From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond:
Why Emergence is so Hard to Define, Why It is Interesting/Surprising (to Me), and What it Leads On To that Might Otherwise Not Be
The Nature of Inquiry, and of What is Being Inquired Into

Paul Grobstein
Emergence Working Group
13 June 2006

With appreciation for recent conversations on (among other things) ...

and earlier conversations including

  • Growth Points (?) in Emerging Emergence: Evolution, Architecture, Story Telling, and Generativity(Theory and Practice of Non-Normal Inquiry), February 2006
  • The Emergence and (continuing) Evolution of the Story of Story TellingOn the Difference (?) Between Ants and People, May 2005
  • The Bipartite Brain and Its Significance for Idealism, Pragmatism, and Other Matters, February 2005
  • Emerging Emergence, A Report on Progress (October 2002-present): From the Active Inanimate to Models to Stories to Agency (and Back Again), October 2004
  • Reflections on 30 years of learning to be a scientist/empiricist (but not realist)/pragmatist/inquirer Bottom line:

    A personal starting place

    Three general ideas permeated the environment when I was a young scientist. The first was that the surest route to understanding involved focus and specialization. One was a developmental biologist or a neurobiologist; paying attention to fields other than one's own was, to put it mildly, not regarded as a productive way to invest one's time. A second was that understanding more complex phenomena would follow necessarily from isolating and fully characterizing simpler phenomena that gave rise to them. And a third was that reality (or at least that subset of it that was treated at any given time as within the sphere of rigorous inquiry) was in fact understandable by such an approach, ie that there actually was a well-defined and unique set of properties and rules the discovery of which would progressively make the mysterious and not yet understood predictable.

    It was at the time a perfectly reasonable set of ideas, and an environment within which many people were not only quite comfortable but prosperous and productive. And I didn't like it ....

    Grobstein, 1988
    (plus fifteen years)

    " ... important aspects of both morphogenesis and brain function (and probably evolution and the immune system as well) are determined not by anything idiosyncratic to these particular systems but rather by some more general set of rules and principles to which they are all subject ... "

    "The myth that analysis at finer and finer levels of detail is the objective of studies of morphogenesis and brain function has been effectively driving research for a long time ... the present discussion implies that what is needed in both cases is to identify the involved semi-isolated systems at various levels of organization and to characterize the interactions among them.

    "Both morphogenesis and brain function behave to a significant extent as parallel, distributed information processors ... "

    "... variance is fundamental rather than either incidental or detrimental to successful biological organization ... without variance the generation of novelty which is so important ... to sustained organization in the face of an unpredictably varying environment [would] be lost."

    "It may be time to discard the metaphors of the machine age for not only the health of the biological sciences but that of our culture and species as well."

    My sense was that there were important patterns visible across fields of inquiry that were missed by getting caught up in idiosyncracies. At least as important, in hindsight, was a distaste for the notion that there was already known to be a right way to engage in scientific inquiry and an even greater distaste for the idea that inquiry in turn was itself simply a process of uncovering things that already exist. Both science and the world, it seemed to me, not only must be more interesting than that but in fact seemed to be.

    I felt that "Parallel, distributed information processors" at several interacting "levels of organization" with a significant role for "variance" could open things up a bit in useful ways, as did others in the evolving area of what was then called "complex systems" (the Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984; Parallel Distributed Processing was published in 1987). That

    "simple things interacting in simple ways can yield surprisingly complex outcomes"

    ( didn't challenge the demonstrably productive idea of trying to make sense of the behavior of wholes in terms of parts that made them up. It did, however indicate that one shouldn't expect simple relations between parts and wholes, encouraged more attention to interactions as well as other modifications in research agendas and approaches, at least raised the possibility that "understanding" was not equatable with predictability, and certainly offered the potential of similar explanations of similar phenomena in quite different realms.

    An illustrative case for the complex systems perspective

    Is it useful to entertain the idea of a similar understanding of all of these disparate patterns, something that transcends the idiosyncracies of meteorology, geophysics, biology, and culture?

    One possibility of course is that that there is some single outside agent that had that pattern in mind and so shaped all these different materials similarly. Most scientists (myself included) discounted that possibility and continue to do so, but it is worth mentioning for reasons I will return to.

    Turing, having noticed similar pigments patterns in a variety of different organisms produced a classic paper describing a set of diffusion equations that would yield ripples (among other things) using any of a wide variety of constituents (cf. And there are other sets of formalisms that link together in likely ways dune formations on Earth and on Titan despite their very different physical constituents and conditions.

    On the flip side, some ripple patterns certainly involve one set of formalisms and others others. Some things turn out to be usefully linkable together using the "complex systems" perspective, others not. The "complex systems" perspective can, it has turned out, be a useful adjunct to more idiosyncratic perspectives but is not a replacement for them. Useful as the "simple things interacting in simple ways" insight was (and continues to be, see Greif), a truly general set of "properties and rules" that can be similarly and equally effectively used across all spheres of inquiry did not result from it and seems unlikely ever to.

    Beginning to turn the problem around ... the emergence perspective

    "By starting from wholes and moving down into parts, one is moving in the opposite direction from which things arise" ... Goodenough and Deacon, 2006

    Organization (patterns) can exist without either a conductor or an achitect, ie without anything that conceives such patterns in advance of their coming into existence

    Implications and possible implications (what make emergence hard to grasp):

    A story of emergence, including the emergence of conductors/architects

    In the beginning ... there was no "Word", nor "properties and rules", but only randomly interacting matter/energy

    More stable forms of matter/energy persisted in comparison to less stable forms

    With continuing random change/differential persistance (exploration) there came into existence life, ie "model builders" (the ability to incorporate updateable "models" of the surroundings by further exploiting random change)

    With further continuing random change/differential persistance (evolution), there came into existence "story tellers", and with them words, inquiry, "rules and properties", architects (the ability to conceive alternate forms of organization of matter/energy and evaluate them without creating them)

    architects interacting with emergence? We live not solely in an "emergent" world but in a hybrid one, partly at least of our own making as hybrid agents ourselves

    Blending the emergent and the architect: the bipartite brain

    Multiple special purposes model builders, do not have "rules" (though can be described to some extent in terms of them, ie are interacting neurons)

    Broad synthesizer, conceiver of "counter factuals", architect. Creater/user of "rules" (and can be described to some extent in terms of them, ie are interacting neurons)

    Dynamic interaction between the two yielding behavior that is blend of emergent and architectural ("intentional" sensu strictu)

    Hybrid character not normally part of "story" but observeable/experienced under special circumstances (Three Doors)

    Provides a usable route to the "spiritual" [added based on discussion during talk]

    Bottom lines

    Societies/cultures as more complex hybrid systems [didn't get to this or following in discussion]

    Potential usefulness for thinking about education, social/political organization, individual and political action ...
    • Persistant problems of "fundamentalism" (ie rule presumptions")
    • education as hands-on, inquiry-based, open-ended, and transactional
    • individuals as "profound skeptics" or possessors of "passionate curiosity"
    • implementation of effective hybrid systems both in individuals and in groups?
      • stop worrying about what others do "wrong"; focus more on what they do less wrong than one does oneself
      • stop trying to get others to think the way one thinks onself; learn from how they think
      • same holds for various parts of oneself
    New questions (germs for further emergence)

    On what does levels of organization and movement from one level to another depend?

    What are the detailed neural processes that are involved in the distinction and exchange between the unconscious and the conscious?

    Can one found social organization on a profound sense of the limitations of the products of inquiry?

    Is it at all possible to project emergence into the near/far future?

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