Emergence as a theory for meaning

Aug 22 · 6 min read

“At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.” — Viktor Frankl

When I was in college, a charismatic man with a powerful and firm gaze upended my understanding of life. He was a trusted friend, lived in the apartment directly beneath mine, and was a spiritual guru of sorts to a small enclave of pious students hoping to fashion a meaningful existence from their religious devotion. Sean held bible studies, prayed for those in need, and, one afternoon, claimed his supernatural visions had implicated me as an outsider: despite having been a spiritually-inclined and devout person ever since childhood, Sean claimed that I was ‘unsaved’ and destined for hell. Unsurprisingly, Sean now runs a cult in Wells, Texas which has been profiled on Nightline and Dr. Phil, among other global news outlets.

His accusation set off an existential spiral for me, and I nearly didn’t return to university the next year. My religious and spiritual convictions have changed dramatically since that time, but I still have tended to take the question of what makes a meaningful life quite seriously (often too seriously). I spent a good deal of my twenties continuing to search out and clearly define an overarching meaning for existence.

I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl after it was recommended multiple times, and was repeatedly mentioned when I queried friends about what two books they would put on their “Life Curriculum.” Their responses are here — I’d love to hear your suggestions, too. It is, as expected, a remarkable book.

Simultaneously, I began taking a course on Emergence from Systems Innovation (they have a plethora of fantastic free courses — check them out), and I was delighted to learn there is an entire discipline dedicated to something that felt intuitive but for which I lacked language.

Emergence is a phenomenon widely observed in our world. Its simple definition is this: integrated systems exhibit properties unique in combination that their component elements do not display in isolation. In other words, interconnectedness and cooperation (not competition) is the structural basis for some of our most profound, highly-functioning universal phenomena (including our own bodies).

An example of emergence is human consciousness — cognition is not simply the sum of our physical brain matter, but results from various layers of integrative organization of our synapses, brain stem, cortex, etc. The parts in isolation could not produce consciousness, but their integration and collective functioning produces an entirely new and complex phenomenon: our ability to think as conscious beings. Emergence happens when basic elements have differentiated functions, but integrate to form synergies that then re-combine to produce an entirely unexpected outcome. Other examples of emergence are: ant colonies, human systems like the democratic process, starling murmurations, water (H2O), and many others. Emergent systems exhibit properties like: non-linearity, pattern formation, and self-organization.

To understand emergence, consider a game of Scrabble (warning: this is an oversimplified and imperfect analogy, and falls in the category of weak — as opposed to strong — emergence). In Scrabble, you are given/blindly choose a set of letters from which to form a word and many varied words could be assembled. The letter pieces are the objects or physical elements that act as building blocks to form synergies and patterns (words). Those words are then combined on the board to produce an ever-evolving game. This is how emergence works. A bunch of random letters on the floor is not a game, but the combination of the letters (and the next level of integration — the words in combination with each other on the board), forms an entirely new structure.

During the game, the board contains the synergies from previous combinations of words, and therefore, it exerts what’s known as downward causation onto your choice of your next move. That is, the existing game will exhibit a feedback loop of influence as you decide your next play: both in how to arrange your letters into a word, and where the word should fit on the board.

This is an oversimplification of the theory, but it shows that: 1. something unexpected and unpredictable can emerge from basic building blocks and 2. we have free will to act as agents in helping shape what emerges.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl talks about the fluid nature of meaning, encouraging us to focus less on one singular and overarching meaning to life, but on our ability to self-determine it as we go. Similar to asking a chess master what the greatest chess move is, or in our example above: ‘what is the greatest word to play in Scrabble?’ — we cannot ask for this kind of overarching meaning of life, because it is unique to each situation, each person, each epoch of human history, etc. Listen to his words:

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence…

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

After reading Frankl’s book, what clicked for me was a new appreciation of purpose in life: it is not static or one-dimensional, but rather emergent…we dynamically coalesce meaning in our lives from the complex parts of our experiences as they build upon one another.

Each day we are given a collection of experiences, emotions, and information that we choose how to interpret and mould into our own sense of meaning. Meaning is not necessarily composed of the fundamental elements of our life: our relationships, our job, our past sufferings and joys, our physical location in which we live, but rather in the combination of those varied pieces of ourselves. Finding patterns in what we have experienced becomes part of helpling us emerge some kind of meaning — it is evolutionary.

There is a paradoxical relationship between our self-determination in choosing how to arrange the pieces of life we’ve been given, and the reality that as we evolve meaning from those pieces, they can create new information systems that provide a feedback loop for our next choices.

So while I agonized in college about having a static “right” definition of meaning in life, I now recognize that we are self-determining and have free will over our own lives. We can form our purpose in an emergent and evolutionary way — one that stays agile in the face of ever-evolving new information and new relationships. We can follow our curiosity (instead of our ‘passion’) and can cooperate with the divine, as dance partners combine improvisation and familiarity of their steps.

We can choose love over fear in each moment. For: “at any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.” — Viktor Frankl

Denise Hearn

Written by

I’m the co-author of The Myth of Capitalism. Here you’ll find my personal reflections and poetry.

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