Potentiality and emergence
|October 26, 2009||Posted by niwrad under Intelligent Design|
An UD author in a previous post asked: “would ID proponents see ID as part of emergence or as an alternative to emergence?”. I would answer: ID is not an alternative to emergence, rather the only thing that can explain emergence when it implies complex specified information (CSI), because CSI properties cannot emerge without intelligent front-loading. Here are the reasons of my answer.
“Emergence” is a key term often used in the fields of complex systems and complexity theory. Wikipedia defines it so:
“An emergent property of a system is one that is not a property of any component of that system, but is still a feature of the system as a whole.”
Some attribute to emergent properties sort of magic aura. That a whole can show properties or behaviors or events that its single parts don’t is not so odd after all. To investigate how this phenomenon can happen it is good to resort to the idea of potentiality, which states something like this: a closed system can develop only the possibilities it contains inside itself just from the beginning. Potentiality is a direct consequence of causality. If, per absurdum, from a closed system could arise a thing with absolutely no relation whatsoever with the system this thing would come from nothingness and this is impossible. It is unavoidable the emerged thing has relations with some possibilities the system contains. The above definition of potentiality is simply another way to say this. Of course in many cases it is hard to discover all the possibilities of a system and their relations (in fact often it is difficult even to formally define or model the system itself), nonetheless one can be sure that anything coming from the system has some counterpart in its internal possibilities. Intuitive examples of potentiality: a bomb has the potentiality of exploding but has not the potentiality of writing books; a child has the potentiality of writing books but not of exploding.
Potentiality can be seen as the principle of emergence in the sense that the latter is a consequence of the former. The potentiality of a child to write books (the emergence) is explained by the fact that human beings entail mind (the potentiality) just from the birth. The potentiality of exploding of a bomb can be inferred by an expert who examines the bomb’s content and sees the explosive and the detonator (the potentiality), before it explodes (the emergence).
In the same page of Wikipedia referenced above they provide a “classic example of emergence in nature”: a termite “cathedral” mound produced by a termite colony. This emergence, far from being a causeless or gratis event, is a good example of potentiality: the ability to construct such nests is front-loaded somewhere in the termites themselves. At their birth termites inherit the instinctual information to construct their nests from their ancestors. Some might object: the ancient termites didn’t construct such cathedrals. Ok, then at some time, termites learned to construct cathedrals thank to some ability of learning that was potential in them. From nothingness nothing comes. Why pieces of iron don’t self-construct nests and will never learn to do it? Because the pieces of iron contain neither the organizing nor the learning possibilities termites have.
A usual objection to the potentiality argument, as stated above, is: emergency in a system can be triggered or catalyzed by the environment, because the system is not closed. This doesn’t at all violate the principle of potentiality. There are at least two ways to answer this objection. (1) We can consider the system + environment as a unique macro-system. The emergent properties in the sub-system are due to a precise potentiality of the macro-system as a whole. In a sense an example of this first case might be the child who becomes able to effectively write books thank to the teachings of a school (the environment). (2) If the system “answers” to the trigger signal showing emergent properties it is because it contains the potentiality of such emergence and the potentiality of being triggerable (obviously not all potentialities are triggerable from outside). The contribute of the environment is only the trigger signal. An example of this second case might be a bomb that can be activated remotely. Anyway there can be no exception to potentiality for the simple fact that causality has no exception.
By the way, given it happens to deal with open systems, here is another statement from Wikipedia, where it couples emergent properties and alleged violation of the second law of thermodynamics:
“Systems with emergent properties or emergent structures may appear to defy entropic principles and the SLoT, because they form and increase order despite the lack of command and central control. This is possible because open systems can extract information and order out of the environment.”
For a discussion about this classic misunderstanding see my previous post.
