Emergence: A unifying theme for 21st century science
Santa Fe Institute
1614

But how can physics study behaviors, not the theory?

David Pines makes a very intelligent assessment, saying in part “The central task of theoretical physics in our time is no longer to write down the ultimate equations, but rather to catalogue and understand emergent behavior in its many guises, including potentially life itself.”

I was one of those who figured out why that would become necessary back in the 1970's. The behavior of complex systems of equations that permit true emergence will not be knowable from the equations. It’s not just their complexity, but that their emergent properties are emergent and dependent of histories of development rather than being formulaic.

I have also been writing papers and corresponding on the problem very widely since then, and really wondering why I was so unable to get systems thinkers, from any established research community to join me, in studying the commonalities of individual emergent systems. I started with air currents, that generally develop quite complex organization quickly with no apparent organizational input, behave very surprisingly, and seem individually unique.

I actually developed a fairly efficient scheme for studying any kind or scale of emergent system, using the simple device of starting with the question: “How did it begin”. What starting with that question does is immediately shift the focus of interest to considering systems as “energy events”, that you consider as a whole in looking for how they developed. That approach also directs you to look for the event’s naturally defined spatial and duration boundaries, which are highly useful too.

In addition to being fairly productive as research approach, it also made it easy to skirt lots of spurious questions, like “how to define the system”. With that approach your task is finding how the subject defines itself, still looking for a pattern language of structural and design elements to work with, within and around the system, confirming what you think you find.

What I finally arrived at in the 90's was that the equations of energy conservation implied a series of special requirements as natural bounds for any emerging use of energy. I was thinking that the issue was how nature uses discontinuous parts to design continuous uses of energy, and in working with the equations noticed that the notation for the conservation laws were either integrals or derivatives of each other.

Then one afternoon I just extrapolated an infinite series of conservation laws to define a general law of continuity, and integrated it to find the polynomial expansion describing the boundary conditions for any energy use to begin. It was a regular non-convergent expression, a surprising confirmation of Robert Rosen’s interest in non-converging expressions for describing life, and became very useful as what to look for in locating emergent processes to understand how they worked. I circulated the proof for discussion many times, submitted it for publication a few times and wrote numerous introductions, the following the most recent:

The Physics of Continuity = ladders of change

What you get studying the boundary conditions of emergence is a search for how nature threads the continuities of complex organization within them, so in effect becomes a search for how nature finds the answer. It seems to raise important answerable questions, pointing to what to look for, concerning the paths on which emergent systems of behavior are, or might be able to develop. Why I wasn’t able to discuss it with anyone in the Santa Fe or MIT complex systems communities (despite hundreds of letters each), or any number of other people who seemingly should be fascinated with a really useful tool for this, is of course “it’s a different science”.

So having found a useful new perspective on our common subject of interest, I found myself just one of many others unable to connect their views with other’s. That’s the classic trap described in the Buddhist tale of the “six blind advisors and the elephant”, each describes the whole as the part they could touch,… and they argue incessantly when they can talk at all!

So I began studying that as an emergent system, asking when in history did people start intellectualizing that way, that they all seemed to be talking about different worlds. That does seem to be a real problem, that we are somehow acculturated to consider our mental models as being the world we’re studying. That’s so broad a difficulty I think it may underlie many of the other stubborn (or so called “wicked”) problems we face.

The assumption every discipline tends to have is that their work alone defines reality. My simple alternate answer is that “reality” might be more properly understood as what we don’t define rather than what we do. It seems not to be the mind’s job to define reality. Our theories are really only tools for understanding natural relationships, all of which appear not to be behaviors of theory but of natural systems generally too organizationally complex to more than superficially model.

So, that offers a short tour of some of what I found, exposing some points for branching out for more exploration. I hope you find it interesting and that we eventually get into conversation.

My image of how the sciences relate to nature is a lot like the interpretation of Robert Rosen. His diagram shows the relationship involving “encoding and decoding” with science studying independent “systems of causation” operating in nature and then writing its own “systems of implication” as its understanding of nature.

What my version does is to add multiple sciences so they work together to solve the complex problems of natural systems. In my own work it’s a matter of using a “dual paradigm view” for coordinating “deterministic” and “opportunistic” views for observing and interpreting the organization and behaviors of complex natural systems. In the general view, all the sciences that are studying the same behavioral subjects of nature would compare notes and learning from each other’s multiple perspectives.

Henshaw-Rosen diagram for connecting the sciences.

jlh

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Responding to Emergence: A unifying theme for 21st century science by David Pines, Co-Founder in Residence, Santa Fe Institute