(This post “gets down”! Some serious metaphysical speculation occurs. Tighten your seat belts, or better, pull on your waders for the S#!% gets deep! As the title would suggest, we discuss very basic things and come to a Quasi Reverential Conclusion. This is not about god: It’s about something better, something real, something more reasonable. This post is being published in both the Human Freedom Series (post 15) and in The Connection (posts in general). It is pertinent and accessible to both. It is a short description and defense of philosophical Holism. —The current form of this post is a significant revision of its original version—)
The universe is full of many different things. These different things have even more different qualities. Flowers have a quality. Stars have a quality. Stars and flowers have qualities that they share. The color red has a quality, similar to green but also very different.
In previous posts, I have attempted to argue that all these different difference have “emerged” from from a source not so different, in fact, a lot the same. “Structure” is the foundation of this contention. Differences in structure, or the Design, of our basic substance allows this “One Thing, to Become Many Things”. Not surprisingly, this idea has attracted some criticism.
One of my closest readers and critics is a chemist from western Canada, I believe. Recently he challenged me to specify “emergent”, as in: the pieces come together and what “emerges” are abilities and qualities that are “more than the sum of their parts” (my terminology). He contended that I was calling for some kind of “magical” event and he gave me a situation in chemistry where some atomic elements ‘come together’ and nothing much of significance happens that is new. I guess they are like a pile of sand; a pile is a way of being ‘together’ but it just sits there, no different if it were half its size or had some slices of pepperoni thrown in. He asked me to give him an example he could accept. Here are my attempts.
A car is obviously a complex of atoms. But, when we talk about cars, we don’t talk about
atoms. We talk in terms of “rods and pistons”, “axles and wheels”, “driveshafts, starters and brakes”. And to talk this way actually works to drive a car, to fix one, to design one. Biologist Richard Dawkins used this example, in The Blind Watchmaker, to describe the “complexity” he contends exists in a car and its abilities that lay beyond the need for ‘atom talk’. The point is, first, to talk of these kind of parts (and not the grains of sand in a pile) is effective, it works; and, second, it’s effective because the atoms, usually and normally, don’t interfere with that ADDITIONAL LEVEL of structure. They (the atoms) are ‘the clay’ that is molded — it would seem; they do not ‘call the shots’ here. Somehow the designer has a significant ‘say’; and, in this way, something new and important happens in cooperation with atoms that has never happened before ‘in our neck of the woods’: humans now move across land in great comfort and with great efficiency.
A living thing
A living thing is my second example. “Hunting the Elements” is a very enjoyable episode of Nova hosted by technology writer, David Pogue. David and a biochemist go to a hardware store to buy all the basic ingredients to create life. Yes, CHNOPS* is common
enough to be found there. You can pile it into one overflowing shopping cart (in their appropriate proportions) and purchase them for a little over $100. Well, all except the phosphorus, which is obtained amusingly by processing five gallons of David’s urine that he dutifully returns to the men’s room, repeatedly, to obtain. So, it’s not hard to get the basic pieces for life, the issue is how to ‘get them together’ properly for anything other than dry goods to “emerge”.
In his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (“dangerous” because it is so revolutionary), philosopher Dan Dennett discusses the origins of life by citing prominent biochemical theorist and researcher, Manfred Eigen. “There is an unmistakable engineering flair to Eigen’s thinking”, says Dennett; “His research is a sequence of biological construction problems posed and solved: how do the materials get amassed at the building site, and how does the design get determined, and in what order are the various parts assembled so that they don’t fall apart before the whole structure is completed?”
It’s a very tricky process, to get more out of less.
*CHNOPS: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulfur.
A protein is my final, and prolonged, example. I believe it will get us into the murkiest and most subtle areas of “emergence”. Again, we return to Dennett:
“Shape is destiny in the world of macromolecules. A one-dimensional sequence of amino acids…determines the identity of a protein, but the sequence only partially constrains the way the one-dimensional protein string folds itself up. It typically springs into just one of many possible shapes…This three-dimensional shape is the source of its power…” (my added italics)
Some sequence of code, a message like the following: A–G A–G T–C G–A A–G T–C (only much longer) becomes a specifically shaped protein as below. What controls or determines the protein as a specific shape?
