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Week 4 (emergence)

Paul Grobstein's picture

Enjoying the conversation here, hope others are as well. In addition to further thoughts about your experiences with models and model making, what are your reactions to Wolfram, cellular automata? And/or whatever else seems relevant/interesting/surprising? this week?

Jessica B's picture

A little late...

So this is, obviously, rather late and therefore some of what I'm about to say has been touched on in class, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

While I don't agree with Wolfman's idea that cellular automata can describe every system in the universe, the idea is definitely applicable to computers. Ultimately, computers can only operate in two states -- "on" or "off". Either electricity is flowing through a transistor or it's not. Transistors can then be put together in a certain way to make logic gates -- and, or, and not (and sometimes nor and xor). These gates are then put together to make latches, which are put together to make memory. They're also used for arithmetic operations, usually addition and subtraction, though most current computers also have division and multiplication built in (and sometimes loops). These gates and arithmetic operations make up the ALU, which works with the memory and the PC (I think short for "program counter" -- it dictates the order in which everything gets done) to make a processor.

My point (other than finally being able to use what I learned in Computer Orginization) is that the complex machienery I'm using right now to type this is made possible by objects with two states working under certain rules. This, at least, works with the idea of simple things creating incredibly complexity. Using these two states, we can make pretty much any calculation we want to, just like rule 110 in Wolfman's model.

Something to think about, anyway.

samkaplan's picture

Wolfram Needs To Calm Down A Little Bit

I think the reason "A New Kind Of Science" is 1200+ pages is because Wolfram seems to be unable to describe his so-called "simple" systems in a few "simple" sentences. I mean, the whole first chapter was a little bit pointless. It could have been about two pages.

It only hurts his credibility to keep talking about how revolutionary he is. Just tell us what you think and get on with it.

On the other hand, he certainly has a right to be arrogant, considering his academic history. But that doesn't make it any less annoying to read.

And so far, he's spent more time writing about how great his book is than actually explaining anything.

asmoser's picture

Emergence and Durkheim

My sincerest apologies if what I'm about to do is completely unintelligible. Reading Wolfram, the class discussion last Monday and some other random stuff has put this idea in my head, and I'm willing to let it out.

Durkheim in his book The Division of Labor in Society attempts to explain social order in terms of "mechanical" and "organic" solidarity. Mechanical solidarity stems from members of a society being raised in and part of the same social world; from being a part of the collective conscience, which provides our basic world view and set of moral values. Principles that are a part of the collective conscience are obligations because they are both internally (to the individual) and externally (to the society) legitimated.

More interestingly, organic solidarity is the force of social cohesion that stems from the division of labor. This is where things get interesting.

According to modern economic theory, the division of labor is the major force holding capitalist societies together. We are each individually aware that we are dependent on other people to produce what we cannot. This is problematic because in a world of instrumentally rational individuals we are all in a constant state of calculation. Is it good for me to follow this law? To keep this contract? Because people are held together only by dependence and because they all seek to maximize their ends, we are left in an Hobbesian state of war.

Organic solidarity builds on the cohesion of the division of labor by incorporating some of the benefits of mechanical solidarity. (It is important to note that mechanical solidarity wanes as organic solidarity waxes; as we all become more specialized and different, we have fewer shared experiences to hold us together.) Organic solidarity supposes there are rules that govern the way each group in the division of labor interacts with other groups. It also requires that each actor be in a state of calculation, determining what rules have sanctions severe enough to be worth avoiding. However, these rules may become obligations if they are integrated into the collective conscience, thereby avoiding an Hobbesian state of war and allowing our societies to remain cohesive even as we become increasingly different from one another.

Emergence becomes a factor because prior to industrialization, to an advanced division of labor, organic solidarity does not exist. After industrialization, an increasingly complicated set of rules for social interaction must develop to mirror the growth of possible occupations. No longer is everyone a farmer, artisan, soldier or aristocrat. A system emerged, without a conductor, to accommodate an exponentially larger number of social roles.

