What Emerges?

Venus emerging from the sea.

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.

One example of emergence that I like is the idea of “high” and “low” — which emerge only in the context of gravity. (Credit due: This is from The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli.)

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.”

Horses are real. So are unicorns (because you know what one is — they have an existing definition — you may even have seen a picture of one).

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).

And yet,…

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.

A proton has a (charge) radius of 0.00000000000008414 meters, which is just 15 digits. The Planck length is 35 digits, and size below that doesn’t mean anything.

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

70 responses to “What Emerges?

  • Wyrd Smythe

    (Post #897… only two more to go this year!)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    For me, emergence is about how the human mind works. We naturally model things at our level of evolutionary affordances. When we attempt to understand things smaller, larger, or otherwise way out of scope of our natural niche, we’re forced to do so in terms of metaphors of that daily niche. Emergence is when we have to switch models, use different metaphors.

    Which leads me to favor the weak version. Sometimes, such as in the emergence of thermodynamics from atomic motion, we know that we’re only dealing with the weak variety. But in cases where we don’t yet understand how the emergence happens, we can’t rule out the strong version, but assuming strong emergence seems like an investigatory dead end. In other words, assuming that strong emergence is simply weak emergence we don’t understand yet seems like a more productive stance.

    I sometimes wonder if it isn’t emergence all the way down. The fact that many things we once took to be fundamental eventually turned out to be emergent from something else, leads me to think we can never close the book on the possibility that spacetime and quantum fields might eventually themselves turn out to emerge from something else.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “For me, emergence is about how the human mind works.”

      In many cases (“pictures” from dots, “motion” from still images) that’s very true, but (as you say yourself in suggesting it’s emergence all the way down) there are many other cases where our minds aren’t involved.

      The flocking behavior of birds is a good example. As I mentioned in the post, it extends the perceptive space of individuals. The flock acts like a larger animal. It’s a new behavior that only occurs in the flock.

      “In other words, assuming that strong emergence is simply weak emergence we don’t understand yet seems like a more productive stance.”

      Absolutely. (Although even better is to make no assumptions at all. Let the evidence testify.)

      “I sometimes wonder if it isn’t emergence all the way down.”

      Certainly in a constructive sense, that seems true. Atoms are constructed of quarks and electrons. Compounds are constructed of atoms. Etc.

      At the same time, it does seem “new” objects arise — certainly emergent systems have their own set of laws — but as I said in the post, seeing that as truly “new” seems almost a dealer’s choice.

      Given what I perceive as a failure of strict reductionism, and therefore of strict determinism, I’m comfortable in seeing emergent systems as “new” but, as you mention, until we truly understand some of the more difficult cases, who knows.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “The flock acts like a larger animal. It’s a new behavior that only occurs in the flock.”

        True, but that description is itself a model of what’s happening. We could describe it as the behavior of each bird reacting to the other birds. It’s just extremely difficult to work with at that level. It’s much easier to just think of it as a flock, and the flock, at least while they’re together, is conducive to it.

        “Although even better is to make no assumptions at all. Let the evidence testify.”

        Definitely on letting the evidence testify, but my point was that if we assume we just don’t understand how it weakly emerges, we’ll keep investigating. If we assume strong emergence, what is there left for us to do? Or put another way, what evidence could we ever find for strong emergence? It seems like we can only fail to find evidence for how a feature is caused by the lower layers.

        I personally don’t perceive that reductionism has failed, although I guess it depends on how you define success or failure. There are cases where we can’t currently reduce something to what we think are its underlying layer(s). Maybe some of those cases will turn out to be forever irreducible. We might expect that we’ll eventually hit fundamental brute facts of reality. I wouldn’t regard that as a failure, but as success in identifying a candidate for something truly fundamental.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “True, but that description is itself a model of what’s happening.”

        In order for us to talk about it, sure, and I agree the behavior of individual birds accounts for what emerges. At the same time, that emergent system does change the dynamics of the individuals.

        Whether one calls that “new” or not… seems definitional to me. I do like the Chalmers notion of ontological anti-realism (which is weird when I’m a hard-core realist), so I’m pretty agnostic about how emergent systems are labeled.

        I think we can agree emergent systems present new (inevitably simpler) laws and are dealt with in terms of the whole rather than its components.

        How one views reduction may be a big factor. If everything being based on a putative GUT of physics (one that unifies QFT and GR plus accounts for dark stuff and other open questions) means that GUT can, on its own, fully explain waterfalls, then emergence has to seem strictly epistemological.

        If one focuses more on how new laws emerge from compound systems — even while still admitting to reductionism — emergence can seem more ontological. (The GUT might account for fluid dynamics, but the laws of fluid dynamics only apply to the emergent system, not to the particles that comprise it.)

        Of course, one can certainly take the view that the emergent new laws are strictly epistemological. 😉

        For me, emergent laws are as “real” as unicorns and the rules of baseball. They might even come close to being as real as horses.