An extra “dimension” is added at the level of “protein”. The linear sequence of amino acids, “A–G A–G T–C G–A …” , could be maintained at the level of protein with no constraints on the shape that protein takes. The shape, as protein, could be perfectly circular or many other shapes, and maintain the sequence of amino acids in order. Yet, the ‘movement’ from a “one dimension” sequence of information, at the level of amino acids, to a determined three dimensional shaped protein is consistent and “Emergent” and, as such, the “source of its power” as a protein.
This emergent behavior in the building of proteins was “a puzzle” noted as far back as 1958 by biochemical researchers. The famous biochemist, Jacques Monad, solved this puzzle in the early 1970’s, says Dennett. Admittedly, it is an “abstract” issue, almost beyond the most immediate scope of biochemistry and verging on philosophy. “That a one-dimensional code can be ‘for’ a three-dimensional structure shows that information is added. Indeed, value is added. The individual amino acids have value (by contributing to the functional prowess of the protein)…”, (Dennett and his italics). Monad describes it as “function is linked to a three-dimensional structure whose data content is richer than the direct contribution made to the structure by the genome” (Monad’s italics). This added “value“, this “data content is richer” is the reality of Emergence in the world around us.
Emergence is Real, but It Can’t Come From Nothing
Now the hard part. How to explain these emergent appearances. Without reasonable explanation, emergence is just magic or supernaturalism. The claim that All Things Cannot Be Fully Explained In The Terms of Physics, is a claim important to the very basis of this blog, naturereligionconnection.org, and the claim that gives “Emergence” its urgency. It is a claim repeatedly discussed in the Human Freedom Series of posts. It is the claim that Explanation by Reduction to ‘less complex levels’ of physical objects is useful, but limited in its accomplishments. The concept of “Emergence” must explain how this added “value” and “richness” occurs. The answer to this is that the emergent property “functions” in a context “larger” and “more complex” than used, than appears, in the initial description of its components, its “parts”. The structure as a whole is greater than a conglomeration of it “parts”.
The Keystone: How a Whole can be Greater than the Sum of Its Parts, an ancient example.
In an arch, once the keystone is set in place, the arch has structural integrity. Until then it must rely on temporary supports, scaffolding and frames. This wedged-shaped stone at the top of the arch is the last to be placed and locks all the other stones (the voissor — pronounced vu’swar/) in place. Remarkably, the keystone bears almost no weight! The design of the arch is such that the downward force (tension) of the load is conveyed outward (compression) through the arch and only eventually and partially downward. Beneath the keystone there is almost no tension, no downward push. What is the arch’s load limit?
“The ability for arches to hold load is far beyond any other structural element, even those today…For the Romans, and even engineer’s today, a solid arch structure’s yield point is far beyond realistic loads that structure would ever see“, according to Interesting Engineering blog.
Sorry for the digression on arches, but here is the point concerning the source of an emergent property: Yes, it does “emerge” from the structure but only partially. The additional source of information is from the thing/things around it that benefit from the “emergence.” A structure is good only for those who use it.
Therefore, an Emergent Property exists and is good, only to those who use it. The information necessary for it is contained not only in it, the structure, but also in the environment in which it is to function.
A car and a protein only have value beyond their atoms due to their design which is useful to us (the car) and useful to living things (the proteins). Even living things have Emergent Richness beyond their atoms only due to the roles they play, the functions they serve, the things they do for other living things, this planet, and to us, humans, who are starting to become conscious of this.
Outside of that Larger Context —- that arena of their usefulness —- they have no extra value! Take arches (one last time!) — or arch-like structures: They are useful to us as architectural technology, but they could certainly be used for similar purposes by other ‘more natural’ objects. Just Google “arch” and you will get a lot about FEET! Still, in each case, an arch exists for the thing for which it Functions. Its value is what it does for the thing it serves. It only “emerges” for the Larger Context in which it works.
Folks, this is what is called, Some Serious Philosophical Speculation. It’s down-right Metaphysics! And just to make sure you know what “camp” you are in, if you buy the above argument, You are a HOLIST. You want to make as much of life around you ‘fit together’ in a meaningful (coherent) Unity. It sounds a little like religion, this always seeking this greater unity; I can imagine my Canadian chemist thinking. And it is; we here at Nature Religion Connection will agree. Its the basis for a NATURALISTIC REVERENCE.
