Tuesday 12 July 2022

"Emergence" is a metaphysical assumption - just as much as teleology

Sophisticated people nowadays use 'emergence' to 'explain' complex phenomena (e.g. systems comprising many agents) - especially when they do not want to posit any innate purpose, or do not believe in the existence of such purpose. 

So, in describing a biological organism or sub-system, they might regard it as emergent from simpler units such as cells - a consequence of what just happens, spontaneously, when many specialist cells gather together, perhaps combined with some kind of mathematical tendency for 'order', or a selection process. 

The idea is that there is no originating centre to the purpose; but instead apparent purpose emerges-from dispersed interactions from an innate, pattern-generating tendency. 

Emergence is sometimes used to explain (or explain-away) the apparent cohesion and purposiveness, working across many subunits and across time, of phenomena that are seen in human society - such as the economy, war, or the mass media. Emergence is therefore contrasted with the focused purposiveness of top-down, hierarchical, organized, teleological beings...

I emphasize 'beings' as providing and imposing cohesion and purpose on a society, because of the common assumption that it can only come from humans. But that is another assumption - I mean the assumption that exists no God nor other supernatural beings, and therefore there can be no divine or other supernatural purposes at work in human society.  

For example, the evil tendency of modern Western institutions is regarded first of all as neither divine nor supernatural (because they do not exist - by assumption). 

Having restricted possible explanations to the human, the choice is between humans working in a centralized and hierarchical manner to impose cohesion and purpose - and the rival idea that order and direction emerge-from the nature of systems; and do not require positing any central and coordinating purpose. 

By this account, evil Just Happens when systems (of the kind we currently have) emerge..

But emergence is not an explanation on the same level as the phenomena it purports to explain. Emergence is not some kind of scientific discovery. It is not some kind of solid, observable, empirical datum. 

Instead; 'emergence' is simply a hypothetical assumption that some particular observation can and does happen without any guiding purpose or organization

The advocate of emergence as an explanation has made unacknowledged metaphysical exclusions (e.g. of God and the supernatural as possible explanations), and is then making the unacknowledged metaphysical assumption that there is such-a-thing as emergence

Having already-assumed that 'emergence' is real and can explain the phenomenon under discussion; then it is regarded as the preferred explanation on the grounds of some other general assumption about how to make valid decisions.

This might be along the lines of 'Occam's Razor' - which assumes that the simplest explanation (i.e. which excludes by assumption the largest number of possible causes) is true; or it least pragmatically preferable. 

Another common assumption about how to make decisions is that we should always prefer to blame 'cock-ups' rather than 'conspiracies' - but this is not a generalizable empirical principle, nor is it logically justifiable; it is merely a modern (and often maladaptive) prejudice. 

Yet even as a way of choosing between explanations; this modern procedure is rooted in some historically strange ideas about what counts as a simple explanation. 

Through most of history (and probably still in most of the world) the most obvious - and thus simple - explanation is that things happen because some-one, or some-being, wants them to happen and made them happen.

When simple people encounter what looks-like coordination, control and purpose; they spontaneously have tended to assume that this is because some individual (or some cohesive group) is doing it - and that they want it because their nature is to want that kind of thing.  

The place we have arrived at now is based upon layer upon layer of denying what is spontaneously obvious to simple humans; until we have reached the situation where the simple obvious explanation is the only thing we absolutely refuse to believe

And because we refuse to believe the obvious, we cannot even perceive the obvious. 

So, modern people cannot perceive evil purpose - cannot perceive personalized, organized and directional action towards evil - because they do not believe in God and therefore have no coherent understanding of evil. 

Thus any apparent evil, pursued across nations and through decades, cannot actually be the work of beings with evil natures; but instead must be an 'emergent property' of abstract systems. 

And this 'must be'; simply because all other possible explanations have already been ruled-out, in advance, by multiple unacknowledged prior metaphysical assumptions. 



the outrigger said...

Can't let this one through to the 'keeper uncommented. I read it. We all read it.

Apropos of nothing. Is this post an example of your use of 'polarity thinking’? And. If pressed, would you be able to draw a diagram of what you mean by 'polarity'? Not asking you to do so. Is it possible?

A bit of a shaggy dog story: About a year ago I used the word 'participation' with a nuance I had only met with on this blog - so I thought I’d better read Saving the Appearances to find out what I meant. The book turned out to be a before and after experience - although about the only concrete thing I can say about it is it destroyed my idea that the meaning of words could be chased back to bedrock. Oh. And that my use of 'participation' had been more or less on song. However. The way you use the word 'polarity' - which I have never understood - was not enlightened by reading Barfield. Yet, what I took him to mean by ‘polarity’ was a significant reason I consider it to be a (rare) before and after book. Belated thanks for the recommendation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@to - "Is this post an example of your use of 'polarity thinking’? And. If pressed, would you be able to draw a diagram of what you mean by 'polarity'?"

