What is emergence and why does it matter?

In times of change and uncertainty, a transcript of an inspirational talk by Daniel Schmachtenberger

What I want to talk about today is what emergence is as a phenomenon, as a property that’s actually essential to understand the nature of the universe we live in—essential to understanding what it means to be human, and essential for understanding the basis for meaning for ethics and for existentialism—and also what that portends for the future of civilisation and addressing some of the things that are concerning and that are exciting. You can consider this talk as kind of an extemporaneous, rambling ode to emergence itself—a kind of love-talk about how cool it is the universe actually has this property, and that we can understand and participate in it.

Let’s start by defining: what is emergence? ‘Emergence’ means something new arises that wasn’t here before. We all have that sense intuitively, but scientifically, how does that happen? How do you bring particles—or planets, or anything—together and all of a sudden the whole has some properties that none of the parts had? Where do they come from? 

How do we get fundamentally new things out of relationships of things where that didn’t exist before?

This is why in the fields of science that study emergence—evolutionary theory and biology and systems science and complexity theory study it—it’s considered the closest thing to magic that’s actually a scientifically admissible term. But it’s still sketchy in terms of really understanding how it works. How do we get fundamentally new things out of relationships of things where that didn’t exist before? It’s fascinating. How do you have a cell that respirates made up of molecules, none of whom respirate? 

It’s just really interesting when you actually think about this. Does anybody know what the term is that’s key in understanding synergy? Emergence is synergy; synergy and emergence are two sides of the same phenomenon. Synergy means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and emergence is: what is that ‘greater’? What is the new stuff that emerges out of bringing things together? So, synergy is more formally defined as properties of whole systems that aren’t found in any of the parts taken separately, which also means they’re fundamentally unpredicted by the parts taken separately. This portends a future that is fundamentally ontologically unpredictable from the current state of the future—which is very different from a mechanistic-clock-unfolding-Newtonian understanding of the future, but still actually makes sense in terms of scientific law. Super interesting, right? So, synergy is this property of relationship where the whole has new properties that the parts didn’t have. Emergence is a result of synergy; synergy is a result of relationship. And relationship is a result of attractive forces. 

There are some kinds of attractive forces—whether it’s gravity bringing dust together into planets or planets together into solar systems, whether it’s electromagnetism bringing subatomic particles together into atoms or the strong force bringing quarks together into protons—each of those are emergent properties driven by synergy, driven by relationship, driven by attraction. Or whether it’s bringing these people [gestures toward audience] together via pheromones, or love, or intellectual affinity, or a topic that we’re all interested in, like creating a better world. There’s some attractive forces. Buckminster Fuller called love ‘metaphysical gravity.’  In the same way that gravity and physical forces act on physical bodies to attract them, we have metaphysical forces that act on metaphysical bodies to drive attraction. 

But imagine all of the attractive forces as expressions of a fundamental principle of universe of allurement. That there is a principle by which separate things have reason to come together that offers advantage that being separate doesn’t have. (You think about all of the forces as special case applications of that.) Imagine if that wasn’t the case. Imagine if we had a universe where allurement wasn’t a fundamental principle of it. And the whole thing would’ve stopped at quantum foam. [Audience laughs.] You have quantum foam emerge; you don’t even quite get to the get to the point of subatomic particles, and that’s it. Because nothing attracts to then have synergy and emergent properties. 

At the heart of this evolutionary story is a love story

I have a friend and collaborator, Mark Gaffney, who calls this ‘universal love story’: at the heart of this evolutionary story is a love story, which is that it’s actually attraction driving the whole evolutionary story. It’s attraction driving relationship, driving synergy, driving new emergent properties, driving net novelty and new creation and the arrow of evolution. We can actually understand the arrow of evolution itself in terms of this set of phenomena together.  

