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biophile's picture

Beyond Emergence and Complexity Theory

Perhaps what struck me most in the emergence paper was the point that we cannot view the world objectively – that there may not even be an objective reality. We are part of the world, not mere observers. While I know that there is a push by some in the scientific community to acknowledge this inability to view the world objectively, it seems to be ignored by mainstream science. For example, written reports are still styled in a awkward, passive voice and first-hand, personal accounts are generally not included. So much is left out when experimental write-ups are published. The findings of a study are very much influenced by the biases and perspectives of those conducting it. That is, we cannot place ourselves outside of ourselves when we are exploring what is around us. It is misleading to believe that the mind can transcend the body, that our true thinking selves are trapped in human bodies. We are the manifestation of millions of years of evolution; our minds, although amazingly complex systems, are not mystical entities. We are a part of the world and we interact with it, changing it and being changed. We cannot view reality fully, if there is such a thing. We are always going to be subject to the idiosyncrasies of our bodies, even if we have technical equipment that supposedly compensates for that We cannot escape the fact that we each view the world differently and we need to own up to that if we want to understand how the world works.

Another point that interested me was the idea that inquiry is not a process of uncovering things that already exist in the universe and that properties and rules may only be creations of the mind. If the concept of emergence is valid, then there is no architect using mathematical formulas and rules to construct our reality. And math itself cannot make a world; it’s just a concept, something intangible. So what makes a mathematical law true? Math seems to govern a wide host of phenomenon in nature and we can use it to make amazing technological advances – but how? An observer can look at natural phenomena and see mathematical patterns, perhaps even proposing that math guides the unfolding of these patterns or that math underlies what we see. We can try to reason why these things are the way they are and apply our own logic to the situations we encounter... But, at the heart of it, does logic really matter? Nature doesn’t use logic or math or any cognitive process we can relate to; it just is. After years of being told in math classes (or at least having it implied) that math is the only thing we know to be true- that the sun could not rise tomorrow but that the derivative of sin x is always always ALWAYS going to be cos x- it’s very strange to think that math could be something that is created when the observer interacts with and views the environment. That’s not to say that we can’t use math to make our own creations because that’s obviously false. It’s just disconcerting, thinking of the world in a way that contradicts the way we’ve been taught from the start.

Although the emergence perspective cannot be applied to everything, it does serve as a useful tool for thinking of the world. I just can't see how we can use it to explore in an organized way. There are so many facets to any one thing that we could study. Emergence just doesn't focus on top-down and bottom-up - it goes in all directions. In order to have a more complete view of what we are studying we need to explore how the thing in question interacts with the outside and with others and also how parts making up the thing interact with each other, the outside and with the larger thing of which they are part. It seems a very difficult thing to do and it seems very intimidating, almost impossible, to plan out and go about exploring in an orderly fashion. Perhaps that's another hurdle that we must make: the assumption that science is a straight-forward and ordered process.

Finally, where does our sense of self originate? What was said in the paper makes sense: our conscious is not in direct contact with the world, but rather we gain information about it from unconscious parts of the brain that act in specialized ways to tell us about it; it is this system of two levels or circuits that allows us to impose our own stories on the world and make sense of the information our unconscious acts on. The differences and interactions between these two levels make us different from other organisms. And as the article said, it is very counterintuitive to envision our brains in this way. When I look around me and touch something I have an immediate experience of it. I don’t feel as if there is an intermediate between myself and the environment; I feel as if I have direct contact with what is around me. How can these two circuits work so quickly and seamlessly together? Where does this sense of coherency come from? And why does that sense of balance fail sometimes, such as when we feel dissociated from ourselves and the world? Something as complicated as the human brain makes me wonder why we ever evolved this way, why there is a tendency in the universe to defy entropy and to self-organize into structures of increasing complexity.


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