I’ve been thinking about emergence. That things emerge seems clear, but a question involves the precise nature of exactly what emerges. The more I think about it, the more I think it may amount to word slicing. Things do emerge. Whether or not we call them truly “new” seems definitional.
There is a common distinction made between weak and strong emergence (alternately epistemological and ontological emergence, respectively). Some reject the distinction, and I find myself leaning that way. I think — at least under physicalism — there really is only weak (epistemological) emergence.
But I also think it amounts to strong (ontological) emergence.
The concepts of “high” and “low” require a concept of “down” (or “up”), and these require gravity (or acceleration — same thing per Einstein). The concepts “above” and “below” also emerge from this background concept.
Here what has emerged is a relationship.
Presumably that relationship doesn’t exist without a local concept of down (or up), so, at least in some sense, it’s a new thing. It didn’t exist until there was a gravity field.
How we view this has to do with what we call “real.”
But they obviously aren’t real in the same way horses are real. You can’t ride a unicorn (until we get really good at genetic manipulation).
Another classic example is the rules of baseball. They are real much like unicorns are real (that is, they were invented by people, they are written down).
Lots of baseball games are played according to these rules, and — unlike unicorns — the baseball rules are precisely defined. We might therefore say that baseball rules are more real than unicorns but less real than horses.
What makes it even more inscrutable is that, according to ontological anti-realism, there is no fact in the matter.
Some deny unicorns are real (you can’t ride one), and they’re correct in saying so. Others view them as real (they have a definition, a form), and they are also correct in saying so.
Is the past real? Yes — it accounts for the present. No — it’s not present now. Both views are valid, neither more than the other.
Essentially, the definition of the word “real” is dealer’s choice (constrained, of course, by the basic meaning of “to exist” — it’s not a free-for-all).
Ontology is complicated!
Here are some other examples of emergence:
¶ The color image on a video screen emerges from a matrix of dots (pixels) too small to see individually. The dots are what you’d get if you looked at a real (analog) image through an extremely fine-mesh — each one has a specific color value.
Further, each pixel is made of red, green, and blue sub-pixels. Varying the red, green, and blue, components allows a spectrum of colors. This all depends on the human eye’s response to red, green, and blue, along with the way it blends the dots into an image.
There’s a third type of emergence in old-style CRT screens. The pixels in those are “lit” by a scanning electron beam which hits only one pixel at a time. (Once hit the pixel glows for a very brief time.) The eye blends this into a fully-lit screen.
¶ The sense of motion in a movie or video emerges from a series of still frames presented in rapid succession.
This is related to how the scanning in CRT screens blends into seeing the entire screen as lit, but in this case a series of images blends into seeing motion.
Even the “chase” effect of lights on a big sign is really just individual lights going on and off. The sense of moving lights emerges.
¶ There are art or design works where space-separated image elements form an image when seen from the right perspective but otherwise seem random.
From the right perspective, though, those patches combine to form an image.
¶ Living things have many levels of emergence: Life from biology; biology from chemistry; chemistry from atoms; atoms from quantum particles.
¶ Beautiful patterns emerge from flocking and schooling behavior in large groups of birds or fish. I’ve learned recently those are more than beautiful patterns.
These groups extend the perceptive space of individual members, which allows them to react to incoming changes or threats sooner. It’s as if a larger animal emerges.
(Flocking and schooling behaviors also seem intended to present an apparently much larger animal to predators.)
Whether these things constitute genuinely new things seems definitional to me.
It appears inarguable that something emerges that wasn’t there before. The individual behavior is different from the emergent behavior.
I think the argument comes from the degree to which people think the emergent behavior is fully accounted for in the individual behavior.
Emergence in the opposite direction is reduction, so we can also ask if reductionism is strictly true. Can water, for example, be fully explained by the behavior of hydrogen and oxygen atoms? How about by electrons and quarks?
The general belief in science is that, yes, at least in theory, water is fully explained by the Standard Model (which describes electrons and quarks).
Is reductionism strictly true? If one can make a case it isn’t, then one can make a case for strong genuine ontological emergence.
Given what I argued recently, that reality is not strictly determined, it may also be possible to argue against strict reductionism.
To the extent determinism or reductionism depend on precise mathematics — depend on the real numbers — it seems possible they both fail.
Consider good old pi, our favorite transcendental number. Its digits go on forever, but after just 20 or 30, they might as well be random.
So what possible meaning can 100 digits of pi have?
No possible meaning in our physical world.
Those digits are effectively random.
Yet chaos theory makes it clear those digits matter when we’re doing calculations, which determinism and reductionism require.
Therefore it appears they are false.
The Standard model does not describe the ocean waves.
Or so it maybe seems.
Which I’m 100% fine with — I even prefer it. Who wants to be a gear in the universal clock mechanism?
It’s much more fun being an emergent free agent surfing all the emergent complexity reality has to offer.
Much more fun!
Even if not, I think emergence can create effectively new systems. Whether they are truly new seems definitional, but I think there is at least a valid argument that (at least some) cases of emergence do present genuinely new objects.
But the distinction may be too subtle to really matter.
Stay emergent, my friends!