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Welcome to Emergence!

Doug Blank's picture
Welcome to the Emergence 361 Blog! Anyone can contribute to the blog by commenting on this post.


Flora Shepherd's picture

Like Lindsay, I am very excited about this class. I like thinking about emergence! Its hard to focus on Emergence solely in my physics arena. The interdisciplinary nature of the discipline makes me want to read what everyone else is thinking. Monday I came into class with a very loose understanding of what Emergence is. I was intrigued by the course description, by the prospect of linking scientific and social phenomena together in a much more broadly based Theory of Everything. Two discussion topics have resonated with me hours after class. First, I am surprised to learn that there are not mathematical methods of predicting the outcomes of Emergent systems without computer trials. I remain skeptical of Professor Grobstein’s insistence that these emergent processes cannot be predicted at an earlier stage but must played out via a computer simulation. Comparing a computer to a microscope or telescope implies its use as an observational, not a theoretical, tool. Newton and Leibniz updated Calculus to explain Newton’s oberservation-based theory of gravity. Who’s to say that there isn’t another branch of mathematics waiting to be discovered that can predict these computer generated reactions? Maybe we just need more data before we can posit a theory of Emergence. One cannot predict the outcome of the game of life at an early stage. One cannot judge the curvature of an object much larger than us, like the earth, while standing on it surface without making certain observations and interpreting them. Perhaps by correctly analyzing initial emergent processes, the structure may be understood. Then, just as in calculus, initial conditions may be used to predict outcomes. Is it a coincidence that these theories conceptually overlap or merely a result of the same authors repeating motifs? Secondly, I am struck by how much the implications of Emergence parallel the recent Intelligent Design versus Darwinism debate. It sounds to me that this discipline provides more than just a surprise. If, as I understand Emergence to be, this theory/discipline argues that complex processes arise out of a system of simple rules, then strictly interpreted Emergence could argue that all of human life operates under a form of scientific determinism. Our lives are dictated by smaller interactions via genetic disposition or cultural imprintation. Free will is an emotional/mental construct arising out of smaller interactions. It is a bit frustrating to think that we have as much control over our destiny at Bryn Mawr as ants in a plastic frame. However, the application of Emergence to life appears to assume the falsity of human free will. Stephen Hawking puts it well in A Brief History of Time: "These quantum theories are deterministic in the sense that they give laws for the evolution of the wave with time. Thus if one knows the wave at one time, one can calculate it at any other time. The unpredictable, random element comes in only when we try to interpret the wave in terms of the positions and velocities of particles. But maybe this is our mistake: maybe there are no positions and velocities, but only waves. It is just that we try to fit the waves to our preconceived ideas of positions and velocities. The resulting mismatch is the cause of the apparent unpredictability." Found here Biologist and Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe wrote in a response to a critique of his book “Just as irreducible complexity would predict, when several steps must be taken at once, natural selection is a poor way to proceed.” I don’t want there to be a science that cannot be governed by mathematical laws, only observed. Admitting that emergence processes cannot be predicted or understood leaves room for the divine. And I don’t find the divine very useful in applied scientific enquiry.
Doug Blank's picture

Well said! And very useful. Your set of links make this a useful resource for all. I hope that we can explore many of the issues that you have brought here over the next 4 months, both here in this blog, and in class. I appreciate your skepticism, but I, too, have come to believe Paul's assertion (not proof) that some deterministic systems (where there is absolutely no chance of chance entering the picture) cannot be predicted. Whether or not you find a way to predict them in the future, I think that this is the fundamental difference between "computational" models, versus "mathematical" models. And a key aspect of emergence. We'll discuss this more, no doubt. (Also, I don't think that one can eliminate the divine... it isn't science, and so lies outside of that possibility. But that's another thread...)
PaulGrobstein's picture

