Emerging Emergence, A Report on Progress (October 2002-present):
From the Active Inanimate to Models to Stories to Agency
(and Back Again)

Paul Grobstein
October 28, 2004

(for earlier version click here)

The basic story

Emergence = a perspective and story-telling genre that is distinctively characterized by efforts to make sense of observations on the presumption that there is no architect, planner, or intentional "first mover" (one anticipating future outcomes) nor need there be any conductor. There is only an originally and still largely undirected play of entities which become parts of larger entities which become parts of still larger entities and so on. Over a long period of time, the process has, in a quite recent development, created entities that wonder and ask questions about the process itself and, in doing so, are able to find ways to influence and mimick that process. Criteria for evaluation ... Theory = "story", and both ALWAYS have the property that they will eventually prove to be inadequate descriptors of observable phenomena (see Getting It Less Wrong, The Brain's Way and A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century: Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together).

Hence, the key question when one first hears a story should not be, is it wrong? That it will eventually be shown to be is a given. The first question should always be "is it useful? does it take one in new and potentially productive directions?" Once one has figured out the usefulness of a story, THEN one goes on the its limitations (its inevitable "wrongness") in search of the next story (theory). See Being, Thinking, Story Telling: What It Is and How It Works, Reflectively

"Emergence" may, in the abstract, never have a completely explanatory theory (and can't, in fact, if, as we collectively tend to believe, it is constantly generating new and unpredictable observations). On the other hand, aspects of emergence do in fact yield useful theories/stories, as we've been productively engaged in finding out.

Summary of (now older) conclusions ... "Emergence" is the current name of a way of making sense of the world that has existed at least since the Greeks (and probably before that) ... over the past two years significant progress has been made in outlining a plausible and generative story that starts with the "active inanimate" and links it via living things and their general "model making" capacity to the human capability for "story-telling" and "agency", without the need for any organizing forces outside the realm of matter, energy, and information (which can be understand as organizations of matter and energy). A noteworthy aspect of this synthesis is that "story telling" underlies "agency", which in turn can bring into being things that would not otherwise have existed.

It is useful to distinguish within "emergence" several different, interdependent levels of phenomena

And to distinguish between two forms of "entities", those that are not and those that are affected in their internal organization by their actions and the actions of other agents. The latter are "model-bulders", ie their internal organization is reflective of history and able to anticipate change.

And to distinguish between two kinds of "top down" interactions: those reflecting "stigmergy" in which the top-down influence is simply the accumulated resultant of agent actions and those reflecting "agency" in which the top-down influence is itself an autonomous and purposeful agent. "Story-tellers" fall into the latter group.

My case study for trying to understand emergence: the history of the universe

Over very long periods of time under the influence of the second law of thermodynamics as a driving force there is increasing "complexity" with some distinguishable "steps". The proposition is that by trying to understand these phenomena in this test case we can come to (actually, create?) some broader understandings of the meaning and underlying processes of emergence.

Today's task is to fill in some spaces and attempt to answer a question:

The active inanimate (fundamental "irreversibility" and "indeterminacy"

The "active inanimate" (and its products) ARE part of "emergence". Whether what occurs in the active inanimate is "epistemological" or "ontological" emergence depends on the state of the story-teller. Regardless, there is at least some degree of unnpredictability in what happens in the "active inanimate" and hence a strong likelihood of of unpredictability (and irreversibility) in those things that are built on it (model builders and story tellers). It is likely that not only everything in the universe but the universe itself is "surprising", not only in the sense that there is no first principles from which it can be derived by humans but in the sense that there are no first principles by which it can in principle be derived by ANYTHING.

From this perspective, it is not difficulties in recovering the past or predicting the future that need to be accounted for. What needs to be accounted for instead is the existence of ANY ability to predict the future and/or recover the past.

Model builders (the nature of evolution)

Story tellers (the "bipartite brain", a new architecture)

    Anatomy and function ...

    More on the story teller and its relation to "culture"

    A case in point

    The story is ...

More on story-telling

An utterance (signal) is a particular realization of a larger potential, an irreversible compression (neither fully predictable nor fully explainable) and meaningless without a receiver

The receiver re-expands the utterance, again with some indeterminacy

Humans can influence each other's stories but only by creating their own stories and inferring similarities and differences with the stories of others

Utterances are a way of probing stories and their underpinnings, and a way of generating new things/exploring

Bottom line:

We are all active and interacting entities in a long-standing exploration of possible forms of material organization which has been enriched by story-telling and agency ...

There is no end to the process

And so no way to know for sure at any given time whether a particular emergence is "epistemological" or "ontological", a distinction that exists and is of interest only for story-tellers of a particular inclination.

The only way to find approximate the "ontological" is to repeatedly challenge the "epistemological", no "view from nowhere" achievable, there is only the continual expanding of the "view from everywhere"

I also like the "view from everywhere" rather than the "view from nowhere." Here's my non-mathematical summary of Noether's Theorem: "If you have a theory about how a system behaves, and if the mathematical form of your theory does not change even if you change your point of view, then there exists in that theory a quantity whose value will characterized the system forever." Here's a probably unwarranted leap to a societal context: "Concepts which do not lose their integrity and their attractiveness even when considered from different points of view are invariably linked with values which are of lasting importance." Of course, this deals with invariants, but invariants only in the context of the theory (story) .... Al Albano, 25 October

And in the context of the observations made to date ... Paul Grobstein, 25 October

Significance of an "invariant" across lots of different phenomena/scales?
Relation of this invariant to heat engine, Maxwell's demon?
More on where ANY ability to predict the future/recover the past comes from?

Post talk notes - 28 October

See Forum Interesting issue, the causation of "wave function collapse ... because of physicist's descriptions ("measure", "observation") one gets the impression this depends on/results from "human observer") ... is it possible that universe, before humans, was actually in a "quantum" state? Does it matter, for my story? Arguments against the idea

Because of emergence, there is no "naive reductionism", ie very few properties of systems can be explained by discovering underlying single elements that mirror them

Middlesex p 387 ... "from inside there is no comparison" ... contrast to "can't get outside of myself"

There is an "unconscious" iff there is a conscious? But NOT because the conscious stocks it ...

Add handling of probability to list of conscious/unconscious differences

Issue of absolute indeterminacy is actually an issue of whether one can or cannot achieve the "view from nowhere" OR the "view from everywhere". "Complete knowledge" is ... oxymoronic (chen?) ... knowledge is always "situated" ... "lack of knowledge" is no more than the possibility of gaining a new perspective in the future ... which is non-eliminable ... relevant re information? ... re non-reality of past? [an error occurred while processing this directive]