My point is this: from the practically complex but conceptually simple division of labor (If we all get really good at doing one job, we'll all do our job efficiently and not have to do everyone elses!) arose organic solidarity, an exceptionally complex system of rules for social relationships. For me, this system of rules is too complex to sit well alongside emergence if they are to be understood as governing human social behavior. It is for this reason that mechanical solidarity (despite what Durkheim might think and completely in keeping with the theories of Prof. Mark Gould) remains vital to the theory. The rules contained in organic solidarity only transition from being a part of the social situation against which an actor calculates and maximizes when they are become internalized as conditions of social action because they are legitimated by mechanical solidarity. More cogently, our social behavior is governed by a socially defined sense of morality as it applies to an emergent set of rules for social interaction.

My goal here is to show the value of emergence in social theory by highlighting the way in which simple rules (in this case the morals of mechanical solidarity) can create complex patterns of behavior based on a social situation (organic solidarity). I find it incredibly interesting that in this model, organic solidarity embodies elements of both the social situation or environment and the rules or norms which govern behavior.

Is this really related to emergence? I'd like to think so. The structure of this theory really steps away from the complex, mathematically oriented methods of psychology and economics towards a theory based on simple rules creating complex patterns. Much like the development of computational models for flocking birds or traffic jams, it provides a theory that appears to explain some phenomenon but with effort may be possible to disprove.

Hopefully this made some sense to someone? Do people agree this is related to emergence? Disagree? I'd be happy to respond to any questions or comments.

Paul Grobstein's picture

mechanical vs organic solidarity?

Yep, definitely relates to emergence. I'd though like to hear more about how the distinction between "mechanical" and "organic" is being made, and how THAT distinction is/is not parallel to anything in our models/discussion so far. One distinction seems to be simple rules versus simple playing playing out in a social context? Another that arises in my mind at least is a distinction between rules as acted and rules as consciously perceived.

Lauren's picture

mental workout

In working with the models in the NetLogo library, I frequently catch myself tinkering with code and then generalizing about patterns in the agents' behaviors--only to find that these conclusions are often shot to pieces as each model is left alone to morph and emerge over thousands of iterations. Such straightforward instructions and seemingly unpredictable results!
With all this "inherent randomness" (where does it come from?), I am really starting to believe that tackling the intricacies of emergence may be more intense than any one person's brain can handle. Talk about a mental workout.

This whole concept has made my mind spin. If emergent systems exist, how can we begin to obtain answers to these mysteries without falling into the reductionist constraints of traditional science? Does isolating components in a system really help us to better learn their functions? Is it necessary to understand each piece in order to understand a whole? Are there "correct" and "incorrect" observations that can be made about the models we alter? Or does it all just boil down to individual perception? What if, at this stage in our consciousness, we are simply not ready for (or capable of realizing) the truth? Ironic thought but if we stop searching so hard for answers, perhaps we will emergently stumble across them in the future. (I don't know how realistic that last thought is, but certainly works for my car keys.)


natsu - The book you mentioned sounds really interesting and super relevant. If you remember the name, let me know! I'd like to track down a copy.

Jessica B's picture


That' actually relates to a point that has been mentioned in class. Traditional science has used math to predict the behavior of simple systems. We have equations to tell us how the sun and the moon and the earth rotate around one another, for example, and how a falling body should move. With more complex systems, however, this traditional approach cannot be used. With emergent systems, it seems as though the only way to tell what they're going to do it just to watch and see. So while making predictions can be a useful mental exercise, it really shouldn't be surprising that they're often incorrect. I think that's actually one of the interesting things about the field. I mean, I never would have guessed that the ant would suddenly start moving in spirals.

biophile's picture

how to approach systems

I often wonder if we'll ever be ready to understand how a system works in its entirety. I just don't think our brains work that way, absorbing whole things and intuitively understanding the workings behind them. We can look at something and get the gist of what it is and what it does without looking too closely, but to truly understand its inner workings we always start by taking said thing apart piece by piece. There's just too much information. I agree that a reductionist view doesn't really help when studying systems themselves... I just can't think of how to approach it more holistically in a way that's actually practical.