You've raised an interesting set of issues here, and provided some good links for further exploration of them. Let me suggest it might be useful to disentangle the issues a bit, and provide some additional links that might be relevant along those lines. "skeptical ... that ... emergent processes cannot be predicted at an earlier stage but must played out via a computer simulation ... Who’s to say that there isn’t another branch of mathematics waiting to be discovered that can predict these computer generated reactions?" It is in fact the case that the future state of certain systems of simple interactions among simple things can be shown not to be predictable from the initial conditions using any "formal" mathematical system, ie any mathematical system with a fixed set of axioms, rules of inference from those axioms, and procedures for verifying proofs. The form of demonstration orginates with Godel's "incompleteness theorem", was developed further by Turing with specific reference to computers in connection with the "halting problem", and has implications for what one means by "science" that are still being explored (see Gregory Chaitin's "Omega and why math has no theories of everything", Wolfram on "computational irreducibility", and my own "Science As Story Telling and Story Revising"). The point is that "mathematics", like other things, is continually evolving (emerging?) and so one has to be explicit about what one means by that term at any given time. It may well be possible to develop intuitions (and perhaps even rules/generalizations) about systems that must, at the moment, be played out in simulations; that's part of what we (and others interested in emergence) are exploring. What can be said, for many of them, is that such new intuitions/rules/generalizations will not be in the form of "explicit solutions", ie of equations that yield the state of the system at a future time simply by plugging in the value of time. "I don’t want there to be a science that cannot be governed by mathematical laws, only observed. Admitting that emergence processes cannot be predicted or understood leaves room for the divine. And I don’t find the divine very useful in applied scientific enquiry." "cannot be predicted" is different from cannot be "understood", and even more so from "cannot be usefully inquired into", which seems to me the only thing that would put something outside the reach of science (see Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism, as well as Science As Story Telling and Story Revising, and Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?). Behe's "irreducible complexity", with its associated interest in establishing the existence of a creator or architect, is quite different from the Godel, Turing, Chaitin interest in what is and is not "computable" in particular ways, which makes no necessary assumption that any limitations described are evidence for a divine creator/architect. Indeed, in my own case (at least) the interest derives entirely from an engagement with the question of how far one can make sense of things in the absence of any presumed creator/architect. Yes, indeed there is, of course, a relation between all of this and the "Intelligent Design versus Darwinism debate" (cf Intelligent Design and the Story of Evolution: No Need for Drawing Lines in the Sand, Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction, and Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?). But it is not a simple relation. Emergence is an inquiry about possibility, not a provable description of the "real world". Moreover, the emergence perspective does not inevitably imply either "scientific determinism" or "falsity of human free will" (any more than limitations on predictability inevitably imply an architect/designer). One might instead, from the emergence perspective, pose the question (as we will) of how both architects/designers and "free will" might emerge from simple interactions among simple things. And conclude (as we might) that some degree of indeterminacy is not only acceptable as a scientific concept but essential to account for what we are all trying to make sense of (cf. Variability in Brain Function and Behavior and Free Will?).
Flora Shepherd's picture

Wow, thanks to both of you for responding so thoroughly to my questions. I think I accept the discrepancy between Emergence and classical mathematics now. Although, I’m still skeptical about free will… I’ve been thinking about this talk given by Swarthmore Economist Mark Kumperberg arguing that people more readily accept ideas that are packages to agree with previously held beliefs. I think that I have encountered some of this behavior while discussing this week’s article with two friends (seniors in art history and archaeology). I tried to explain the theory of top down thinking to them using the cog machine idea. No dice. They remained skeptical, thinking that is was just a far out theory. So, I tried to think about confirmation bias and re-package this article in something more recognizable. The contemporary analogy I hit upon was the idea of a corporation. It is easier to apply in this abstract context because it’s a widely known, concrete system. My friends found it helpful for discussing emergence, so maybe others could too. And, since it is a naturally emerging social structure, it supports the theory of emergence being a cross disciplinary phenomena. A friend even pointed out that it is better representation of the process (as we understood it) than a machine because a corporation consists of several sentient beings instead of a machine’s metal gears. The idea is that a large corporation has several levels of organization. Looking at the mail room, one could not discern the activities of the CEO. However, their work is interconnected even if the CEO has more control over the mail clerk than vice versa. And, the corporation is constantly evolving into high levels of organization (globalization!). I’m sure that I’m not the first person to think of this, but I couldn’t quickly find another resource via google. Maybe someone else can help me out?