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From complexity to emergence and beyond ...

Paul Grobstein's picture

My most current extended writing on complexity, emergence, and beyond ... into a "hybrid" world involving both chance and intention. Recently published in the interdiscipinary journal Soundings (Volume 90, Issue 1/2, pp 301-323, 2007). Available as a Word file.

And assigned as a reading in a recent course. Which in turn triggered an essay by a student in that course, Alexandra Funk, making an interesting link to Mary Catherine Bateson's 1989 book Composing a Life. An excerpt from Alexandra's essay ...

"A few weeks ago, my class read and discussed “From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry”, an essay by Professor Paul Grobstein. The intriguing topic of this paper, the explanation of one’s life as an emergence story, where life is an ongoing experiment in creation in which unknown futures can be shaped, rather than a narrative foundational story, where the past is the determinant of and the best guide to the future, has a strong parallel to Bateson’s view of the way in which a woman should address the composition of her life (Grobstein 2-5). Like Grobstein, Bateson believes “it is no longer possible to follow the paths of previous generations;” instead we should view “life as an improvisatory art” (Bateson 2-3)."

Evolution as the basis of not only Life but also individual lives?


Anonymous's picture

value in last words

Liked the article but found the concept of value missing in the sources of meaning. I find difference, in the yes/no, and value, in the good/bad evaluation from the complex system's perspective, least resistence to delayed gratification, to be the drive or hunger to make a decision, and be the foundation of meaning for a living like structure, is seems an essential character.

aside, interesting paper..

Paul Grobstein's picture

Managing emergence: another case

For a different example of issues in emergent systems and their control, see Józef Okulewicz's The Structural Formulation of Logistics.
Anne Dalke's picture

"anything is possible"

More thinking about the moebius strip of contraction and expansion:

Have continued mulling over what seemed to me @ first a strong (& irreconcilable?) juxtaposition between Mark's claim that "Prediction is the Gold Standard of Understanding"" and Paul's argument that the goal of science is bringing into existence "previously unconceived alternatives." Alan's talk this week got me visualizing a way to take these two bookends, these "two sides of emergence," of expansion and contraction, and "twist" these parts (with a turn like that which produced Alan's moebius strip) into a whole that has a single "side"--a single coherent argument. It does seem to me now that the sort of expansion of alternatives that is Paul's goal is facilitated by the sort of reduction of possibilities that is Mark's. That gives us a single process: a loop--or moebius strip--in which contraction serves the function of creating previously unconceived alternatives.

Not unrelatedly? turns out the Dalai Lama is an emergenist. The NYTimes reports that he "rests his faith on surprise": “Until the last moment,” he says, “anything is possible.”

Paul Grobstein's picture

emerging emergence ... April 2008

Several interesting articles recently ...

On the "reality" of indeterminacy ...

Losick, R. and Desplan, C. (2008) Stochasticity and cell fate. Science 320: 65-68.

Faisal, A. A., Selen, L.P.J., and Wolpert, D.M. (2008) Noise in the nervous system. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9: 292-303.

See also Grobstein, Paul (1994) Variability in behavior and the nervous system. IN: Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Vol. 4 (V.S. Ramachandran, ed). NY: Academic Press. pp 447-458.

And on social organization ...

How to turn a herd on Wall Street, NY Times Week in Review 6 April 2008

Paul Grobstein's picture

levels of organization vs parts and wholes

Wonderful presentation by Alan Baker in the emergence group last week, taking off from a paper by Alan Ryan in 2006, "Emergence is coupled to scope, not level" ( arXiv:nlin/0609011v1). The basic idea, in an attempt to find a rigorous definition of "emergence" is to skip for the moment defining what emergence means in time (diachronic) and focus on what it means when used at a particular point in time (synchronic, as most people mean when they day "mind is an emergent property of brain").

And the second move is to decline to speak of "levels of organization, on the grounds that those are observer dependent and may be arbitrary. Ryan's point is that an emergent property can perhaps be defined as a property that is found in a system as a whole but not in any part of the system, hence "emergence is coupled to scope not level".