Emergence exists Only for the Thing for which the Function Occurs
Now, automobiles, and life, proteins and arches, did not have to emerge on this planet. It is a lucky development; lucky for us, I would think. It has been contended here, at naturereligionconnection, that surely emergent properties are not in contradiction to the most abstract laws of physics but they are, also, not a necessary outgrowth of them, either. They are an historic accident, in some ways, and then have become ‘solidified’ by what has developed after them that depends on them. That will be an important point in this discussion: primitive life stuck, and then much has developed based on it and its discoveries. Arches worked, and then much has been learned and developed from them.
Here is Origination, Holistic style: a larger context exists, but indistinctly; an emergent property comes to exist that fits that context. The first thing it does is give that environment much more clarity and
specificity (it becomes an informed environment). They begin to interact. The thing and its environment feedback on each other.
Think of a primitive environment as if it were a rudimentary lock. No simple key initially exists to turn it. Many varied formations ‘tried’. Finally one fit, and opened the lock to its revealed new abilities and qualities (it now really is a lock, for surely locks could not exist without keys to open them). Maybe, then, yet another round of development of locks and keys occurs, each changing, yet still as lock and key, only better. With luck and time, if the innovations are ‘rich’ and ‘valuable’ enough, much can possibly develop. Our little corner of the universe has a long history — from our point of view — of such fortunate growth. We can ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the reasons for it. It is the basis for persons and their informed “point of view”. **
And this is the answer to an earlier question. If the DNA code only partially informs (determines) the protein, leaving a three-dimensional shape as a “richer” consequence that “appears”,
where does the additional controls, the additional information, come from? Not any old shape will do, and a regular set of functional shapes of that protein does occur. Think back to the lock and key. It is the environment (the lock) that contains the additional information. It must “select” the key that will turn its tumblers. And here on Earth, we have been very fortunate; many locks have been opened, and many more keys have been generated.
Dennett uses the example of DNA to make the above point. “Note that this reasoning does not yield the conclusion that double-stranded DNA must develop, for Mother Nature
had no advance intention to create multicellular life. It just reveals that if double-stranded DNA happens to begin to develop, it opens up opportunities that are dependent on it. Hence it becomes a necessity for those exemplars in the space of all possible life forms that avail themselves of it, and if those life forms prevail over those that do not avail themselves of it, that yields a retroactive endorsement of this raison d’etre for the DNA language. This is the way evolution always discovers reasons — by retroactive endorsement” (Dennett’s italics, my bolding).
But some, who are enamored by the laws of physics, insist the basic ways we think about ourselves, and maybe even “life” in general, are mistaken, delusional. Animals don’t really “Do New Things”, by comparison to the chemicals that make them; they only appear to, and are, in reality, only prolonged chains of those chemicals reacting. Humans don’t have ‘Free Will’; they are not ‘Responsible’ for their behavior. Again, those appearances are ignorance, delusions akin to seeing ‘gods’. “The world is really long chains of basic causes and it is foolish to speak differently”, they say.
But sometimes, appearances are enough! As we look out from our position in space and time and try to understand it, and us, we are impressed with our own active efforts, and the active efforts of those around us — both human and non-human. It’s the Tree of Life, with all its related objects and their advancing series of motives, intentions. Nature has given us this foundation and it’s panoply of reasons from which we may seek further growth. We will even learn more physics, and use that knowledge to “Emerge” with greater abilities and hopefully a more firm understanding of how all things may be able to work together for mutual enhancement. It appears those opportunities are available to us, but part of the equation is that we try. For creatures with open futures, it is necessary that possibilities “appear”!
**This description of “Origination, holistic style” may sound pretty fishy. It is rather, but is has a significant history in philosophical thought. Recently, it was associated with the discussion of ‘when is a thing still the same thing even after it has changed?’ and was a pivotal topic for Wittgenstein, I believe. Going back to some of the origins of abstract thinking in Greece, it was associated with Plato’s problem of, we might say, ‘what is “a chair” if every chair that exists is not “the same” exactly — and many do vary dramatically — as any other “chair” that exists?’ In the end these issues come down to the problem of Reference or Representation, How is one thing ‘about’ or ‘represent’ another thing? Reference or Representation seems to be a very different kind of relation than Causation, and therefore a real curve ball for scientific explanation. And, of course, science is itself a representation of the world.