I don't myself advocate 'polarity' thinking, because regard it as suffering from Residual Unresolved Positivism. Polarity terminology and analysis tries to solve the problems of classical logic while retaining several of its assumptions, in particular the tendency to omit Time (as an essential part of beingness - as a part of any being) from primary assumptions. Thus polarity remains very abstract, and extremely difficult to explain.

If you want to understand what Barfield and Coleridge mean by polarity, I would suggest Barfield's book - What Coleridge Thought. Of course one could make a diagram of polarity - but it would not help understand it. The required understanding is very abstract indeed - which is why I think it is mistaken.

I have come round to the general idea that the 'original' understanding of the world (of the most simple hunter gatherers and young children) is the correct one: which is that creation consists of living, conscious, purposive beings. An 'animistic' understanding. As I have said: the opposite of abstract is 'personal' - including alive and conscious in-time

(ie. the opposite of abstract is not 'concrete' - because both abstract and concrete are 'dead'=unalive abstractions!).

Final Participation is mostly a matter of making conscious, and deliberately choosing, and instantiating in our thinking, Original Participation - which is another term for this spontaneous, immersive, mostly-unconscious way of existing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@to - I can perhaps make things clearer by saying that the conceptualization of 'polarity' uses mathematics and physics as its ruling metaphor ("physicsy" metaphysics, as I term it sometimes); whereas I believe we can and should use more biological (indeed, human-like and person) ways of analyzing, explaining and understanding.

It seems that the notion that metaphysics was ultimately mathematics, or physics, came in with the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras and especially Plato and the later Neo-Platonists - and it has become so habitual (in which I include myself) that we do it with hardly a second thought.

I regard physicsy metaphysics as capable of sometimes-useful approximation, but ultimately false because grossly limited, and tending to prevent real, simple, easy understanding by its bad habits and false expectations.

Instead, we ought deliberately to practice regarding ultimate created reality as consisting of "beings in relationships" as I have put it sometimes.

TJ said...

"I have come round to the general idea that the 'original' understanding of the world (of the most simple hunter gatherers and young children) is the correct one"

BC, Do you have any recommendations for a book that describes this ancient, childlike understanding of the world? I don't get it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TJ - You could look at the references listed after these articles:


the outrigger said...

Dr C. To my ear Barfield’s concept of polarity sounded more biological and organic than yours! I had noticed but not *noticed* your coupling of abstract and personal. I have now. Yes to what you said about the Greeks although I have read in ABC circles that *the rot* to preference knowledge over being set in much earlier and that us moderns got the rough end of the pineapple via the Greeks.

A contemporary original participation story. Possibly. Once upon a time I turned on my transistor radio within range of a transmitter and heard of a 'newspaper' corroboree called the Aeroplane Dance. It was first performed in 1943 and told of a B24 bomber that had lost instrumentation and became disoriented during an electrical storm when flying between New Guinea and Australia, running out of fuel and crash landing just inland from the bottom of the gulf of Carpentaria. At the time I was about a 100 nm from the crash site as the crow flies - off the coast and south of a community called Pompuraaw - so it felt like I was meant to hear this. What struck me about the dance was the spatial language. It was full of detail in geocentric/allocentric coordinates, the track of the plane, its 'posture', how it descended, how it crashed. One line (from memory) was “it landed facing east with arms outstretched”. Orientation was a big deal. To state the bleeding.[The fate of some of the crew who got out of the plane was tragic. They walked the wrong way, thinking they were on the Pacific coast and not in the gulf. It was easier going on the hard sand at the water’s edge and the tide erased their footprints, foiling the Aboriginal trackers searching for them.]

Fast forward about a decade and I unexpectedly came across research by a cognitive scientist working with the Pompuraaw people. Even though likely a different tribe, language and country, her descriptions were reminiscent of the aeroplane dance. (from memory) Rather than say, the woman to the left of you is my sister, they say something like, the woman to the south of you is my sister. Rather than say, pass me the salt, they would say, can you move the salt a bit to the north west. It’s not just tribal it’s *earthed*. Somehow. What floored me was this; I became proficient in geocentric spatial language prior to egocentric. The blackboard in my school was to the west. And for a time, to know my left from right outside of class, I would face west and my left hand was the one to the south. It still seems paradoxical that the egocentric frame might be the more ‘abstract’ conjuring of space. How can the horizon be ‘closer’ or more immediate than my left or right?

Fast forward another decade and your writing on participation and its evaporation from the modern mind recast my experiences in the gulf and school yard. Then, with my raw prawn reworking of Barfield’s concept of (what I would call) polar participation - an I to All and All to I mapping - I realized that original participation began with All. I had lost touch with the sense of all. I shall read the Coleridge book. Cheers.

[The section in Saving on the development of a time that flows on a future-past axis made interesting reading in light of the Pompuraawans geocentric conception of the flow of time]