        “If we assume strong emergence, what is there left for us to do?”

        Keep investigating, anyway! Either assumption might be wrong! 😀

        “I personally don’t perceive that reductionism has failed, although I guess it depends on how you define success or failure.”

        It’s a tricky question, isn’t it. Sabine Hossenfelder, most times she mentions reductionism, throws in a qualifier to the effect that, at least so far, no one has shown where reductionism fails.

        There has been some work lately that’s interesting. I meant to reference it in the post, but it got too long. I’m sure I’ll pick up the topic in the future and get to it then.

        I’ve mentioned it to you before, I think, that real world objects, after about a dozen decimal points, don’t have well-defined values beyond that. That seems to doom strict causal determinism, which implies reductionism might also be doomed.

        “I wouldn’t regard that as a failure, but as success in identifying a candidate for something truly fundamental.”

        🙂 “Failure” doesn’t have to be pejorative. To establish a genuine “failure” of reductionism would be a huge success, indeed!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I do like the Chalmers notion of ontological anti-realism (which is weird when I’m a hard-core realist)”

        As you know, I’m a scientific instrumentalist. I think all we ever have are predictive models. And yet, philosophically, I feel like there is a fact of the matter when it comes to ontology. There is something “out there” anchoring all these predictive models.

        But maybe all I’m really doing here is making an assumption that all of these models will someday be reducible to a GUT. That seems like a productive assumption to make in order to keep investigating, but I’ll admit there’s no guarantee it will ever happen.

        I’ll be interested to hear about that work on reductionism.

        “Failure” has a ring of finality about it, but I’m probably reacting to the way’s it’s often used by the anti-science crowd. Definitely sometimes failure is success. The “failure” of the Michelson-Morley experiment to find the lumeniferous aether signaled a looming paradigm shift.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “And yet, philosophically, I feel like there is a fact of the matter when it comes to ontology.”

        Absolutely. As I said, I’m a hard-core realist. I believe in an external reality that is what it is. Ontological anti-realism, as I understand it, involves things like unicorns or the rules of baseball (or the past) and whether we consider them “real” or not. The anti-realist position is that there is no fact of the matter in how we label such concepts.

        (Obviously unicorns aren’t real in a concrete physical instance sense, but anything with a Wiki entry has some level of reality.)

        “But maybe all I’m really doing here is making an assumption that all of these models will someday be reducible to a GUT.”

        I agree we keep investigating. I’m open-minded about the possibility that, although a GUT may underlie reality, it might be beyond our ken to ever find it. It’s possible reality is too complex to ever be understood by the likes of us.

        It’s definitely an open question.

        “I’ll be interested to hear about that work on reductionism.”

        The articles I’ve been seeing have more to do with strict determinism being false than with reductionism, per se. But they are essentially mirror versions of each other, so if strict determinism can be falsified, this implies reductionism is false.

        It would suggest that some emergent behaviors are too complex to be completely specified by the behavior of the parts. That might be an effective limit, or a computational limit, rather than an in principle limit, or we might discover some information-discarding process that truly limits predicting the system based on its parts.

        “‘Failure’ has a ring of finality about it,”

        Yeah, language and social use complicates things. [sigh] So it goes.

        Something occurred to me: “Failure” is what science is based on. The Popper idea of theory falsification is a theory based on failure. As you know, science has a hard time proving anything. But lopping off branches of falsified ideas hopefully leaves a true tree.

      • Marvin Edwards

        Reductionism has a built-in problem: there is no bottom. When people claim that everything can be reduced to physics, they forget that Newtonian physics would similarly be reducible to quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics could in turn be reduced to whatever parts make up the quarks. And we could repeat this process infinitely, down to the theoretical “smallest part of the smallest part”.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, that’s not what reductionism means. It means everything can be explained by whatever is fundamental. It means emergence never creates anything truly new.

      • Marvin Edwards

        And what is this “fundamental” you refer to? And how is it constructed? 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Firstly, unless one takes the view it really is “turtles all the way down” then something is fundamental.

        Secondly, if something is fundamental, it’s not constructed, it’s axiomatic.

        Thirdly, as far as we know, electrons and quarks (along with the bosons) are fundamental constituents of reality. (Also along with spacetime, neutrinos, the other quarks and leptons, dark matter and energy, possible new physics [cf. “X17” particle or the G-2 experiments], and… something else I’m forgetting… oh, right, the laws of physics. All, science thinks, fundamental. 😀 )

      • Marvin Edwards

        Well, it used to be atoms “all the way down”. Now it isn’t. There is a limit to what we can see, but we’re always building new telescopes to see farther and new microscopes (and new colliders) to see deeper.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        To repeat: Unless one believes it really is turtles all the way down, something is fundamental.

