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Potentiality and emergence

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.

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23 Responses to Potentiality and emergence

  1. Maybe there are two issues here. Materialism asserts that 1) specified complexity “emerges” from chance and necessity, and 2) that mind “emerges” from specified complexity. ID, on the other hand, argues that specified complexity emerges from mind and, I suspect, most of us would say that mind does not emerge from matter but rather at some point is fundamental.

    ID might be characterized as a “top down” view and materialism as a “bottom up” view.

  2. Emergence is a name for the problem, not a solution. It simply begs the question. Sui Generis consciousness cannot physically emerge from matter, otherwise by what strictly physical process? Accepting emergence is clearly deviating from Naturalism and accepting some sort of “magic” to happen whenever certain physical collections eventualize. Further, a strictly physical collection of atomic particles would have great difficulty accounting for free will or rationality with the innate volitional ability to cause other physical particles to move (me lifting my arm to vote yes or no). On the other hand, if mind is the fundamental entity in the universe, this would explain the presence of other minds such as ours and we could deduct quite reasonably that the Designer of the Universe has a mind and operates rationally.

    My take is that the soul (which includes the mind) is what animates and directs the development of the body from the beginning. It is present at every point in the body as the designer is present at every point in the universe.

    Human beings are intrinsically valuable because the soul (not the physical particles) has dormant human capacities (potentialities) that make up its nature, its essence.

  3. This article is quite thought-provoking, and I enjoyed reading it.

    It seems to me that the study of cellular automata is quite relevant to this topic. (For more information on Cellular Automata, check out Conservapedia or Wikipedia)

    Cellular automata seems to show a complex system arising from four simple rules (as in Conway’s Game of Life).

    Games of “Life” have the power of a universal Turing machine (forgive me if some readers do not understand that term), therefore, they should be able to do all forms of math, including any calculation any computer can do.

    As studying cellular automata has become my hobby, I would like to know what comments others may have about how organisms, such as a bacteria, cannot be emulated by Life.

    Given these four simple rules as in the article, what do you imagine the upper bound on complexity for Life to be? Alternatively, have any ID researchers done research into this topic?

    Please ask me any questions you may have. This is one of my favourite topics, and I look forward to reading your responses.

  4. DCX #3

    Conway’s “Game of Life” is a particular finite state machine (FSM) able to generate some dynamic patterns. They say it is even configurable to become a Universal Turing Machine (UTM). It is true that a UTM has the potentiality TO BOOT any program. But to say that a UTM contains the potentiality of any program is equivocal. Equivocal as to say that I have the potentiality to have anything. Yes I have the potentiality to buy but unfortunately I have not infinite money. As I can buy X only if I have the money for X, a UTM can boot Y only if it has the program for Y.

    Wikipedia:

    “Life provides an example of emergence and self-organization. [...] The game can also serve as a didactic analogy, used to convey the somewhat counterintuitive notion that “design” and “organization” can spontaneously emerge in the absence of a designer.”

    The “counterintuitive notion” is so counterintuitive that is false. The Game of Life, also considered as a UTM, doesn’t prove spontaneous arise of organization, for the reasons said above. Design and organization are exactly those programs that one has to store in the UTM if one wants the UTM run them. Design and organization don’t emerge spontaneously, exactly as a specific program and its outputs cannot emerge from a UTM if it wasn’t pre-installed.

    The “simple rules” of the “Game of Life” define a FSM. The evolution of such FSM, when started, is exactly what the potentiality of the FSM implies, nothing more nothing less. The “Game of Life” produces nice dynamic patterns, but doesn’t produce, for instance, organisms, literature, software, etc.. The game serves as a “didactic analogy” to understand that systems generate outputs according to the potentiality their designers install into them. John Conway is a designer after all.

  5. niwrad #4,

    EXACTLY! To say something is “Turing Complete” is merely to state that it can be utilized to perform any calculation that a Turing machine can compute. And the key phrase is that it “can be utilized.” As wikipedia states ever so elegantly, “However, this says nothing about the effort required to write a program for the machine, the time it may take for the machine to perform the calculation, or any abilities the machine may possess that are unrelated to computation.”

