The emergence of emergence as a tautology

I’ve recently had a brief exchange on Uncommon Descent with Elizabeth Liddle over emergence. She mentioned free-will as an emergent property of the brain, though she subsequently admitted she doesn’t like the term and prefers to think in terms of systems. My argument was (and is) that, in such a context, the word is essentially meaningless. I want to extend the argument here to the larger area of life in general.

Emergence is, properly, the development of spontaneous order in natural, even chaotic, systems. A mundane example would be the emergence of vortices when your bath-water goes down the plughole. A larger example would be a hurricane, and a bigger one still the morphology of a galaxy.

Another type of example is that of snowflakes, which provide an infinite variety (within strict limits) of hexagonal crystalline patterns. Fractals are another instance, and these occur in living organisms regularly (in both senses).  A further example of emergence in living systems is the beautiful swarming behaviour of bees, starlings or bait-fish.

In all these cases there is order, which emerges spontaneously for one reason alone: there is a low input of information to a relatively simple algorithm. Given the dynamics of our atmosphere, and the properties of air itself, a certain set of initial conditions will, inevitably, produce a hurricane system. Nothing will stop it. The same goes for bathwater, where the properties of water and, if popular tales are to be believed, what hemisphere you are living will spin your water in either direction. In galaxies, Newtonian physics and, presumably, the properties of black holes will do the same on a grand scale. In our Universe, you can’t not get galaxies, and a mathematician could, I suppose, explain why on the back of an envelope.

Simple algorithms explain snowflakes and fractals too. Vary the initial conditions marginally and natural algorithms will crunch the numbers and produce crystalline or organic beauty. Simple mathematics has explained the swarm as well – just a few very simple behaviours will cause a multitude of animals to appear to act as one. These are truly emergent behaviours.

But see how Wilkipedia deals with matters when it comes to life itself:

A broader example of emergent properties in biology is viewed in the biological organisation of life, ranging from the subatomic level to the entire biosphere. For example, individual atoms can be combined to form molecules such as polypeptide chains, which in turn fold and refold to form proteins, which in turn create even more complex structures. These proteins, assuming their functional status from their spatial conformation, interact together and with other molecules to achieve higher biological functions and eventually create an organism.

The comparison with emergent systems in this case borders on sophistry. Yes, individual atoms can be combined to form polypeptide chains. But that word can glosses over the fact that a human agent has to work very hard indeed to make it happen. Nature does not spontaneously produce polypeptides, and even less does it produce the highly specific polypeptides that can do useful work.

Nature does produce polypeptides, of course, because we are made of them. But it uses a pre-programmed optimal DNA semiotic code, RNA, 100 or so specific pre-existing proteins and a highly organised cell with the ability to handle a multitude of metabolic processes (each involving other polypeptides) to do so. Nobody has managed, even in the lab, to get atoms to form an RNA molecule that might start this process off. In case you missed it, this is in no way the spontaneous generation of order.

These polypeptides, Wikipedia says, fold and refold to form proteins, neglecting to mention the chaperonins and other complex processes that enable this to happen, nor the process that decides how to form the small subset of polypeptides that do fold and, having done so, do useful work.

The talk of their mutual interaction, and that with other molecules, is another way of eliding the necessity of having an entire cellular apparatus (aka “an existing organism”) to “eventually create an organism”. It doesn’t even mention the vexed question of how these already astronomically complex and organised cells come to combine in their trillions to form animals and plants. Even then, we’re still many steps removed from the human brain from which, Elizabeth says, free-will emerges spontaneously.

What’s the difference in kind from my earlier examples of emergence? In these, in essence nature chooses a simple algorithm, sets initial conditions, presses “go” and watches the maths turn the simple components into an ordered, though still essentially simple, result. It’s wonderful, but simple.

In life, in complete contrast, you start by observing the inordinately complex, and the deeper you go, the more organised complexity you find at organismal, cellular, biochemical or molecular level. It’s turtles all the way down.

If you start at the other end, with atoms, you can get to some simple molecules by “natural” processes (though it remains doubtful if those processes ever happened in nature). Then it stops. Nothing happens spontaneously, and very little more even with a world-class laboratory and scientific expertise at your disposal. Quite simply, there is no evidence of life as an emergent property of matter. So why does Wikipedia (and why do a host of people in the scientific community) claim that it is such a thing?

That’s quite simple too, really. They have excluded a priori any mechanism that doesn’t work from the bottom-up. Life exists, so therefore it must have emerged. You start with materialist presuppositions and a simple algorithm and lo! Theories of emergence emerge spontaneously! By that line of argument, digital televisions, saxophones and vindaloo curry are also emergent properties of matter. The evolutionary psychologists would, of course, by labelling the human mind an emergent entity,  say that this is true by extension. But Wikipedia doesn’t use them as examples because it would rob their article of all plausibility with real people. Nobody really believes that Apache helicopters come from the spontaneous ordering of atoms.

If people weren’t so brainwashed by Darwinianism, they wouldn’t give emergence house room as an explanation of life, either.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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