        I do not believe it’s turtles all the way down.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “That might be an effective limit, or a computational limit, rather than an in principle limit,”

        On the effective limit, I actually thought chaos theory already had us there. For many systems, there are so many variables, and so many perturbing influences, that prediction is effectively impossible, regardless of whether it would be in principle.

        “But lopping off branches of falsified ideas hopefully leaves a true tree.”

        Francis Bacon argued that everyone should work to disprove their own hypotheses. It’s a noble idea, but human psychology usually doesn’t work that way. It’s why science is so dependent on reproducibility, where others try to disprove our hypotheses.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I actually thought chaos theory already had us there.”

        Very much so in terms of prediction. (Chaotic systems, of course, are strictly determined, but cannot be calculated or predicted.) I’m reaching for systems that might not even be strictly determined.

        “It’s a noble idea, but human psychology usually doesn’t work that way.”

        Hence a favorite quote (due to a friend of mine, but it echos a sentiment I’ve seen expressed elsewhere): “Science proceeds despite scientists.”

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Science proceeds despite scientists.”

        That might be one of those emergent things. All the bickering and attempts to show each other up have the effect of killing weak ideas and battle hardening successful ones. The trouble seems to come when one scientists gains too much prestige and can inhibit ideas he disagrees with. But that seems less of an issue today than it used to be, particularly with the internet.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The internet is, indeed, a great flattener. (If only that didn’t also involve elevating inimical fringe groups.)

  • Marvin Edwards

    The concept of “waves” emerged from observing the sea. And we metaphorically apply it to light and sound. The same would apply to the “laws” of physics, as a metaphor derived from human laws that govern our behavior. The laws of traffic are real. The “laws” of physics are metaphorical.

    “Emergence” is a metaphorical description used to account for how higher level behaviors appear. But our words originated from human experience and the need to describe that experience to each other. So, the words are top-down attempts to explain how bottom-up causal mechanisms might account for the behavior of higher level objects, like us.

    Unfortunately, to say that something we do, like walking, is somehow explainable by physical causation doesn’t really work. Something is missing. When objectively observed, the atoms seem to have no “interest” in going for a walk, no “motive” or “reason” to do so. And yet, here we are, a collection of atoms, walking around and doing things that we “want” or “need” to do.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “The laws of traffic are real. The ‘laws’ of physics are metaphorical.”

      An interesting ontology. You say the things we make up are real, but consistent observed physical patterns are not? I’m afraid I can’t go along with that; your own example shows why.

      We observed wave behavior in water and recognized lawful physical patterns. We saw the same lawful patterns in sound and light. Our observations led to our metaphors, and those same observations also led to the laws we made up.

      “Unfortunately, to say that something we do, like walking, is somehow explainable by physical causation doesn’t really work.”

      Hence the infamous “hard problem” — how is a collection of whatever (particles, atoms, brain cells, etc) able to make statements like “I think, therefore I am!”

      • Marvin Edwards

        Oh, the consistent patterns of reliable behavior are certainly real. It’s just the concept of “physical law” that is metaphorical. Objects like the Sun and Earth and Moon don’t consult any law books to determine what they will do next. They just do what they naturally do.

        We use different language and concepts for the three types of causation: physical, biological, and rational.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Objects like the Sun and Earth and Moon don’t consult any law books to determine what they will do next.”

        Okay, I see what you’re getting at. As you go on to say, we use different language in different domains, and part of that is words that appear similar but mean different things. (I’ve always found philosophy tricky that way because it uses common words in specific, and sometimes unusual, ways.)

        I think we mean something quite different when we talk about physical “law” and human “law.” The latter has a sense of “rules” and, as they say, rules are made to be broken. Human law can be broken with no problem. (Possible consequences is another matter!)

        Physical “law” can’t be broken, it can only be superseded by new law.

        Keep in mind, also, that, in other languages, the words used for the concepts may not be so similar as they are in English. We should be careful about conflating the two just because they use the English word “law” in their description.

        “We use different language and concepts for the three types of causation: physical, biological, and rational.”

        Absolutely. If you want to talk causality, that might be better under this recent post of mine. (Here, the topic focuses on emergence.)

      • Marvin Edwards

        The objective observation is the reliable patterns of behavior. The only objects that are literally governed by the laws of physics are the physicists doing their calculations.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Why would the laws of physics apply to one object (physicists) but not others (planets)?

        I think we have very different views here. I see the laws of physics as real properties of the universe. We discover them; we don’t invent them. (We do invent the language — mathematics — that describes them.)

        You mentioned earlier that the planets don’t consult law books. True, but they do always act according to those fundamental physical laws. (In my view, physical law and causality are the same thing.)

      • Marvin Edwards

        WS: “Why would the laws of physics apply to one object (physicists) but not others (planets)?”

