Emergence. What’s that all about? In fact it’s all around us, and indeed all inside us. But familiarity breeds contempt. We are ourselves an on-going product of emergent processes, and so are all of the living beings around us. In fact ‘emergence’ is the most amazing property of the universe but its overwhelming presence in the living world has made us somewhat blind to it. For according to the facts of ‘hard science’ and of Newtonian mechanics, we live in a deterministic, mechanical world within which we strive to predict and control what goes on. We even imagine that with the help of modern computing and detection, we will be able to tame future history into a smooth and predictable course. While we base much of our thinking on this outdated scientific view of taming and controlling events and processes, the real world carries on evolving, and unexpected surprises seem constantly to knock us off course. And this is because we are mistaking a complex evolving reality, with freedom at its lowest level giving rise to surprises both good and bad, for a mechanical system which is churning its way towards an equilibrium.
But if physics is true and the laws of conservation of mass, energy and momentum are true under normal circumstances, then how can this ‘freedom’ emerge in the world? How can systems appear which obey these fundamental laws and yet create whole new worlds of phenomena and possibilities which characterize living beings for example?
Consider a sheet of paper. Physics can tell us about its tensile strength, its color, its density and what it is made of. But if we fold it, by applying an asymmetrical force to it, and follow up with a few other folds, then we can make an infinite number of different objects! They all obey the laws of physics but nevertheless have characteristics and capabilities that physics can say nothing about. The paper can be folded into different forms: a bird, a vase, a hat, a box, a dart. They have different emergent characteristics, and hence different emergent capabilities. The answer then is – morphology! It is the shapes and forms that are established that create new features and connections, which give capabilities to the folded forms that were never dreamt of in the philosophy of the paper.
And if the likelihood of remaking and protecting emergent forms depends on the success of the functionalities that have emerged, then we will see that over time the paper and its environment will together produce an ecology of forms that are mutually compatible. Not only that but continuing morphological explorations (folding) at the level of the paper, will result in new objects, innovations and changes retained by the selection processes, and in the resulting ‘paper’ ecosystem. And the selection process itself is changing over time as new forms and functionalities invade. Furthermore, groups of folded forms can together co-evolve to produce new, higher levels of structure and organization, again with emergent characteristics and capabilities. So we see that the ‘freedom’ to create new forms and functions and new levels of structure and organization is perfectly compatible with the laws of physics and of ‘hard science’. Everything has to obey the laws of physics, but objects and elements contained in the ‘everything’ keep expanding in a creative universe where morphology really matters.
Now for all of you chuckling about a discussion of origami and its cosmic importance, consider the properties of macro-molecules. They can be strings with sticky lumps, they can fold into sheets and into more complex shapes, and they can therefore provide the natural material basis for a real, emergent evolutionary system that leads through RNA, DNA, cells, organisms and species to us – or rather to ecosystems that contain us. So this shows us how it is that I, a particular set of folded proteins and cells resulting from its own particular history, can be talking to you, another set of folded proteins and cells resulting from a different particular history. While we and the universe might at first laugh at the incongruous idea of folded molecules talking to each other, nevertheless it is true. But we should see this not as one structure talking to another but both being part of an on-going flow of matter and energy patterns, which change over time. Individual parts cannot be understood separately from the whole and the whole is made up of these interacting individual parts. And inside each individual behaviors and responses are guided by a ‘brain’ which is an evolving morphology of connected neurons. Network patterns of connected neurons, cells and organs make individuals that form patterns of relationships and organizations that deliver an evolving, creative multi-level ecology.
Somewhere along the folding, reproducing route, individual self-awareness crept in, as it undoubtedly helped survival. Also, group and social dimensions to our behaviors emerged, leading to values, ethics and morals whose presence allowed societies to function in collective ways, and to sometimes perform better than separate individuals.
Ultimately then, the emergence and creative evolution of the world that we observe and indeed participate in, demonstrate the importance of ‘complexity’ in breaking out beyond the comprehension of the physics of a situation. In a system that is far from equilibrium, the presence of non-linear interactions and feedbacks between elements leads to structures, patterns and morphologies with new characteristics, functionalities and capabilities that appear above the molecular level of traditional physics. Worlds open up, literally, as successive levels of structure and organization emerge and form, each becoming the ‘selection mechanism’ of the level below. So change resounds up and down the levels of structure, and sideways too as it deals with whatever is on its boundary.
So the emergence of ourselves and our world is an amazing outcome of complexity, resulting from the creation of patterns and shapes – morphologies – that lead to new possibilities and functionalities. In a way technology and engineering is not just based on the physics of materials but mainly on the creations of forms and shapes that lead to new tools and possibilities. Evolution is driven by our new thoughts and the exploration and creation of new forms and tools – new answers and new questions. So that is what Emergence is all about.