Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Emergence: By Cosmos Or By Life?

In the most general sort of way, as one makes progress from simplicity to complexity, more and more properties seem to emerge, sometimes seeming out of thin air. This is also oft noted as a bottom-up development of the complexity hierarchy or where the whole becomes more than the sum of its collective parts. One termite can't accomplish very much; ten termites just a little; but a colony of termites can build mighty termite mounds and destroy buildings. One brick doesn't do very much, but a million can build all manner of interesting and useful constructions. One electron and one neutron and one proton can't do very much either, but a million of each can produce all of the elements we know of in the Periodic Table and all of the compounds we know as well.

Increasing and decreasing levels of complexity are all well and good and having a structural hierarchy makes comprehension and understanding easier - it's more visual. But ultimately top-down and bottom-up reasoning are inadequate to explain life, the Universe and everything. It would be improbable, IMHO, to predict sociology from an understanding of chemistry, so bottom-up has limits, but then sociology can't come up with chemistry so the top-down approach isn't all that crash hot either.

For example, from the bottom-up, you couldn't predict from either the Big Bang event or quantum physics the emergence and existence of an ecosystem or even the bunny rabbit. And from the top-down, knowing about the workings of an ecosystem or even just the bunny rabbit doesn't predict either quantum physics or the Big Bang event.

On a simpler note, I'm not convinced a physical chemist could predict in a bottom-up fashion, given the properties of chlorine and sodium, including details of their atomic structure and makeup, that the chemical union of the two would produce a solid, translucent, crystalline, substance with a salty taste, which was an essential ingredient for life's biochemistry to flourish. Only an actual experiment would do that. Conversely, from the top-down, I'm not convinced that a physical chemist examining a bit of table salt, even knowing its atomic structure, could predict that hidden within that structure lay a yellow poisonous gas and a volatile metallic solid. That too takes an experiment to discover. I may be wrong about those deductions - I'm not a physical chemist - but gut feeling says no.

Some scientists suggest that from the knowledge of the atomic structure and properties of oxygen and hydrogen one should be able to bottom-up predict the existence of oceans, waves, even surfing! I disagree since you'd need to predict or envision a very large bowl that would contain all of those molecules of water, but the bowl isn't a logical emergent property of oxygen and hydrogen. (You'd also need to bottom-up predict not just water but liquid water and thus a temperature and pressure range, wind, and all the properties that go into making up a surfboard rider, and that's a pretty big ask just knowing about oxygen and hydrogen.)

Regardless, sociology does emerge out of chemistry; ecosystems and bunny rabbits emerge from the Big Bang event and quantum physics; table salt emerges out of sodium and chlorine; and the ocean emerges out of hydrogen and oxygen.

Take for example the simulation game of "Life". Start with just a few 'life forms' that will obey a few simple laws, principles and relationships - the rules of the game - then hit 'enter' and see what happens. More likely as not complexity will spontaneously emerge. That said, it must be stressed that in the real world, while there has been an overall increase in the complexity of the myriad forms of life over geologic time, cumulating in the most complex structure of all, the human brain, natural evolution or natural selection hasn't ever had a goal, an ultimate design or purpose in mind. In the biological world, complexity can revert to something simpler, if the need (survival of the fittest) so arises. It goes against the general grain, but it happens from time to time.

In the context of this little essay, it doesn't really matter if we are talking about emerging properties 'in the beginning' and in and of the cosmos and before the emergence of life, or 'once upon a time' which is the emergence of life, body and mind, on Planet Earth. It's probably more relevant to take the cosmic view since Planet Earth is a subset of that.


In the cosmic beginning was the physics, but has any more complex physics emerged from that distant time since presumably all of the laws, principles and relationships of physics were present and accounted for at that beginning? Well presumably you couldn't have had any radioactive decay until such time as there were atomic nuclei and the binding together of neutrons and protons (plus the associated outer electron cloud). But some might argue that the formation of atoms out of the original cosmic soup of particles is chemistry, not physics, but I don't see it that way. Chemistry doesn't start until atoms start combining with other atoms to form molecules. But clearly, no matter how you slice and dice and define things, chemistry emerged from physics and complex (multi-atom) chemistry emerged from simple chemistry and very complex organic chemistry and hence eventually biochemistry emerged out of that mess. But the mention of biochemistry notes that biology emerged out of complex chemistries and from that emerged the mind and all of the facets (like intelligence, awareness, etc.) we associate with a mind (and not just a human mind either as we are often inclined to associate the mind with just the human mind). All sorts of other 'sciences' then emerge from having a mind like psychology to sociology to conflicts to more traditionally human ones like economics, culture and a sense of history.