A nice example of this is a moebius strip, which has the property of one-sidedness as a whole but not in any of the more obvious parts, ie in any "piece" when cut into pieces in obvious ways. This though challenges one to think about one means by "parts". Are there some ways to cut up a Moebius strip that yields one-sided pieces? Maybe the part/whole definition has a hidden observer dependence just as the levels of organization definition does?

Still and all, the synchronic, part/whole approach intrigues me. Given my background in biology, I tend to think of emergence as fundamentally time-dependent (evolution as the archetype). At the same time, I can see that from some other perspectives, the synchronic problem may be more salient (eg brain/consciousness). My guess, of course, is that the synchronic problem will ultimately have to be rephrased diachronically (consciousness is indeed synchronically emergent but that depends on its being diachronically emergent, as per /reflections/GrobsteinSoundings.doc), but there is nonetheless an intriguing opening in recognizing the difference between scale and scope in defining emergent properties.

I also agree that the issue of whether "levels of organization" is an observer dependent starting point in thinking about emergence has been a problem. Rather than bypassing that problem, my own recent instinct has been to take it own directly as per /exchange/node/2168#comment-62371. It would be interesting if this and the via synchronicity approach end up in the same place, with each providing something other other can't quite manage:, perhaps a within-the-system definition for levels of organization and within-the-system parts/wholes distinction? To think more about

Paul Grobstein's picture

Meaning and emergence: no last words

Interesting conversation in the emergence group this morning, intersecting in intriguing ways with the philosophy of science course I'm currently co-teaching.

A persistent problem in understanding emergence is the lack of models that compellingly illustrate the development of several distinct levels of organization, a phenomenon that seems quite compelling in describing the world (eg cells, multicellular organisms, societies of multicellular organisms). While one can readily demonstrate "emergent" properties at one level resulting from interactions of elements at a lower level that don't display those properties, it seems difficult to "propagate" emergence. This may relate to the fact that detection of "emergent" properties in models so far depends on an outside observer who makes the distinction between lower level and higher level properties. The two sets of properties aren't clearly distinguishable within the systems (models) themselves.

This problem is, I think, closely related to the distinction between "weak" and "strong" emergence, ie to the question of whether higher order properties are or are not "fully explained" by the properties of lower lower elements and their interactions. In the past, I've argued that that there are in fact strong emergence situations, ones is which higher order properties are not "fully explained", because lower order properties and interactions "permit but do not account for" higher order properties, that there is some essential "information addition" that occurs in going from one to the others. A particular instance of this would be a situation where either lower order properties or interactions have some degree of indeterminacy involved with them.

I continue to think that "information addition" and, in particular, "indeterminacy" is an important aspect of the full power of emergence. But it hasn't been and continues not to help me think about the levels of organization problem. What may do so is the addition of "top-down causation". In effective descriptions of the world, higher order phenomena not only emerge from interacting elements not displaying those phenomena but also become causally significant, ie they influence lower order elements, causing them to behave in ways that they wouldn't in the absence of the higher level organization. This creates a causal feedback loop, one which couples lower and order higher phenomena in ways that make them reciprocally influential, simultaneously both cause and effect. My intuition (incentive for further exploration in models) is that it is precisely this coupling that creates distinguishable levels of organization (ie it is top-down causation and associated coupling that has been absent from most emergence models to date). The existence of "coupling" would provide a way to distinguish higher order properties from lower order ones within systems themselves, without the need to appeal to an observer to recognize the higher order properties.

Whether this turns out to provide a solution to the "propagation" problem or not, it does suggest that "strong emergence" is so not only because of indeterminacy but also because of top-down causal influences. The properties and interactions of lower order elements in systems with vertical loopiness are likely not to be those that would exist in the absence of vertical loopiness. What this means is that the properties and interactions one describes using experimental techniques that isolate the lower level constituents may not be the ones that are relevant for understanding the higher order phenomena one is interested in. The higher order properties are genuinely not reducible to lower order ones because they depend on the existence of new top-down influences that come into being as a part of the emergent process. To put it differently, once a higher level system comes into existence that influences lower level attributes and properties, one can't expect to find by reductionist approaches the lower level properties that are relevant to the overall organization. The lower level and upper level phenomena need instead need to be thought of as "co-evolving".

