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Emergence, Week 1

Paul Grobstein's picture
Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the Biology 361 = Computer Science 361 at Bryn Mawr College. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them. Leave whatever thoughts in progress you think might be useful to others, see what other people are thinking, and add thoughts that that in turn generates in you.
ssv's picture


Unfortunately I missed our first class meeting due to another class, but from reading the comments already posted here, I've gained a little understanding of what might have been discussed.

As far as the reading is concerned, it made me interested in how our various systems of complexity vary depending upon the discipline at hand.  It gives us a way to look at ourselves differently and how we operate and question ourselves and perhaps see different conclusions that weren't apparent before.  I don't think as humans, that we can possibly see every conclusion from every action because perhaps we focus too much on details that could/could not have great depth.  Perhaps the reason why wars are created, etc. are so broad for us to understand and perhaps too general or widespread to have us find a solid good conclusion to why humans do such things.  The actions of a human sometimes can be completely unconscious and therefore how can we pull meaning from them?

Sahitya P.'s picture

Week 1 Discussion/ From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond

Class discussion: I agree that many systems are probably hybrid and reflect both design and emergence. From the evolutionary perspective it is true that the human system has not been designed for specifically, but we can view nature as influencing design by selecting for the outcomes best suited to the environment.  Also there is the case of computers we discussed in class where the computer programs themselves are designed but some outcome such as bugs can be considered emergent because they were not intended and have emergent properties.  Also the “ripple patterns” Professor Grobstein discussed reminded me of fractal patterns and made me wonder whether they could also be seen as examples of emergence. While in some cases fractal patterns are human designed or computer generated there are also example of fractal patterns in nature such as in the case of snowflakes.  So perhaps they are also a representation of both design and emergence?

From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: I like the idea that a broader scope in inquiry across different disciplines is beneficial and that you can “see possibilities less visible from more closely defined perspectives.” I think that by approaching inquiry from this perspective it will offer more opportunity to recognize and appreciate patterns across disciplines and help in understanding emergent processes as the example of the “ripple effect” demonstrates.

Marwa's picture

Week 1

The article for this week was really interesting and posed some intriguing questions. I think it has made me rethink the idea of inquiry and I can see how “inquiry is as much about conceiving new possibilities as it is about discovering what is” and that “[reality] is changing all the time, in part because of our own activities as inquirers.” For example, up until the 17th century, it was thought that the Earth was stationary at the center of the Universe, but now we know that the planets move around the stationary Sun. “Reality” changed as our inquiries changed.

What also interested me was one of the points mentioned as a general foundational idea that permeated the environment back in the 1960's and 70's – that complex phenomena would follow necessarily from isolating and fully characterizing simpler phenomena that gave rise to them. While this seems to work in the case of human body or a college or even a car, it makes me wonder about something like war – can we isolate and find reasons that cause a war? Do the reasons always make sense? Can we always understand complex phenomena this way?

kdilliplan's picture

Thoughts on "From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond"

I was struck by the idea that emergence “isn’t exactly the same for each person”.  I think our discussion in class on Wednesday showed the accuracy of that observation pretty clearly.  I’ve started thinking of emergence less as a phenomenon and more of a tool for identifying patterns across different disciplines.  The challenge to overcome now is to adequately define or communicate a concept of emergence that is useful as a standard to call upon when talking about observable patterns.  We debated the idea that emergence is exclusively a product of humans and therefore did not exist before humans.  I agree that the concept of emergence is a product of humans, but the phenomena it describes are not.  I also think that the idea that “organization can exist without either a conductor or an architect” is another way of approaching that debate.  Just because organization can exist because of a creator, like in the case of a car or computer, doesn’t mean it necessarily has to.  Similarly, the concept of emergence exists because humans came up with it, but it could have existed if we hadn’t come up with it.  

