This is a little challenging to write about. It might end up being either too trivial or too elusive, instead of interesting, and it feels difficult to get it right that way.
It touches upon something that frustrates me deeply about human interactions — up to points of despair. As such it is sometimes a source of loneliness. At the same time I might not even be able to explain my frustration properly, and there’s a feeling of needing to break through a slab of writer’s block to do it.
Recently my daughter asked how electricity can cause shocks, and while this is not one of those “Explain Like I’m Five” stories, it is the start of another kind.
When explaining a phenomenon like this, it’s easy to make a traditional mistake, either by accident because you’re unaware, or on purpose because you want to simplify things — perhaps because you are underestimating a child.
The mistake is to use words, idioms, that carry reason, that carry an intent where there is none.
In this case, one might inadvertently say,
“The electricity wants to find the quickest way to the ground.”
“This is why birds don’t get shocked because the electricity doesn’t go through them, it wants the ground.”
“It finds a way through your body to the ground if you’re touching it, and doesn’t when you’re not touching it.”
The electricity wants to go to the ground. It ignores birds sitting on top of wires. It seems to have a purpose. It seems to know about your body. It seems to be able to look into the future and what’s ahead.
When you allow phrases like these to dominate, you can plant the wrong seeds of causation, seeds that may grow up into children, into new teachers that plant more of these seeds in others, unaware of the mistake.
This piles up until you have a society that is no longer able to see through the real machinery — or, perhaps worse, no longer cares.
There is a deficiency in the way we use language, we use it too bluntly in proportion to our sensitivity to it, and there are deep bruises this causes in completely different areas of human contact than in explaining the physics of electricity.
The nuance is that any behaviour of electricity going through your body merely emerges from basic principles.
It is crucial to be aware that whatever you can say about electricity going through a body involves a gazillion of interactions and it is only because there are so many at such a blurred pace that they flatten out to emerged concepts.
This is actually not completely straightforward for a concept as electricity and only a little more straightforward for vats of water linked by a tube, or cans connected with a wire that you can talk through, so it’s easy to forget about it.
The electricity does not “seek the ground”, just like a sound wave in air molecules doesn’t “search” for the wire, and just like the water doesn’t “feel” its way through the tube.
Electric current doesn’t “prefer” things like the jelly substance of your body to the air around it and it never has any knowledge about what’s ahead of where the ground is.
The trillions and trillions of interactions per second and the way these interactions work together only seem to give the impression that electricity finds the quickest path to the ground, through a path of least dissipation of energy.
But this is, in every way, an illusion, one of the many many illusions that make up your reality, and the illusion is easily cast off when you reduce and isolate the trillions of interactions to a few, each of which seem in their own right to possess small illusions emerged from other even more basic principles.
If you try and distill things to their most fundamental parts, you’ll pass a stratum of statistics with layers of similar “untruths”. One after the other of the fundamental parts will end up being an illusion emerged from a massive amount of data beneath it. Yet, you can travel in this direction downwards, respecting the existence of each deeper layer.
You will ultimately pass, deeper yet, the quantum realm, and you will then have several choices of where to stop digging for better, more pure truths. Ultimately, you will have to stop somewhere. You might conclude that we actually don’t know what really happens, that everything is emerged from something else and that at the deepest root level we are stuck because we can’t probe deep enough.
Or you can conclude that it seems to be the only way that things can happen — in which case you might find yourself more in a loop where things are explained by themselves, or you can conclude that if it didn’t happen this way, you as a sentient entity would not be around to observe it — this is a key principle, the anthropic principle, to think about the world, by the way.
Alternatively, you may hit upon some universal truth that is the source of everything, some sort of mechanism where everything just emerges from, although this does not seem reasonable for a number of off-topic reasons.
After all of that, gathering all of this knowledge, you will take the voyage back up to the surface, up towards more abstract ideas.
Voltage, current, resistance, electricity “wanting” to do things a certain way, they seem consistent truths and a lot easier to work with than trillions of interacting particles and the sometimes poor support of our mathematics to model such multi-body systems – and the resulting non-linear and chaotic turbulence on their fringes that you want to ignore.
