Puzzles & Levels

The cognitive process of finding patterns is a lot like doing a puzzle: working with pieces of information, making connections, and constructing a picture. When we put everything together, we could say that a single picture “emerges” from the collective whole of all the individual pieces. Yet, to the extent that this process only involves interactions at one level of scale, it does not describe an emergent phenomenon.

Comparing the two mosaic-style images below can help us distinguish between these two definitions of emergence. 

mosaic images

Although both images involve the sense of a whole formed by the relationships among its parts, they involve different relationships between the whole image and its composite parts. The image of Vertumnus, on the left, is a representation produced by distinct objects. We could call this is an example of a single level representational process, since the parts and the whole exist at the same level of scale. The image of Charles Darwin, on the right, is a representation produced by distinct representations of objects. That is, it’s a picture whose pieces are individual pictures at a lesser level of scale. At a greater level of scale, the picture of Darwin may also be a piece in another picture. This is an example of a multi-level representational process, with the parts and the whole existing at different levels of scale.

It should be noted that puzzles are a problematic metaphor for describing cognitive processes. As static images, puzzles cannot express the truly dynamic nature of the interactions involved. Nonetheless, they are useful for exploring the dimensions of patterns and levels which inform our concepts of emergence.

Puzzles & Patterns