A good example of this, I suspect, is the relation between the human brain (a lower level phenomenon for present purposes) and culture (a higher level phenomenon). In many social science realms, a reductionist approach is adopted (consciously or unconsciously): to understand collective behavior one characterizes properties of individuals and their interactions (or asserts them, eg homo economicus) and then tries to use those to derive (or "explain") social phenomena. More generally, one asserts the existence of some fixed "human nature", and then uses this as a foundation to make sense of interpersonal dynamics and social organization. The approach can of course be a productive one, but the recognition of top-down causation is also a useful reminder that it may not always work. There probably is, at this point in time, no such thing as "human nature" independently of the social context within which one finds particular individuals (cf also East and West Part Ways in Test of Facial Expression). The brain is a nexus point of "bottom up" and "top down" influences, and one will inevitably find oneself in trouble if one neglects either in trying to make sense either of the brain or of social organization (interacting assemblies of brains).

Something entirely analogous almost certainly goes on within the brain itself. The properties of assemblies of neurons derive in part from the properties of neurons themselves but also in part from the place of those particular assemblies in the larger assembly which is the brain, and so one can be misled about the properties of particular assemblies if one studies them only in isolation. On a slightly larger scale, the neocortex (or "story teller") probably functions as a distinctive source of "top down" influences that derive from but are not totally determined by the bottom up signals it gets from the rest of the nervous system.

Ambiguous figures provide a particularly dramatic example of interactions of bottom up and top down influences. One can and does attribute a variety of different "meanings" to such figures, the "meaning" being the "story" that is settled on (by the neocortex?) as a way to account for an array of bottom up signals that themselves are "meaningless". The "meaning" in turn influences the rest of the nervous system in coordinated ways that produce behaviors appropriate for that meaning.

And this in turn suggests a potentially useful way to think about "meaning" itself. Things don't have "meaning" in and of themselves but only have it insofar as they are given meaning by an agent having the capacity to do so. "Meaning" is a top down construct, one not fully determined by bottom up influences, and therefore always containing (if one is aware of it) an element of choice. At the same time, "meaning" clearly has causal significance in that it can/does significantly influence other aspects of the nervous system and so behavior. Its an intriguing thought that the existence of "meaning" for other things (and for oneself?) depends fundamentally on the potential to change it, to entertain the possibility of alternative higher order objectives. In any case, clearly "meaning", like molecules, cells, communities, is derivative of other things but also has some independent existence and causal significance.

Meaning having "some independent existence"? Let me be clear about that, lest I be accused of resurrecting a dualist perspective. "Meaning", in the present sense, is not a second realm of things, parallel to a material world. It is no more (and no less) than organized matter, eg a pattern of neuronal activity in a brain. It does though have "some independent existence" for two reasons. One is that it does not follow necessarily from other organized states of matter at lower levels of organization (because of indeterminacy and the loopiness discussed above), and has causal efficacy. In addition, a given "meaning" may have somewhat different incarnations in different brains (or in the same brain at different times). That they are all in some sense the same is a function of similarities they create in other brains (or the same brain at different times), just as Beethoven's third symphony is the same whether incarnated on a record, a CD, or a musical score. There is no second parallel realm of "meaning" (or more generally "ideas") here; there is though a recognition that meaning (and ideas), while they have their origins in organized matter, become causally significant in ways that are not simply and totally accountable for in terms of organized matter. There is no "meaning", no "idea" independent of organized matter, but organized matter can and does bring into existence "meaning" and "idea" as a somewhat indeterminate and causal influence on organized matter, particularly (but not exclusively) on those forms that create and respond to "meaning" and "idea".

All of this seems to me useful in further clarifying emergence, and most particularly in thinking about the kinds of hybrid systems that emergence gives rise to, those in which local distributed processes interact with more global and architect/designer like ones. But it bears in interesting ways on philosophy of science, inquiry in general, and individual human lives as well. The idea that "meaning" exists only when it is bestowed on something by an observer, and that a given thing can have multiple meanings, seriously challenges the idea that science is "about reality", about "things as they are". What an observation "means" is, and should alway be thought of as being subject to revision. On the flip side, though, the attribution of a particular meaning (from within the array of possible meanings) to an observation is the crack through which an observer can not only acquire information about the world but contribute to shaping it. From this perspective, science (and inquiry in general) is as much about creating "reality" as it is about revealing it. Similarly, one should probably think not so much of "finding" meaning in life as of creating it. That meaning is created rather than found is the opening for hybrid entities to play an active and deliberate role in their own lives and in the worlds they find themselves in.
Sandy Schram's picture

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies


Your post on top-down emergence makes sense to me. I basically agree with this analysis from top to bottom and back up again! This takes my understanding of the possibilities of emergence for social science to new levels. Thanks.