    Notice that a program still has to be written for the turing complete system if it is to be “useful” for anything. Left on their own, starting from simple initial conditions, turing complete systems such as “Game of Life” and “Rule 110″ don’t produce any functional output. Furthermore, the arrangements of the units (cells) result from the rules associated with the units (cells).

    Conversely, the real deal of biological life and computers that we use everyday run programs in which the patterns (arrangements) are not defined by laws of the units utilized. Furthermore, when these arrangements of units are run through the UTM, they produce outputs in which the actions contribute to a larger action — they are functional.

    This is not to say that “class 4 behavior” as seen in “Game of Life” and “Rule 110″ are not interesting. It just shows the extent of simple rules — no arrangements of units that are free from the “laws” of the units; thus no programming. Hence, no functional output.

    Which brings me to a interesting question … will a system that is turing complete ever emerge from only law+chance without any intelligent consideration? IOW, can we set up a program that creates laws from random conditions obtained from atmospheric noise, combines those (in effect random) laws, and produces a system that is Turing Complete? Or is intelligent consideration of future results emerging from a certain set of rules seemingly necessary? Is there a practical way to test this?

  6. Just a quick point on emergence & ID. Emergence doesn’t always seem to require/be a product of specified complexity. For example:

    1) Temperature. A single molecule doesn’t have a temperature, but a collection of molecules do. Thus temperature is an emergent property.

    2) Liquidity. Likewise, a single molecule cannot be ‘wet’. Only collections of molecules can have the propery ‘wet’. Thus liquidity is an emergent property.

    Both these examples are emergent properties that don’t require SC, or depend upon it for their emergence.

    However, I’m sure there are some emergent properties that do require and exhibit SC, like, for example, language.

    The letters of a word do not have intrinsic meaning. But when arranged in a certain way by an intelligent agent, they do have meaning. Thus ‘meaning’ in this context is an emergent property, one that required SC to create it.

    Just my thoughts on it anyway:)

  7. Sorry, I should have said meaning required *intelligence*, not SC, to create it.

    This emergent property (i.e. meaning) then exhibits SC.

  8. CJYman #5

    “Can we set up a program that creates laws from random conditions obtained from atmospheric noise, combines those (in effect random) laws, and produces a system that is Turing Complete?”

    My four-word answer: matter cannot create abstractness. Laws, rules, instructions, languages are abstract. A Turing Complete system is a fully abstract machine. There is more: a TC system entails various hierarchical levels of abstractness (instructions, instructions about instructions, instructions about instructions about instructions …). Whether matter cannot create one level of abstractness to greater reason it cannot create multi-level abstractness. Then a TC system is entirely outside the range of what material randomness can achieve. It is not matter of probability, rather of pure impossibility.

    Is there a practical way to test this?

    You could ask materialists to provide us a single counter-example where matter creates abstractness. It is not an absolute test, anyway it is a little practical (and meaningful) test.

  9. As far as I know, emergence is a very central subject of physics. The properties of a collection of atoms are all emergent and are not present in solitary atoms.

    It further seems to me that we would need a genuine physicist preferably of Nobel prize quality to set the issue straight for us. Robert B. Laughlin is one such person, and I recommend people who want to make bold statements about what emergence is and what the cause(s) are to read what he has written about the subject.

    Who knows that sound waves display the same wave/particle duality as light waves? Experiments have shown that sound propagating through a solid is quantized. Who would have guessed that?

    The world of physics, and that is of course also relevant for chemistry and biology as well, is full of mysteries – mysteries that there are no reason to attribute to intervention by divine powers.

    That is at least my interpretation, the scientific exploration of the world is nowhere near it’s end.

  10. “Cabal” (#9) wrote: “The world of physics, and that is of course also relevant for chemistry and biology as well, is full of mysteries – mysteries that there are no reason to attribute to intervention by divine powers.

