Introduction to emergence

2008/04/18

Nova’s scienceNow episode introduces several celebrated examples of emergence emergence:

Emergence and emergentism are not new, but they still hold the appeal of a new kind of science. Emergence does not yet constitute a useful theory that can make predictions about the world. The importance of educating about emergence is to refute, by examples, many of the inference people make naturally about life, society, and intelligence. We naturally have a hard time comprehending how interactions of relatively simple things give rise to something new. Therefore, we cannot help inferring the actual existence of an additional immaterial substance or agent: spirit, will, life, God, demons, the invisible hand, and the zeitgeist, to name a few.

Emergence does not make a scientific theory, but becoming aware of emergence liberates disciplined thinkers from these unnecessary inferences. Spontaneous organization and rise of complexity are abundant in nature.

Murray Gell-Mann recapitulates this mental freedom in his TED homily to the beauty of nature and science:

You don’t need something more to get something more. That’s what emergence means. Life can emerge from physics and chemistry plus a lot of accidents. The human mind can arise from neurobiology plus a lot of accidents. The way the chemical bond arises from physics and certain accidents. It doesn’t diminish the importance of these subjects to know that they follow from more fundamental things plus accidents. That’s the general rule … you don’t need something more to explain something more.

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