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Week 5 (emergence)

Paul Grobstein's picture

More thoughts about Wolfram, cellular automata, computability and the universe .... how all this relates to emergence?  Or whatever else has been on your mind this week.



shikha's picture

At first Wolfram's assertion

At first Wolfram's assertion that everything started from CA, sounded too fascinating for me to even think about whether it was plausible or not. However, as other people have pointed out, it seems rather difficult to say that human behavior is derived from CA. There are just too many exceptions and intricacies. I was thinking that if the CA is allowed to run for a very large number of iterations, would its complexity increase, or would it stay at the same level of complexity? For CA to be the basis of life, it would have to evolve to higher complexities over time...

Lauren's picture

Do we have a purpose?

Precisely, but then is there really a purpose for higher-level creatures at all? Or are they just the by-products of increased complexity (read: CA iterations) where failure to possess fatal "flaws" does not reduce organisms to their more simplistic forms? Perhaps the coexistence of different biological complexities in nature supports a natural weeding-out process (Darwin?); however from what I've read of Wolfram, he seems to not support the "survival of the fittest" idea. I'm confused.

samkaplan's picture

Evolving Cellular Automata?

I agree. I like what we've read so far about Cellular Automata and lambda values and nature, but I still don't see the crucial piece of information: how did life transition from Cellular Automata-like organisms to larger, multi-cellular organisms? And more importantly, how did those organisms develop consciousness?

falvarez's picture

Studying 1D CA

The idea that we should study 1-D CA and only 1-D CA is, I feel, overstating the importance of them. Wolfram doesn't know for a fact that these CAs are the be-all end-all of science, he probably just believes them to be so. And even if he were to KNOW for certain that 1-D CAs are the "source" of all existence in the universe, I still feel it to be extremely important to study everything that has developed as a whole FROM those CAs. Perhaps in exploring the relationship of our modern world today to Cellular Automatons, we could further ourselves greatly (perhaps actually discovering the CA that spawned everything), but studying CAs exclusively is not the only way to go.

Reducing all natural science to the phenomenon of 1-D Cellular Automaton is important, I feel, in the discussion of emergence, but note that what is necessary, should Wolfram be correct, is more of a "reverse engineering" of natural science than simply a study of CAs. We would need to figure out the steps that got us where we are today in order to determine the pattern, and thus the "rules," that govern this emergent, deterministic system we live in.

biophile's picture

How humans work

I think I know now why I immediately disagreed with Wolfram's position that everything (humans included) can be boiled down to CA. Things in the real world aren't as defined and clear-cut as the CA we studied in class. Even though the CA is computationally irreducible, it has properties that are reducible. We know what Rule 110, Rule 90, Rule 254 and so on look like. But more complex things don't operate that way. We can't look at a human and point out at step x that the human will be in a particular state.

Sure, we can make good guesses as to how any given person will react in a certain situation. If a person stubs their toe, they'll probably swear. If they find out that a loved one died, they'll probably cry. But there will always be anomalies and we can't trace back to a certain set of rules that dictate why the person reacted in a certain way. I can't say how complex the inner workings of our minds are, but they are not easily predicted even after a situation has already happened. If the same person that stubbed their toe were to do the same thing the next day, there's no way to tell if the person would react in exactly the same way the next day. There aren't any definite rules and patterns. There are patterns of behavior in more complex organizations, but there is often no discernable rhyme or reason behind them. And more complex things tend to be erratic at times.

Along with that, more complex things (I'm thinking of humans in particular right now) don't compute or analyze certain problems with algorithms. Perhaps that isn't the best way to put it... But humans don't go through a certain procedure to do multiplication, for example. A Turing machine would go through a plethora of steps to get the answer to 6*8. An adult human, on the other hand, will more often than not just spew the answer 48 because that has been drilled into their minds since elementary school. Even in more complex problems people don't follow clear logical steps. We often go with intuition or gut instincts, things that don't have rules. I don't see how we can be thought of as CA when we operate in very different ways from them.


Jessica B's picture

Human behavior and rules

I mentioned this a long time ago, briefly, but I think it would be useful to restate it. I took a social psychology class recently that, among other things, talked about predicting human behavior. And, to a certain extent, it is "emergent." According to a poll, Jessica thinks that regular exercise is important to good health. Does this mean that she exercises every day? Well, looking closely at Jessica, we realize that she is a computer science major and spends the vast majority of her time in front of the computer. Also, she tends to go to sleep at an excessively late hour so when she's not in front of the computer she's usually napping. Plus, she's rather lazy and would rather focus on eating well for her health than exercising. This relates back to emergent systems because we can't just predict Jessica's behavior by rules (poll results). We have to see how those rules interact with other rules (major, motivation, amount of sleep) to really get a good idea of how Jessica will act.