So then, evolution in complexity theory is defined most generally in terms of more elegantly ordered complexity. That’s actually the best definition we have in terms of mathematical complexity theory coming out of Santa Fe Institute. The definition has the word ‘elegance’ built right in it, because again it’s actually one of these fairly mysterious properties that’s key to it. Which is, in other words: bringing things together doesn’t give you emergent properties. Bringing them together in a particularly elegantly ordered way does. 

Think about all the parts that make up a cell. You’ve got all these non-living parts: DNA, cell nucleus structures, all the different organelles inside a plasm. They’re all not living, and a cell is living. But if you brought all those parts together but you didn’t arrange them as a cell, if they were just a bunch of molecules, it wouldn’t be that interesting. It’d just be goo. If you took the 50 trillion cells that made you and didn’t arrange them exactly this way, instead just having about 150 pounds worth of cells, it would be much less interesting. Even though there’d be just as much complexity, you wouldn’t have an order in the complexity where the emergent property comes. That’s actually the relationship. It’s not just heaps coming together. It’s not just complexity; it’s wholes. The difference between a whole and a heap is order, and a specific set of patterns of order. 

This means that not every relationship is synergistic. Some relationships are entropic. They actually create the opposite direction of new emergent properties; they destroy some properties that were already there. Almost everyone has some examples. [Audience laughs.] But you can bring chemicals together rather than self-organising to create higher-ordered molecules with new thermodynamic properties. They have an exothermic, entropic reaction, and they drop to lower levels of organisation. This is true at all levels. It’s not just relationship; it’s specific kinds of relationship that maximise synergy. This is a key thing to understand about the nature of the universe. 

It’s also the case that if you bring the a bunch of the same thing together, you don’t get very interesting synergies. You get very interesting synergies when you bring different things with different properties together in the right format, where then you have the properties of each of those things, and then the properties of the relationship between those, which is the new stuff, and you get emergence. So, you’ve got hydrogen, and you’ve got oxygen (which are different things), and you bring them together to get water and the basis for life. But neither hydrogen nor oxygen are liquids at room temperature. This is a fascinating thing. We’re actually very interested in having deep synergistic relationships with differences that lead to fundamentally new emerging properties. It’s not just net complexity—it’s ordered complexity, and it’s elegantly ordered complexity. 

Then, when you get a new property, the universe selects for that. The new property offers some evolutionary advantage to that system that a system that didn’t have that wouldn’t have. So, things can come together all kinds of ways, but the ones that come together most synergistically offer and confer the most advantage and universe selects for it. The universe is actually selecting for more differences. It’s selecting for diversity. And then more synergistic combinations across those differences. And it’s both of those: more diversity and more unification across the diversity. More agency and more symbiosis at the same time is what defines the arrow of evolution.

[Question from audience: ‘What is agency?’]

Things that are separate, autonomous agents—so, for instance, you can think of a cell as having its own agency, its own ability to act and its own boundary and periphery. But you bring a bunch of cells together, and this collection of cells can reflect on consciousness and existentialism and have a conversation like this, even though none of those cells on their own do that. 

And it’s different kinds of cells. You couldn’t do that with just neurons. It takes neurons and glial cells and immune cells and stem cells etcetera to all come together. More agency, more differentiation, more orderly relationship, more synergy—all of that comes together and the net defining thing is emergence: how much fundamental new advantage arises. That’s what evolution selects for.

So, I’m just going to skim over the top of a bunch of topics and hopefully paint a gestalt at least of an interesting arc. The evolutionary universe story—the new best story of universe we have, emerging from the intersection of all the sciences—is that we have an evolutionary universe that doesn’t require a creator, agent or deistic god to create, but is also not just a random, highly improbable set of movements that got us here. There is a set of properties that give us a self-organising, rather than creative, agent, creative principle, universe that is moving towards more elegantly ordered complexity. 

With that story on the physical side, you also have the evolution of consciousness structures themselves. As you move from a reptilian nervous system to the increased orderly complexity of a mammalian and then a neocortical and then a prefrontal nervous system, you move from the kinds of sentience that map to that: pain/pleasure at reptilian to emotion to cognition to abstraction. 

