“All-praise to the unity of God, and all-honor to Him, the sovereign Lord, the incomparable and all-glorious Ruler of the universe, Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things“
Immense solar furnaces – with unimaginably high energies and temperatures driven by nuclear fusion – flash into existence and last for billions of years, creating the energies that power life on planets like earth and the chemical elements necessary for life.
The properties of these stars are not those of their component parts. Something new – something not to be found in the hydrogen molecules and helium atoms that are their initial component ingredients – comes into being in these stellar furnaces. Something new emerges.
The new field of the study of systems having properties different than those of their component parts is called emergence and is the topic of today’s blog.
The great, grand mechanisms by which everything that exists come into being are – according to this new field of study – emergent processes.
In a sense, stars are simple. They can be understood as plasmas composed of energetic nuclei colliding, fusing, and releasing energy. But other phenomena – for example, cells – are systems with much higher levels of complexity.
What characterizes them is that they have emergent properties that can’t be explained in terms of their component parts alone. Reductionism – the “approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things” – does not serve as valid explanatory approach (as described last week in see Evolution, Science, and Religion 17: On Hierarchies of Science and Reductionism).
Consider the emergence of life. Evolution at least in the modern biological sense – surprisingly – is not involved. An emergent process has to first take place to create living things – cells with RNA and DNA that can bring in energy and eliminate waste – before evolution can start.
From the standpoint of the unity of science and religion, a study of emergent processes points the way towards reconciling the metaphysical statements of religion about creation with the modern understandings of mechanisms put forward by science.
An even greater promise glimmers on the horizon. Emergence offers a powerful glimpse of how a new and better world order – a global civilization based on justice and equity – can come into being.
What is Emergence?
Emergence, according to Wikipedia, is
… the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns, and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.
Four characteristics that are typical of emergence (after Goldstein 1999) are the following:
(1) radical novelty (features not observed in component systems)
(2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time)
(3) a global or macro “level” (i.e. there is some property of “wholeness”), and
(4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves).
To illustrate, consider a crystal composed of silicon atoms as pictured to the left. A silicon crystal has:
(1) new unique band-gap properties not found in silicon atoms leading to semiconductor behavior when “doped” to make transistors
(2) coherence and correlation behavior of the whole crystal – the crystal pattern is maintained across the whole crystal and crystal is stable and self-maintaining
(3) global behaviors – electrons in the crystal must be considered as occupying “states” of the crystal, not individual atomic sites
(4) silicon crystals can grow from seed crystals via dynamical processes.
Silicon transistors, first developed at Bell Labs, and were turned into products by Texas Instruments, Sony, Raytheon, and others in the 1950s. Since then, the emergence of compact computers, telephones, radios, imaging screens and the worldwide internet based on silicon transistors have transformed the world.
Emergent properties exploited by technologies can have profound impact.
From an Age of Reductionism to an Age of Emergence
Reductionism – the view that “a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents” – is strongly supported by some of the most influential scientists in the world. So it is not dead.
But in many ways, its time has passed. You cannot explain transistors by considering the properties of individual atoms, no matter how hard you try. Nor can you explain the behavior of living cells by reference to subatomic particles or the properties of buildings by the bricks they are built out of.
I think a good case can be made that science has now moved from an Age of Reductionism to an Age of Emergence, a time when the search for ultimate causes of things shifts from the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective. It is difficult to identify a specific moment when this transition occurred because it was gradual and somewhat obscured by the pretense of myths, but there can be no doubt that the dominant paradigm now is organizational.
The shift to emergence, can be attributed in many ways to the success of reductionism:
Ironically, the very success of reductionism has helped pave the way for its eclipse. Over time, careful quantitative study of microscopic parts has revealed that at the primitive level at least, collective principles of organization are not just a quaint side show but everything – the true source of physical law, including perhaps the most fundamental laws we know. … nature is now revealed to be an enormous tower of truths, each descending from its parent, and then transcending that parent, as the scale of measurement increases.
To Laughlin, reductionism has got it backwards. In principle – or so it is claimed – we can predict things from the natural laws followed by the component parts of a system. In practice, it cannot be done – the mathematics doesn’t allow it.
The myth of collective behavior following law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it, such as logic and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.
Is he right? In many important ways, yes.
And even where he is wrong, he is right. Reductionism, it turns out, means more than simply explaining the whole by looking at the pieces. It also means explaining at a needed level of complexity by the developing an understanding of the simplest laws that work at that level of complexity, i.e., it means “meaningful” reductionism.
So, for example, to understand aspects of building a house, I may indeed need to understand the bricks. And to understand the bricks, I may indeed need to understand brick-firing and brick chemistry. In other words, reductionism is still a powerful tool – even though it is not the whole toolbox.
Next Week: Emergence, Evolution, and the Sacred
Next week, we will talk about emergence and evolution, and also review Stuart Kaufmann views on how emergence relates to religion. Here is a taste of Kaufmann’s thinking from Reinventing the Sacred (2008):
We are beyond reductionism: life, agency, meaning, value, and even consciousness and morality almost certainly arose naturally, and the evolution of the biosphere, economy, and human culture are stunningly creative often in ways that cannot be foretold, indeed in ways that appear to be partially lawless.
The latter challenge to current science is radical. It runs starkly counter to almost four hundred years of belief that natural laws will be sufficient to explain what is real anywhere in the universe, a view that I have called the Galilean spell. The new view of emergence and ceaseless creativity partially beyond natural law is truly a new scientific worldview in which science itself has limits.
This is the 18th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.