Emergence, Chaos and the Meaning of it All – Finding Significance in the Natural World, Part 1

[This is a re-post from my personal philosophy blog. Check out my blog HERE.]

There are many things which are simply difficult not just to understand but to know at all.

Though I tried my best and still did horribly in my biology class in community college, there was one concept that I gleaned which I’ve found myself thinking about as of late. The concept is “emergence” or “emergent properties.” In general, emergence has to do with a system giving rise to properties which are not directly traceable to the component parts of said system. On the physiological level, emergence refers to secondary traits emerging unpredictably from the combination of various primary traits. In genetics, the primary traits are those which can be deduced from genes, and the secondary, emergent traits are those which come about from the combination of several of the primary traits.

Emergent properties are difficult to predict, as they themselves are not “written into the script,” so to speak, and come about as a result of the things that actually are. For example, one would not gather by inspecting Oxygen and Nitrogen molecules that in large quantities they would transmit the complex waves that make up audible sound.

As emergence usually manifests itself in complex systems, it seems natural that it occurs in social systems as well. Single celled organisms are physiologically and genetically simple on an individual level, yet in large groups, they form organized colonies with specific structures and cause illnesses with specific symptoms. Larger and more complex still, an ant by itself is a relatively simple organism, but in a colony of ants, complex hierarchies, behaviors and architecture emerge.

Given the simplicity of a single celled organism and the comparatively enormous complexity of a colony of the same, we see an enormous gap between the complexity of the component and the complexity of the system. The same is evident in the ant colony. As the components – or members – of a system are more complex, the emergent properties evident in the system – or society – are exponentially more so.

Chaos Theory‘s main assertion is that even in a completely, unarguably deterministic system (that is to say that the outcome of the system is completely determined by its initial conditions), random properties and results emerge. For decades, Chaos Theory has turned the scientific world on its head because it flies in the face of the scientific method, the living breath of which is the belief that anything can be verified by the replication of its same initial conditions and application of the same processes. Chaos Theory instead says that in a complex, “chaotic” system, given the same process and initial conditions, different results may – and often do – occur.

This is due to the complexity of the system, and as always, hindsight is 20/20. After the fact, Chaos Theorists can plot out the information, and, given enough information and enough of a bird’s eye view, they are able to see a pattern. This pattern, however, was impossible to predict beforehand. Results within the system can only be predicted

  1. In an infinitesimally small amount of time, or
  2. Given an infinite amount of information.

Sadly, the first is worthless and the second is impossible. The amount of information needed to predict anything over any significant amount of time resembles a limit in calculus. One trying to predict results in a chaotic system can increase their information, but never acquire quite enough to make all of the predictions. The limit can never actually be reached. As infinity is a concept and not an actual amount, working with it remains in the realm of idea and never truly connects with the real world. An infinite amount of information is required, but a finite amount of information is available. As a result, though the patterns in complex systems are decipherable ex post facto, they are unpredictable beforehand, and given the same conditions will provide different ex post factoresults. This is why in a chaotic system such as weather, we have one generation of scientists preaching the doom of global cooling and another generation predicting global warming. In complex, chaotic systems, there is always less known than unknown.

An enormous difficulty in dealing with complex systems such as weather, human society, the mind and the universe in general, is that there is always a disconnect between the Micro and the Macro. Reasonably intelligent people can generalize and abstract, in order to understand general concepts. Likewise, the same people are able to understand the particulars of a given experience or piece of information. Where the difficulty always comes in is when one tries to plug one into the other. There always seems to be a lurking variable when trying to connect the two.

Nowhere is this more evident than in physics. Brilliant physicists such as Michael Faraday and Max Planck pioneered the science of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the most tiny, elemental building blocks of the universe. In like manner, Albert Einstein developed the theory of General Relativity, which deals with the largest and most overarching principles of the universe, showing the relationship of space, time and gravity. Both of these are legitimate sciences, verified by testing and understood to the point of practicability. Scientists, however, have yet to be able to put either one in the context of the other in any intelligible way. Scientists constantly hammer away at the “Theory of Everything,” “Unified Field” theories, and the ideas of “Quantum Gravity,” but have yet to make the connection in any solid way.

