One afternoon high up on the beach I found a feather—a big feather, sixteen inches long in the white shaft and an inch wide in the vane. This brownish grey dun-colored feather had fallen out of the air. Neither tide nor wave had washed it ashore. What great bird had passed overhead? An eagle? A Canada goose? A great heron? I couldn’t say.
Feathers, like some tickets, are not good if detached. Since this one was of no further use to its owner, I picked it up and walked off with it. The makings for a fancy hat? A quill pen someday, if I’m in an antiquarian mood? At least it would be one more exhibit in my beachcombing keepsake collection.
As I walked along the beach I stroked and flipped the feather, enjoying its musically raspy, resilient sound. A passing breeze brought down a shower of summer-dried arbutus leaves. I held the feather up to the breeze. It automatically twisted over and turned its leading edge into the wind and lifted itself up. It still remembered how to fly! Everything about it was for flying.
A wonderful creation, that feather. The long, curving, tapered, hollow shaft was strong and light and flexible. No human techniques could have manufactured that fine fabric of interlocked barbs and barbules. A factory would have had to assemble it strip by strip, and strand by strand. But all the parts of this masterpiece of beauty and efficiency had been growing at the same time until the whole feather was of exactly the right length and width to fit in with all the others which were growing along that wing. How ragged a bird would look if its long flight feathers grew to oddly assorted lengths and widths, ranging from long and thin to short and stubby.
How does an individual feather know when to stop growing? How does it know where to throw in a small element of a large and complex color pattern carried across neighboring feathers?
How does a large, heavy bird hold itself aloft using only these flimsy structures that grow out of its skin? If a flight feather is held horizontally and pushed downward against the air, its trailing edge tends to flip up, much like the way the tail end of a weather vane tends to slip out of the airstream. If the trailing edge of each upturned feather in a series were not held down by the leading edge of the one behind it, it would never bite the air. The bird would flap its wings in vain, gaining neither lift nor propulsive force from such “louvers.” Each feather stiffens a neighboring feather just ahead of it. When all of them are locked into place by the upward pressure of the air, the bird possesses two remarkably strong and broad wing surfaces with which it can “swim” through the air.
One feather by itself is amazing enough. Two feathered wings working together on a living bird incredibly give rise to the miraculous freedom and beauty of flight.
Back at the shelter Kay was baking some whole wheat bread in our outdoor oven. I showed her my long feather. She acknowledged it with an appropriate glance and nod as she quickly passed me on her way into the shelter to get something. I’d have to save my reflections on feathers until later.
What is it?
Oh, I haven’t told you yet about our outdoor oven. It’s really an eight-foot length of heavy iron tubing, sixteen inches in diameter. It had done time as a culvert in an old logging road higher up on the hill. When a new road was being built up there, this short makeshift culvert, now solidly packed with gravel and soil, had been pulled out, discarded and left lying in the underbrush at the side of the road.
One day when we were out picking blackberries, we found it there in the bushes. Kay had been wanting me to build her an oven in which she could bake several loaves of bread at a time. That old culvert was just what we needed. We pried the heavy mass out onto the road, rolled it over to our path, and then sent it down the hill, bumpity-bump-bump. By the time it arrived at our place below, its contents had shaken loose and spilled out. We beat the remaining rust flakes out of the big tube as best we could, washed it all out at the beach and brought it back up to our “excavation.” Along the rockface we set it up on two stone pedestals so that a fire could be built under the length of it. With an old disk wheel, a soup tin in its axle hole, I plugged one end of the tube. The lid of a galvanized garbage can exactly covered the other. We had scrounged two long narrow refrigerator shelves from an abandoned box in a deserted logging camp. These slid nicely into the tube, providing a rack well off the bottom of the tube for Kay’s bread or cake pans. Discarded aluminum roof sheeting along the tube directed the heat from the fire evenly around our oven.
It would be cruel of me to describe for you the irresistible aroma of the fresh homemade bread that Kay baked in that oven. Her crisp oatmeal cookies or her blackberry pies could have tempted the promptest, most reliable celestial angels to arrive home too late for their proper heavenly meal. (Do angels eat?)