We have a universe that’s moving in the direction of not only more elegance, but also greater depths and breadths of consciousness itself.

We have a universe that’s moving in the direction of not only more elegance, but also greater depths and breadths of consciousness itself. Now, in arrow of evolution, this defines and reifies meaning in a very interesting way. One of the things that’s so interesting is that with our capacity for abstraction, we cannot just think about our experiential self of the moment, but we can think about ourselves in abstract terms. We can think about time abstractly, deep past and deep future. That is what allows us to actually understand evolution itself. It’s an understanding of deep past and fossil record and astrophysics that give us a sense of the ability to abstract laws of how that change occurs over time, that allows us a deeper insight into how we got here. And also the ability to vision a future fundamentally more beautiful and more interesting, and then be part of that creative process. 

It’s worthwhile just noting that our prefrontal cortex and our capacity for abstraction is a pretty new phenomenon evolutionarily. It’s also a very powerful set of capabilities. When you have a new phenomenon that’s very powerful, you’re not going to know how to use it that well. Many of its applications will be destructive until you figure it out. So, we can think about the future as worry; we can think about the past as regret; we can think about self abstractly in terms of negative self-comparison. Then, we have spiritual ideals emerge that basically say, ‘This is all bad; mind and the ability for abstraction like this is bad; we should not think about the future or the past at all, but just be in the moment like the other animals and children are. See how happy they are?’ 

But it’s a regressive spirituality that is actually rejecting the fundamental novel human capability that has emerged, rather than say, ‘Let’s learn how to use it well for its evolutionary purposes in a fundamentally evolving universe.’ If we learn how to use it well, then we say, ‘How can we learn from the past how a universe works to be able to imagine a future in an omni-considerate way that has fundamentally less suffering and higher quality of life across all meaningful quality of life metrics for all life, that is omni-considerately true, good and beautiful? And how can we apply all that learning now to actually help create that world?’ In doing so, we stop just being a part of the whole. In our ability to think about the direction of the whole, we can actually become an agent for the whole. 

This is huge, right? The bee is serving this huge role in evolution by pollinating the planets and making the atmosphere that makes us. But they don’t know they’re doing that, and they can’t consciously figure out how to do it better. In contrast, we actually have the capability of looking at what the whole story is—and identifying as, ‘Whoa, the whole evolutionary impulse of universe brought me about and then woke up to itself in me.’ In a meaningful way, I am actually the evolutionary, impulsive universe, awoke to itself, in a form that has adequate ordered complexity to contemplate that. And then you get to consciously choose how to participate with it, not just to be part of a bored crew on a spaceship, but to help steer the direction of evolution and cosmos. 

We move from evolution as a mostly unconscious, algorithmic process that selects for dominance now to a process that can be mediated by conscious agents.

So, we move from evolution as a mostly unconscious, algorithmic process that selects for dominance now to a process that can be mediated by conscious agents — that can actually forecast a more beautiful future and select to help create that. When we don’t identify as evolutionaries, when we identify as nouns rather than verbs, we stay stuck where we’re at. And then we need pain as an evolutionary driver. And through emergency is how we grow. As soon as we identify with the inexorability of evolution, and ourselves as evolution incarnate, we stop needing pain to push us, because our whole purpose for being—for becoming—are actually matched. They’re two sides of the same thing. It’s the lure of becoming—that bringing about more of the timeless properties of the infinite in time, more of the infinite through the finite—that actually becomes the basis of our existence. And everybody knows that when you are in the experience of creating beauty that didn’t exist before in universe, which adds to universe and is uniquely yours to create, you feel a kind of aliveness unmatched by anything else. 

When we also identify as fundamentally interconnected parts of an interconnected universe, rather than separate things, we stop thinking that there is any definition of success for self that isn’t a definition of success for the whole.

