Emergence science and meta-science

An emergence reading list

An old man is sitting with a large book from which he reads with a younger man

I initially wanted to devote individual blog posts to the best of these readings from our emergence journal club, but the previous post is getting an unexpected amount of attention, and there were some requests for reading material.


So here is what we have discussed so far:

science and meta-science

What is emergence, and why should we care about it?

CarbonEmergence occurs when there is a conceptual discontinuity between two descriptions targeting the same phenomenon. This does not mean that emergence is a purely subjective phenomenon — only that scientific ‘double coverage’ may be a good place to look for emergent phenomena.

For example, in the case of starling murmuration, there is an aggregate description of individual birds, and a description of the flock as a unified entity. The latter phenomenon invites description in terms of concepts from fluid dynamics, but descriptions of individual birds, however detailed, typically do not.

In the case of phase transitions in physics, the description of one phase of matter, such as gas, does not fully map onto descriptions of the other phases. Surface tension, for example, is not defined for gases, since gases do not have surfaces. In the transition from gas to liquid, a qualitatively new attribute not only emerges, it becomes a defining feature of the post-transition system. From a different perspective we can say that it is the emergent qualitative property that enables us to determine that the transition has occurred in the first place. Quantitative readings of some control variable (such as temperature or pressure) cannot themselves be used to mark out ‘events’ — they can only be used to index them.

A common type of theoretical disjunction involves mismatch between descriptions of parts and wholes. A description of micro-level constituents in terms of atomic properties does not lead in any smooth way to descriptions in terms of thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, or solid state physics. In physics, the lack of smoothness in transitioning from one theoretical domain of discourse to another is not always apparent, since the two domains are often well specified mathematically, while the (often ad hoc) linking assumptions enabling the transition are neglected in popular (and even introductory textbook-level) explanations.


A jolt to the system

A complete disruption of normality is something many people secretly (and not-so-secretly) fantasize about. So now it’s here. It’s immensely stress-inducing, but also an opportunity to really rethink how we’ve set up our economies and our cultures.

In previous “shocks”, elites have forced changes that were ultimately anti-people. Can we beat these elites at their own game? Can we at least dare to think this?

If large amounts of corporate work, research, design, and coding can be done at home, then why are people pumping out carbon dioxide to drive through traffic every day?

Can we really think of ourselves as an advanced civilization when we can’t get basic healthcare right? How can we blather about exploring space, understanding consciousness, and even conquering death itself when we don’t have the courage to use already-existing technologies to alleviate suffering?

For those of us experiencing anxiety at the mere thought of not being able to meet people for a few weeks, what does that say about our actual priorities? We want to be social, but the systems we keep perpetuating make us think of socializing as some kind of fluff — an impediment to productivity. What are we being productive for? Many of us will now have an opportunity to be productive alone, without “distractions”. Is that what we want? :)

musings Uncategorized

Be the library you want to see in the world

A man is falling backwards among piles of books cascading over himI suspect that tech-induced information overload will make traditional forms of intelligence and memory more rather than less important over time. This is because natural intelligence is far more nimble and creative than, say, a bureaucratic system of indexing, tagging, note-taking, mind-mapping, etc. Such systems have their uses, but in my experience, they can easily metastatize and become ends rather than means.

In other words, information overflow requires surfing, as opposed to the construction of big dams, canals and plumbing systems. :)


Is reality continuous or discrete?

A performing artist stands among large planets while juggling smaller ones and their satellitesReality is whatever it is… only our models of it can be considered continuous or discrete (or true, or false, or useful).

I say this like it’s obvious, but it’s a potentially controversial opinion. :)

People have a strong tendency to confuse the map with the territory. So a very successful theory becomes synonymous with reality itself.

But things get murky when we investigate all the details of the theory. If we are being extra cautious about what we consider “real”, then we can always wait for experimental confirmation before believing in the existence of some thing or process proposed by a theory.