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Assessments of Emergence

AngadSingh's picture
Throughout this course, I've found one aspect of our discussions and readings to be somewhat troubling. There is a tendency proclaim emergence as a penultimate field, emergent phenomenon as universal and terribly short, emergence as not just a new kind of science but the coming messiah of science. It could just be that the field, in particular the content matter, is inherently of a universal and penetrating sort. So if emergence itself claims to be the end-all, be all of reality, then our conversations and emergent literature should similarly describe it as such. I think this is true to a certain extent. In my eyes, however, there is also a some aggrandizing in our conversations and the literature. This is probably an unnecessary conversation to pursue...but are there published criticisms of emergence or some "realistic" assessments of its explanatory or predicting potential? How exactly do notions of emergence presently play into scientific discovery outside of computer & game design?


PaulGrobstein's picture

I think its a conversation well worth pursuing. Fads are a characteristic of science/inquiry, as they are of other parts of human life. And they pass through phases of enthusiasm, critique, maturation over various time courses, and decline. "Emergence" is a fairly young fad but certainly its appropriate to begin asking what it is, is not, has been, has not been useful for. I encourage others to throw in their own thoughts. Assessment gets a little complicated because "emergence" itself is actually a new name for the somewhat older "complex systems", and that in turn a new name for the still older "general systems theory" etc etc. Critiques of the latter two are available in various places (it would be interesting to look at those and see how they apply to emergence) but ideas from both are still around (contributing to "emergence" among other things). And, arguably, "emergence" owes a heavy debt to Darwin, and the offering of an alternative to "intelligent design". Ideas currently pulled together under the "emergence" umbrella (cf notes) play a major role not only in computer and game design but throughout evolutionary biology, ecology, neurobiology and, increasingly organismal and molecular biology as well. And in physics, as well as social psychology, economics, and archeological/historical studies (cf emergence working group). The upshot? Probably not "the end-all, be all of reality" but "generative" in at least some realms? And it would certainly be interesting to try and specify where/how and where not/why not.
AngadSingh's picture

I'm sure there are many ways to assess the maturation of a mode of inquiry from scientific fad to scientific field. One marker is the building of a fad onto another fad. So emergence could be viewed to have progressed from fad to field when someone writes a book relating emergence to East Asian philosophical/religious thought (something like the Tao of Physics or others). Once fads begin coalescing around a scientific mode of inquiry, that mode of inquiry is being legitimated into an accepted field of science. Thomas Kuhn, in his Structures of Scientific Revolution, failed to entirely grasp the legitimation process, outside of scientific rationale itself, that contemporary scientific fads must undergo (it requires more than the acceptance of the Church - not that Kuhn was suggested this). While parts of the above are written a bit in jest, I am serious about the importance of scientific paradigm legitimacy. For new theories, the legitimation process is fairly simple (journals, research funding, ...). For a paradigm (or more humbly, an entirely novel perspective) to gain ground and progress from "crackpot" fad to something greater - there must be social acceptance, underlying scientific support and rationale, and other more subtle factors. Viewed as simply a scientific perspective in a history of scientific inquiry, an objective rendering of the evolution and contemporary significance of emergence would be quite interesting to read.
Laura Cyckowski's picture

Good point, I agree that there seems to be an expectation for emergence to form the "penultimate field", or as unifying many fields. I don't know anything about the history of emergence/complex theory or such fields, but it seems like it is certainly worthy of all the enthusiasm, by virtue of being applicable to so many different domains, or at least that's why I find it interesting. Maybe it should be viewed instead as connecting/supplementing, rather than unifying, different areas of inquiry? And if so, how could that be a bad thing?
Leslie McTavish's picture

I agree with Laura’s assessment that there is this expectation that emergence will become the "penultimate field", when instead is should maybe be viewed as ´connecting/supplementing, rather than unifying’. It seems that historically there has always been this fixation on finding the key to explaining ‘it all’. The problem with thinking like this is that the solution comes before discovery. What if there is no unifying answer? I like the approach of putting a process in motion, watching to see what it does and maybe (or not) discovering that there are similarities between seemingly different entities. What may be useful is meaning behind those similarities. I don’t see emergence as an answer; it is just a way of looking at things. You don’t start out with a goal, you take the path and along the way you discover what is there.
LauraKasakoff's picture

"Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference." - Steve Jobs GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!! I came upon this quote and form it describes perfectly how I feel when I look at emergent models. It may be that when in the middle of playing with/ creating an emergent program we need not have a specific goal in mind. However, throughout the semester in this course we have grappled with specific questions, and I like to think that we were grappling with the hopes of finding/ nearing an answer. Even if the goal was as general as "I want to better understand how the world works", it is still a goal. It seems that emergence is still a science and cannot escape an inherent goal oriented nature. And I don't think it's such a bad thing! Like Jobs said, it is best to strive towards something. Perhaps in striving for a goal or searching for an answer we can use emergent tools and theories. But believing in the end that everything will come together can give us confidence we need to proceed in at least some direction! That is why I would like to hold onto my belief in a Theory of Everything. It is a goal that gives the pursuit of knowledge purpose. Of course it has been proven that since any Theory of Everything must necessarily be incomplete or inconsistent, that one cannot exist. However, I believe that even if a Theory of Everything is impossible, that there is inherent value in striving for the impossible. Not just practical value, but real goodness in working towards a Theory of Everything, and not just because of the knowledge we can uncover along the way. Some crackpot book called The Final Theory is available only online and claims that all the science we've learned from infancy is wrong, and we should trust our understanding and question everything including their crazy proposals. The first chapter is free, and I think that it's all a bunch of malarky, but I found it "interesting" nonetheless. :) It's nice to know that some people think a Theory of Everything is possible even if they are crackpots. Although, I shouldn't judge. Everything I've said is equally crackpotty.
AngadSingh's picture

I'm not sure if science, or more personally my life, needs a "final goal" in order to remain effective on some level. I think science can function on a useful level without identifying some final goal for which it is striving. But that doesn't preclude the possibility that science, or my life, should have a goal. For instance, what if all science was taught in the following manner (in a more thorough and nuanced manner of course!): - A series of problems or inadequecies in the world are cataloged - Those that are both enormously troublesome and also susceptible to scientific scrutiny are considered - And then the goal becomes addressing these troublesome issues that we suspect science can improve The above is silly, but I'm trying to suggest that by letting science wander and not striving for specific goals, science loses much of its functionality. Instead of alleviating the environmental burden of an oil spill, you learn about the combustive properties of oil in space...granted that information could be relevant, but it certainly is not among the most pertinent. And I know Paul, if reading this, is thinking "evolution evolution evolution" - and evolution is an undirected process that has more than adequately addressed the difficulties of life - but it does so incredibly slowly and with other difficulties/sacrafices built in. I'm just not sure it is so easily analogous, however much it may seem in the first instance.
PaulGrobstein's picture

Paul is of course reading this and ... agrees that evolution is a very slow way way to deal with problems or inadequacies and has "other difficulties/sacrifices built in". And that "science" (and personal lives) may make good use of "goals" and in that sense both may be somewhat different from evolution.

A key point here is that evolution does not catalogue "problems or inadequacies". It simply explores possible new forms and, in the course of doing so, it quite effectively (if slowly) comes up with solutions to "problems or inadequacies" (and, of course, also creates new ones). Evolution is not itself an argument for or against the benefits of "purposefulness"; it is only a reminder that a lot can be done (and is being done) without it, simply by exploring novelty ("playfulness is ... not only to be enjoyed but to be accorded high value for its fundamental role in the success of all organisms, including humans.") Creativity/novelty generation is adaptive.

Science can and I think frequently does operate in that mode. So let me give a slightly revised version of your "silly", which I actually don't think is:

  • A series of current questions are posed for which there don't currently exist answers
  • New tentative answers are proposed and new observations are made to see which existing questions yield a richer array of new observations, tentative answers, and new questions
  • There is no fixed "final goal" but the process has a feedback built into it that gives it a directional character: over time the sophistication of both questions and tentative answers increases since they reflect ever greater numbers of observations.

That's what is sometimes called "pure" science, and it is, I think, quite analogous to biological evolution with one important difference: it depends on entities (like ourselves) that are capable of conceiving "questions", ie are curious about what might be instead of simply dealing with what is at any given time. And that capability in turn can be used to support a sense of having a "goal", ie of wanting oneself (and/or things around one) to move in some particular direction. For "pure" scientists, that goal might be conceived by themselves (and others) as exploring the (constantly changing) unknown, ie to satisfy "curiousity".

In practice, entities like us typically have lots of goals, including varying senses of "problems or inadequacies in the world" that we "suspect science can improve". My point is not at all to denigrate such goals. They play an enormously important role in defining "current questions ... for which there don't currently exist answers" and so take science in productive directions in which it might not otherwise go. And indeed science, so influenced, does sometimes come up with new and successful ways to deal with "troublesome questions". So "goals" can and do play a useful role in science. And may, in turn, in life.

What's worth keeping in mind though is that "goals" are not guaranteed to be achievable, by science or any other activity. In addition, goals usually have a "local" character, ie they involve a commitment to bringing about a particular change in a particular context. When one has achieved a "goal", one typically finds that itself creates "troublesome questions" in places one hadn't thought about . Moreover, goals are, by their very nature, different in different people and potentially (for better or for worse) different at different times in particular people.

None of this says "goals" aren't important. They can indeed speed up the processes of exploration inherent in both biological evolution and "pure" science/inquiry, and open up new directions of exploration. And they can, of course, also provide some useful coherence is individual lives. I would never argue that "evolution" is the only productive game in town. I would though strongly argue that "goals" are, similarly, also not the only productive game in town. We've got both and need not set either against the other. "Its all open to reconsideration and renewal", the usefulness of evoluton as well as the usefulness of both particular goals and goals in general.

Maybe that's the route to maximum "functionality"? "If you can dream - and not make dreams your master ..."?