Iron tubing . . . culvert . . . bake oven? What a thing is, what its role is, what it means, depends largely upon the company it keeps. An iron tube plus end closers plus racks plus supports plus fire—all of these piled in a heap don’t quite add up to an oven! But put all of them together in the right way and they can do cooperatively what none of them could ever do separately.
Just like feathers. One feather by itself cannot fly. But grow it together with others of the right sizes in the right arrangement on both wings of a living bird, and it can fly.
I always feel that there is something uncanny about what happens when things and people cooperate. Putting things together in a certain way, you can often reap a considerable unearned profit—more than you ever put into it. Although wise folk have always said, “You can’t get something for nothing,” in a certain sense that saying isn’t always entirely true.
Suppose I have three straight line segments of equal length. Other than length, all that each line seems to have is a right side, a left side and two ends. Now let me put the three lines together to form a triangle. Suddenly, instead of having three separate lines, I have one enclosed figure. Instead of having only right sides and left sides of lines, I now have inside space and outside space. Instead of mere line-ends I now have angles, and I know that those three internal angles add up to exactly 180 degrees. Instead of having lines with no width at all, I now have a triangle with an area. I still have the original lines, but where did all those additional features come from? I didn’t notice them at first concealed in the lines—did you? A large book could be written about the host of properties and possibilities that reside in a triangle. Look them up in books on geometry, trigonometry, crystallography and engineering.
Why did putting those three lines together in that certain way generate all those new features? Come to think of it, instead of making a triangle, I might have turned those three lines into an N, a 4, an H, a Z, a Y, a Roman VI, or an asterisk. Like the triangle, each of these figures also would have had more characteristics than those possessed by the three lines taken separately and collectively.
This phenomenon, where you seem to get more out of an organization than you have put into it, is usually called “emergence” or “the composition effect.” An organized whole which is put together out of separate parts, is always different from the mere heap or sum of the parts. Emergence surprises you by apparently giving you something for nothing—if you don’t count your labor. But you must count your labor. Emergence is actually energy turned into form. Without the work that is done in putting things together, there will be no emergence. Matter, energy and form are mutually exchangeable.
Some time I must take the triangle apart and watch carefully during the disassembling to see where those “extra features” go. I have a feeling that I’ll never catch them doing their disappearing act, because their form-changing will merge into my own motions.
The analytic method used by some biologists puts emergence into reverse. When a plant is removed from its native environment and taken for examination in a laboratory, all its external relationships in the field are eliminated. Gone are its ties with the other plants, with the animals out there, with the seasons, the weather, topography and soil. When a slice of flower tissue is taken to make a microscope slide, the rest of that flower with all its support systems is discarded. Analytic reduction need cease only when the plant which was taken from its fullness of life in the field has been reduced to residual traces of refined chemical substances.
Little heaps of materials, however, are by no means the same as a healthily living plant. If all the powders obtainable from a single plant were added to water, they would never reconstitute themselves as an instant plant. Living organisms are somehow very much more than their constituent chemical elements. Crass materialism is patently false.
Chemists, of course, are very aware that different arrangements of the same kinds of atoms will produce vast differences in the “properties” of the substances that result. Glucose (C6H12O6), carbolic acid (C6H508) and formaldehyde (HCHO) are very different from each other, yet each is composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The differences between the respective properties of the three molecules are generated by the diversity of the three patterns in which their atoms are organized. Sugar nourishes life, while formaldehyde kills it. Carbon in the form of diamond can be extremely abrasive, while in the form of graphite it actually lubricates. Different ways of organizing forms make remarkable differences to their characteristic functions and relationships.
Working at their looms, weavers make use of a complex assortment of warp threads running through pedal-operated heddles which make sheds through which they shoot shuttles carrying woof threads. When you add threads to heddles and pedals and shuttles, where exactly does a spread of patterned cloth appear? The patterned cloth seems to be entirely different from anything that went into the operation.
The book you are now reading is made of paper, ink, glue and thread. Yet you have been reading a sequence of thoughts and an occasional story.
Or take music. When somebody vibrates a string, a rod, a cavity, a membrane, a reed or a column of air, a succession of minute, rapidly repetitious compression waves is imparted to the surrounding air. By itself, no single wave will make a sound. But if a series of such waves should occur in the presence of a normal ear, the experience of a sound emerges. When a series of selected sounds called notes follows a regular pattern of timing with a regular emphasis or beat, a “melody” mysteriously emerges. The melody however appears to have a life of its own, over and above all the individual sounds upon which it depends. A similar melody can be played in other keys using a different set of notes.