So yes, I agree that rules, no matter how universal (and possibly because of how universal) they are cannot accurately predict things such as human behavior. There's too much else going on and that interaction is what generates the complexity.

asmoser's picture

Algorithms and Irreducibility

I actually disagree that humans don't think about problems algorithmically. Obviously we have reflexes that aren't quite what you'd call algorithmic, and we're capable of thinking irrationally, but a lot of what we do is done algorithmically. Driving a car is a process of taking in visual input about what's on the road, how fast you're going, etc. and adjusting how you drive accordingly. There's even an argument that multiplication is done algorithmically. Sure I remember that 6*8 is 48, but when I read a problem like that i first see the 6 and understand i can probably do the problem mentally, regardless of the second number. When I see the 8, I remember that this information is stored in such a way that I can immediately retrieve the answer, much like a computer could have hash tables of answers to mathematical problems and provide the answer by recognizing the problem.

I think the important question to consider when trying to determine if CA are so important they're worth studying almost to the exclusion of all else is this: Accepting the possibility that CA are the basis for everything that has developed since the big bang, do they necessarily produce structures which are themselves irreducible? To provide a similar example, when psychology entered its behaviorist phase sociology came under attack as studying phenomena which were fundamentally psychological. Sociology had to problematize this idea by showing that there were social phenomena not atomistically reducible to a collection of individuals behaving in the same way.

I talked some last week about Durkheim's collective conscience, and again it is a useful example. The collective conscience is born out of the shared values of individuals in a society. However, it takes on its own existence separate from these individuals when it becomes self-replicating across generations by means of social pressure which cannot be brought back down to the level of individuals. This may not have been the most cogent presentation of this argument, but hopefully my point is clear.

So are there parts of the world which originate in CA but are no longer reducible to such? I feel the obvious answer is yes, but find myself hard pressed to give a clear example. Human emotions may be an arguable example. Certainly we can imagine the patterns of neurons and the levels of chemicals that create emotion in a physical sense emerging from CA in a very early stage of evolution. But isn't it also possible that the modern experience of love is constituted not by its origins in CA but in the cultural achievements which have shaped our ideal of love? If this is the case, it seems unlikely to me that the emotion remains something reducible to CA.

mgupta's picture

If it is the CA that is

If it is the CA that is responsible for a human's behavior, it is like saying that nature or nurture has no part in a human's personality. It is difficult enough to balme to nature or nurture for particular behavior of a human. To say that CA is all reason for a human's expression means that all that upbringing and situations played absolutely no part in molding the personality.

Or maybe CA is somewhat responsible. Maybe the situations that people are placed into are random, and the behavior is the result of CA and alogrithms. And if the behavior is said to be "wrong" then the machine/program or in this case, the human is punished, just the way the program was punished - someone posted about this earlier. Maybe it is the CA that is the program and it is just called nurture.

But what about the times that humans make a mistake again even after the time that they are punished? Isn't it impossible for an algorithm to do that?

And, at this point even I am confused and don't know what I am saying!

samkaplan's picture

Oversimplifying Wolfram

I don't think that Wolfram is saying is saying that Cellular Automata are responsible for human behavior—that would be a little ridiculous.

All he's saying is that all life—human beings included—could have possibly emerged from something that resembles a specific type of cellar automata—that is, a mix of chaos and order.

Heather, I think you're also reading into Wolfram too much. He's not saying that human life is a deterministic system, or that people are computationally reducible. But again, what he is saying—if I correctly understand him—is that like some cellular automata, human life—and indeed, all life—thrives on a delicate balance of chaos and order—what Langton would describe using lambda values.

falvarez's picture

From Heather F.: "Along

From Heather F.: "Along with that, more complex things (I'm thinking of humans in particular right now) don't compute or analyze certain problems with algorithms."

At the same time, however, when you boot up a computer game and fight against it's AI, the AI doesn't appear to be running algorithms - it might be dodging behind cover, shooting at you, running around, or running away. Yet it's still running an algorithm. Perhaps we just don't see or understand the algorithms that control us?

Also, there is the argument to be made that part of the algorithm that controls us provides free will - we studied some CAs that provided for randomness as well as a pattern, so perhaps we are governed by a rule that, eventually, somewhere along the line, makes us conscious and aware and able to change things.

I think what's important is not to look at us as cellular automatons, but instead to look at us as the result of the automatons.

