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Emergence And Self-Organization

July 6, 2011

Do you ever find yourself thinking that the world is set on some course?  I often reflect on my life and feel that I’m sailing on a small raft down a rapidly flowing river.  While I can somewhat steer the raft to the left and to the right, avoiding major obstacles downstream, overall I feel like I’m being carried someplace completely outside of my own control.

To give you a few examples, I think about aging.  I’m getting older each and every day, and I have no control over it.  I see myself in the mirror each morning and am noticing aging setting in.  I think about society at large and how I’m subject to forces far beyond my control.  Forces in Washington D.C., Wall Street, the educational system, the corporations, and so on, largely dictate what my life is and what struggles I experience.  That’s not to say I can’t fight it, but if everyone around me is voting in stupid politicians, who are implementing stupid policies, I have to endure the consequences.  If they waste all of our money on wars and bailing out fat cats on Wall Street, I have to live with the fact that our infrastructure is falling apart.  I have to pay my share of taxes which go toward interest payments on a debt which was run up on fruitless endeavors.  I have to drive down the road filled with pot-holes and make the best of whatever situation I’m in.  I have to suffer as I watch more and more families fall into poverty, whether it’s from medical bills, job loss, or rampant inflation.  Though I have some power, I’m almost entirely dependent on this “flow” which we call society.

I’ve always been fascinated by this “flow”.  Take the economy for instance.  It is pretty much a free for all — unkind and unforgiving, with every man and woman for themselves.  Everyone’s competing for everything.  They compete for homes.  They compete for cars.  They compete for jobs.  They compete for mates.  Everyone’s trying to advance and often beat one another senseless in the process.  I see so much pain and suffering that I find myself deeply depressed reflecting on it.

But reflecting on this chaotic conflict, I notice that society isn’t random.  The world isn’t anarchic, which is what you’d initially guess.  There are patterns to the madness.  There’s a flow pattern.  There’s trends.  There’s cycles.  There’s ups and downs.  You’d never guess that such a system would lead to any sort of structure, but it does.  And even stranger, nobody ever designed it.  Everybody else is just like me, immersed in this system, competing with everyone else, primarily concerned with self-interest, and amazingly a social order emerges.  It’s incredible.

But what is this emergent order, looking at it from a deeper perspective?  Here’s where things get really interesting.  This concept of “emergence” runs very deep.  It’s much deeper than human society.  This same sort of process is happening at every level of reality, from elementary particles to the deepest depths of the cosmos.

Let’s begin by defining what emergence is.  We can quickly summarize it by saying that when dealing with emergent properties, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  This is a very profound idea so let’s take a bit of time to explain it with an example.

Many thinkers believe consciousness is an emergent process.  What does that mean?  Imagine Pierre-Simon Laplace’s demon.  If you’re not aware of his demon, it was a thought experiment he performed in 1814.   It involves a hypothetical entity that knows the position and momentum of each and every particle of the universe, and can therefore fully predict all of time, past, present, and future by using the laws of physics.  Now imagine Laplace’s demon and the neurons in your brain.  If consciousness is an emergent process created by the organization of neurons in your brain, even if the demon could predict every little electrical pulse, and the position and firing of each and every neuron, that does not mean it could predict you eventually becoming conscious.  Consciousness is a new thing which comes into existence when the neurons organize into that pattern, but it’s above and beyond the neurons themselves.  It’s more than the sum of the neurons.  A new property emerges — that brain is conscious.  This form of emergence is called “strong” emergence.

Let’s go even deeper.  All the matter in the universe is an emergent process, though this is a case of “weak” emergence.  You start with random quantum fluctuations, you have inflation, and you get the universe.  This process organizes into elementary particles, which then come together into atoms.  The atoms then spread off into space, are compressed into stars by gravity, which then manufacture the higher elements up to iron, and even heavier elements are created when the star explodes in a supernova.  Then the star guts float off into space and gravity pulls them together into new stars and solar systems.  There is no designer or organizer.  All the matter of our universe was “created” by a self-organized, emergent process.  What physicists call classical mechanics is just the limiting case of quantum mechanics applied to to large enough masses.  When you look at matter at a small scale, it’s different stuff than the “macroscopic” world we live in.  It’s this fuzzy, cloud-like indeterminate stuff governed by the uncertainty principle, but it clumps together into matter and becomes the stuff of our observable universe.

Now these atoms start self-organizing, first into planets, and then into life.  The laws of chemistry, which is the science behind how the atoms combine together, leads us to a new emergent property — living cells.  For example, we have the spontaneous folding of proteins.  We have the formation of lipid membranes, and so on.  This is a new emergent property unlike the atoms by themselves.  They self-organize into cellular components and then into individuals cells and more complex living creatures.

Next we get into the field of biology.  We start to have ecosystems and all sorts of life-forms which are evolving based on natural selection and random mutations.  Predators evolve hunting the prey and both evolve nervous systems which give them an awareness of the world around them in order to survive and reproduce.  This evolution of nervous systems eventually leads to a new emergent property, consciousness, which we have already discussed.