A melody is the total effect produced by the ratios between the frequencies of the separate notes (the intervals), and the organization of the whole sequence in time. If the intervals or the rhythms are changed, a quite different melody will result. What havoc is created if a tape-recorded melody is played backwards! The notes are all there but the melody has entirely disappeared. A melody is certainly much more than the “sum” of the notes.
The order and connection of sounds is important, as is the order and connection of words or of building materials—their form. None of the parts of an aircraft, left to themselves, could fly, any more than the iron plates in the hull of a great ship could float. But if those items are put together in the right form, the aircraft will fly and the iron ships will float. It’s the formation that does the trick.
For those who think about the mystery of organization, these emergent composition effects invest all construction work with a perennial fascination. There is undoubtedly a mystique about building and composing which gives one a feeling of participating in the creation of the world. I would never have guessed that I would ever write a book like this. When I started to write it, I didn’t really know what would get written. I knew only the letters, words, some general notions, and I had some writing materials and instruments.
Imagine all the constructive contributions of all the people who ever lived, from the ancient civilizations until now. Can anyone begin to comprehend how many little inventions have been devised? People have done things and put things together in countless ingenious ways.
Many an innovation prepared the way for a whole wave of other inventions, making them possible. Primitive metallurgists learned how to make bronze and steel out of rock. Later in history, when steel, fire and water were arranged in a certain way, it was found that they could generate and transmit steam power. Steam power enabled mechanics to make better tools. With those improved tools they could make engines that were still more powerful. Railway locomotives and the great steamships could then make their debut. The development of petroleum fuels opened the way for smaller, lighter internal combustion engines. Engines were thus freed from rails and put on the highway, on and under water, and even into the skies. Then came the jets and the rockets.
In all kinds of human technical activity, the process of combining the new with the old has steadily moved on from emergence to emergence. When the earliest techniques came together with later developments, more and more new combinations were made possible. Out of these emerged exciting new kinds of experiences, unexpected powers and further explorable possibilities. Throughout the centuries this mounting sequence of novel combinations has been kiting up and kiting up, ever accelerating the frequency of technical breakthroughs. Those famous ancient “wonders of the world,” their context in time forgotten, no longer arouse among the population a respectable ripple of wonder. Greater “wonders” are now being unveiled almost every day.
The story of this incredible surge forward of human technical competence in modern times has made a deep impression on me because so much of it has happened during my own lifetime. I personally appreciate it all the more because I myself have undertaken to do so many difficult tasks at our Sechelt place using only very old methods. After my wilderness experience I’m keenly aware of the very real advantages of living in a well-equipped modern house. The privileged part of the human race has come a long way, technically speaking, as emergence emerged out of emergence.
When causes cooperate
My first thoughts about information, remember, were in terms of a head-on collision between some powerful moving form and some less powerful but somewhat resistant form—as when my boot kicked a dent into a tin can. In my later thoughts about forms traveling, I saw how a certain form will sequentially overpower form after form much as, in a line of dominos standing on end fairly close to one another, one falling domino will fell another down the line until the last of them lies flat.
But after that feather I found on the shore led me into a serious consideration of emergence, I saw that I must also take into account the situations where a number of moving forms from various sources and directions converge upon one single destination. There they can supplement one another, merging into one organization, running along together as something quite new. From such converging forms and combined forces, astonishing novelties can emerge.
Although an artist’s pigments, brushes and canvas may come from different places, each makes its own distinctive contribution to the particular picture the artist is painting. The painting itself is thus a cooperative phenomenon in which the contributing materials cease to stand out with individual distinctiveness. They seem to lose their separate identities as together they create a whole new world that appears from nowhere and lives there beyond the plane of the picture frame. Every particle of pigment, every drop of medium, every brush stroke shares in the final form of the whole message. Instead of simply overpowering one another or being overpowered, each element enhances the others so remarkably that the total effect is that of an entirely novel creation. Each of them gains a new interpretive context from its associates.