        Because the planets can’t read, but the physicist can. Thus, his behavior in calculating where the moon will be when the Apollo rocket arrives is literally governed by the laws of physics.

        The planets themselves don’t really care about the laws of physics. They just do what they do.

        WS: “I see the laws of physics as real properties of the universe.”

        Well, that would be a hallucination. The properties of physical objects, such as their mass, inertia, trajectory, etc. are what control everything that they do. The universe as a whole is just where all the stuff is located. It has no properties.

        WS: ” We discover them; we don’t invent them. (We do invent the language — mathematics — that describes them.)”

        We describe what we observe. The laws of physics are descriptive of what we observe. The laws themselves have no causative powers (except with the physicist).

        Actually, there’s a nice statement in the SEP article:

        “Indeed, talk of laws “governing” and so on is so commonplace that it takes an effort of will to see it as metaphorical.”
        (See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ section 2.4 Laws of Nature)

        I love the irony in that statement (“it takes an effort of will”).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Because the planets can’t read, but the physicist can.”

        We are really talking about different things here, because what I’m talking about as laws of physics has nothing to do with reading. The universe unfolded — lawfully — for over 13 billion years before anyone here got around to reading anything.

        “The properties of physical objects, such as their mass, inertia, trajectory, etc. are what control everything that they do.”

        If I drop a rock from a tower, if falls a certain way. What describes how it falls?

        It’s not the rock’s mass. A rock and a feather fall the same way in a vacuum.

        “The universe as a whole is just where all the stuff is located. It has no properties.”

        I can’t agree. I don’t see how spacetime can have meaning without the underlying laws it operates by. Look at it this way: How did the Big Bang happen if not by some lawful event?

      • Marvin Edwards

        WS: “How did the Big Bang happen if not by some lawful event?”

        “I shot the sheriff…but I did not shoot the deputy”. That’s what comes to mind when you call the Big Bang a “lawful event”. I think you’re pushing the metaphor over the top.

        Gravity caused the accumulation of matter into a super-condensed, massive “black hole”. Either the quantity of matter reached some tipping point, or perhaps two black holes collided, causing the Big Bang.

        Gravity is what we call the force. The laws of gravity describe what that force causes to happen.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I think you’re pushing the metaphor over the top.”

        Why? Do you think the BB did not happen according to physical law?

        “Either the quantity of matter reached some tipping point, or perhaps two black holes collided, causing the Big Bang.”

        But before the BB there was no matter to accumulate or black holes to collide.

        “Gravity is what we call the force. The laws of gravity describe what that force causes to happen.”

        And aren’t those laws part of the universe?

      • Marvin Edwards

        WS: “And aren’t those laws part of the universe?”

        Objects and forces make up the physical universe. The behavior of these objects and forces is reliable. The reliable behavior of inanimate objects is described by the “laws” of physics.

        WS: “But before the BB there was no matter to accumulate or black holes to collide.”

        I disagree. Something doesn’t just appear out of nothing. And since there appears to be stuff all around, we must conclude that stuff, in one form or another, has always been here. One of the things we’ve learned recently is that there are black holes near the centers of most galaxies. These accumulate matter from anything close enough to be drawn in by the black hole’s gravity. So, at some point, all matter will coalesce into black holes which will eventually gobble up each other as well. At some point there will be another Big Bang. And the cycle will repeat, in some form, eternally.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The behavior of these objects and forces is reliable.”


        “And since there appears to be stuff all around, we must conclude that stuff, in one form or another, has always been here.”

        So one of your axioms is that a universe always existed and it directly spawned a new universe once everything collected in one BH?

        Doesn’t that cycle follow physical law?

        (Also: What about the current cosmological view that dark energy drives the expansion of space such that everything will separate and eventually all the black holes will evaporate into thermal radiation and nothing will be left?)

      • Marvin Edwards

        Determinism asserts that the behavior of all objects and forces within the physical universe is causally reliable. The little -ism at the end suggests that determinism is a belief. The evidence for this belief is all of the instances of reliable causation that we witness every day.

        Where are we located in time with regards to eternity? One thought is that we are precisely in the middle, with 1/2 of an eternity behind us and 1/2 of an eternity still ahead. Now, 1/2 of eternity is…well, it is still eternity. That’s how the concept works.

        So, if stuff has already been here for an eternity, it is likely to continue to exist for eternity. But it has always been in motion and transformation, for example between universes and super-dense black holes. Wikipedia has an article on “Ultimate fate of the universe” which outlines a number of theories. I’m fond of the Big Bounce, because its nice to think that life will continue to show up for eternity.

        The laws of physics may be used to predict the likelihood of each scenario, but nothing literally “follows physical laws”. There is reliable behavior that is described by the laws of physics. What the objects literally follow are the natural forces between them, like gravity.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        In my view, the reason for the reliability is that things follow physical laws.

        You appear to think this is due to the properties of objects themselves; I’m saying it’s due to properties of reality — the laws of physics. It amounts to the same thing.

