What is emergence?
Emergence or emergent complexity describes how relatively simple interactions among parts at one level of scale can generate a qualitatively more complex whole at a greater level of scale. Common examples involve how the interactions of subatomic particles give rise to atoms, how the interactions of atoms give rise to molecules, and how the interactions of molecules give rise to various forms of matter. Emergence often produces order where we would otherwise expect to find chaos. In this framework, emergent complexity is defined in terms of patterns of interaction, levels of scale, and systems of emergence.
Patterns of Interactions
Patterns refer to the high level organization of the various types of interactions. The most basic patterns of interaction involve individual units, units in relationship to other units, and the collective formed by all of the units and their relationships. Patterns are essentially about parts, wholes, and the dynamics among them.
Although patterns can be simplified into these three primary elements, we have to be careful not to oversimplify them. There are entire taxonomies of various meronymic or part-whole relationships that demonstrate how the same whole can be decomposed into different types of parts. Relative to a whole pie, parts might refer to its individual slices; its crust, filling, and topping; or even the ingredients used when making it. In each of these cases, we can take away one part and the remainder will still be there. However, from an emergent systems perspective, we are referring to parts whose interactions cause the whole to come into being. For example, we could say that different types of molecules are parts of the pie. However, it is not possible to separate certain molecules from the rest without completely transforming the nature of the whole.
Levels of Scale
There is the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, but emergence literally takes this idea to another level. With this framework, we are interested in levels that represent shifts in the scale of our perspective. Like the ability to zoom in or out with a microscope or a telescope, the concept of levels facilitates the discovery of different orders of magnitude for perceiving the world.
In an emergent system, the individual units at one level emerge from the interacting units at the previous level. What we’re getting at here is the difference between affect and effect. Because an emergent whole is an effect of its parts, it exists at an inherently greater level of scale. Each level represents a distinct situational context which subsequently affords and constrains certain types of interaction. In this context, we begin to comprehend the relationships of qualitatively different worlds within worlds, each with their own unique physical or conceptual laws for defining the properties and behaviors of the phenomena therein.
Systems of Emergence
The concept of systems of emergence refers to an understanding of how what is relatively complex at one level at the same time is relatively simple at another level. And transversing these levels, each unit is simultaneously a whole emerging from the interactions of less complex parts and an interacting part from which a more complex whole emerges. Every observable phenomenon is both a part and whole, and is constantly involved in endless interactions which may be invisible to us because they are either at too small or big a scale for us to physically see or perhaps even mentally comprehend.