In simple, linear cause-and-effect communication, an incoming form overpowers and puts a new form upon some other form which lies in its path. But when a number of things pool their causality, joining together in a cooperating complex of communication, they can produce an emergent result which none of them could have produced separately.
We become very conscious of the onward march of time because at each new moment the whole face of the world appears to be very different from what it was just the moment before. The perpetual newness of the relationships which emerge during time’s ongoing transformation of the world is largely derived from the remarkable emergent effects of creative composition. If time is the sequential appearing of novel, unrepeatable states of the whole universe, each momentary state of the universe may be seen as an emergent, unpredictable and novel message from the whole past to the future.
With the presence of human beings the number of possible emergent phenomena in a given situation sharply increases. We have seen that a wave on water is a dual affair: a region of high energy concentration keeps encroaching upon a region of lower energy concentration. When human eyes perceive that wave, however, something different appears. A wave is seen as an elongated hump in the water, flanked by two long hollow troughs between successive waves. Without the troughs we wouldn’t see the wave, or vice versa.
In the same way when any single form is presented to human eyes, it immediately takes on a double aspect, which I shall call a “contrast.” Every form we experience comes with its contrasting background or context. Thus we see, not merely a flying bird, but a flying bird in the sky. When a gun goes off, the sound of the gunshot invades a previous silence. At one and the same time our consciousness registers both the sudden noise and the silence, plus the contrast between them. Similarly when the last echo of the gunshot is about to die, a new and contrasting silence is immediately detected on the heels of the departing sound.
Our perceptive systems are always poised to present us with a relationship of contrast: two things which are perceived as differing from each other, things that have no inherent connection between them. Wherever human imagination and perception are present, new relationships of contrast will be emerging.
The only experience we ever have is the experience of a differing, whether in quality, quantity, space or time. Everything that we know, therefore, possesses the duality characteristic of a contrast. Every new differing that thrusts itself into our present experience, intrudes into a sensory situation that is already fading away. To experience differing through time we must be able to remember a previous situation against which the arrival of new information appears as a contrast.
In music, for example, if each single note is heard against the remembered background of previous sounds in a framework of regular timing and beats, a melody may emerge. If a note is heard against a background of other notes which are also sounding at that moment, harmony can emerge. Without the relationship of contrast a series of notes could never make true music. Musical relatings between separated, one-at-a-time sounds and silences occur only through the medium of a mind, like the indirect relating between, say, the scattered scraps of paper in a paper chase.
It is likely that a stone has an instantaneous “forgettory” for most vibrations, so it knows neither sounds nor melodies. There may, however, be some particular frequency of vibration which can make that stone “come alive” with resonant vibrating—its moment of glory. Perhaps a stone may be an undiscovered Johnny One-Note! Centuries ago in China, I am told, huge xylophone-like instruments were constructed by setting stones of differing sizes in a heavy frame.
Contrasts are ratios
If we should notice a boat bumping up and down on the waves of a wind-swept sea, while we ourselves are traveling over a fairly smooth highway, our minds are able to bring the two separated sets of experiences together into a contrast by indirectly relating them. An impression of the rough sea is then held in our mind right beside our experience of the smooth road, and we thus have an emergent contrast. This duality may be expressed in a unified sentence such as, “Traveling on that sea today would be rougher than traveling on this road.”
The kinds of roughness which we have experienced in traveling on choppy water not only differ in kind from the minimal irregular jarring which we are actually experiencing on this road, but they also differ in degree. In the same way one might say, “This stone is heavier than this apple.” Sometimes it is important to be able to say exactly how much heavier. The human race has therefore invented numbers and scales of weights and measures, so that differing qualities can be quantitatively compared. A stone may be said to be “twice as heavy” as an apple, or “100 percent heavier,” “6 ounces heavier,” or “170.1 grams heavier.”
Some ways of expressing contrasts specify the experienced differentials more definitively than others.
If we wished to record the fact that a stone (x) is twice as heavy as an apple (y) by using mathematical notation instead of ordinary words, we would likely use what is called a “ratio.”
