phenomena, and many will dismiss it as mystical thinking, but given our total lack of understanding of the basis for strongly emergent phenomena like consciousness, why not?  Other possible examples include such similarly "new-agey" things as spiritual awakening, evolutions/leaps in consciousness, etc.

But back to the issue of synchronicity--so what?  The partial and short answer is that I think it could have a huge impact on the ability of human civilziation to coordinate and communicate.  Need information about how to build X, how best to organize Y, or the optimal design improvement for Z?  Our current civilziational solution is to leverage a massively burdensome information processing system (the "market," academia, government, etc.) to poorly communicatge this information.  What if just "came to you," or you happened to meet the person you needed to in order to get that information?  Some will think this is crazy, but it seems intuitively reasonable to me.  I'll leave it at that for now--a very fuzzy example to be sure--but ask this:  We should at least consider the possibility that human potential under a rhizome form of organization would be fundamentally different and superior to human potential under our current system.  After all, the brain is fundamentally superior (though also different) in its information processing potential than a computer.  Take imagination, for example, compared to the computer's ability to merely execute code and retrieve stored data.  What is the equivalent of "imagination" for economic and political coordination?

Food for thought...  I'll be shifting my attention for the next few months on developing my litigation checklist, though I'll keep posting on civilization, sustainability, and networked communities.


Al Eggen said...

Jeff, a very interesting post. I think we get into the most trouble when we get too sure of ourselves and what we think we know. Thanks for leading me to Rupert Sheldrake - definitely someone to add to my list of "very important thinkers." The important questions and our ultimate hope lie on the edge of the vast unknown that we - and especially the scientific community - don't even want to admit is there

As you point out hierarchy is efficient if you don't count all the costs that have been socialized. Mother nature doesn't seem to use it in any structures I can think of. While the brain is a very elegant example, lots of simpler organisms (which may or may not exhibit emergence) can do remarkable things. eg. Slime mold that can build an efficient network similar to the Tokyo subway system or swarm intelligence.

ryan said...

Really interesting series – wish there was more discussion on this. Developmental biology and neuroscience/psychology have certainly achieved massive leaps forward in understanding morphogenesis and consciousness, respectively. While the fields are by no means fully understood i'm doubtful that what we do know can be so quickly disregarded by Sheldrake’s unsubstantiated speculations and conjectures into the paranormal/pseudoscience.

"What if just "came to you," or you happened to meet the person you needed to in order to get that information?"
Darwin and Wallace wrote evolution by natural selection independently at virtually the same time, using almost identical terminology… coincidence or emergence? I think a deeper understanding of memetics will prove these phenomena to be understandable and applicable.

Jeff – do you think the problem of growth is inherent to hierarchy in general or is there perhaps something unique about the certain level of consciousness in humans after the origin of civilization? i keep thinking back to how Jaynes' theory fits into this. the hierarchical power structure was already there - the primate model - then with the advent of symbol manipulation/culture it manifested and infused all of human life.

Other hierarchies in the animal world (and “mother nature” does use hierarchy very often – social primates, the pecking order of hens, dominance competitions in all sorts of animals from snakes to sheep) do not go through the massive convulsions of the human power struggle.

will changing the structure alone be the solution to the problem of growth?