I agree with that last sentence in the paragraph, though. We always seem to find the most significant things by accident. It almost seems as if we'll never find the answer consciously... We look in the wrong places all too often.

natsu's picture

Déjà vu?

I am curious to hear what people thought about the diagrams in Wolfram's New Kind of Science, and was wondering whether anybody else felt like they had seen those patterns somewhere else. When I was reading the chapters, I couldn't help going back to the pictures because I knew that I had seen them before (which I guess isn't necessarily strange, since we have been talking about how similar patterns can exist in different systems, from the beginning of the first day of class), but couldn't figure out why. Just yesterday, I realized where I saw them. They actually look surprisingly similar to a picture on this book that I read some years ago. Unfortunately, so far I haven't been successful in figuring out what the book was called, but I think it was written by a professor at Amherst College. The picture was of a roof of a house, and it was drawn by her autistic daughter.  Like most autistic people, this girl could stay engrossed for hours in an activity that she found interesting, and exploring patterns was the activity that fascinated her. For this reason, she could spend hours on drawing out patterns like the bricks of a roof, and managed to produce the most amazing art work.

In addition to her talent in art, this girl managed to figure out amazingly high level patterns in math. I don't know if you woud call her a mathematician, becuase she never studied math or worked with equations, but she could just spend hours and hours writing out and thinking about the patterns, and as a result, she found out things that nobody had yet managed to found. As I remember it, some students at Amherst later worked with her and compiled her findings into theory. The reason why I started to think about the procedure that this girl and the Amherst students went through, is because to me, it seemed to resemble the way Wolfram ran the cellular automaton and used the patterns drawn out by the computer to come up with his discoveries.

biophile's picture

the human brain and patterns

This is one of those things that makes me say "wow," but I can't explain exactly why it makes me say that. I can almost identify with the girl you described. When I was much younger I could spend long long periods of time (sometimes a couple of hours) staring at tiles in floors, making patterns in my mind. Or I would stare at the pavement as I would walk and try to make patterns in my steps (i.e. one step in one square, two steps in the next, one in the following, two after that, etc.). I realize that this is fairly common (moreso than one might think at first), but it still amazes me.

I often wonder where this periodicity in thought comes from... Does the structure of our brains just lend to that? Or is there something more to it? And people like the girl in the story you were describing are fascinating. I wish that I could sit down for several hours at a time and pick apart the patterns I see all around me that I spend so much time thinking about superficially. And I hate to sound indelicate, but sometimes I think that people with OCD would be great working in this field. There's so much to keep track of; someone would have to be neurotically obsessive about patterns and details to have somewhat of a handle on it. I definitely want to learn more about how the brain finds patterns in general.

mgupta's picture

The OCD...Last semester in

The OCD...Last semester in my College Seminar we read about a woman who was physically challenged and it was this extensive boredom that she went through every single day of her life that led her to make patterns in the Yellow Wallpaper in her room. From just plain patterns, soon it led to moving designs. Through these illusions, she even started to notice a woman who was "trapped" in the wallpaper and was looking for a way out. And of course, from one woman it went on to lots of them who were trapped inside looking for their way out. The woman herself then wanted to find out about these women and started feeling like she was trapped inside the wallpaper too. She was found taring the wallpaper trying to find "freedom" from the wallpaper.

 It was neurotic obsession I guess, that led the woman to do what she did. It will certainly be more interesting to find out about the ways that the brain finds patterns in different things.

Paul Grobstein's picture


Interesting. Let's try and track it down? Reminds me of one of my favorite plays, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Tomasina, the main character, wasn't autistic, but was conceived by Stoppard as having discovered emergent patterns in the early 1800's.  By hand.