This brick wall is apparently struck in every general science or philosophy. Quantum Mechanics clashes with General Relativity. The general laws of pressure, heat and physical change seem to get thrown out the window in the presence of weather systems. Psychology and sociology follow different patterns. Aristotle’s bottom up approach to metaphysics, doesn’t seem to fit with Plato’s top down approach. Given history, this disconnect isn’t likely to be patched up any time soon.

So what, then? What is the point of me bringing this up in the first place? Why, if our understanding of anything seems to reside at the extreme margins, and if the general, all-encompassing understanding of it eludes us, do we seek to understand anything? After all, the limit is only infinitely approachable, never attainable.

There seems to be in all of us an inborn belief that there is a rhyme and reason to it all. That there is a method to the madness. Though we are unable to deduce the connections, we seem to think that there is a connection. That indeed the very thing which which eludes us is worth knowing. That something is “worth knowing” at all is a distinct qualitative statement. A statement of meaning and significance. Aside from our religious upbringing – be it theist, atheist or some other view of the cosmos – we all seem to seek for that meaning.

True, some have sought to say that the universe is what it is on the surface and nothing more. That existence is without meaning. The universe is merely a mass of objects and events, and that’s it. In my mind, this provokes a question. When, in any complex system, are the components ever equal to the end results? Emergent properties and situations arise seemingly at random. Infinitely unpredictable patterns arise, giving form to what was formless. Why, if something as complex as a termite “cathedral” can emerge from such simple components as termites and dirt, can we not expect from so complex a system as the universe, at least something as basic to us as meaning?

I believe that meaning in the universe is an emergent property, and that there is a pattern to things. This is a declaration of naturalism. I contend that though the universe is natural and physical and is governed by laws and functions of the same nature, there is meaning and purpose to be found in it. Meaning is, in this sense, an emergent property of existence. Thus, the question now becomes that of what this declaration entails. What does this mean in our personal and spiritual lives? What does this mean in our conception of God? Can one be a naturalist and still be a theist? What meaning is there to be found in the natural world?


COMING SOON: Finding Significance in the Natural World – Part Two.

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4 Responses

  1. […] Thinking in a Marrow Bone wrote an interesting post today on Emergence, Chaos and the Meaning of it All – Finding Significance in the Natural World, Part 1Here’s a quick excerptThis is why in a chaotic system such as weather, we have one generation of scientists preaching the doom of global cooling and another generation predicting global w arming…. […]

  2. Thanks for your post, Jake. I think you will provide a valuable perspective to TMB. (I was going to ask you, would you mind providing a link to TMB from your personal blog?)

    I like a lot of what you are saying, but I’m probably seeing things from a different angle.

    First, what I like: I like the notion of chaos theory, as well as your observations of the incompatibility of various scientific theories. What you’ve discussed throws a major wrench into having a grand, predictable theory that circumscribes everything (the utopian dream of many a scientist). I think this problem — and I *think* you may agree with me here, given our mutual interest in William James — points towards the necessity of a pragmatism and pluralistic approach to science. (Interestingly, I am co-authoring a paper at the American Psychological Association this August on this very issue. The paper is called “James’ pluralism: The future of the natural and social sciences?” It’s kind of cool, because this year is the 100 year anniversary of James’ lectures on pluralism, given at both Harvard and Oxford — and the convention is in Boston.)

    However, this very openness to pluralism — and pragmatism — is going to lead me to try to open a space for alternatives for non-naturalistic and non-deterministic approaches to science. Must we believe that the universe is governed by laws? Indeed, is it not possible for us to say the unpredictability and incompatibility of scientific theories could leave room for doubt on this very underlying premise of naturalism? Moreover, in terms of pragmatism, why would we even buy into a notion of pre-determined scripts and natural laws? Certainly, I can imagine some pragmatic arguments towards this end — as well as many that would be opposed to it (such as James’ arguments of libertarian freedom and an open-ended world). Hence, the need for pluralism. To me, it seems that trying to reconcile the two possibilities (predictability and randomness, determinism and freedom, naturalism and theism) is perhaps the wrong approach to begin with. What allegiance do we owe to such a reconciliation? You suggest rhyme and reason — and I like your word choice here, because is it possible that “rhyme” and “reason” simply don’t go together? If Yeats’ poems can be reduced to a reasoned explanation of an emergent, chaotic result of deterministic systems — then wherein lies the poetry?

  3. Good ideas. I’m interested in reading part two.

  4. This was a very cool post. I’m waiting for part two!

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