New Things “Emerge”

“Huston, We have a problem,” was astronaut Jim Lovell’s famous call to Earth. Let’s put in a similar call. Somehow we humans get colors, joy, death and freedom from a washed out bunch of subatomic particle. That is getting a lot of Qualities out of much less substance. (See the preceding posts for the ground work on this theme.) I know it takes a bunch of math, to get from there to here, but is it ever really enough? Here is someone who can help.


Sean Carroll is a noted physicist from Cal Tech.  Known for his wide ranging interests and knowledge, he also has a desire and ability to share his expertise with a broader audience—me and you. He has written The Big Picture, a book from 2016 that exemplifies his versatility and desire to communicate.  Its subtitle is “On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.”  Yes, wide ranging.

So, in the very broadest sense, Where do all the different things around us come from? Dr. Carroll will help us answer that question.

Physics and the ‘hard’ sciences are not my forte, so I needed to tackle this book — some 450 pages of it — to solidify (or refute) the claim that interesting and more complex objects “emerge” from the quantum fields and sub-atomic particles that are now known to be “the basis” of our world and the universe (“itself”). We all know that all things are matter and energy, but we sure have a lot more to say about “things” than just that!

(Maybe Breughel and Rubens were wrong! Maybe all the difference in the world is NOT what really matters. The Sense of Sight, painting by Jan Breughel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.)

Carroll is a “Compatiblist”, a philosophical position that argues that both the objects of physics are real and significant, and so are the objects of our ordinary world that we call ‘people’, ‘zinnias’ and ‘the Atlantic Ocean’, to name but a few.  The microscopic and the macroscopic largely fit together without too much tension, he believes (1).  In The Nature Religion Connection, this is also our belief, but how does it happen? How are we both “persons” and swarming masses of sub-atomic particles, for example? Carroll believes we can be these two seemingly different kinds of things without too much confusion.

(Note each letter suspended from a puppeteer’s string.)

Others do not believe the world around us does has so many different and wonderful kinds of things and abilities! Radical Reductionists believe that since the objects and laws

of physics underlay everything, macroscopic objects lose their status (in some important sense) as real, or legitimately significant (2). Too much of the way we think of these macroscopic objects does not fit with our ‘scientific vision’, they claim.  Neuroscientist and famous atheist, Sam Harris contends that ‘free will’ is an illusion and the choices we make are caused by mechanical forces outside us and in.  There is no free will, no freely choosing, therefore, we should eliminate such talk.  

Biologist Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago,, believes we do not freely choose and, therefore, talk of ‘responsibility’ and ‘morality’ is also unfounded (see his popular blog, Why Evolution Is True, or WEIT).  These folks are called by Carroll not only reductionists — macro objects are really micro objects — but also “eliminativists.” 

(A double-petalled Zinnia from the garden of Greg and Sheri. Is a flower still a “flower” if we speak of it only in atomic terms? Photo by GregWW.)

Their position has undeniable cogency; why talk about ‘the same thing’ in two very different ways?   For example, a Zinnia is a collection of sub-atomic particles and also a biological object with needs, satisfactions and efforts.  Which way of talking is more important, which way is true?  Should we talk in both ways? If so, how do they fit together? After all, atoms in themselves do not have needs; they do not even have a color, yet the above zinnia seems beautifully orange and has a need for sunshine.

The flavor and attitude of this eliminativist claim might be captured in this famous quote by Ernest Rutherford, the experimental physicist who in 1909 was crucial in discovering the structure of the atom.  He not only diminished the significance of macro objects but also the less fundamental sciences; he said “all of science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (3) If you want to really know how things are, study physics, that was his rather arrogant contention.

(Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment.  “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he said.)

I must admit that I feel a significant degree of confusion about this connection of the microscopic to the macroscopic world. How much can we eliminate  from a particular discourse, or change the discourse entirely, and still be talking about the same thing?  To me, a flower exhibits some distinct qualities different from inanimate objects, and this is the historically recognized belief.  People make “choices” and are “responsible” for their actions, we also believe, but such talk has no place when considering atoms.

And aren’t these empirical claims; don’t we just see it? A flower has color; it grows, blooms, makes seeds that then reproduces “itself” in a very similar flower—its offspring.  We can manipulate its breeding and encourage the enhancement of some traits by contrast to others in the offspring.  We know there are “laws,” “rules,” by which this happens.  It is called the science of biology.  So, is a “flower” still a flower if we decide to speak of it only in atomic terms?

The Power of Physics

Some day, our knowledge of physics may expand to the point that the behavior of all things may be predictable in advance.  Crazy to think, but Carroll says that, “in principle,” that day is already here!  Physicists now possess accurate and detailed knowledge of the workings of the universe but also “an effective theory of the everyday world.”(4)  He calls it “the Core Theory” and it is “the specific set of fields and interactions that govern our local environment.”  He continues, “Everything we want to think about human beings has to be compatible with the nature and behavior of the pieces of which we are made” and then adds an interesting proviso, “even if those pieces don’t tell the whole story.”(5)

That is the crux of the entire debate.  What sense can be made of that proviso?  How can the particles and forces that compose us at the most basic level behave as physically predicted, yet, not be all that is worth saying?  What more can be added that does not fall into silliness and superstition?