        However, again, I see a difference between strict determinism (which insists on a single future) and causality (which allows multiple futures). Strict determinism is a belief not really backed up by evidence. Proving it true requires predicting the future — including human behavior — with 100% accuracy. (My claim is that it is not possible, even in principle, and that strict determinism is false.)

        FWIW: I think trying to do math with eternity is an incoherent concept. I’ve never been much taken by the Doomsday argument or by the Anthropic argument.

      • Marvin Edwards

        The reason why I chip away at the notion that things are controlled by “the laws of physics” is that this notion suggests we have no meaningful role, no control over anything. The laws of physics are in control, and we have no say in any matter.

        That’s why I stress that it is the actual objects and forces that really do exist in physical reality, and that these objects and forces actually do all of the causing.

        We happen to be one of those objects. By recognizing this fact, the causing is returned to our hands, and removed from the abstraction “the laws of physics”.

        But another way of looking at this would be to say that we ARE “the laws of physics”, or, at least, a specific package of those laws, operating within the world to accomplish a purpose that is our own (to survive, thrive, and reproduce) according to methods and means that we control through our own reasoning.

        Reasoning is a separate causal mechanism. It runs, like our computers, upon a physical infrastructure (our neurology). It models reality. And it manipulates that model through imagination and creativity, to run scenarios that let us estimate and predict the likely outcome of our actions, and to choose between multiple possibilities.

        Within the domain of human influence, the single inevitable future is caused by imagining different possible futures, and choosing which future we wish to actualize. That choice becomes the single inevitable future.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The laws of physics are in control, and we have no say in any matter.”

        Under strict determinism, that is correct.

        If you claim there is something special about the collection of particles we call humans, you’ll have to account for what that is, because, as you say, we’re just physical objects following physical laws (regardless of where you think those laws lie).

        “Reasoning is a separate causal mechanism. It runs, like our computers, upon a physical infrastructure (our neurology).”

        Then our reasoning is just as fully determined as our computers. There is no freedom — not one shred — in a computer program.

      • Marvin Edwards

        To say “there is no freedom” would be too broad. There is certainly no “freedom from cause and effect”. There is certainly no “freedom from oneself”. And there is certainly no “freedom from reality”.

        But there is freedom from coercion. And there is freedom from other controlling undue influences. And that’s the only type of freedom required for free will.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        In a general social sense, certainly. Regardless of the putative reality of strict determinism, it feels like we have free will, and we must act according to that perception.

        What you don’t seem to accept is that, under strict determinism, that feeling is an illusion, an epiphenomenon. For a long time neuroscientists thought they had proof the brain decides things before the conscious will does. Recent data casts that in doubt, but there was a general acceptance of the idea that our brain decides things outside our conscious will. (I was always dubious, and the new data provides grounds.)

        Acts of coercion are just as determined as anything else (under strict determinism). How you respond to coercion is also determined.

      • Marvin Edwards

        Ironically, the stricter the determinism, the more likely you are to find free will. For one thing, the presumption of perfectly reliable cause and effect immediately casts out the philosophical definition of free will as “a choice we make free of causal necessity”. If there is no such thing as “freedom from causal necessity” then that concept can no longer define anything.

        That forces us back to the operational definition of free will, as “a choice we make free of coercion and other undue influences”. I call it the operational definition because that’s the definition that is used when assessing moral and legal responsibility. It also happens to be the definition that everyone understands and correctly applies to practical scenarios.

        There have been studies that show how ordinary people understand the concept of free will. Here are a couple:

        Click to access nahmias.pdf

        and most recently:

        In the latter study they asked college freshmen to define free will in a few sentences. In there conclusion they note “From Study 1 we can conclude that people have a solid concept of free will, but there was no evidence for a belief in violations of natural laws, causality, or the like.” In other words, they are not using the so-called “philosophical” definition of free will.

        Within a universe of strict determinism, every event is causally necessary from any prior point in time. It is not just my choice that is inevitable, but also the choosing operation.

        If my choosing is inevitable, then my considering of two or more possibilities is also inevitable. And it will be inevitable that it will be I, myself, that will be “deciding” the issue.

        The authors also conclude that “At least within extant studies, people do not have trouble accepting determinism and free choice side by side. In philosophers’ terms, people appear to be compatibilists.”

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You’re talking sociology. I’m talking physics.

      • Marvin Edwards

        It’s naive to suggest that the laws of physics can explain everything. If that were the case then one could derive the laws of traffic from the laws of physics. It can’t be done.

        Physics is only capable of predicting the behavior of inanimate objects. If you want to know why a cup of water rolls downhill, then physics is fine.

        But if you need to explain why a similar cup of water, heated, and mixed with a little coffee, hops into a car and goes grocery shopping, then physics doesn’t have a clue.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s quaint that you think so, but if you could actually prove it, you’d be famous.