A ratio is the name given to a relationship discerned between two definite quantities which are perceived as separate and differing. A ratio is a handy way to express contrast relations. For example, the contrast relation between 2 and 1 is written as the ratio 2/1. So we could write that the contrast relation between the weight of the stone (x) and the weight of the apple (y) is equivalent to the contrast relation between 2 and 1. In short, x/y = 2/1. Any other pairs of things which have aspects that appear to be relatable in that same numeric ratio are said to be related in the same proportion.
Equations are definite and exact comparisons between contrast relations or ratios. The equal sign asserts that in a certain quantitative respect the two ratios being compared are not different. But besides an equating of ratios (a proportional statement), it is possible to assert a contrast relation between two ratios. One may be greater or less than the other, in which case the equal sign is not used, for the ratios don’t correspond. There is a not-equal sign (≠).
Since all contrasts result from the mind holding in conjunction two forms which were not previously seen as inherently related, all contrasts may be loosely called ratios, even though not numerically specified.
There is always some contrast—i.e., a difference—between the sender of a message and the receiver of that message. If there were no difference at all between the two termini (ends) of the pathway between the sender and receiver, no message would likely be sent. Since relations are connective pathways between senders and receivers, all relations involve differential ratios.
In the world apart from human beings, local differences in pressure, temperature, voltage, mass, food distribution, etc., generate local motions. These kinds of “differentials” (physical ratios) are responsible for the propagation of waves, winds, electric currents, gravitational attraction, migrations, and the like. The exertion of any overpowering power initiates processes of differing which result in what we humans perceive as “forms” or “information.”
The generalized concept of informing, therefore, can provide us with an intelligible linkage between what is going on in physical processes, and what is happening in perception, in relating and in communication. All of these processes involve the ratio, the relating of two different and otherwise separate forms.
Ratios and rationality
The Latin word ratio meant “reason,” in the sense of “the reason why . . .” (hence “rationale”). The reason a certain situation turned out the way it did was that certain other influential things had been the way they were. The reasons events happen always involve their relations with other things. A rational person is one who can comprehend the whole situation, assess the proportionate influence of all the relevant conditions, make a balanced or reasonable judgment and act accordingly. Reasonable people keep their actions and emotions in proportion to the relative importance of matters at hand. They never overreact, becoming disproportionately angry or depressed. Before taking action, they are careful to ascertain what the situation really is. Rationality in its fullest meaning is a beautiful, wholesome, helpful human characteristic.
Subhuman creatures react to the world and each other largely by “instinct.” So, apart from training by humans, they can behave only as their ancestors always did. But because human beings possess a “faculty of reason,” they can think rationally, adapting efficiently to unfamiliar situations, controlling both themselves and the world around them.
“Reason” thus refers to making sound judgments about oneself and the world, with a view to controlling both. The actions and reactions of rational people are governed by their knowledge of the actual ratios and proportions that are involved in the situation.
The rational analytic method of the experimental sciences developed out of the desire to know before taking action what was really going on in some complex situation. First the analytic scientist isolates part of some subject or situation. What has been isolated is to be perturbed—i.e., the scientist will introduce some difference to it. Before the perturbing factor is brought to bear it is carefully measured. The response of what has been perturbed is then observed and measured. The ratio between perturbation and response is tabulated and plotted on a graph. The perturbation is varied in known ways and the correlative variations in the responses are noted. On the basis of the record of the ratios between perturbations and responses, rational predictions can be made for other cases of a similar kind. Rational action can then be taken if and when required.
Unfortunately the isolating phase of the analytic method deliberately destroys existing relationships in order to substitute others. Helplessly isolated, an organism can no longer participate in any of its normal relationships while it is being subjected to those controlled by the experimenter.
To be is to make a difference, and to be is to be related. The properties of a thing lie in its relationships to other things. If every relation is derived from ratios—i.e., differentials, and contrasted differences—then the fully rational approach is one which aims to take into account the totality of a thing’s relations. The analytic method deals with only a severely restricted sector of the whole round of a thing’s relationships or ratios. The analytic method therefore should never be presented as the exemplification of perfect rationality. In and of itself analysis must fall far short of a full rational understanding of things and people.