Here is  the equation that puts ‘the nail in the coffin’; it is the physics that is the basis for the prediction of all that happens around us, and with us, in our macroscopic world.  Its called “the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics”.(6)   It was pioneered by Erwin Schrodinger but this is the “compact and elegant” formulation of contemporary physicist Richard Feynman, reports Carroll.


Carroll has added to the equation the solid lines and descriptions that distinguish the different sections of this formulation: “quantum mechanic”, “spacetime”, “gravity” etc.  In general, the equation describes “the quantum amplitude for undergoing a transition from one specified field configuration to another, expressed as a sum over all the paths that could possibly connect them.”(7)  That is what W is, it is the amplitude of a wave expressed as an integral that is “summing up an infinite number of infinitely small things”: “the possible things the field can do in between the starting and ending, which we call a “path” the field configuration can take”, says Carroll.

I can assure you, the above equation is not the style in which his book is written.  If it was, I would not have gotten beyond page one!  The above equation is the only one to appear and it does so in an appendix as an effort to give the reader a taste of the unvarnished work of contemporary physics.  It is amazingly impressive stuff, and Carroll contends that its accuracy and specificity is such that even if in the future scientists come to think of its components in very different ways, this formulation will still be true in its own terms and for the domain to which it applies forever! (8) Vive la physique!

Some Things Emerge

Interestingly, Compatiblists are themselves Eliminativists concerning some issues.  Carroll argues that our most basic framework for understanding what is real is physics with its Core Theory, exemplified by the above equation.  This eliminates any good reason for talk of gods, souls, ghosts, or mind (as something beyond the physical) and even what he calls the “strong emergentist” position (which will be discussed later).  They all are incompatible with physics and the evidence that supports it.

(Protons and Neutrons establish a new set of standards by which to consider the world. A level up from the world as quarks and gluons.  “A proton is composed of two up quarks, one down quark, and the gluons that mediate the forces “binding” them together.” Wikipedia)

He does offers us a list of objects that do legitimately “emerge” from the more basic and simpler underlying pieces of the Core Theory.   This is where we start to return to the Core Theory as not telling “the whole story.”  This “whole story,” he says, includes (9): protons and neutrons, stars and light, life, multicellular organisms, consciousness, language and abstract human thought. These are an ascending hierarchy of abilities and complex objects (we might say) that spell out what is possible from the simplified world of physics.

But, there are more mundane examples of emergence. An automobile is composed of atoms, but they are seldom mentioned. To design a car, its atomic substructure is not referenced. To build a car or repair one, only its functioning parts at the macroscopic level are referenced. Things like “pistons,” “bumpers,” “drive shaft,” “chassis,” “brake,” “accelerator” are used because these terms are most useful and are obvious to us. To drive a car, we never consider its subatomic structure! This is a dramatic example of emergence, and thanks to biologist Richard Dawkins for it.


(Our first Eukaryotic Ancestor.  Diagram of the merger of free-living Spiochette and an Archaebacteria.  Out of Two came One. Thanks to PNAS, 2006)

How do these higher level objects form valuable additions (beyond physics) to our understanding? This is “that crux of the problem” mentioned earlier.  It is a “secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole,” he writes (10).  Carroll is, philosophically, a Naturalist; this is his basic commitment to science as the doorway to what is real “at the deepest level.”  Then, when he adds the “other ways of talking”, “emergent theories” and capturing “the whole story”, he admits he has now become what he calls “a poetic naturalist”. (11) 

“Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility,” he very pointedly declares (12).  Though physics captures the universe fundamentally, there are other “useful ways of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff”.  They are useful to us for various reasons.  First, “it would be horrendously inconvenient if ” to explain anything “we were to list a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged.”(13)   Second, and most importantly, “we really do learn something new by studying emergent theories for their own sake, even if all the theories are utterly compatible” (with physic’s theories). (14)

So we are Both vast conglomerations of particles and scientific forces, And persons who ‘eat, love and pray,’ to borrow the current phrase. In the next passage, let’s apply the Idea of Emergence to these two different kinds of “Us” and see how that works out!

(A taste of what is to come: If all we do is determined by causal and atomic forces far different than the qualities of good pizza, then arguing about ‘best pizza’ is an empty charade.)



Notes— Since this post is a review of aspects of this book, I thought a few page references would be appropriate.  I did attempt a close read of this material and it is a respected work.   1) page 379   2) page 19   3) 105   4) 177-9   5)       6-7) 437   8) 179   9)  102  10) 93  11) 15-19   12) 21   13) 108   14) 108 

When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune of Our World—-Even in Dreary Times. Spring, Where are You?     Logo by Marty.

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