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Week 13 (emergence) - Past and future?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Your thoughts about what we've done together this semester?  About the usefulness of "emergence" as an addition to your ways of thinking?  As a more general framework?  What's changed for you over the semester?

Lauren's picture


I've enjoyed how open the class has been, especially in terms of balancing our approaches to the topic of emergence. There is a strong philosophical component that facilitates discussion while also stimulating hands-on exploration through NetLogo. Being of a more hands-on/application type, I felt that I was able to accommodate one style of learning while strengthening another. Overall, this approach kept the class varied and interesting.

When I joined the course at the beginning of the semester, I had very limited understanding of what emergence was. My only exposure to the field was having read Duncan Watts Six Degrees for another class, which stimulated my interest in the subject and opened my eyes to the interconnectivity of small world networks. Taking this idea a few steps forward, the Emergence course helped unveil many other related topics that had previously remained shrouded in mystery for me, especially the notion of natural synchrony on which I decided to focus my final project.

One of the most useful parts of this course was the discussion surrounding our book presentations. Not only did the wide variety of topics lend itself to many interesting observations but it also has provided me with a jumping off point for relevant literature on the topic of emergence. I strongly believe that this field is not something that one can easily forget about after being exposed to it. Instead, I expect that certain aspects will stay with me long after I have graduated. In some ways, I feel as though the class has reconditioned me to be more observant of the world. Every now and again, I notice something so seemingly simple and unexpected that it startles me in that moment, almost as if to serve as a lingering reminder that emergence is everywhere.

mgupta's picture

Over the course of the semester...

I walked into class without knowing much about emergence except that it was a Biology/Computer Science class and I was not comfortable about the Biology since I am not a Science person at all. I did not even know what to expect in the class, but this course has certainly taught me to think in a different manner. Particularly, I was not a big fan of the CA, but really enjoyed the "social organizations without a director" models and learning about complexity from simplicity through the Game of Life and Langton's Ant. Like Natsu mentions, it is great to have simplicity around and I would always want to have an expected outcome which could be explained for the plain reason that it gives security. But while I was working on my model, I realized that I wanted to model something that would be at least surprising, if not complex and for the first time, didnt worry about how it can be explained through certain equations or theories, but how it could be discussed in broad terms to sort of advance the idea.

I also really enjoyed reading Linked and learning more about networks. It was surprising to see how much emergence can be related to networks and how since networks connect to almost everything else around us, its amazing that emergence sort of connects with everything. I was especially fascinated with the way emergence connects to social science and thats the reason why I tried to model corruption - lets see how far I can take that!

falvarez's picture


The idea of emergence in and of itself was not new to me, nor was it new to any of us really - evolution seems to come directly from emergence (conceptually, not chronologically). As natsu said, it was the application of this idea of simple interactions producing increasingly complex products to other areas of study, life, the world, what have you, that really made this course significant.

What really stood out for me in particular is that in mapping emergence onto the world at large, (and perhaps this is just the influence of my book presentation), you can begin to see an overall interconnectedness. What is now called the "Science of Networks" seems incredibly crucial to me, perhaps the most significant thing I've pulled from this whole course. It is this idea that resonates with me most and makes me believe that the whole of emergence truly has something significant to say about the world and the things that occur within it. Politics, economics, hell, even just general social spheres are affected by such a concept.

It's really amazing to think that an idea that stems from such simplicity can have such a broad impact on our lives - but I suppose that's the basis behind the entire class, haha.

asmoser's picture

The Left Half of Ancient Constantinople

Emergence has been a course unlike any other I've taken. I think the opportunity it gave for us to explore our own ideas and questions about 42 has been invaluable. The emergence approach of creating simple models to generate complex results is extremely powerful, but it is enough of a departure from scientific methods we know (and has powerful enough implications) that it leads us to problematize both conventional scientific perspectives and the emergent perspective. While there was never really a question as to whether emergent phenomena existed, we certainly struggled with the implications; that all we need to study are 1d CAs, that we exist in a purely physical universe, that consciousness may not be as ridiculously complicated as some believe.

I do think it's interesting that emergence is not a particularly new idea (at least from what I know). More like an old idea that only came back into fashion recently. Still, it's a novel way of approaching all sorts of topics and I intend to do some modeling in my thesis work next year. Partly this is because emergence simplifies the process of combining separate disciplines into a theory by allowing us to simply construct a model rather than worrying about the theoretical implications of what we want to study.

biophile's picture

I agree!

What surprised me the most in this course was the emphasis on simplicity. Whenever I thought about systems before, I usually focused on how complicated they are and how different bigger systems are from smaller, less organized ones. It was strange in some ways, talking about how complex systems are the result of simple interactions among simple elements. It cleared up some confusion on my end and I think that it gave me a new way of seeing the world more clearly. It made me realize that having too complicated a set up doesn't work; elegance is the key. Complicated models are unappealing and systems fall apart if the individual interactions are too complex (or at least that's my understanding; feel free to refute it).

What we talked about also really helped to frame many of my interests. I've always had a hard time explaining to people why I liked biology so much; I would talk about how life organizes itself on the cellular, organismal and ecological levels and how each part affects the whole without the whole being the sum of the parts. I would touch on a lot of topics we talked about without giving them a proper context or explaining how they were connected. Perhaps the best thing this course has given me is the right vernacular; knowing the name of what one is interested in generally helps.

I'm not sure if I'm ready to go beyond emergence. While there are some things that it can't explain, it helps to give perspective on a lot of problems we face today. It's so difficult to incorporate different view points and approaches into one's own explorations; it's not as easy as switching gears while driving. We tend to get stuck in one way of thinking and it's hard to realize it and stop it. I liked this class so much because it had such a different approach and many of the thoughts that I've been chewing on for a long time were articulated so well and expanded upon. There won't ever be a grand unified theory, but we can dig ourselves out of the hole we're in by looking at approaches like these and going even further.

natsu's picture

A new way of thinking

Thinking back, it is almost funny what a vague idea of "emergence" I had at the beginning of the semester. Although I had heard of the term and had had other people explain it to me, I had been thinking that "emergence" is still an undefined concept, which I guess is why it seemed so attractive and interesting to me.

Though I still consider "emergence" to be a multi-faceted, continuously growing idea,  if I were asked to define emergence in one short sentence, based on what we learned through this course, I would say that it is one way of thinking about the various phenomena we observe in the world. I may even say that it is a new, different way of thinking (at least for me).  It was fascinating to discover that emergence is a way of thinking that is truly applicable to the real world.

What I found really appealing about the idea of emergence is its simplicity. Personally, I think that we all feel a certain level of comfort and relief when we encounter something that is simple. This is probably even truer today, when everything in the world seems so complex and colorful. This comfort that we feel is probably the reason why some brands that sell products with extremely simple designs (like muji) are so successful at attracting costumers.

 It seemed like we all pretty much agreed that emergence is a useful way to think about real world phenomena- the next step is probably to find out how we can let others know about that this idea exists, and come up with ways to promote a better understanding of emergence. Whatever method we choose to take (blogging, computer modeling etc), I think that simplicity is the key.