The analytic method, therefore, should be supplemented by the synthetic method. The aim of a synthetic approach would be to put things together, to establish new relationships rather than destroy them. Instead of dividing wholeness and eliminating portions of it, the synthetic method would experiment by holding existing relationships together while adding one or more new relatings. It would seek out ways and means of resolving conflicts instead of creating them. It would try to reconcile differences and harness tensions for the well-being of larger integrated wholes. The synthetic method would thus be more constructive than destructive. By taking into account a more comprehensive roster of anything’s relationships and ratios, it might be considered to be more fully rational than the analytic method.
The analytic method tells how to distinguish one region of our experience from another. But the synthetic method would not eliminate either of the dual domains set apart by a logical divider. It would not separate what has been distinguished. It would major in the logic of “Both-and” rather than that of the “Either-or,” keeping both of two domains together at the same time. In the synthetic method, the logical divider would not function as a cleaver, but more as a zipper or hinge, holding together distinguishable domains. By an easy mental transformation, the dividing slash can be seen as the locus of a uniting relation. Two regions, though opposite, may nevertheless fit together along a common boundary line and influence each other in helpful ways. They are markedly different, and yet each of them may be an essential part of a larger whole.
The synthetic method temporarily overlooks the dividing slash. One must look beyond partitions, lifting one’s attention to a larger perimeter which surrounds and includes both of the separated domains. In the synthetic method it is preferable to see things at least temporarily as wholes and to experiment with enlarging and enhancing wholes. It emphasizes the aspect of shared community instead of that of private property, the group’s benefit rather than the individual’s distinction, constructive cooperation in place of destructive competition. With regard to theories of biological evolution, for example, synthetic science would not speak of the evolution of a single species without keeping in mind the parallel coevolution of that species’ environment. For a species to evolve, its surroundings must also change and be changed.
For a time the synthetic method eliminates, not one of the separated domains, but the separation between the two domains. Nevertheless it does not deny the differences between the two regions. By those differences the differential is created that makes actual relating possible between the two.
The synthetic method will operate neither in a world which is seen as entirely and uniformly “one,” nor in a fragmented world which consists of mere separated shards. It accepts differences, works with tensions between opposites, always tending toward cooperation and harmony. But that does not mean that it seeks to resolve all tensions and differentials into some state of undifferentiated “peace” which resembles thermodynamic equilibrium, the death of all motion and relating, the dismal heat death of the universe.
The synthetic method belongs to a worldview where the individual units are never considered to be entirely isolated. Although each “one” has its own boundary, that boundary line is not held to be utterly impenetrable by everything whatsoever in its environment. Its boundary line actually marks the place where it is related to what lies beyond that boundary. That boundary line is also the locus where it will be involved in as-yet-undiscovered possible relations out there beckoning to be explored. When new relationships to things which are already out there beyond the bounds are actually formed, the resulting extension of knowledge will create even fuller rationality.
The synthetic method should lead one to take larger and larger wholes into account until the very last reachable whole is found. But just when the container of all contents is finally being considered, when a whole comprehending all wholes is being contemplated, behold: nonrationality suddenly emerges. The notion of the ultimate and the maximum, beyond which there is nothing, means that there is no further external context to which the whole can be related. It is beyond all ratios, differentials, contrasts and comparisons. An ultimate, isolated, maxi-macroscopic “one” can be related only internally, forever contemplating its own inner organizational possibilities—unless it should consider undertaking a program of self-transcendence, i.e., actually creating a whole new world beyond itself.
What irony! That greatest whole within which all things are related must itself be unrelated, and therefore nonrational. The same predicament holds for the most miniscule “one,” that isolated, tiniest “building block” which particle physicists are always hoping to isolate by the analytic method. An ultra-microscopic “one” by itself would also have no relations and, therefore, no properties. As such it cannot be discovered, for it must always remain imperceptible. It too must remain nonrational.
If the universe at its maximum and its minimum is doomed to be nonrational, the conviction of many rationalistic intellectuals who believe that human minds can explain absolutely everything rationally, appears to be unfounded. Rationalism is therefore ultimately irrational!
The sudden appearance of “something from nothing,” the phenomenon of emergence, which occurs when things are put together in unicity, reinforces the impression that many things are not explainable rationalistically. Using the synthetic method a scientist not only expects new and unexpected things to emerge; such emergence is actually sought after.