In lieu of not doing that, the emptiness causes all kinds of addiction. That’s fundamental to what we’re actually here to do. Now, when we all identify as evolutionaries, we obsolete the need of pain for our driver. Because we have a pull driver rather than just needing the push driver. When we also identify as fundamentally interconnected parts of an interconnected universe, rather than separate things, we stop thinking that there is any definition of success for self that isn’t a definition of success for the whole. We also stop thinking that the idea of advantaging ourselves at the expense of something else we’re inexorably interconnected to makes sense at all. We are all agents for an interconnected whole, where our sense of self is actually an emergent property of the intersection of this system with the rest of universe. 

It’s actually key in terms of emergence: your self as an emergent property of the whole universe. Because even though you wouldn’t exist in the same way without your brain or your body, you also wouldn’t exist without the atmosphere and the trees that make it, and the plants and bacteria that make it, and the gravity and electromagnetism and foundational forces. The concept of ‘I’ separate from universe is a misnomer. The concept of a life path for ourselves that isn’t a life path for universe is a misnomer. Or advantage for self. So then we get, in the deepest sense, when Einstein said that the idea that there are separate things is an optical delusion of consciousness. And in reality, there is one reality that we call ‘universe’, of which we are all inextricably interconnected facets. And your experience of self is a facet of that. 

Now, what’s so fascinating is that it is interconnected with all of it. It’s an expression of the foundation of all of it. It’s also completely unique in all of universe. It’s a unique facet. Non-fungibly unique. What that means is you have something to offer universe in your experience and your creativity that no one else has to offer exactly that way, which means if you don’t offer it. If Salvador Dali hadn’t done Dali, Michelangelo wouldn’t do Dali, Escher wouldn’t have done Dali—Dali just wouldn’t have happened, and the universe would’ve been fundamentally less. So when you get that, your own self-actualisation is compulsory. Right? You have an obligation to it. But then when you that everyone else, that if they don’t self-actualise the universe is less, then your participation with helping everyone else self-actualise is also compulsory. [Whoop in audience.] So competition is an obsolete concept. 

Remember: the universe moves toward more differentiation and more novelty, and then more symbiosis across that novelty for more emergence. What we’re moving towards is a civilisation where everyone actually identifies this way as an emergent property of the whole, as an interconnected part of the universe, with a unique role to play, with unique synergies with all the other unique roles to play. With that synergy and human participation, then humanity actually becomes a thing. It actually becomes an emergent property. Now it’s an idea, but we don’t actually have humanity; we don’t have civilisation. We have humans bumping. We have a bunch of organelles that haven’t organised as a cell that starts breathing. You don’t have behaviour of a whole that is centrally and consciously self-organising. But we can.

And this is what I wanted to have more time to get into, but to just foreshadow quickly: if we cherry-pick from the huge datasets about where humanity is going right now, we can see that things are exponentially changing, which means changing at more and more rapid and more and more significant rates. You can cherry-pick metrics where things are getting exponentially better, and that’s true, and other things are getting exponentially worse, and that’s also true. The future that you predict if you just follow any of those curves is not happening. 

If things are getting exponentially better and worse at the same time, then that doesn’t mean that things are getting better or worse. It means the current system is destabilising—and that means self-terminating. Then, we either have a discrete phrase-shift to a lower order, entropic system, or the emergence of a higher-order system that is foundationally different from the current system we have in every way. 

The things getting better are the pieces that can be reorganised to create a new civilisation with a foundationally new structure. Biosphere metrics are getting exponentially worse from misapplication of technology; technology’s right application is making things fundamentally better but technology is giving us the capacity to do things like have data-analytic capabilities to inventory all the world’s resources to then be able to allocate all the world’s resources to meet all the world’s needs with optimum efficiency. We never had that ability before. The transportation and communication technologies that can actually make us a global civilisation: we never had that before. 

The technological capacities that require us to step up (otherwise self-extinction is a very real thing) also make possible a discrete phase-shift in evolution that’s characterised by three major things. This’ll be where I end. 