        As I have said repeatedly, the materialist view is precisely that the laws of physics account for everything. That is the current scientific view — everything ultimately reduces to the basic laws of physics.

        But if you can show where the magic sauce comes into play that transcends those laws, you should definitely let someone know!

      • Marvin Edwards

        Can do.

        (1) Matter behaves differently when organized differently. For example, H and O are gases which only become liquid at extremely low temperatures. But organize them into a molecule of H2O and you get a liquid at room temperature.

        (2) Physics observes the behavior of inanimate matter, and is quite competent to explain this. A ball placed on a slope will always roll downhill.

        (3) However, when matter is organized into a living organism, it displays purposeful or goal-directed behavior. The object matter is animated by biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Place a squirrel on that same slope and it will go up, down, or sideways depending upon where he expects to find the next acorn. His behavior is no longer controlled by gravity. It is controlled by biological drives.

        He is still subject to gravity, of course. And if you drop the squirrel and the ball from the leaning tower of Pisa, they will both hit the ground at the same time. But gravity no longer controls his behavior as it controlled the behavior of the ball.

        So, biological drives are a separate causal mechanism. The organism makes use of physical forces (as when the squirrel climbs a tree), but it is no longer “governed” by them.

        And we should note that, while biological organisms can use physics to accomplish its purposes, physics can never use biological organisms to accomplish its purposes, because inanimate objects have no purpose.

        Purpose emerged within the physical universe when the first biological organism appeared.

        (4) In biological organism that have evolved into intelligent species, we get another type of causation: rational. The brain organizes sensory input into a model of reality consisting of objects and events. And it can manipulate this model by imagination to create scenarios that help the organism to predict the likely outcomes of choosing to actualize one scenario versus another.

        This introduces a third category of behavior: deliberate action. This is an action derived through the mental operation of deliberation, which includes imagining possibilities, evaluating them according to its current purpose and reasoning, and choosing what it will do.

        Deliberate behavior emerged within the physical universe with the arrival of the first intelligent species.

        In the case of humans, this meant the ability to study the laws of physics and put them to our own use for our own purposes. This included escaping the control of gravity in a very big way, by landing someone on the Moon.

        In summary, it is impossible to explain the behavior of living organisms, much less intelligent species, by limiting ourselves to the laws of physics.

        The laws of physics are never broken. It’s just that they don’t cover everything. That’s why we have the Life sciences (to deal with biological causation) and the Social sciences (to deal with rational causation).

        And there is no magic involved anywhere. It’s all science!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “The laws of physics are never broken. It’s just that they don’t cover everything.”

        The first sentence is true. The second is false, at least in principle (effectively is another matter).

        A key point of this post is to question reductionism, the current scientific view, which holds that all those things you mentioned reduce to the basic laws of physics. All those things you mentioned, life sciences and social sciences, are emergent from those laws.

        Those emergent laws offer very convenient ways for us to deal with complex systems. Only the universe itself has the computing power to deal with reality at the basic level. We’re still trying to pull off doing tiny bits of it. A major attraction of quantum computers is they allow simulating larger systems at the quantum level. (And by “larger” I mean, like, proteins, so still pretty small. Right now we can’t even do a proton.)

        So emergent laws are how we have to operate, but they are emergent from basic physics. They can, ultimately, be fully explained by physics.

        The reductionist chain is something like this: What accounts for my behavior? My mind. What accounts for that? My brain. What accounts for that? Some sophisticated neuro-biology programmed by my life experiences. What accounts for that? Whew, lots of things. On the brain side, more basic biology, accounted for by chemistry, accounted for by atomic physics, accounted for by, ta da, quantum physics. The life experience side is diverse and complicated, but ultimately boils down in similar fashion.

        Since there is no magic sauce, everything, ultimately, is constrained by the laws of physics. Everything else is emergent from that. A belief that anything gets added along the way is a belief in magic sauce.

      • Marvin Edwards

        I think there is a distinction that needs to be made between physical material and physical science. While everything is constructed from physical material, physical science only observes the behavior of inanimate objects. And that is why the behavior it observes, and the consistent patterns from which it derives its “laws”, are incomplete.

        Living organisms are made of physical material, but they behave differently than inanimate objects. Physical science does not observe living organisms, so it really has very little to say about what living objects do and why they do it.

        A science can only derive its laws by observation. Since physics does not bother to observe living organisms, it cannot explain or predict their behavior from its laws.

        From what I’ve heard, the laws physics could not explain the behavior of quantum objects either. And there were many surprises as they began to actually observe quantum events via the several large colliders. If the laws of physics were sufficient, then we wouldn’t need quantum mechanics.