To cycle back to earlier discussions, so much of social science today is preoccupied with correcting for endogeneity and selection bias so that linear causal models can be computed. But, if what you are saying is a good way to look at social phenomena, then this major statistical industry that has emerged is at risk of producing a lot of wasted energy. My goodness, this is a very disturbing thought! I have feared this might be case for some time, even as I now put the finishing touches on an analysis that corrects for selection bias.

If top-down emergence is critical to understanding how social formations come into being and persist, then we have essentially an alternative to functionalism, whether it is proposed by Durkheim, Parsons or Merton. (I read the piece of Durkheim for last week but then overslept--don't tell anyone!) We also then have an alternative for talking about the relationship of structure to agency. Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration implies a dynamic relationship between individuals who choose what to do which then collectively produce the structures of society that condition and limit those choices in the future. Yet, top-down emergence provides perhaps a more effective way of parsing how unintended consequences of individual actions get propagated and reproduced to take on structural form that become constitutive of what individuals get to do with the next go round. (This, by the way, raises the possibility that not just Drkheim was a emergence theorist but so was Karl Marx.)

I have talked previously about how gender is an example of this dynamic. But more recently I have been trying to understand how race operates this way. Neither gender nor race relations can be understood as in linear causal terms, but more as self-fulfilling prophecies that thrive on this sort of top-down emergence loopiness. We recreate these artificial distinctions even as we ostensibly work to change them in part because they still circulate as master narratives organizing and signaling how to interpret behavior at the individual level. As a result, the top-down, outside observed distinctions get internalized and feed off the originating differences so that these distinctions get recreated, if in new forms, over and over.

In this way, we can have racism without racists. People who use race as an organizing principle can end up making racial distinctions that, while even against their intentions, recreate differences that people derive meaning from and which then lead people to take to be "real" and which lead them to behave accordingly. Top-down emergence enables race narratives to make themselves real to the point that people can not ignore them because so many other people act according to them.

Racial classification need not be racial profiling, but it is often at risk of quickly becoming that. The next thing you know is that you and others who are classifying by race are making distinctions based on stereotypes rather than seeing people from a particular group in other terms or as individuals. To the extent that racial classification becomes a durable part of how we organize society, people will then behave in ways that account for that, thereby reproducing the role of race as a persistent force in social relations. Top-down emergence becomes another way of talking about Durkheim's social facts or fact-things, that have a hybrid material and symbolic existence (as the reading for last week effectively suggested).

This leads to the debate over "rational racism," something that surfaced in Barak Obama's most eloquent and profound speech here in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center this past week. Is it racist to profile young black men and cross the street to the other side because statistics indicate that would improve your probability of not being mugged? Well, this, of course, is irrational since the odds are incredibly low either way, regardless of the race of the men. Is it racist to live in the suburbs away from black families to protect your investment in housing? This is economically rational and might not be intentionally racist, but it is classifying by race in ways that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. We end up with racism without racists, recreating racial distinction and dooming us all to a highly racially and economically divided society. It ends up being the kind of society that would condemn Rev. Jeremiah Wright for bemoaning the injustice of such a situation even if he talked about it as a product of top-down emergence.

Paul Grobstein's picture

from bottom to top and back down again

Very pleased the bottom-up/top-down loop resonates for you in your thinking about social sciences. And appreciate as well the links to relevant social science literature. Intrigued by the Giddens notion particularly: "a dynamic relationship between individuals who choose what to do which then collectively produce the structures of society that condition and limit those choices in the future". What's interesting is that in general feedback loops can operate to either stabilize or destabilize systems. Could individuals act to "collectively" expand rather than "limit" future choices?

Share very much your thoughts that all of this is not only of theoretical interest but of contemporary practical significance. Look forward to more exchange on both levels.