Time is an emergent concept when change occurs in the cosmos and there is an awareness of that change by something - presumably a living thing that responds to that change in a manner that can't be predicted by the laws, relationships and principles of physics. That's actually my definition of what life is. Anyway, if there is no change there is no time. Space is an emergent concept that comes into play the nanosecond there exists matter and energy within, a something that fills that space and gives meaning to the concept of space. If there is no matter and energy, there is no such thing as space.


Many hold the view that information is fundamental to the cosmos, in fact is the fundamental construction behind the cosmos. Everything in and of the cosmos is bits and bytes - information. 'Information' may have existed before life came into being, but I fail to see what good information was until such time as there was a mind to recognize information for what it was and to make use of it.


Personality is an emerging property of life. It's difficult to think of an electron or an atom of carbon as having a personality since their substance and structure never changes. Of course one could argue that if an electron absorbs a photon or meets a positron (anti-electron) change will occur. Then too more complex structures like the weather or a star might be said to have a personality. A warm sunny day is differing in 'personality' to that of a raging hurricane. Our Sun's temperament changes over a regular cycle - sometimes sunspot free and tranquility reins; sometimes emitting massive coronal ejections and solar flares.


Surely emotions are an emergent property of life. My cats may hiss and spit or softly purr but I can't image any rock doing that. However, as noted directly above, complex systems can display differing 'personalities' from time to time. It's probably a bit farfetched however to suggest that an exploding stick of dynamite is angry or that a tranquil pond is contented. Emotions tend to suggest intent and it's difficult to think of any non-life form having any sort of intention towards you regardless of how nice it might be to bask in the sun at the beach, or conversely get the fertilizer knocked out of you by a huge wave! Neither the sun nor the wave had any deliberate intention to either warm you up or knock you senseless.


Language is an emergent property of life. Life can communicate with life, or at least the same sort of life like an ant colony. Birds communicate; cats communicate; humans communicate sometimes by sound, sometimes via body language, sometimes via smell, etc. But the Universe too has a universal language, at least according to some theorists: Mathematics. One can certainly 'speak' and understand the language of mathematics. The Universe operates according to precise mathematical relationships. In order for one part of the Universe to understand and respond to another part of the Universe, it needs to understand the language of mathematics. For example, gravity understands the mathematical language of the inverse square law. As an aside, if we exist in a Simulated (Virtual Reality) Universe, then that Universe too is in the language of mathematics - software.


If there was nothing rather than something, there could be no consciousness.

Consciousness is rooted in matter and energy - no matter and energy, no consciousness.

Consciousness is an emergent property of life that only emerged when life itself emerged - or is it? Consider quantum physics as the exception.

Every living thing from humble microbes to plants, jellyfish to frogs, birds to cats to primates have consciousness because all respond to external stimuli in ways that are not predictable by classical physics (unlike a rock expanding and contracting as the temperature rises and falls). From conception to brain death you feel and respond to stimuli 60/60/24/7/52, like gravity and temperature, etc. If you respond, in un-rock like ways, you have consciousness.

Consciousness is a synonym for your state of awareness or being aware. If you are in a state of consciousness, you are aware of your surroundings, both external (it's hot outside) and internal to the body (as I have a tummy ache) and internal to the mind (thoughts, ideas, emotions, creativity, and other mentally generated perceptions). Once conscious or aware, you then respond to that awareness.

Consciousness is not a fundamental property of the cosmos. There was a time before life existed and the cosmos got on quite well without being aware that it actually even existed.

The best way to come to terms with consciousness is to distinguish that state from when you are not conscious - being asleep; under anesthesia; drugged into an unconscious state; being passed out; having fainted; being knocked out (as in boxing), etc.

You'd say you're conscious right now and probably say you were conscious ten minutes ago, but how do you know that? You know that because you remember being conscious ten minutes ago. But, you're remembering that something you're remembering in the present now, not ten minutes ago, so that's not a reliable indicator.


Free Will would appear to be an emergent property of life. Okay, maybe a plant doesn't decide to do, or not do, something, but in the animal kingdom animals make choices many times a day, even the invertebrates decide to do, or not to do, and one could argue even unicellular critters make decisions. It would be difficult to think that inanimate objects, all of that nonliving cosmos, from the fundamental particles on up the line, have free will. Well, anyone who is conversant with quantum physics knows full well that elementary particles have some sort of awareness and can make decisions, albeit under some quite considerable restrictions, but choices nevertheless. Such free will straightjackets applies to life forms as well (I can't flap my arms and fly; my cats can't decide to learn algebra).