        Michael Gazzaniga in “Who’s in Charge?” covers weak and strong emergence. He also addresses the problem of deriving physics from quantum mechanics and vice versa. His example is Newton’s laws (strong emergence) applying to large bodies versus quantum behavior of subatomic particles. He suggests that physicists are unable to derive one from the other, in either direction. So, even within the physical sciences it is recognized that the laws of behavior for objects on one level are simply different from the laws on the other level. (see page 124 of “Who’s in Charge?”)

        So, perhaps we need 4 levels of causation: quantum, physical, biological, and rational.

        The key point here is that the nature of the objects at different levels have different causal mechanisms, each with its own unique set of “laws”.

        Every object in the universe is still composed of physical material. But the behavior of the objects at different levels of organization have additional rules unique to that level.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        We’re just plowing plowed ground. Yes, emergent systems have rules at emergent levels. Yes, it’s computationally infeasible for us to use quantum physics to explain ocean waves. Nevertheless, quantum physics does fully account for ocean waves and you taking coffee shopping.

        Unless you can actually mathematically demonstrate where reductionism fails. As I said, doing so will make you famous.

      • Marvin Edwards

        “Accounting for things” is my point. Neither physics nor quantum mechanics can account for the behavior of living organism or intelligent species. Only the Life sciences and the Social sciences can do that.

        And if you want to demonstrate anything mathematically, you’ll need to take into account the actual behavior of the objects you’re interested in, like people. There was that movie “A Beautiful Mind” about John Nash, a schizophrenic, about whom Wikipedia says, “Nash’s work has provided insight into the factors that govern chance and decision-making inside complex systems found in everyday life.” In the movie, I recall a scene where he was observing the behavior of pigeons in the yard on campus.

        Again, the key point is that you cannot come up with the laws of behavior for objects that you fail to observe.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Obviously, but I’m not sure what that has to do with it. Our observations confirm what I keep telling you: all those things you mention are emergent.

        Whether you accept it or not, the modern scientific view is that reductionism appears correct. At least no one, so far, has shown where it fails.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        BTW: One problem with your thesis is that animate and inanimate objects are made from the same stuff. Humans are just complex machines made out of meat, bone, sinew, and lots of tubes. 🙂

      • Marvin Edwards

        And that’s the crux of our issue here, the presumption that since all objects are made of the same fundamental stuff, atoms and molecules, that they all must operate by the same rules. They don’t. Apparently not even between QM and Physics.

        The difference between humans and machines is that humans build machines to assist them carry out their purposes. Machines have no purpose of their own. Their purpose is derived from that of the living organism.

        Keep in mind too that “artificial intelligence” is created by attempting to simulate what the human mind already does. That’s why it’s called “artificial” because it is manufactured.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…since all objects are made of the same fundamental stuff, atoms and molecules, that they all must operate by the same rules. They don’t.”

        Are you seriously trying to say the atoms in your brain operate according to different laws than the atoms in the inanimate objects around you?

      • Marvin Edwards

        Nope. That’s not what I said. What I said was that the objects composed of atoms operate differently according to how the atoms are organized. The atoms in a squirrel are organized differently than the atoms in a billiard ball. You can confirm this for yourself by first poking the billiard ball with a cue stick, and then poking the squirrel.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So you’re claiming structure is the magic sauce? Why would one structure operate according to different rules than another? Why aren’t the physics the same for squirrels and billiard balls?

      • Marvin Edwards

        Why are things as they are? I don’t know. They just are.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Which takes us back to not being able to account for the claim. It’s an assertion with no logical support. There is no clear case of reductionism failing.

      • Marvin Edwards

        How would you know whether it failed or succeeded?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Same way science always does: experimental results.

      • Marvin Edwards

        So, did you poke the squirrel with the cue stick and observe the difference in its behavior from that of the billiard ball? That would constitute an experimental result. Right?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Not a particularly scientific one, but…

        Both poked. Both moved. Why? Physics.

        Presumably I don’t have to convince you the ball reacts due to physics, so what about the squirrel.

        The nature of atoms means the pool cue transmits force to the objects. In the squirrel, this generates nerve impulses, which work according to biology, which works according to chemistry, which works according to atoms, which work according to physics.

        The impulses provide input to the squirrel’s brain, an extremely complex neural network programmed by evolution and the squirrel’s memories. The squirrel’s neural network reacts as it’s been programmed by nature to do. All of this works according to biology, which works… etc.

        A squirrel is just a biological machine, and all machines work according to the laws of physics.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Try it this way: Imagine we build a robot squirrel that looks and behaves exactly like a real one. Internally, it’s just motors, ligaments, armatures, tubes, and a tiny computer.

        Is there a difference between the robot squirrel and a real one?

        Do you doubt the robot works only according to the laws of physics?

      • Marvin Edwards

        The robot squirrel serves our purpose (to simulate a squirrel). The real squirrel serves its own purpose (to survive, thrive, and reproduce).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No, that’s a high-level value assessment on your part.