    Centuries ago, millennia ago, essentially all mysteries of physics, chemistry and biology were attributed to divine powers, because humans had no science – “divine powers” were the best or only explanation for the mysteries of nature.

    As science has found materialist answers for more and more mysteries of nature, the need by humans to invoke divine powers has become less and less.

    Eventually there will be no need to invoke “divine powers” at all, as science continues to narrow the gaps where they are still the only explanation – where mysteries still exist.

    Some humans will regret the diminishment or loss of those “divine powers,” and some will even seek to stop science from exploring any further, lest the divine powers disappear.

    Who would have thought that “divine powers” would become a protected endangered species?

  11. PaulBurnett,

    Centuries ago, millennia ago, essentially all mysteries of physics, chemistry and biology were attributed to divine powers, because humans had no science – “divine powers” were the best or only explanation for the mysteries of nature.

    Divine powers are still the only explanation for nature. Science can only detect descriptions, not explanations.

  12. —Paul Burnett: “Eventually there will be no need to invoke “divine powers” at all, as science continues to narrow the gaps where they are still the only explanation – where mysteries still exist.”

    It is not just the origin of nature that must be explained but also its continued existence. God didn’t just make the universe appear in the past, he continues to sustain it in the present. Materialists/Naturalists look for ways to dismiss the first point without even taking into account the second point.

  13. To StephenB: God … continues to sustain it in the present.

    Would you care to explain this ?

  14. Nature is the first and fundamental emergence. Where this potentiality comes from? It cannot come from nothingness. It cannot come from a natural thing because the principle of a potentiality transcends it.

    Consider, per absurdum, that physics finally finds a unified theory that from few simple elements develops all what there is in the cosmos (they are light-years distant from this, and the distance ever increases since more deeply they explore more the complexity found), where those few simple elements come from in the first place?

    I wrote “per absurdum” for there are good conceptual reasons to doubt that in physics a complete unified theory of a finite set of axioms can exist in principle. The topic would be worth of an entire UD article.

  15. niwrad,

    Nature is the first and fundamental emergence. Where this potentiality comes from? It cannot come from nothingness. It cannot come from a natural thing because the principle of a potentiality transcends it.

    The origins of the universe is quite another subject that emergence IN nature. The latter is an observed fact. An observation concerning the why and how of the universe is yet to be made.

    On may however speculate on the idea of how something can come from nothing.

    The universe is a fact, let’s study the universe!

  16. #10 PaulBurnett

    I think the amount of nature phenomena mankind has attributed to God over the years is more like a curve. Initially we started with a very big percentage attributed to God, as we learnt more the percentage decreased. The whole God of the Gaps argument you expound was created during this period. But we reached a turning point and I think for quite a while now we are learning that more and more can only be attributable to a God. We invent more and more extreme ideas to do without with a God e.g. the multiverse but I think objectively nature points more and more to God as we learn more.

  17. Cabal and PaulBurnett,

    Wetness or liquidity is an ordinary structural property of water and a sensation we experience when we encounter a mass quantity of H2O molecules. Structural properties of water, carbon or light are simply a reconfiguration of parts in a specific pattern. As such, liquidity, solidity, temperature or sound/light waves are not sui generis or unique, and they fit well in the combinatorial Naturalist worldview.

    But consciousness is clearly not an emergent property arising from a rearrangement of physical molecules in the brain. With consciousness we have a totally new, simple, substantially unified mental self, an I, with conscious active power, free will, top-down rationality and the ability to take moral action. The presence of consciousness with no separable parts supports a designer or theism (even biblical theism), and arguing against consciousness as such (using these sui generis faculties while denying them) would be self-defeating.

    If Naturalism were true, then unguided physical particles would need to combine in order for faculties suitable for moral knowledge and action to arise. That scenario is wishful thinking, like saying that consciousness is simply emergent on the brain and should be taken as a brute fact which will be explained later on with a bit of time. This is simply not understanding what consciousness is. I think theism or positing a Designer is epistemically more reasonable, so I will side with Copernicus, Kepler, Galilei, Newton, Kelvin and Einstein.