From the perspective of potentiality it is clear the necessity of a precise causal relation between the cause and its effects, which allows the emergence of the latter from the former. In other words potentiality is simply a different way of speaking about causality in the cosmos. No potentiality inference is possible without the recognition of the causal relation between the cause and its emerging effects. When this recognition is done the fact of emergence loses any magic look and becomes a scientifically proved fact. In a framework of potentiality the use of the term emergence is perfectly correct.
For a better understanding of the topic, may be useful to recall the difference between a “true whole” and a “false whole”. A false whole is a mere sum of parts (example: potatoes in a bag). A true whole is something higher than a mere sum of its parts, because entails a principle of unity (example: an organism). The properties of a true whole do not emerge from the bottom (its parts), as reductionism wrongly suggests. Rather the properties of a true whole unfold from the top (its cause/principle) as holism rightly states.
Consider for instance an airplane. No one of its parts, singularly taken, can fly. The airplane, as a whole, can fly, that is shows the emergent property of flying. Where the potentiality of flying is hidden? It is neither in the single parts of the airplane nor in the totality of them when considered as mere set of elements. It is embodied in the cause or principle of the airplane, in its design, which gives organization to the set. This explains why the emergent properties are absent at the bottom level, the level of components: they arise thank to the cause/principle of the system and appear at the top level (the level of the fully assembled system). No wonder emergent properties are not reducible to properties of parts, the bottom level of the system: they don’t come from that direction, they come from the principle of the system. As A.K. Coomaraswamy wrote: “The principle of a thing is neither in one of its parts nor in the sum of its parts, rather where all parts are embedded in a unity without composition”.
The relations of all that with intelligent design theory are straightforward. The airplane example shows that, when potentiality (and the consequent emergent properties) involves organization (then CSI), it arises from a higher cause, from an intelligent design. In other words, when the emergent properties are qualitative and functional they imply CSI. The basic claim of ID theory is that CSI cannot emerge without design and this agrees with the above fact that indeed design warrants potentiality and emergence. Besides, the concepts of true whole and emergence are clearly in relation to irreducible complexity (IC): an IC system is a true whole because entails a principle of unity and it is exactly this unity to cause, when all parts are well assembled and connected, the emergency of the functionality of the IC system. Intelligent design is what front-loads CSI potentiality, which in turn allows the manifestation of functional emergent properties.
The concept of “emergence” or “emergent property” is frequently found in the evolutionary literature. In fact one routinely reads that, for example, “life is an emergent property of inorganic matter”, “mind is an emergent property of the brain”, “all biological species emerged from a unique simple common ancestor”, “humans emerged from non human beings”, “complex organization can emerge from chance and physical-chemical laws” and so on.
Question: is the use of the term emergence in evolutionary literature always done after a suitable potentiality inference? It is sufficient to examine the above examples of evolutionary emergencies to understand that often emergence is not justified by a previous potentiality proof or is insufficiently justified providing alleged potential elements that are unable to the task. The classic example of insufficient potential elements is the claim that random mutations and natural selection are sufficient to explain the emergence of species. All the quoted evolutionary claims involve emergence of CSI. They all miss to evidence a pre-existent potentiality. Where are the proofs that: inorganic matter has the potentiality of life, brain has the potentiality of mind, a unique simple common ancestor has the potentiality of all species, the non human has the potentiality of the human, chance and physical-chemical laws have the potentiality of complex organization?
A logical corollary of that said above is that evolutionism, intended as unguided process that simply adds elements from bottom to up, is unable to construct a true whole, is unable to create designs, because designs need a top-down approach. Since a living being is a true whole arising from a principle of complex unity it cannot arise by evolution, which works from the inverse direction, from simple multiplicity. Therefore we face a paradoxical situation: indeed analyzing the concept of emergence, which is so much used by evolutionists to support their gratuitous claims, we arrive to the conclusion that evolutionism fails in principle to explain the biological complexity. In these conditions the frequent use of the emergence jargon in the evolutionary literature is only sign of hopeless attempts to do something impossible: to get more from less.