        What’s the difference between how they operate, the laws that control them?

      • Marvin Edwards

        I don’t think either have any knowledge of any laws. Each will act according to its own nature. If you watch enough squirrels over time, you can learn of their consistent patterns of behavior, and make up laws to describe that behavior.

        The squirrel will gather nuts, find a mate, raise a family, grow old, and die.

        The robot will do whatever you programmed it to do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Each will act according to its own nature.”

        Their natures? WTF are their natures?

      • Marvin Edwards

        The squirrel will act like a squirrel acts.
        The robot will act like a robot acts.

        The scientist will observe both, and write down her observations over time, and tell you what it is their nature to do.

        If it is a physical scientist, then he won’t be able to explain what either object does, because he never observes living organisms or simulations of living organisms in his study of inanimate objects.

        If it is a life scientist, then she’ll tell you exactly what I’ve been telling you, that the squirrel’s behavior which is for the purpose of surviving, thriving, and reproducing.

        The social scientist will explain the squirrel’s patterns of interactions with its families and tribes.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        What you describe for “life” and “social” scientists is an observational approach that is the only recourse available for complex emergent behavior. Anthropologists, archeologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc. All of those fields acknowledge the limits of what they can do because they are confined to observation.

        The harder sciences study why those things work, they study the parts of things. Only the hard sciences produce physical laws that actually explain anything. The softer sciences are all built on this foundation. Those other scientists all stand on the shoulders of these ones.

        We keep going around the same point, and it’s getting old. At this point, I don’t know if you’re trolling me, if you don’t understand, or if you’re just insisting on your own personal view of things. If you’re trolling me, I’ll ask you to leave; if you don’t understand, say what you don’t get; if you think differently from mainstream science, just acknowledge it.

        But, regardless, Marvin, I’m getting really tired of saying the same thing over and over. Either accept it or disagree and be done.

      • Marvin Edwards

        ALL science, including physics and chemistry, derive their “laws” from direct observation, forming hypotheses, and conducting experiments that confirm the hypotheses.

        I recently bought a copy of the Campbell Biology textbook by Urry, Cain, Wasserman, Minorsky, and Reece. They do cover emergence early, on page 6, in fact.

        They say what I’ve been saying: “These emergent properties are due to the arrangement and interaction of parts as complexity increases.”

        Matter behaves differently when organized differently.

        You may want to look at these topics from the view of science rather than from the view of philosophy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Marvin, I’ve been into science for almost six decades. I’ve been giving you the scientific view. But since you don’t seem to be demonstrating understanding, it’s down to that either you’re trolling me or you really don’t understand what I’m saying. Again: I’m giving you the scientific view.

        I agree about emergence. What you don’t seem to understand is that (for what I’d really like to be the last time): Reductionism means these high-level phenomena are all fully explained by the laws of physics.

        You seem to believe magic sauce comes from structure, but you can’t account for how or why. You either don’t believe, or don’t understand, that all structure operates according to the same basic physical laws.

        That’s the scientific view.

      • Marvin Edwards

        Then our disagreement is about what is included in the term “basic physical laws”. The specific sciences of physics and chemistry deal with inanimate matter. Those I refer to as the “laws of physics”. But if you mean to imply that the term “physical laws” include those “laws of nature” observed and recorded by the Life sciences and the Social sciences, then I would agree.

        My point is simply that it is impossible to explain the behavior of living organisms and intelligent species using only the “laws of physics”.

        Thinking is not covered by the “laws of physics”. Yet thinking controls certain behaviors of intelligent species. Imagination leads to progress and new inventions, and so on.

        The mechanism of thinking operates upon a physical infrastructure, of course. But no laws of physics cover logical thought. Logic has its own set of rules that operate at a different level.

        Yeah, I’ve probably said all that before, just like you’ve repeated your mantra that if its made of physical matter then the laws of physics must be able to explain its behavior.

        We disagree. I’m sorry you can’t see it as I do.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Call me crazy, but I prefer the mainstream scientific view. I don’t see it your way because I think you’re factually wrong. All you’ve got is a lot of hand-waving about structure being somehow magical, and I don’t believe in magic.

      • Marvin Edwards

        I don’t believe in magic either. Everything is built from physical matter. But its behavior depends upon its organization. And that, as I’ve quoted to you from a college Biology textbook, is the scientific consensus.

        Thanks for the conversation. It will be interesting to see what (if anything) we’ve each learned between now and the next time we talk. Have a good 2020.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “But its behavior depends upon its organization.”

        Your faith that structure results in non-reducible laws amounts to a belief in magic. Ask any scientist. As I have said repeatedly, no one has ever accounted for where reductionism fails. It very well might, but so far we haven’t seen it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And to be clear about the nature of the disagreement, it’s that you don’t believe in reductionism while science, at least for now, does. I’m just upholding the scientific consensus.

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