You will be able to play around with the simple emerged concepts instead, and find out new formulae for them, predicting new phenomena or measurements. This will be where you can live with other people, and where people are able to do science, and sometimes they dip back into and out of the more pure statistical stratum for creating new science or for defining things more independently or cross-disciplinary.
In the end, what happened is the essence of language mechanics: we built a higher-level structure of emerged concepts that can be used independently from their more messy statistical sources.
You made electricity something you can talk about, engineer with, in its emerged forms.
However, the big mistake is to forget about the statistical source.
This, is what happens all the goddamn time.
Confident in our use of higher-level language we may suddenly, accidentally, make a semantic “cut” and float free from the very principles that grounded our story.
Then, it happens: we say electricity wants certain things, that it feels, that it seeks. We might cause confusion in the child with this and, might not even understand the confusion.
There, we have become lost in a floating world where the only thing to safeguard us was the internal consistency of our language and before we knew it this consistency was no longer a protection from our overconfidence.
Now, for something “dumb” and clearly non-sentient like electricity, this may seem like a trivial point.
Of course you should not anthropomorphise any “intent” on electricity! However, this inaccuracy happens all the time in a lot more subtle ways, and it stacks and stacks itself on top of other inaccuracies like very weak towers we step on daily to get through life.
To pull this up just a notch into a less abstract reality, let’s consider the same thing happening when we discuss animal behaviour, all the time.
A documentary has marching ants carrying leaves towards their nests, Ravel’s “Bolero” accompanies them, a beautiful partnering of audio and video and in every sense, a tribute to one of many miracles of life.
The deep familiar voice of David Attenborough marches in with them, explaining how the ants display this behaviour because… they want to do something, and that it’s a mystery what they want to do.
The mistake has been made, because the ants have suddenly conceptually shaken free from their statistical foundations and are now living in a new world of semantics where their actions are mysteriously guided by an intent that we don’t perceive yet but that is there, somehow. The truth is a lot more nuanced, a lot more entangled.
Ants and their environments have ultimately evolved together to emerge some behaviour, through generations of genetic game of life, and a more hidden set of epigenetic evolutions. But evolution theory as a system that emerges behaviour is not even where it stops. The very evolutionary mechanics that have caused ants to evolve towards this behaviour, and the biological structures that allow it, like DNA, they have evolved as well, they are also emergent.
The meta-layer of evolutionary evolution on top of that, which has been going on for billions of years and is more agnostic to and omnipresent in the different lifeforms, has also emerged from statistical happenstance. Meta-meta-meta-layers on top of these have emerged and are responsible for the emerged behaviour of ants, dogs, dolphins, chimps, of our behaviour, ultimately forming the bridge between dumb particles mechanics, complex biologic system evolution, and sociology. Talking about a “why” of the behaviour of ants is silly, a huge amount of the “why” is explained by statistics.
So, what am I on about, is this about free will? Is this about us being made of atoms, and that we are only a logical consequence of a Big Bang, the boy falling in love with the girl only a pause in the statistical simulation of life?
No, that’s not the point now, this is not a story about such nihilism at all; the point is that we too often make these little cuts in our discourse where we pull things free from their fundamental truths, and we create believable lies and make it so much harder for ourselves to go back to the model to tune up our knowledge!
One can define two types of emergence: Weak and Strong emergence — Mark A. Bedau wrote a nice piece on this called “Weak Emergence” which you should read and takes you a lot further than this.
What is understood with Weak Emergence, is when new concepts emerge rather surprisingly, but can still be explained by the smaller more fundamental processes behind them.
Most effects like temperature, pressure, are clearly weakly emergent from statistical stuff happening with particles, and most forces are even understood to be entropic forces that are weakly emergent — there are indications that this is the case for every force, including gravity. Even the flow of time, something we all perceive as a clear real thing, and not an illusion, can be considered to be a weakly emergent effect from gradual quantum entanglement — this is up for debate though, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever manage to wrap our own biological minds around the concept of time having weakly “emerged”.
Strong Emergence, then, is when new things emerge that we simply cannot seem to retrofit back.