jguillen's picture

first thoughts

I agree with the idea that there can be both emergent systems and systems that reflect both design and emergence. For example, a computer is made up of different parts that are designed to interact together in order to carry out a global function. However, there are also unintended properties that can result such as defects and bugs. There are definitely many things like “ripples” that can be invoked without a conductor or an architect. However, as we try to find real life examples in other types of phenomena it becomes increasingly difficult to understand this idea of no “architect”. I agree that this notion is problematic to many because we like to base the existence of things on human observation.  If we accept the definition of existence as dependent on our senses, then emergence could not have existed before humans. However, I find this difficult to accept. Even though emergence is a human constructed term, I think that something can exist even in the absence of a human observer. Just because humans do not know something now does not mean that it doesn’t exist. For example, just because we don’t know the cure for certain diseases does not mean that they don’t exist. We just have not discovered the cures, yet.
evanstiegel's picture

I was thinking about our

I was thinking about our discussion from last class and how I said I believed that specialness was a property of an emergent system.   I guess specialness implies a human observer which raises the question of whether something can be an emergent system without a human observer to describe it as special. Paul says that the problem with something emergent necessitating a human observer is that it implies that there were no emergent phenomena prior to the appearance of humans in the universe.  Well I believe that there were indeed no emergent phenomena before humans were present.  To consider something as an emergent system requires a human to describe it as such. Yes, we can say that there were emergent systems before we existed like weather phenomena for instance.  But a meteorological phenomenon is only that because we say it is....kind of like the tree falling in the woods with no one there to see or hear it.  In other words, emergence is a product of the human mind much like any other idea or abstract.  We can still talk about and learn about it because doing so can still be useful.  But without us here to describe ideas and phenomena, then they wouldn't exist. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Getting started emergently

Rich conversation last week. A few notes from it, for myself and anyone else interested ...

Emergent systems are "more than the sum of their parts," in the sense that the system as a whole displays properties that aren't displayed by any of the parts that make it up. AND those properties are "surprising," in the sense that they weren't "intended"/"designed." The solar system, ant colonies, human bodies, colleges, and cities all seem to fit this characterization to one or another degree.

But one needs to be careful about "one or another degree," as exemplified by cars, airplanes, and computers. These all have global properties that result from the interaction of parts not having those properties, but many of these global properties are clearly intended/designed while others are clearly not (recall defects, accidents, bugs). The same is true to a lesser degree of human bodies, colleges, and cities. So actually many systems are to one or another degree hybrid? And it isn't in general systems that are "emergent" sensu strictu but rather properties? So maybe there are emergent systems and then there are systems that reflect both design and emergence? Are there any systems that have no element of emergence at all? Computer programs/algorithms? Should "bugs" be thought of as "flaws" or "poor design" or as ... "emergent properties"?

Are we comfortable with cancer or psychosis as an emergent property, or do we want/need some additional criterion for "emergent"? Some "specialness" that makes the property "interesting"/"good"? Could there be such a property that is independent of a human observer? The problem is that requiring a property that depends on a human observer would suggest that there were no emergent phenomena prior to the appearance of humans in the universe, and that doesn't make much sense. So, are things emergent just because of new properties coming out of interactions, or is there something more? Something not dependent on humans? What might it be?

Looking forward to other's thoughts about our first conversation, and/or about From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond.


We agreed to leave "randomness" out of the discussion for the moment. Don't worry, we'll pick it up again in the not too distant future.


EMR's picture

1st Comments

A few things in the article From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond got my attention particularly.  First, I had forgotten the importance to emergence of interactions (see p. 5).  In class we talked a lot about whether we thought certain things were or weren't emergent and why, but we never got into the nature of it.  From the outside, with little previous knowledge, emergence seems to be a little bit mystical.  How exactly do these unique properties arise, seemingly out of the disparate threads of simple elements?  What happens in the mysterious leap?  Thinking about the various non-humans in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series, their seemless telepathic communication, the transcendence of physical distance in their interactions.  Is he reaching for a more tangible version of emergence?  Also thinking of scenes from Men in Black-opening the door into the larger universe, finding yourself to be a bit player in higher workings.  Leads to thinking-where does it end?  If we can't sense emergent properties above our level, who's to say we're not the ants in someone else's view?  Or, to continue the literary allusions (a bit too far), did Douglas Adams have it right, are the ants actually the mice, leading us along with tantalizing clues, ironically subverting our 'superiority?'  Or something silly like that.. Oops, I guess I never got to the other things in the article that interested me.  Maybe next time.