For example say you have one light source. Let's make it the Sun. You have one normal everyday clear and clean pane of glass. Some of the light (photons) from the light source will pass clear through the clear glass, but some of those identical photons will reflect off the clear surface of the pane of glass. One set of circumstances yields two differing but simultaneous outcomes. That violates cause-and-effect. That's crazy, but it happens as you can verify for yourself. Or, the photons are aware of the pane of glass and are deciding of their own free will whether to pass through, or reflect.


Memory is an emergent property of life - or is it? Memory isn't really memory if... When an electron meets a positron (an anti-electron) does reach 'remember' what it must do? What about the 'spooky action at a distance' - quantum entanglement.

We all know about working memory, short-term memory and long-term memory and how we seem to remember unique one-offs, things that happen that are out of the ordinary, like when you get into your car but slip and fall back out in front of 20 other people - that's you'd remember. But you also have a collective memory of the generality of you getting into your car that's not specific to any one car entering event - all of which you have individually forgotten. But all those individual car entering events have merged together to form a general collective memory of entering your car. Most of our memories seem to be of this collective kind. You might have a collective memory of enjoyable evenings spent in front of a warm fireplace with a glass of wine, even though each specific occurrence has been sent to your mind's wastepaper basket.


Creativity would appear to be an emerging property of life, but then the Universe creates things like galaxies, stars, planets and of course life. Perhaps creativity is not creativity if there is one and only one way to create something. There's not too many ways Mother Nature can create water; there are numerous ways a human can create a chair. However, one could ague that Mother Nature took the basic fundamental particles and from that, using the laws, relationships and principles of physics created all of the diversity we see in the cosmos. There's 92 natural elements (not counting isotopes) and as close to infinity as makes no odds, molecules, all constructed or created from just that trilogy of basic fundamental particles - electrons, neutrons and protons (albeit neutrons and protons are in turn composed of a trilogy of quarks). There might be only one way to create a star, but there are many varieties of stars, just like there are many varieties of chairs. There's not just one variety of galaxy, but many types of galaxies. There's not just one type of planet, but a huge diversity of planets both in our solar system and as we've discovered as exo-planets forming around other star systems.


One emerging property that must be confined to having arisen from the human mind is the concept of concepts, or abstractions, things which have no real independent reality outside of the human mind. There are concepts like Wednesday, time & space, love, theology, freedom, architecture, probability and a whole host of ism's - theism, sexism, racism, feminism, etc. There are also the concepts of things that exist in themselves which isn't the same thing as the actual thing itself. One can have the mental concept of a wheel which is separate and apart from an actual wheel; one can imagine a manned landing on the moon which isn't the same thing as an actual landing on the lunar surface.


Humans at least of the life forms we know assign a meaning or a purpose to their existence and to their finite time on this abode - that Third Rock from the Sun - which is all well and good as long as they themselves do the assigning and not pass the buck up the line to an alleged deity or deities or even other mortal authority figures. But does the cosmos at large have a meaning and a purpose? The strong Anthropic Principle says that the Universe exists, and has the properties it has, in order to bring forth life, intelligent life, and even more specifically human beings into the Universe. Human beings are the Universe's way of the Universe understanding the Universe. The strong Anthropic Principle isn't flavor of the month with most scientists. The weak Anthropic Principle on the other hand says the Universe is fine-tuned or is a bio-friendly Universe or a Goldilocks Universe that enables life, intelligent life and human beings to exist, but such fine-tuning is not a deliberate, purposely designed, or meaningful construct on the part of the Universe. It's just the way the cards were dealt and if the cards had been dealt some other way the Universe wouldn't be a fine-tuned or is a bio-friendly Universe or a Goldilocks Universe that enables life, intelligent life and human beings to exist. We wouldn't exist in order to ponder any sort of meaning and purpose on the part of anything and everything.


Now you may think it ridiculous that the Universe at large can reproduce itself. Reproduction is considered one of those properties of life. However, there are two theoretical ways and means by which this could happen. The first is via Black Holes. Some theory suggests that all the stuff that goes down a Black Hole's gurgler gets budded off to become a new universe, not our universe, but a universe in its own right, which will in turn produce Black Holes which will in turn bud off another generation of universes, etc.

The second way is via Runaway Inflation. Inflation is a concept that's been tacked on to the Big Bang event itself in order to iron out several cosmological problems if the Big Bang was left by itself to explain the origin and evolution of our Universe. Inflation is a super-ultra-rapid burst of expansion that stars and stops in just nanoseconds just after the Big Bang itself. Now the central problem is not how Inflation starts, but how it stops. Some theory suggests that Inflation doesn't stop in all places at precisely the same instant. It some part of our Universe keeps on super-ultra-rapidly stretching while another part has stopped that Inflationary phase, then the part that's still undergoing Inflation will bud off from our Universe to form a universe in its own right. But Inflation in that universe might not all stop at the same time and place leading to another budding off, another universe, and another and another.


