Emergent Properties

in Deep Dives4 months ago

Two of humanity's greatest and seemingly eternal enigma's, life and consciousness, have no solid scientific explanation yet. I like to put emphasis on the "yet" in that sentence because science never stands still and human curiosity knows no bounds.


brain-2062057_960_720.jpg
image by ElisaRiva - source: Pixabay

In this post I'd like to briefly discuss the term "emergence" as it's understood in science:

emergence occurs when "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," meaning the whole has properties its parts do not have. These properties come about because of interactions among the parts.
source: Wikipedia

For example, the three phases of water are seen as "emergent properties" of its molecules: a single molecule cannot be seen as a liquid, gas or solid, and only when truly large numbers of these molecules interact with each other, these properties come into existence. The solidity of ice is an emergent property of water-molecules.

Emergence usually only occurs with extremely large numbers of individual parts and is therefore strongly associated with so called complex systems. The cell is biology's smallest "unit" of life, as well as a complex system all by itself. "Life" used to be explained as some sort of mysterious, as of yet undetected substance, a "life-essence", so to speak, but nowadays scientists mostly agree that life is an emergent phenomenon or property of the many individual chemical components that make up the cell's complex system of interacting parts.


Ice_crystals_at_window07.jpg
Ice crystals at window - source: Wikimedia Commons

In the same manner consciousness or mind is explained as an emergent phenomenon caused by the complex electrochemical interactions of neurons and chemicals in the brain. Different thoughts or states of mind can be explained by the changing emergent properties of said complex cerebral system, just like the many beautiful and diverse ice-crystals seen on windows in winters all around the world, are different emergent structures of the complex interactions of water-molecules. Different physical characteristics of the many diverse life-forms could be seen as different emergent forms of the interactions in a complex system of cells with different functions.

Many physicists, chemists, biologists and other scientists now subscribe to this idea of emergence to begin to try to explain our greatest mysteries, being life and consciousness, and how they began to exist. I also lean toward this train of thought, as it's the best we can hope for using only the scientific method, which in my opinion is the best method to describe the best approximation of reality as we experience it. Still... There's this nagging feeling that this somehow is a cop-out. It "feels" like saying that we don't really understand what we're talking about and explain it away by saying: it's just the result of simple parts spontaneously forming ever more complex structured wholes...

This feeling, I guess, is caused to a great degree by the fact that there's no solid, universally agreed upon scientific explanation of these great mysteries. It's just something to think about, as we have done for as long as we exist. Emergence in itself is a very interesting concept to wrap your mind around, and is something found in any complex system, even the system we call society; it can be argued, for example, that the January 6 insurrection was an emergent phenomenon...

I'll leave it there and invite you to listen to a conversation on the very question if consciousness is emergent; I found it very interesting indeed, and it features one of my favorite scientists, Sean Carroll, who also has a podcast called "Mindscape" that you can find on his YouTube channel.


1. Sean Carroll: Is Consciousness Emergent?


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Thanks for stopping by and reading. If you really liked this content, if you disagree (or if you do agree), please leave a comment. Of course, upvotes, follows, resteems are all greatly appreciated, but nothing brings me and you more growth than sharing our ideas.

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I don't think consciousness originates in the brain. I've seen research that indicates our gut fauna participates in our consciousness, and gut fauna doesn't have brains. There are some other reasons, but they're more difficult to convey, and I reckon that datum is decisive regarding brains being the source of consciousness. Certainly brains moderate consciousness, but if single celled organisms have some, it doesn't come from brains, but something fundamental to cells, perhaps the structures associated with DNA, or it may not be endemic to cells at all.

Frankly, we have no evidence that consciousness is limited to living things at all. While that may seem like a whacko viewpoint, it's a fact nonetheless, and I am not maintaining that the lack of evidence is proof rocks are sentient. I'm just making the point that we literally have no idea what consciousness is, how it happens, or where it comes from. Another startling fact about consciousness is that if our gut fauna are involved in our personal consciousness, that means consciousness is a collective, cross-species matter of some kind.

The moral of the story here is that we're not going to see Artificial General Intelligence in our lifetime. Consciousness may well be emergent, but what it emerges from remains to be ascertained.

Thanks!

What a beautiful response! Thanks so much for that. And I agree with everything you say as well. I'm particularly charmed by the idea that our brain, or brain in conjunction with other body-parts and/or gut fauna, function as receivers of an omnipresent consciousness. Like how you can tune a radio to receive a specific station, our brains could be tuned to receive our specific portion of that consciousness, so to speak. This would also explain how "our" consciousness can change when the brain (the antenna) is damaged...

In the end though, we don't know, so I'm open to all possible explanations...

Thanks again! :-)

Even though we don't know how life originated, there's nothing fundamentally mysterious about it. With consciousness, on the other hand, we don't even know what a scientific solution would look like, with many saying consciousness is impossible to fully explain scientifically.

A rock can be explained scientifically because there's nothing it's like to be a rock, so once you've described what a rock looks like physically, chemically, etc., you're done. But if you try to explain everything about a bat, you'll never explain scientifically what it's like being a bat, so that part of it, the subjective consciousness, will always remain inaccessible to science. Or so some say.

Thanks so much for dropping by! As for the mysteriousness, or not, of life, science is still debating if, for example, a virus is alive or not. It seems that there could be a gradient from non-life to fully self-conscious life, where rocks are most probably at the bottom of that gradient, and we are at, or somewhere near the top, with viruses somewhere between rocks and single celled life-forms... Anyhow, there's still not one all-encompassing definition of life, there are several, most describing life not as a thing, but as a process.

Thanks for this nice piece of text. Emergence and reductionism are both needed today in science, and will allow us to learn more from both sides. There are indeed topics that cannot be understood from a pire reductionist approach, as examplified in your blog.

You're so welcome! And thank you for the response and support :-)

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Thanks so much for the support! I really appreciate it :-)