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julia_ferraioli's picture
It hit me Monday while sitting in class about how much of it is based simply on perspective. Emergent phenomena could be all around us, but are we too jaded to see most of it? Do we accept it as commonplace and something to be expected simply because we've seen it so much? Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly philosophical, I look around me and see something that I've seen a thousand times and think, isn't that amazing? This happens the most with trees, I suppose. I still can't get over how complex, but simple, they are. When I think of emergence, I feel like I have to "change my glasses" (not that I wear them) and put on something that makes the world fresh again. Something that gives me back that sense of wonder that we all had when we were children. I found a short page when searching about the It hit me Monday while sitting in class about how much of it is based simply on perspective. I found short page on the wonder of emergence during a search. It generally is about the emergent properties of life, but addresses many areas (it also includes my favorite quote by Heraclitus). But if I propose that quite a bit is based on perspective, can we really rely on ourselves? Take a look at our thoughts. A great many psychologists have tried to predict future behaviour using past behaviour. But the fact of the matter is that the methods that they have developed do not hold true universally. I don't know about anyone else, but I've tried to predict my own behaviour. Can I predict what I will think in response to this stimulus? No. I can recognize patterns in what has already happened, and try to base future predictions on those patterns, but it's just too complex. All of this suggests to me that I have to take everything that I think with a grain of salt. However, I feel as though I must rely on my own mind, so I'm choosing to ignore much of what I just said.


BhumikaPatel's picture

I have been thinking of the same thing for the past 2 weeks or so. I agree with you that emergence is based a lot much on perspective. Since everyone looks at things from different perspectives, I feel as if anything could be an emergent system if one looked at it from a particular perspective. When I am feeling philosophical, I notice patterns in things that I would not otherwise. Which then is the correct perspective? Or is there a correct perspective at all? The difinition of emergence is so simple and general that it does not exclude anything as long as it involves making complex things out of simple rules. Is that the point then? To make everything so general so that everything is nicely connected?
PaulGrobstein's picture

Pleased to share the mindset/perspective with Julia ("Curiosity"), Bhumika ("Generalize everything?"), and others in the class who are developing a sense of it/taste for it. Yes, its a matter of perspective, not only on the world but on oneself as well. And it involves taking both with a grain of salt, while indeed ultimately relying "on my own mind" (which one also takes with a grain of salt). And wondering, indeed, whether there is anything such thing as a "correct perspective". No, the point is not to make sure that "everything is so nicely connected". The point is instead to enjoy/cherish one's ability to be surprised, to see things in ways that are different and open new questions, new territories to explore. What's exciting isn't the "answer" but the room to ask questions in new ways.
SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

I also have been looking feeling the same way as you two. I though am trying so hard to find the bigger picture because I feel like if it just seems to easy to try and have everything fit this same type of pattern even though it does not. Everything seems to have become complexed based on simple things. Any and everything I can fathom, I seem to see as emergence and I am just trying to really grasp the true meaning behind all of this. I guess that is where I am having a difficult time. I just seem to want an aswer, even though there really is not one and we are all in some what the same position. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am just completely lost within understanding this whole picture, but then I always go back to the basics and simplest forms. But what happens when you do not know what is the basic and simplest form? Today I worked on NetLogo with Jesse in class trying to see if we could figure out how the big picture worked and of course, we went to the procedures page. What I find difficult is trying to sort through the information on my own, but with Jesse's help it was a lot easier. It helped me so much today to grasp the ideas behind the model because I had another persons opinion and views. I think it is really important that we take advantage of eachother because there is so much to learn from eachother. There were times when Jesse and I were not even sure of what we were doing, but we began to just piece through it with eachothers perspectives on what might happen or why something happened. I found that working with another person helped me get over my natural instincts to try and find an answer, and helped me just take things piece by piece and appreaciate it for what it is.
Kathy Maffei's picture

Yes, sometimes I've had the sneaking suspicion that most everything could be explained by emergence. Then I've reminded myself of the brain's tendency to search for patterns in a complex world. But I guess what I've come to believe is that emergence is another part of the puzzle. While reductionism will give us the ingredients, the recipe is incomplete without the instructions, some of which you might not be able to extrapolate just from looking at the completed cake. Or maybe I'm just hungry right now... As unreliable as our minds (and sensory perceptions and concepts of reality) might be, I figure this idea of trying on different perspectives whenever possible is a good way to guard against complacency and self-deception.
PeterOMalley's picture

On the topic of perspective, one of the things that I have been worrying about is how much of emergence as a whole is just perspective. One of the possible applications of emergence that I have been thinking about is its use in cosmology, particularly in explaining the structure of the universe. However, computer models that make use of only gravity have produced the filamentary structure that is present on the largest scale on which the universe isn't homogeneous (about 100 Mpc). Is this computer model just demonstrating an emergent property of the universe? I don't think that the writers of these models think of it from an "emergent perspective", but that doesn't mean that it's not there. On the other hand, take the structure of galaxies, and in particular spiral galaxies. When many spirals turned out to have a "bar" in the center (rather than a blob/sphere), the question was, "what could give rise to this?" It was later shown, mathematically, that the only way to prevent a bar from forming is to include much more matter in a halo around the galaxy that is not observed--the infamous dark matter (and this is only one piece of evidence for DM). My question is, is this barred structure emergent? I would tend to say no, since it can be explained (and indeed predicted) mathematically. Up until now, we've (or at least, I've) taken Paul's word when he says that many of the things that we are studying with emergence can't be solved analytically, with perhaps a reference to Godel's Incompleteness thrown in there. Must this always be the case for emergence? And if it is always the case (and maybe even if it isn't), does that make emergenece a satisfying answer, philosophically? In philosophy, today, we were discussing the difference between an explanation and a justification, as it relates to Hume's Enquiry. It seems that with no predictive power, emergence is relegated to an explanation, which, while useful, does not seem to be ultimately satisfying. Ideas?
PaulGrobstein's picture

From Gregory Chaitin, "The Limits of Reason", Scientific American, March 2006 .... "... the Greeks came up with the idea that in mathematics you have to prove things, rather than just discover them experimentally. In constrast, previous cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt apparently relied on experiment. Using reason has been an extremely fruitful approach, leading to modern mathematics and mathematical physics, and all that goes with them ... So am I saying that this approach that science and mathematics have been following for more than two millenia crashes and burns? Yes, in a sense I am ... I am certainly not against reason ... Just because some things are irreducible does not mean we should give up using reasoning. Irreducible principles - axioms - have always been a part of mathematics. Omega just shows that a lot more of them are out there than people suspected."
Kathy Maffei's picture

My understanding of emergence as a model/perspective is that its usefulness is not precluded by the usefulness of reductionist thinking on the same issue. I think there are many cases where understanding is improved by examination through a different filter, with different tools, from another angle, using another model. That being said, I'd like to reiterate a point about a pitfall I mentioned yesterday in class: that the human tendency - no, let's say need - to find patterns in the world around us could lead us to search endlessly for those "satisfying" answers as opposed to accepting randomness or chaos or emergent conditions. Mind you, I'm a Computer Science major who enjoys breaking things down into easily digested/plotted/replicated components, and I completely agree that this is an incredibly useful approach to many things. While it doesn't hurt to try to find multiple patterns on various levels - to see how interconnected the universe may be - I think it's also instructive to consider the possibility that there may be no universal truth, and that there may be no shortcut to figure out how Langton's Ants will behave except to step through the rules, and that 7 may only be reachable by counting.