One of your emergent properties that started virtually at the moment of your conception was your ageing process began. There appears to be nothing you can do about this or its inevitable conclusion. Your health will decline with ageing until you die (see next section). Even if you spent your existence in some sort of 'safe house' free from accidents and deliberate acts of malice against you; even if all the air you breathed was filtered free from harmful bacteria and viruses and pollutants; even if you ate a perfectly balanced diet of three meals a day with all foods free of artificial colors, flavors and ingredients and everything was 100% 'organic' with lots of fruits and vegetables; even if your water was distilled and absolutely pure; even if you took no drugs like caffeine or nicotine or alcohol; even if every moment of every day was absolutely stress free; even if you got your eight hours of sleep a day; even if you got lots of exercise, both mental and physical, you will still age and go downhill towards that bucket which you will kick. You cannot prevent that complex biochemical ageing time bomb that's inherently inside you and which emerged from the simplicity of your conception.

You age, but it is hard to imagine the Universe ageing in a biological sense. The Universe is evolving, it is changing, it is spreading further apart with each passing second (the expanding Universe), but is it ageing? At the most fundamental level, those elementary particles like electrons and neutrinos and photons, don't age. A 13.7 billion year old electron doesn't look a day over 3 billion years, or days or nanoseconds for that matter. You could imagine a rock in the middle of intergalactic space, unchanging as the millennia passed on by. Stars 'die' as they run out of fuel, but once that last flicker of energy dissipates, the star doesn't continue to age. Maybe things that are dead can't undergo an ageing process although things that are dead (like a star or a radioactive rock) can still change, but the change isn't an ageing process - or is it? Perhaps this is a case of splitting hairs.


If life is an emergent property of the cosmos, then death is an emergent property of life, since there is no theoretical reason why a living organism has to die a natural death providing the body continually receives an adequate supply of all resources required for life (food, oxygen or carbon dioxide (if a plant), water, etc.). However, entropy will not be denied and there is nothing you can do (at least in the here and now) about it no matter how well you follow doctor's orders. But death too is an emergent property of 'non-living' things. Stars are born; stars run out of fuel; stars die. Stuff gets sucked down a Black Hole presumably not with previous substance and structure. Even a Black Hole itself will ultimately die, evaporating into a sea of elementary particles via Hawking Radiation. An electron meets a positron and both die and get turned into pure energy. Even the entire Universe can die. One way would be if the expansion rate slowed, stopped, reversed, contracted, and ended up in a Big Brunch (the death of the Universe, the opposite the Big Bang, the birth of the Universe). The second, and apparently more likely way, is the Heat Death of the Universe, a state reached when all available energy is uniformly distributed across the entire cosmos. The third way is that Dark Energy, which allegedly is driving the accelerating expansion of the Universe, keeps on increasing over time, and it's anti- gravitational properties will eventually rip apart the galaxies, the stars, all the planets and related debris, all the molecules into atoms, all the atoms into electrons, neutrons and protons, and all the protons and neutrons into quarks. Naturally enough, this death of the Universe is called the Big Rip.


It's clear the cosmos has a lot of the emergent properties we associate with life. Whether it's a sufficient number to conclude that the cosmos itself is alive I'll leave up to you. But in summary:

1) Emergence has happened, is still happening and will continue to happen at all times in the future, or at least until the cosmos itself kicks the bucket..

2) Something more complex (up or top) cannot break the simpler laws, relationships and principles of physics (down or bottom) that comprise that complex something but that complex something must be compatible with those simpler laws, relationships and principles of physics. What that complex something is and how it behaves doesn't dictate or influence (top-down) how the laws, relationships and principles of physics that make it what it is, behave. So something simple puts constraints around that which is complex, but what's complex doesn't restrain the overall properties of what's simple.

3) Bottom influences or determines up, but up isn't predictable. You can't predict a Wagnerian opera based on the Periodic Table of the elements.

4) Top doesn't determine down. One might be able to figure out down by reverse engineering up.

5) If one accepts that the above concepts are emergent with and only with life, then one just might have to conclude that the cosmos is alive!

I make that conclusion just based on how elementary particles show awareness and a limited or restricted degree or range of free will. It's sufficient to conclude that the cosmos (made up entirely of these elementary bits and pieces) is aware and can react and is therefore alive and kickin' - or perhaps simulated to reflect being alive and kickin'!

About the Author:

John Prytz

Science librarian; retired.


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