Emergence, Complexity, and the Potential for Human Understanding

Here are a couple scientific topics that I don’t pretend to understand, at least not in any depth. What I find fascinating is how, while the big-scale scientific conclusions have been fairly stable for several decades (as noted two weeks ago), smaller studies reveal endless new perspectives that fall from those conclusions. It’s a bit like color: the perceived color of anything depends on the object itself, the kind of light falling upon it, and the human eye’s own biases in interpreting color against backgrounds and the surrounding of objects of other colors.

Quanta Magazine, Philip Ball, 10 Jun 2024: The New Math of How Large-Scale Order Emerges: “The puzzle of emergence asks how regularities emerge on macro scales out of uncountable constituent parts. A new framework has researchers hopeful that a solution is near.”

Very broadly, the issue here is whether or not complex systems can be ‘explained’ in terms of simpler system, or whether ’emergent’ properties are needed to explain them. Certain such properties help; this is a theme of the Brian Greene book I mentioned (in that same post two weeks ago). But the philosophical issue of how such properties emerge is apparently tricky. I’ll quote a bit.

The world is full of such emergent phenomena: large-scale patterns and organization arising from innumerable interactions between component parts. And yet there is no agreed scientific theory to explain emergence. Loosely, the behavior of a complex system might be considered emergent if it can’t be predicted from the properties of the parts alone. But when will such large-scale structures and patterns arise, and what’s the criterion for when a phenomenon is emergent and when it isn’t? Confusion has reigned. “It’s just a muddle,” said Jim Crutchfield, a physicist at the University of California, Davis.

“Philosophers have long been arguing about emergence, and going round in circles,” said Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex in England. The problem, according to Seth, is that we haven’t had the right tools — “not only the tools for analysis, but the tools for thinking. Having measures and theories of emergence would not only be something we can throw at data but would also be tools that can help us think about these systems in a richer way.”


On a very similar topic.

Big Think, Adam Frank, 13 Jun 2024: Complexity science could transform 21st-century research. Here’s how.

Key Takeaways
• Complexity science shifts scientific inquiry from predictable laws to studying dynamic, emergent systems. • In this 13.8 column, Adam Frank overviews what complexity science is and what distinguishes relatively simple systems from complex systems. • By taking a transdisciplinary approach to studying complex systems, complexity science could help us tackle some of the most interesting questions of the 21st century: What is life? How do minds work? What drives the directions of social organization? And how does a biosphere co-evolve with the rest of a planet?

Frank begins:

A new science is emerging that promises to become the defining field of the 21st century. More than just a narrow specialization, it’s not just a new field but a new way of doing science — a new way of organizing intellectual domains and effort. Given its broad impact, it goes by several names, but the one that embraces its full potential is complexity science. Today, I want to briefly introduce why it’s already so important and why it’s likely to define the frontiers of human inquiry for decades to come.

I’ve mentioned before that new concepts about chaos, emergence, and complexity emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, visible to non-specialists in books like James Gleick’s Chaos (1987), John H. Holland’s Emergence: From Chaos to Order (1998) and Steven Johnson’s Emergence (2001), and Robert Lewin’s Complexity (1993), just to mention books in my library. I’d sorta suspected these specialties had all been absorbed into the greater scheme of things. And perhaps chaos theory has. But the two items today suggest that emergence and complexity are still very much fields in their own rights, in the sense that there are unsolved problems in each.

The author discusses a forthcoming volume of papers about complexity, with an introduction by one David Krakauer, head of the Sante Fe Institute.

In that introduction, Krakauer lays out a clear, penetrating argument for what makes complexity science so important and such a break with the long history of scientific thinking. He introduces the idea of two different kinds of topics of study in the world: the A and B systems. The A systems exhibit fundamental regularities, obey simple laws, require minimal assumptions, and require minimal initial conditions. The targets of celestial mechanics (i.e., the clockwork behavior of the Solar System) are representative of an A system. The B systems are very different. Their description requires contingent histories with novel structures and behavior that emerge from nested hierarchies of sub-components. Most importantly, the B systems are always far from equilibrium. Energy and entropy flow through them allowing them to self-organize into self-adaptive structures where evolution (i.e., selection) plays an essential role.

As Krakauer points out, the A and B systems are so different that even the most perfect tool used for an A system — think of, for example, a super-powerful microscope that could resolve everything down to the sub-atomic scale — would be almost useless for the B systems.

And the key aspects of complicated B systems are these. Ring any bells?

The first is evolution. When systems evolve through selection, it means some features persist and change while others are eliminated. In this way, entirely new orders of behavior become possible.

The second is entropy. This is a recognition that complex systems are not just complicated. Instead, they are engines of energy transformation. They pull energy from their surroundings, making them thermodynamically “open,” and transform the free part of that energy into work. That work usually involves making the system self-creating and self-maintaining. In the process, fluxes of entropy are generated that wash through the system and out into the environment.

The next feature is dynamics, which goes hand-in-hand with entropy. Complex systems can often be described using “dynamical system theory,” where rich, non-linear, and often chaotic behaviors allow for rich behaviors to emerge.

The final feature is computation. Complex systems are best described in terms of their use of information. Use here means storage, copying, transmission, and processing. Rocks don’t use information. Complex systems do.

The writer claims that the overlap of these features makes not for just a “multi-disciplinary” science — but a “transdisciplinary” one. “It rises above them all, creating something entirely new.”

What this recalls, of course, is both Brian Greene, and David Deutsch, who identify very similar sets of fundamental forces that ‘explain’ everything.

This is the thrill of science. The discoveries not just of isolated laws that apply to this realm or that, but the discovery of the basic principles that underlie the entire universe — because the entire universe exists, can be understood through basic laws, which must necessarily be consistent with one another. Thus studies from various perspectives keep identifying the same basic underlying principles.

That these underlying principles are not *obvious* to people, in the way some local principles are, is because, 1) humans aren’t intuitively ‘smart’ enough, in the way science fiction likes to imagine than alien beings might be; and 2) we’re not that smart because we haven’t needed to be, in order to survive and reproduce and exist as a species.

Yet, that humans have evolved brains (and a human nature, c.f Pinker again) *capable* of understanding complex issues, suggests that that capability can be extended to understand things not immediately relevant to the species’ survival. How far can humanity take that? Is everything understandable? Or are there things forever beyond human understanding?


While most of humanity is ignorant of virtually everything outside immediate matters of survival. Bickering about crowd sizes, plotting to execute rival tribes.

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