    As for Artificial Intelligence (AI), it cannot be because it is a combination of parts, while true intelligence (the one creating AI with physical parts) isn’t.

  18. “Cable” (#16) proposes: “…we are learning that more and more can only be attributable to a God.

    While natural phenomena may be attributable to “a god,” can you prove that the god is the Creator God of Genesis, or just a generic intelligent designer?

  19. niwrad:
    “I wrote “per absurdum” for there are good conceptual reasons to doubt that in physics a complete unified theory of a finite set of axioms can exist in principle.”

    I would like to expand on this somewhat. Although I am no expert on the subject matter, did not Godel prove that mathematics is either consistent and incomplete or it is complete and inconsistent?

    Can we not take this logic over to physics, which can be represented by math (and indeed all of our knowledge of physics is represented by math), and state that Godel’s Theorem must apply.

    If so, assuming that the rules defining physics are consistent does this not mean that there is no complete system of formal rules to define all of physics? IOW, how could we use a theory of physics to explain all the rules of physics? Wouldn’t this require extra rules which then require an explanation? Some sort of “meta-physics?”

    Furthermore, if we did eventually tie all of physics together into one neat set of rules, would this not then imply (as per the application of Godel’s Theorem above to physics as a formal, consistent system) that our minds are capable of “going beyond” the rules of physics in order to provide all necessary formal rules to explain all of physics?

    It would seem that either our understanding of physics is necessarily incomplete or else our minds are capable of, how do I put it, some type of “meta-physical” calculations.

    … just some food for thought …

  20. #18 PaulBurnett

    A formal proof no. Its more detective intuition style. When one factors in the anthropic principal, the feats of engineering that life exhibits and it only gets more amazing with each new discovery, that there is even something like a mind, and that values like love, respect, honour, honesty, charity, sacrifice are held up as ideals by all cultures at all times one can only imagine a being so powerful and awe inspiring that the word ‘God’ is the only word that seems adequate. But ‘designer’ is a more neutral word because it is really just the antithesis of naturalistic.

    A simple ‘force’ or impersonal being won’t do since I don’t see that an impersonal force type God could have created beings of relationship any more than an impersonal natural process could have.

    I believe there are more ways to know than via formal scientific proofs. For example one ca ‘know’ how their best friend may behave in any given situation in ways that are not scientific. Depending on the context I think there are other ways of knowing. If you read Chesterton or Lewis you learn a type reasoning that relies on the human experience that I believe is powerful understanding it has its limitations just like all methods.

  21. CJYman #19

    Sure there are truths in what you wrote. I agree that metamathematics has deep epistemological impacts on mathematical physics and its hope of completeness. After Gödel we know that math is fundamentally irreducible to a finite formal system. It would be very strange the explanation of the cosmos (which is based on math) were reducible.

    I think that we could develop at least three coherent arguments about the incompleteness of physics: the above one from metamath; from algorithmic information theory; from metaphysics. Of course these three arguments would agree and support each other in coherent manner. Given the interest on the topic, if I can I will dedicate an UD article to it. After all it has relations with ID: the emergence of the cosmos implies CSI, and, from what I argued in my article, the related potentiality can be explained only from a top-down design perspective.

  22. #19

    Of course, our creative mind enable us to guess on the laws of nature even though we don’t have sufficient observations. This enables us to “look behind the curtain”.

    Quantum mechanics is working perfectly, but there is a conflict when it comes to measurement. Since the apparatus is measuring a system in which it is contained it will fail to measure all states from inside the observed system.

    This is the old impossibility of self-measurment (see e.g. Thomas Breuer).

    However, the universe seems indeed to be constructed to be consistent – and seems not to work by local realism.

  23. #21

    Niwrad: Even though mathematics is inexhaustible it doesn’t mean that we can’t make a finite algorithm or a program that computes a universe. The thing we know from Gödel is that mathematics is not reducible to mathematics.

    Hence, we can have the blueprint of the universe, but the blueprint will fail to justify or explain itself.

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