When a passageway between any two active items is complete and open, something emergent is likely to arise. Masses, energy and information can move from each to the other along any road which has no uncrossable gaps. Successful communication or transportation of such messages can make a terrific difference at the other end of the road. By merely posting a letter one may produce tremendous consequences for the person who receives it. Emergence always appears in situations where an extended pathway for communication—a relating—has just been completed or interrupted.
People from some remote valley who knew nothing about electricity or modern machines would see no connection between a mountain waterfall, some lines of wire, a movie projector, and their children back home. If the electrically powered projector were to produce pictures of their children playing outside their home, that experience would be a delightful but bewildering miracle. Once, however, they learned about electricity, machines and photography, for them as for us the magic is gone. The pathway taken by energy from the waterfall to the screen is then understood, and also the pathway of information from the children’s sunlit faces through photographic process to their eyes. Simply turning on a switch completes two pathways at the same time all the way from distant sources to their minds. Information about their absent children forthwith becomes a present reality.
If any one part of a complicated pathway of communication is missing, those parts which are actually in their proper places behave very differently from the way they would have functioned if everything were completely connected. Some tiny breakdown in circuitry can instantly reduce a multimillion dollar piece of equipment to a structure of useless junk. When you lose your car keys, your vehicle becomes stupidly unresponsive. The folk story goes that because a horseshoe nail was lost, a horse carrying a messenger with an all-important message was lost, with the result that a battle and a kingdom were lost.
When the arteries in a pig’s neck are cut, the live animal will quickly turn into pork. The collapse of its vital functions and the rapid deterioration of all the tissues of the carcass are as alarming and spectacular in their negative way as any positive emergence. The whole organism is obviously more than the collection of its constituent cells or molecules.
Emergence is a product of organization, which is a matter of the mutual interconnectedness of pathways over which masses, energy and information can travel and combine without interruption, making a difference to all parts of the organization.
At this time in history, all sorts of useful devices could be quickly brought into service if only one as-yet-uninvented piece were available for insertion into the ensemble. Some inventors are undoubtedly marking time waiting for a technical breakthrough that will provide that crucial missing link which will be capable of transforming their presently powerless assembly of items into an effective organization.
Engineering physicists are presently struggling with the problems of starting up and containing the hydrogen fusion reaction. When that process can be harnessed economically, the constant threat of energy crisis and energy dependence may be over. Our present reliance on petroleum fuels with all their political entanglements would immediately come to an end. We would then have a “clean” source of unlimited energy. The scale of the unprecedented developments which would undoubtedly emerge from the successful release of fusion energy staggers our already strained imaginations. Humankind might be able to explore the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond without having to return to earth for refueling. Who can tell what else might emerge once we have opened up pathways to distant worlds?
The phenomenon of the “average” or “statistical mean” is a common enough form of emergence, but it is seldom wondered about. On a holiday weekend, safety experts know they are safe in predicting approximately how many people will die in accidents. They are seldom far wrong. Yet nobody knows in advance which persons will die, where or when or under what circumstances. Life insurance companies are able to make a profit because their actuaries know how many people of any age group in a certain population are going to die in a given year. Similarly they can forecast about how many births will occur in a given year. Considering all the possible ways to die and times to be born, statistical approximations are a remarkable phenomenon.
The form of an inflated balloon is another manifestation of “the law of averages.” Both inside and outside the balloon, gas molecules are rushing about, colliding and rebounding in all directions. Yet in between these two chaotic regions, the smoothly spherical shape of the balloon remains more or less constant. The multitude of collisions between the surface and the molecules confined within the balloon is on the average able to counterbalance exactly the impacts of molecules beating in upon the surface of the balloon from outside. One chaos + one chaos = stability. That’s emergence! Order CAN appear in the midst of chaos.
In every surface, including this page of this book, all the molecules are vibrating furiously. Nevertheless the rushing molecules of the air and the jiggly molecules of this surface material have come to a compromise agreement about where the interface between them is to be located. The average, or mean variation, of the back-and-forth vibrations is what we identify as the surface of the page.
Under high-power magnification, the edge of the sharpest razor blade looks like a jagged range of mountains. Under inconceivably greater magnification, those peaks would appear to be wavering and wobbling as the molecular battle between steel and air sways back and forth. But despite all that, on the average, the razor more or less keeps its edge for a long time.
