The opposite of emergence?

by Caspar Henderson

“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God,” begins a fragment attributed to Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī;  “It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.”

And what about ‘emergence’? The term has become something of a buzzword, at least in some circles (almost, perhaps, as ‘dialectic’ was for some in earlier generations). In a talk, a transcript of which was recently published on this blog, Daniel Schmactenberger called it “the closest thing to magic that’s actually a scientifically admissible term.”  A reader of a blog like this may well be familiar with various publications or web sites which have the word in their titles. See, for example, Emergence and What is Emerging?

But what, really, is emergence?  Perspectiva co-founder Jonathan Rowson tried a novel approach recently when asked, what is its opposite?  The diverse replies, which you can read here, may be broadly and very imperfectly divided into three categories.   First, there are those who have in mind a fairly standard definition of emergence, which derives from a Latin word meaning ‘to come into the light’. Second, there is a figurative extension of this literal sense towards entropy and extinction.  Thirdly, there are philosophical and [quasi-]technical definitions. Grouped by these categories, these opposites to emergence include:

1. Withdrawal; Recoil; Demise; Retreat; Retraction; Receding; Subsidence, Disappearance; Recession, Degeneration…

2. Entropy (mentioned at least three times, including with a suggestion to compare emergence to ‘slightly shlocky extropy’); Extinction (mentioned least twice), Dead stable, consistent…

3.  Reduction/Reducibility; The interplay between disintegration and conformity; Stagnation; Creationism; Strong determinism; Imposition; Linear causation; Scale invariant; ‘Noise’; Synergistic positive feedback loop functions resulting in pair annihilation, more inverse than opposite, and in dyadic limit…

Where to go from here? It may sound like a cop-out, but I actually think the Wikipedia entry on emergence is quite a good place to begin to deepen one’s engagement with established ideas about the phenomenon — or phenomena — associated with ‘emergence’ in relation to non-human and human systems. [1]

I need to be aware of my bias because I used emergence as an organising principle for a book, but I do think it is reasonable to say that emergence looks likely to continue fascinate many of us, and may help us ask useful questions. What, if anything, can it tell us about the relation between human struggles and non-human processes?  Can it help explain consciousness?  Does it illuminate what some take to be our divided and contrary natures? What about the growth of super-human entities such as corporations and economic systems that are not necessarily benign

All the while, I’d recommend keeping a lively sense of what Daegan Miller calls a useful ignorance. Take nothing for granted. “We are here by the grace of trees & forests,” writes Richard Powers. “They make our atmosphere, clean our water & sustain the cycles of life that permit us. Just begin to see them. Notice the million complex beautiful behaviours that have slipped right past you.”

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Note [1] See too, at least with regard to biological systems, this from Kevin Mitchell: “The apparently emergent functions that characterise many complex systems and that many people find so metaphysically troubling are… not mystical at all.”

Image: Starling murmuration. David Kjaer for RSPB

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