Emergence is an interesting phenomenon that pervades all of existence, one that is often discussed by scientists, by philosophers, and humanists. But despite its ubiquity, I do not believe I have ever seen the idea of emergence brought up as an important issue in the nexus between science and faith. Perhaps it should be. Let’s explore.
We can define emergence as the appearance of a behavior or phenomenon at the system level that is not implicit in the properties of the system’s components. Emergence happens when a system of relatively simple elements reaches a level of complexity such that it suddenly takes on a higher-level quality, not predictable from its simple elements.
It sounds a bit magical, but it isn’t. It is a fundamental property of our universe. Emergence has a completely naturalistic presence in many branches of science. Here are a variety of journal article titles from the mainstream peer-reviewed literature, showing beyond any doubt that emergence is not some kind of “woo” factor with no scientific standing:
“Phenotypic and dynamical transitions in model genetic networks I. Emergence of patterns and genotype-phenotype relationships”
“Human evolution, niche complexity, and the emergence of a distinctively human imagination”
“Dehydrins: emergence of a biochemical role of a family of plant dehydration proteins”
“Emergence in Chemistry: Chemistry as the Embodiment of Emergence”
And here are a couple of book titles: Emergence: From chaos to order and Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.
One can find emergence in human games, in the functioning of neural networks and in the origin of life. Emergence is a basic characteristic of all the sciences: it happens in physics, chemistry and biology, in psychology and economics, in social sciences and outside the boundaries of science altogether.
Cosmologists write of the emergence of forces from other forces at the origin of the universe. This was the case with the emergence of the EM force from the weak force during that very eventful first instant after the big bang. Biology is actually an emergent property of chemistry at its most complex state. And consciousness is an emergent property of extremely complex neural organs.
So, having defined what emergence is, and demonstrated that it is a purely natural phenomenon, accepted in all the sciences, we are left with an obvious question – how does it happen? Or even more interestingly, why does it happen?
Let’s take a classical example of emergence – a colony of ants. Individual ants are not very impressive. They are programmed to follow a simple set of rules related to following pheromones emitted by other ants. But when a million or so ants are together, they form a colony that exhibits amazing degrees of complexity. The colony is able to find and collect food, protect the queen, build structures, care for young, and so on. E. O. Wilson studied ant colonies for years and saw in them a model for many kinds of self-organizing complex systems, including human societies.
Or consider a game of chess. With a few pieces and a handful rules, we have a game with unending complexity and difficulty. Some chess games have been compared to majestic works of art, masterpieces of creativity and human brilliance.
What would the universe be like if emergence never happened – if the effects of increasing the complexity of interactions of a system simply resulted in a system that’s larger but predictable based on the properties of the simple components? In other words, suppose the ant colony, even with each ant interacting with nearby ants, simply appeared to be a jumble of ants running around looking for their own food. Perhaps their interactions would be helpful for that, but we wouldn’t see the construction of tunnels, or the group efforts in building food storage. Or suppose the outcome of a chess game between experts were predictable after three moves. Imagine if the result of making a system of complex chemical interactions resulting in a disorganized jumble of chemical reactions with no particularly interesting or novel properties?
It isn’t hard to imagine that at all, because that is exactly what happens most of the time. If we simply mixed together a random set of chemicals, in most cases not much would occur, except for a few meaningless reactions. If we threw together a bunch of random insects of various unrelated species, they would simply run around searching for food. And we could invent a game with a number of pieces and a few rules that turned out to be boringly easy and dull to play. There are in fact a number of them on the market. So, emergence is actually a rare event. But it does happen. And when it does, it seems quite special and evokes a sense of wonder in us observers.
Not magic, but magical. Natural, yet in many cases just beyond our understanding. We seek in vain for that key ingredient that turns a flight of birds into a beautiful pattern of murmuration. Flocks of birds all flying together in the same direction are common, without the emergence of anything special. So, what happens when the flock is composed of just the exact minimum number of birds flying at just the right distance from each other, to suddenly transform into a sight of joy and beauty?
I have lots of questions in this post. Answers are welcome, and perhaps some thoughts about what any of this says about divine action in our world. To be continued, after the next post. The next post will be a guest post from loyal reader and commenter, Ethan Ortega.