Emergence and Consciousness
Philosophers have pondered questions of epistemology (how we know things) at least since Aristotle. In one way or another, the bulk of our scientific tradition has always relied on observations of phenomena and analysis of causation. But, from antiquity, there has also been a parallel (sometimes competing) tradition of recognizing the “soul” or “consciousness.” This entity, or process, whatever its name, represents a complex organization of phenomena which, since the 19th century, has been known as “Emergence” in philosophy. Emergent properties of any entity are observed but cannot be analyzed from its understood components. Emergence is always the “unexpected” result of an experiment. It is something more than the sum of its parts. It is a natural force, previously unknown, occurring on the far ends of a probability distribution. Those “Black Swan” events we encounter from statistics are composed of emergent properties.
When we first discover them, these emergent entities must be explained. That task often takes on some urgency to manufacture an analysis. Without offering scientific explanation, panic may ensue!
In the modern and postmodern era, we have grown comfortable with regression analysis so precise as to reduce the probability of true Black Swan events to near zero. Yet, there is still room for wild card actions – especially in the realm of human behavior – to occasionally throw us into a funk of self-doubt. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine may be an example. The COVID pandemic strained science for causal explanation. All these events, unexpected as they were, are examples of “weak emergence.” Weakly emergent properties can, in fact, be analyzed. They can be simulated via artificial intelligence. We can successfully suppress the panic a “Strongly Emergent” event would cause.
Strong Emergence, so terrifying that even philosophers of science must attempt to either explain or deny its existence, would be something for which there truly was NO ANTECEDENT. It might even be initiated by “downward causation” – from the complex organized entity itself down to the constituent parts. This is the reverse of common scientific and philosophical presumptions. Some philosophers have also imagined the possibility of a dual origin for certain strongly emergent properties – both upward and downward in a feedback loop. Natural selection in biology comes to mind.
Religion, of course, seeks to mitigate the terror felt when we are left with no explanation for events. It is no accident that the efficacy of religious dogmas tends to decline as fewer and fewer phenomena are left without convincing analysis. Science has done a good job over the centuries of eroding religion. In addition, philosophy itself has contributed to a general easing of pain since the arrival in our modern consciousness of concepts like “liberalism” and “democracy.” What injustice remains in world communities of humans seems amenable to scientific explanations when extended to the social sciences.
The best case for the existence of strong emergence, it seems to this writer, is human creativity. We recognize it when we see it and, rather than reacting with terror, we admire its beauty! Indeed, the artist speaks to us with an emergent property that strikes us deep in our “soul.” Aesthetics, however, gives another entrée to scientists even in this realm. We have philosophies of aesthetics – attempts to analyze art in behavioral/psychological terms. For some, that crutch is helpful in appreciating art. For others, aesthetic analysis only imposes an additional burden on appreciation. But the subject of aesthetics is the strongly emergent property of the arts.
Most importantly, all emergent properties, weak or strong, are unexpected. They represent the tails of the curve. In theory, stochastic processes (trial and error) could come up with some small probability of any Black Swan outcome. But human information processing, and by extension our best AI, have difficulty with low probabilities. It sometimes seems that prediction of the Black Swan is futile. Yet, there continues to be a market for public consumption of probability ranges, despite none of us really understanding the difference between a 30% and a 40% chance. Our consciousness doesn’t work that way. It sometimes helps to place a time frame on a prediction – climate scientists have been doing that since the 2015 IPCC Paris Accords. We have until year x before results y make life much harder on Earth. But how much harder? Again, we can’t quite visualize large numbers of human lives lost in comparison to fewer lives lost. Stalin is reputed to have said, “one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.” We may counsel our children and grandchildren to move away from coastal areas IN THE FUTURE, but when should they consider making that move? The same could have been said for Ukrainians likely to be caught in a FUTURE crossfire with Russia, or residents of dying rust belt towns in the Midwest – “Yes, the future looks bleak, but I don’t want to move!”
When it comes to decision-making, there is always a bias toward stasis in human behavior. People have titanic struggles in their own consciousness when it comes to drug addiction, unhealthy relationships, diet, etc. So how do we make predictions that are most likely to influence decisions? It often seems like the best approach is to tell a story. The story should be informed by the experience of the person you tell it to. Human consciousness works through analogy more than logic. This is why people study history, read novels, go to movies, or paint. It is true that even art is a stochastic process – praxis informs truth. But prediction? Economists might be better served to tell stories of supply and demand (microeconomics), or experiences with bank loans (macroeconomics) than to produce charts from the Fed showing long-term employment or price volatility. Perhaps investment advisors could do the same. From a scientific viewpoint, all experiments involve looking backward for causality. The human “mind,” however, wants to look forward for results! We want strong emergence but usually settle for weak emergence.
But isn’t it more fun, in the end, to not know? Unexpected outcomes equal surprise. And surprise often brings pleasure! Not always, but sometimes. One of the characteristics of the strongly emergent is collapse of the outcomes into the antecedent entities, of probability into possibility. Unknowability of likelihoods creates openings in the mind. In this sense, data collection can be seen as merely a rearguard action – attempting to diminish the likelihood of surprise.
There is also tension between accumulation of knowledge and ideology. Ideology is tautological. You must accept certain givens for the ideology to work. Ideology is reductionist. Knowledge, however, is emergent. The search for causation, inquiry, is fundamental to emergence. Over time we do learn to be conservative in our predictions.
— William Sundwick