Rob Korobkin's picture

what do we value?

so, wolfram says (and we agree) that even simple rules can make systems and behaviors that are too complex for us to understand and see the logic in. in other words, we can't tell when something's random.

we accept that there is some kind of super-evolution, some progression (a narrative?) that connects subatomic particles in an explosion of space to atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to populations to societies to language to artistic expression, technological innovation and social organization.

so there's a progression, and it's much too big for us to comprehend, but we try anyway. we see it changing. we know it's changing, but we can't tell why. we can't tell if it's being governed by predetermined rules, an offstage conductor or simply random mutation and luck.

so could emergence explain everything? sure. can we say that it does? no. but it's an option that's worth considering and keeping on the table. it's the next stage in our intellectual trajectory.

first we thought everything was being determined by outside forces. God. gods. spirits. other-worldly consciousnesses controlling the events and objects of our world. this kind of subservient mentality underlies all despotic ideologies as all attempts to change the world are bound to fail in the face of the much-more-powerful ruling beings.

then we were like: fuck that.

and we believed in nothing but chance. theories of evolution that argue that species change due to random mutations and luck in the natural environment are fundamentally nihilistic. in removing god from the paradigm, we removed causality. we can talk about how things changed, but if they changed randomly, we can't possibly say why. we use this to let us off the hook because it divorces us from morality: things evolve by accident and spread because they're good at spreading. everything becomes an accident. there's no magic to our minds and bodies, just random chance in genetics and good luck at surviving. we're not to blame for oppression and environmental destruction, capitalism evolved by chance and spread because it was efficient. in the big picture in this model of thought, the flow of human events are not under human control (nor godly control) but are random and therefore nobody's fault.

but not knowing why things happen isn't really working out for us, so now we're like: fuck that.

and maybe we can start believing in absolute truth again and find the empowering ideologies that we need now to save each other and our planet. the intelligentsia has long stopped believing in the will of omnipotent consciousnesses as an explanation for history and science. but now we must also reject the idea that our world is random and therefore out of our control. if instead, there are simple and fundamental rules that govern not the system as a whole but each individual component of the system separately then we need only have an effect on the parameters of these rules to affect the system as a whole. the populace need not be thought of an unruly and unpredictable mass to be governed from above or taken advantage of through competition, but becomes a coherent and organized society governed on the micro level of decision-making. advertising and microeconomics is based on this understanding of people, and i believe that if we can base an economy on micro-decision making, it's about time we start thinking about designing more sustainable social systems and accept that order can arise from a localized distribution of power.

Jessica B's picture

Cellular automata and complexity

I think the whole idea of cellular automata and rule 110 in particular is fascinating, but I certainly don't think it's the be-all of science. So far, it seems that all the complexity of the universe ultimately comes down to the interactions of quarks and leptons, though it's possible that there is something even smaller out there (strings, anyone?). Given that, it is possible that there is something incredibly basic that governs the functioning of the universe at large. However, just as a quark itself is not a human, these simple rules cannot in themselves predict the behavior of a large, complicated system.

As far as I've seen, cellular automata can do math. Fine. That's wonderful. The problem is, I can't imagine that my behavior is defined by mathematical operations. Nor can I think that those operations could define the functioning of the stock market or the ecology of the Amazon Rainforest.

Large things are generally more complicated than small things. And while a large thing might be made up of many small things, the interactions of those small things will often give a result that would never have happened without those specific interactions (one of the points of emergence, I think). So even if these simple rules are absolutely what shape the world, the interactions of the things made by these rules itself lends further complexity to the system. It's like how quarks became humans.

I don't know if that made a great deal of sense. Like Natsu, I'm having trouble thinking of concrete examples of how Wolfram is wrong.

natsu's picture

Considering Alteratives

Wolfram's model is simple, but at the same time quite challenging to really grasp. When asked whether there is no need to ever study anything else, I want to immediately say no, but it is hard to think of specific reasons. I was thinking about Emergence and human behavior (as a Psych major, that is what interests me most) and at least in terms of human behavior, there seems to be some limitations to the model. One thing that came to mind was that the model never considers the possibility of an alternative action, which is something that somebody is always thinking of in the real world. And acutually, it is not rare that emergent phenomena arise from a group of people that come up with alternative ways of thinking or behaving.

Paul Grobstein's picture

More on Jessica Park ...

Thanks, Natsu. See pictures.

natsu's picture

I found the book!

So, I finally tracked down the title and author of the book I was talking about last week. It is called "Exciting nirvana: a daughter's life with autism" and it is by Clara Claiborne Park. The girl's name is Jessie, and she is apparantly now in her mid 40s. Unfortunately, the paperback book that is on amazon does not really show her drawings, but you would get a better sense of what the book is about, if you read their description. As you can see by the fact that the book is rated with 4.5 stars by the amazon reviewers, it is an excellent book! Oh, and by the way, I found out by looking through some other pages that  the author was actually a faculty member at Williams College (not Amherst!) I apologize for that mistake.

I was really surprised when I was looking at some other pages, and swa that one page described the book by using  the word emergence. This is what it said:

"In this moving, eloquent memoir, we see Jessy's progressive journey out of her isolated "Nirvana" into the world we all share. It is an honest and captivating story of emergence, perseverance, and love."