Emerging from Reductionism

Emergence has been given numerous definitions and its exact meaning is still being debated. Those squabbles, because that’s what they are, are unnecessary and unbecoming. Here, we will use the basic notion of what is meant by emergence: what parts of a system do together that they would not do on their own; or emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties that its parts do not have on their own. Let’s consider a simple example. Imagine a small, metal, well-polished rod, about 1/16″ in diameter and 1″ long. Now, imagine that we have about 500 such rods and we arrange them in parallel so that they float next to, and easily slide by, one another. We have created a well known toy that makes what is called “metal pin art”. If you press your hand, or any object, against one side, its topography will be transferred to the other. The collection of pins (a system) has a property that no single pin has. That property is the ability to create a representation of things pressed against them; in other words, image creation. That property is not present in any individual pin, but “emerges” from the collection of metal pins. Another simple example. We start with a single tone. It has a frequency, loudness, duration, etc. Now imagine we have a large collection of assorted tones and we organize them in such a way that a song emerges from the collection. While the song arises from the collection of tones, it is distinct from any individual tone. If we organize the same tones in a different pattern, creating a different set of relationships, we would get a different song. In both of our examples, we can easily detect the constituents from which the new property emerges: we can still hear the individual tones and see the individual pins.

Next, consider a slightly more complex situation, one in which we cannot see the players, the constituent units, even before we restructure them in a new way. For example, what happens when we force two gases, hydrogen and oxygen, to combine to make water? We certainly cannot see or hear either constituent gas in the newly created water. Why not? It takes a few steps to answer that. All chemical properties emerge from the organization of more basic units: protons, neutrons, and electrons. That means the macro properties of our starting gases are already the result of emergence from more fundamental units. Basically, the properties of a chemical are created by the shape of chemical’s electron cloud. When hydrogen and oxygen combine, their basic units are rearranged to create a new electron cloud structure across the molecule, and it’s that new emergent structure/pattern that creates the properties of water. The constituent units, the protons, neutrons, and electrons, are a few levels/scales down from the macro level we see, and are thus hidden from our casual observation. It is important to note that while the emergence of water from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen is certainly not predictable from their properties, water remains in the same “chemical” category, a category created (emerging) from various organizations of the three basic units, protons, neutrons, and electrons. In other words, when we combine hydrogen and oxygen we find neither a toaster nor an elephant “emerging”. We find, instead, another chemical. This seems to be a characteristic of the emergence process: the emergent property or thing stays within the category created by its originating constituents. Hydrogen and oxygen are both chemical elements. The water that emerges from their combination is also a chemical. Same category. Toasters and elephants, however, belong to higher level (more complex) categories.

Organization is the key to emergence. Whenever we have multiple instances of something the possibility of organizations among those things arises. And organization gives rise to properties emerging from the relationships among the items. We are considering a process that is the exact opposite of reductionism: as you divide something into smaller and smaller parts, you destroy relationships among its population of parts and their resultant emergent properties. For example, as you focus on smaller and smaller parts of a drop of water, at the point of having only a few molecules left, you lose the emergent property of liquidity; as you chop up a song into smaller and smaller units, you lose songness and are left only with disembodied tones. You are an emergent phenomenon. The organization of your cells allows them to create a system that might even do their homework — something no single cell in your body could do. Organization is vital. If the organization of your cells were suddenly randomized, say in a blender, you would be having a very bad day.

Everything material you see around you — indeed — your body, itself, is made from different organizations of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These three building blocks make all the elements in the periodic table and, ultimately, all material things are made from these elements. The secret is this: different organizations of the three building blocks create different “emergent” properties in the elements and materials they create. In other words, organization leads to structure and emergence of new properties.

The three mentioned building blocks come with fundamental properties. Protons and electrons have both mass and charge, neutrons exhibit mass. Mass and charge are “fundamental” because, for this discussion, we are unable to peer behind the curtain and see where they come from, what makes them what they are. They are essentially magic to us. The “properties” of a material are essentially the ways in which it interacts with other things. And those properties arise from the structure of the electron cloud surrounding the molecule or atomic nucleus. As you combine elements in different ways, you create different electron clouds in the resulting molecules which, because of their structures, interact with other things in characteristic ways which we call properties. Of special importance to us, Mindness is also fundamental. I’ll defend this outrageous claim below. Our mind is almost certainly made from more basic mindness bits, organized into the complex process we call mind. Think about this: biology does not create new fundamental properties, it builds with them. It rearranges bits that come with fundamental properties to create new structures from which new, higher-level properties emerge.

Let’s take another look at categories. Distinctions between categories may be large or small, and some category boundaries are admittedly fuzzy, but none are greater or clearer than the distinction between material and immaterial categories. This distinction is not at all fuzzy, material and immaterial are entirely different aspects of reality. If emergent properties do not jump outside the category of their underlying constituents, mind, being immaterial, must emerge from immaterial creating units, not material ones. We have good reason to believe that mind emerges from activity in the brain, but it can’t emerge from neuronal circuits or other macro material structures. It’s not the material aspect of the brain that creates mind, it’s the immaterial aspect.

If mind emerges from more basic elements, those elements must be in the same category as mind. In fact, if no special magic happens along the way, elements with mindness properties must be present at the most fundamental stratum of reality. Let me put that another way: like mass and electromagnetism, mindness must be a primitive property of reality. It isn’t made from anything else, it’s present at the most basic level. The electromagnetic properties of material protons and electrons make lovely candidates for basic bits of immaterial mindness. That doesn’t mean that all mind things are conscious, of course. The most basic and ubiquitous mind-bits are surely(?) not conscious. But as they are combined in more and more complex mindness structures, eventually, consciousness can no longer be avoided. As you know, things go downhill from there.

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