Now us conscious sentient beings, including many animals, are all living together on the Earth.  If you examine the life of these organisms in detail, you see all sorts of emergent behaviors and patterns.  Whether it be an colony of termites building a giant mound, a flock of birds flying in harmony, or a school of fish moving as one, they all behave as if they have a leader, but no one ant, bird, or fish knows the big picture!  There’s no orchestrator leading them, yet they all combine together, following their instincts, flowing in organized patterns.

In the case of us humans, we start organizing into tribes and communities, and as everyone knows, the individual behaves much different when placed in the context of society.  The world starts to change as we organize into larger and larger communities.  A new emergent thing comes into existence — society and culture.

This is one of the central themes behind Friedrich Hayek’s work.  If you don’t know, he was a nobel laureate economist.  He researched societies and cultures, and he saw that their organization evolved and that these changes take place by ordered processes.  These observations are what drew me to his work because he ties them with all aspects of society, our morals, our language, their roots in nature and our instincts, how money, trade, and economic markets function, etc.  That’s not to say this order is beautiful.  It’s ultimately rooted in the same bases as nature and the animal kingdom.  Everything is eating everything else, chewing on one another while they’re still alive, poisoning each other, deceiving one another, and impaling one another with razor sharp claws.  There’s starvation, parasites, tape-worms, and more misery than I care to mention.  About the only real virtue nature’s “invisible hand” seems to have is it’s efficient with resources.  It has a brutal garbage collection system, weeding out the weak and unnecessary by letting them starve, bleed to death, or be eaten alive if they’re born with any defects.  In nature, there’s random mutations and variation in each new generation, and if they have what it takes to survive in their environment, they’re able to survive, find food, and reproduce.  As for the rest, they die of starvation, disease, and so on.

As society evolves, we begin to change our ways, going from wandering hunters/gatherers to farmers.  As trade develops, we have the division of labor and people skilled in all kinds of different fields.  New variations of existence are being created and new things are emerging which didn’t exist before.  Today, the changes taking place are primarily ideas. These ideas had to be stored outside of our human mind, so we invented writing.  Originally we wrote in clay, but later we moved to paper, and now computers.

It’s also important to note an interesting trend.  More and more of our cognition is being outsourced into the external environment.  The “dead” stuff of our world is becoming intelligent and alive.  That’s what nanotechnology will eventually lead to.

It seems that a new sort of thing is emerging as our societies around the world connect — a global mind.  This “mind” is now in its rudimentary stages, and we refer to it as the internet.  It’s storing our thoughts and broadcasting them to various areas of the new extended “body”.  It will also likely later control our machine intelligence systems and control robotic sentinels and all the technology embedded around us.  I refer to it like it’s a single entity, but it will be a tightly connected network of machines serving collective goals.

If you read all the newspapers, they’re telling us we’re moving into the age of intelligent machines.  Computer chips are going to be embedded in everything and AI is going to be everywhere.  Your toothbrush will warn you if you’re brushing too hard, aisles in shopping centers will be able to create holographic guides to walk you through the store, and your car will drive itself.  There’s fierce debate concerning what this all means for the future of human species and our place in the world. Will we eventually displaced entirely by the machines?  Will we have to integrate with them? And if so, what does that mean? If you seriously think about it, it almost seems as if we are evolving into something new, but I have no idea what it is. Some of my previous posts speculated into this transition.

I posed a thought experiment where a trans-human takes over the world and starts to restructure it.  When I wrote that, my main concern was what intelligence is, how that related to the individual, and what happens when we integrate with the machines.  I don’t understand what happens to individuality and I think we’ll need to rethink it. All of those who integrate together will emerge into a new organism of some sort, which I don’t understand.  Many brilliant men around the world speculate that these machines will take over the Earth and be in some sense conscious.  A new super-species will emerge which will be completely connected with one another, all wired into a super-brain with all knowledge.  The Earth’s materials may be converted into some sort of nano-technology, the planet itself becoming a new sort of emergent organism.

Everything has been self-organizing into more complex structures.  Maybe the Earth will organize into a new structure, and then later the entire galaxy. I say the Earth will become a new organism because our technology will reach a point where we preserve it.  If an asteroid is coming in, our technology will shoot it down before it strikes the surface.  Our cities are like a skin for the planet, which self-repair if damaged.  Our roads, subways, and trains are like veins transporting materials to and fro.  I recently watched a video on the Edge website where a professor was talking about research he was doing related to urban development.  Their research was showing how cities resemble living creatures.  It was fascinating.

Hopefully now you guys understand what I’m talking about when I refer to being immersed in a “flow”.  This is the river I was talking about.  This self-organization of society and the world is taking place and I don’t know how to think about it.  I feel it’s inevitable.  The more I fight it, I’ll just die in poverty and misery.  If I go with it, building the technology which makes it happen, and contribute toward a society which flows in this direction, things go well for me, and for all of us, it seems.  We get better technology for healthcare, better homes, more living opportunities, neater technologies, cool video games, and so on and so forth.  But ultimately, just look at the technology and think of its implications.  Something is evolving before our very eyes. What do you guys think?

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