“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,
you must first invent the universe.”
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos: Part 9: The Lives of the Stars
To understand cognition as a multi-level system of emergence, it is important to ask: What is emergence? Addressing this question can provide a common point of reference to orient our thinking about the themes that inform this project.
In the most generic terms, emergent complexity — or emergence — refers to the way that relatively simple interactions can have disproportionately complex results. It involves a kind of grassroots, bottom-up organization that helps to explain why we find so much order in a universe that lacks any executive, top-down organization.
Emergence has become a popular topic in mainstream culture, which is somewhat problematic because it means different things to different people. While there is no all-purpose definition of emergence, this project is based on a specific perspective of what it is or how it works.
If you’ve heard of emergence before, you’ve probably heard it associated with the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. This idea isn’t completely wrong, but it’s just not entirely accurate.
If we think of part-whole relationships like a kind of jigsaw puzzle, then the parts are pieces that can be assembled into the whole. The whole is “greater” because it serves a function that is more than the sum of its parts.
However, emergence involves a special kind of puzzle. Instead of the parts simply fitting together to form the whole, the parts exist on a micro level and cause the existence of the whole on a macro level (Here, micro and macro refer to a hierarchical scale of complexity). An emergent whole is “greater” because it exists at a level beyond the sum of its parts.
Just as there are different kinds of puzzles, there are different kinds of parts. We frequently use the noun, “part,” to refer to a wide range of part-whole relationships. A slice is part of a pie. The filling can be part of a pie as well. Even its ingredients could be considered part of a pie. Arguably, the best part of a pie is how it tastes.
But in emergent phenomena, parts and the wholes they give rise to aren’t just things – they’re interactions. Beyond the proportional or organizational or compositional or descriptive parts of a pie, the atomic interactions that give rise to it are also parts of the pie. The pie exists in the way that it does because in any given moment its atoms are interacting in the way that they do.
Of course, most of the stuff in our day to day lives is made of atoms, too. Which is another way of saying that — from grains of sand to galaxies of stars — all the physical forms we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch (and many that we can’t) are emergent phenomena.
In a reality that is so fundamentally interactive, even the things that seem simple are nonetheless complex. That’s why the study of physics is so useful – it helps us understand the basic laws of interaction in the physical world.
To describe how wholes emerge from parts, we don’t need to understand the actual physics of interaction. We just need to understand the basics of part-whole interactions, which can be grouped in three ways: how parts interact individually, in relationship to one another, and in the context of the collective parts. The whole itself is an “overview” of all these interactions.
Individual, relational, and collective interactions can organize into patterns which give rise to a self-organizing whole. The whole is then a representation that integrates all of the dynamic patterns of interaction from which it emerges.
In emergence, the part-whole relationship is fundamentally one of cause and effect. Parts are the causes and wholes are their effects. The idea of levels can help us understand how this cause and effect relationship works in emergence.
Most examples of cause and effect are described in terms of linear or sequentially ordered steps of time. In these examples, cause and effect happen one after the other. To say that A causes B implies that A happened first and then B happened next. The first car suddenly slows down, and the effect is that the second car crashes into the first. It’s a relatively simple and literally straightforward perspective of cause and effect.
Instead of a strictly linear view of causality, emergence involves a kind of cause and effect that happens synchronously but at different levels. Although we may only perceive the resulting changes over time, the causes and their effects aren’t related through time, they’re related through interaction. What happens at the level of the parts (A) simultaneously causes something to come into being on the level of the whole (B). As hundreds of individual cars slow down, they synergistically cause a traffic jam.
(Linear / sequential cause and effect is like listening to the sound of an individual instrument. We hear the music as one note after another. Multi-scale / synchronous cause and effect is like listening to the simultaneous sounds of multiple instruments. There’s the linear progression of time, but the music we hear emerges all at once from the interactions of notes. Even though the music would not exist without the individual sounds, it also exhibits qualities or characteristics or a life of its own at a level that transcends them.)
With both the traffic and music examples, it’s important to remember that the basis of emergence is interaction. In the traffic example, the part and whole relationship isn’t cars and traffic, it’s cars-slowing-down and traffic. Similarly, in the music example, the parts aren’t the instruments, they’re the instruments-making-sounds. Even going back to our pie example, how the ingredients make a pie is not an example of emergence, but the behavior of atoms (from the ingredients) manifesting as a pie is.
Interactions, patterns, and levels help us reframe the nature of part-whole relationships. In doing so, we can come to a new understanding of what it means for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.
All of which serves to inform a working definition of emergence as the cause and effect dynamic by which patterns of interaction at an antecedent level give rise to patterns of interaction at a descendent level. With this definition, we can construct a framework for emergent systems. In trying to visual the framework, it can be helpful — although somewhat misleading — to imagine patterns and levels as horizontal and vertical dimensions of interaction, respectively.
Now that we have a rudimentary map for navigating the nature of emergence, we can more deeply explore what it means to imagine cognition as an emergent system.
Emergent Cognition Project