At the level of social system, primarily economics, the key shift we’re going to move to is moving from a differential advantage economy defined by private ownership, valuation based in scarcity and differential advantage to an economic system that is defined by making sure that the incentive of every agent (and the wellbeing of every other agent in the commons) is perfectly aligned with no externality. Meaning: we actually understand that it’s an interconnected system; we identify all the externalities and internalise them so the system’s actually defined by systemic advantage for the whole. This is not communism or socialism or capitalism; it’s something that was not possible before to even anticipate. But it is how your body works. Where none of the cells are advantaging themselves at the expense of the other, they’re doing what’s best for them and what’s best for the whole, symbiotically at the same time. 

That’s the key shift at the level of macroeconomics, and correspondingly governance and all of our social structures. At the level of infrastructure and the built world, we’re moving from a linear materials economy where we extract from the earth at ever-growing rates unsustainably from finite resources (and then turn it into trash) to a closed-loop materials economy where the trash is the new stuff. We stop extracting from the earth and stop producing waste, and we actually have a post-growth, negative entropy, closed-loop materials economy where we can live on-goingly at progressively higher and higher quality of life sustained by the biosphere.  

So that’s the infrastructure shift; that’s the social structure shift, and the superstructure—the mimetic shift—is this awareness of all of us as facets of one integrated, self-evolving reality, where the wellbeing of everyone, the wellbeing of everyone else, the wellbeing of the commons, are not meaningfully calculable separate from each other. 

Now, what’s so interesting is there used to be such a thing as local problems. When Gandhi was working with Home Rule for India, it was largely thought of as an Indian problem that didn’t directly affect everybody. When the people who wanted to found the US to leave the British Empire, there was somewhere else to go, and it was a local problem. Right now, when we deal with species extinction and ocean acidification and peak nitrogen and peak phosphorus, they’re all global issues, and you can’t solve them without China, and without India, and without the US, and without everyone participating. 

The idea that we have local issues is gone. Our level of global infrastructure and technology has made it to where we all have global issues. And they’re actually existential: they are threatening of the biosphere. No one has ever had issues in the history of humanity that threatened the ability of the species to continue, nor did they have ones that they had to face imminently and in the short-term, nor did they have the capacity to actually face those challenges—the data science and the technology that could build something fundamentally new. What that means is we have the most significant work that humanity has every had with the most significant capabilities—and that also means the most potential to impact the biggest picture that any humans have ever had. It’s easy to think about that and then get caught back in ‘shit you gotta do next’ to win at the current system, which is going extinct. 

But winning at a system that is obsoleting the capability of earth to continue, winning at a dying system, is not an interesting win. If you ever think about a definition of heaven where you’re in heaven, and there are people in hell, and you’re happy, you have to be a psychopath. You have to be able to separate yourself from the experience of other sentient things enough that you can be totally stoked with that level of suffering. Well, the idea in this world that the level of intensity of suffering that’s happening can be occurring and you’re just stoked because you’re killing it in your life—you have to be mildly psychopathic. 

If we want to not be psychopaths, then there is no definition for success for ourselves that is not the definition of success for everything

If we want to not be psychopaths, then there is no definition for success for ourselves that is not the definition of success for everything. And now when we start really taking that seriously, everything changes. And then you start saying, ‘Well, what can I actually do to make my life of greatest use to all life?’ And then your answer to that question, if you take it seriously and really study and really work on it and don’t just ask the question, get overwhelmed and go back to current stuff, your progressively better answer to that question will lead to the emergence of your life meaning and Dharma path [?]. And correspondingly, the emergence of civilisation making it.  

Daniel Schmachtenberger is a Co-Founder at the Neurohacker Collective and director of Research and Development.

A New Deep Story, posted previously on Perspectiva Inside Out, refers to this talk.

The transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Image: Chloroplasts visible in the cells of Plagiomnium affine, by Kristian Peters. Creative Commons

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