A classic, “big”, example here is consciousness. It seems to emerge, from biological structures and perhaps from some kind of specific density of quantum information, but what it is, and how it corresponds with these basic elements, is a deep mystery.
I would go as far as saying some simple number theory problems are also strongly emergent. We have no formula that gives the n-th prime number, and it seems prime numbers emerge from simple ascending numbers in ways we cannot seem to retrofit back to them.
This is a deep mystery and perhaps the deepest mystery we can ever hope to solve.
However, there are many things strongly emergent, although sometimes this is only the case because we are just not smart enough yet to see the obvious link. Let’s just say the ants marching the leaves seem very strongly emergent from a complex mechanism of social interactions, evolution. Proteins, and ultimately carbon, water, particles, and there is no easy pathway back towards these primal concepts.
There is a question you can ask yourself; is it even necessary to see strongly emergent concepts as “emergent”? Why not treat them independently, since we can’t explain their behaviour fully anyway? Why should we care where they emerged from?
There are at least some objective problems with that.
First of all, we can often explain a lot of the behaviour but not all of it, in a mixture of weak and strong emergence, and the way slight changes in the underlying layers cause changes in the emergent behaviour can be explained, and this connection is fundamental to taking the right decisions in the emerged world.
Secondly, our knowledge is imperfect and what used to be strongly emergent often becomes weakly emergent through knowledge — one could actually see this effect as a definition of a certain fundamental class of “knowledge”.
In the end, both strong and weakly emergent phenomena should be treated with the same respect towards the deeper layers of mechanics.
The mistake of confusing emergence with a fundamental concept usually happens when you have a lot of actors and a lot of interactivity. When the black and white dots on your screen clashing into each other microscopically in their cosmic valse, end up just looking like a grey blur next to a slightly darker blur, and you end up seeing two things instead of the mechanism.
Too often, aggravated by our own interactions — take social media platforms, — we make crude conclusions on why things happen, simply because it’s the easy way out and we don’t need to consider complexity.
Things, very complex things, that have been built out through the few generations of our own evolution, suddenly in dialogue happen only now because of bad or good actors, because of governments, because of a bad or good decision of someone or bad or good personalities. This is so frustrating to see and so prevalent in a lot of conversations, especially during deep crises that affect all of us together, or when a common consciousness takes us one step further in changing our ethical rules.
It is so very crucial to the future of humanity that we can see through all of this natively, and understand that all behaviour has emerged and any ways to change it need to consider this causation to manipulate it with the friction that we want to incur.
Governments and their behaviour towards their “serfs” has simply emerged. Governments versus the people is an illusion in the first place. There is no bad actor to blame, no evil dictator, and if there are such individuals, their power in society has emerged from our own society’s many interactions. There are too many actors and interactions present and you are facing an emergent phenomenon rather than a caused one. Our own education ideals, our own clumsiness with taking illusions for reality might actually be a source of a lot of the problems that emerged from them.
The dualism, partisanship, the tribalism that prevails in every discussion in particular, this is a very obvious statistical emergence.
Tribalism is caused because of a too strong focus in one direction, and because all “moderate” views that focus in multiple directions just get washed out by stronger tribal views, which are magnetically aligned against each other.
Moderate opinions simply disappear.
With this process, humanity is doomed to lose an entropic war against the extreme, before imploding back in a cloud of statistical dust. Unless, we could be more aware of what is happening.
I believe this awareness at least, will be the key to a better society, to a more peaceful world where the meta consciousness itself sits as a monk undisturbed in a turbulent world, and is a place of sanctity for whenever we’re stuck in our own illusions and need to do something about them.
Undoubtedly our lack of nuance is what has allowed us to evolve fast through our own stack of conceived realities, and allowed us to erect buildings that reach for the stars and tower over all other life on Earth.
It has allowed us to consume the Earth’s nectar quickly, greedily, and will hopefully also allow us to do it in a sustainable manner in the future.
I feels time for the meta sapiens to arise and be aware, fully, of the true causation path between layers of emerged concepts.
To be fully at peace with a world where most things are just illusionary emergences of a deeper reality, and to respect this link profoundly as the one shared religion.
The other path seems one of madness, a trembling fuse eager to be extinguished.