However sharply defined an edge-line or surface may appear to be, its form is the emergent result of the interacting of two battling realms. The apparent stability of all outline forms, or shapes, is always an emergent phenomenon. Our eyes perceive a mean of differings as a boundary. The cut slashed through a field of view by a logical divider can never actually be as stable as traditional logic wanted it to be.
Sometimes a certain arrangement of things is operating in such a complicated way that no one can keep tabs on every movement of absolutely every part of it. Everything is moving at once. In such cases it is easier to speak in general terms about the behavior of the whole collection than it is to track each item in detail at every moment. It’s much simpler to follow the movement of a swarm of bees or a school of fish than it is to trace the individual bees or fish through all their particular dodges, twists and turns. The behavior of a “whole,” such as the swarm or the school, is obviously not the same as the movements of any of its individual parts. That is true also of the wholes and parts of complex machines and organisms. The behavior of “wholes” constitutes a special class of statistically emergent phenomena.
The “phase changes” which take place in matter due to changes in temperature are somewhat related to the above-mentioned kinds of emergence. Depending on its temperature, water may become a liquid, a solid, a gas or a plasma (atoms and molecules completely disorganized). When water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius, it suddenly becomes solid and will no longer take on the shape of any other container. When it freezes it expands rather than contracts, and may even burst its container. Unlike most solids, ice floats on its liquid state. If we had never before experienced the emergence of such phase-change phenomena, such developments would seem surprising. The solid ice may melt into liquid, and when that is heated it can become water vapor. Then what was formerly a heavy block of ice can rise in the air and fly over the very mountains down from which as a liquid it previously flowed. Emergence!
We exploit the properties of solid materials by using them for structural frames and restraining channels. As such they act as a kind of government to control the activities of weaker materials and forces. Pipes and other containers can channel or imprison the flighty aggregations of molecules that compose liquids and gases. My chair doesn’t sag to the floor when I sit on it.
Similarly cell walls provide a local level of government throughout an organism. The contents of a living cell seethe and churn turbulently, but the cell wall confines this turmoil and upheaval to the interior of the cell. Despite all the internal commotion, the wall of the cell generally presents a fairly stable front to the other fairly stable fronts which are in turn presented by adjacent cells.
A still higher level of government emerges when connective tissues hold cells together in combinations we call “organs.” The organs communicate with each other by nutrients, enzymes, hormones, nerve impulses and the like, each organ being a department of the organismic government as a whole.
If some observant free electron could move through a person’s body it could observe all of these levels of government in operation. In passing from an atom through a molecule into a cell, and from the cell through organic tissues and a nerve to the brain, its journey would be continually bringing it surprises. It would learn that each level of control up the ladder of government operates quite differently. New rules would emerge every time our well-traveled electron crossed another frontier.
Although the most observant electron wouldn’t realize it, human social organizations are controlled in the same general way, by level after level of government. Indeed the whole universe appears to be governed by such “hierarchically” arranged controls. Every particle can do only what it does because it is always under constraint by adjacent particles and higher constraining levels. Even an explosion, however disastrous it may appear locally to be, is under containment. So far no one has blown up the whole world.
In a mutually controlled universe, if anything can happen, it will. When anything makes a move, it does so because it is capable of doing so: i.e., both because it was impelled positively to do so, and because nothing prevented it from doing so. Why did something happen? Because it was both positively and negatively free to happen. If it was free to happen, there’s no reason it shouldn’t happen.
Insofar as anything exists as a physical reality, it pursues its own course of activity according to its mass, energy and direction of motion. If it happens to stand in the way of other things, it offers resistance to them in their courses. When different items come together, therefore, they may produce emergent effects by abetting and supplementing each other, by counterbalancing each other, or by constraining each other. They may even function in all three ways at once, as do the feathers in the wing of a bird. Flight feathers extend each other’s effective areas, press tightly against each other, and seal each other so that on the down stroke the wing won’t leak air.
From the incredibly complicated teamwork of feathers, flesh, blood, nerves and bones emerges the miraculous beauty of a bird soaring. Without previous experience, when only the simplicity of an egg could be seen, who could have predicted such a wonderful emergence?
Is there something in common between emergence and creating out of nothing?