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Μάρκος Σελλής A.M 017/11 Μάθημα: Φιλοσοφία της Επιστήμης Διδάσκων: Σ.Ψύλλος
In an attempt to cleanse the concept of emergentism from implications like the controversial downward causation, a new form of emergence has, well, emerged. Epistemological emergence makes no ontological claims, limiting the emergent qualities to an epistemological status. There have been various attempts to further refine this concept, focusing on characteristics of the cognizer like the feeling of surprise (Ronald et al, 1999) or the inability to grasp the complexity of some phenomena except only through the use of computer simulations (Bedau, 1997). However, the subjective nature of surprise makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be of much use in this context. Also the concept of simulation has been strongly criticized, especially with respect to the extent of its purported novel epistemological implications (Frigg & Reiss 2009). Nevertheless, these versions of emergence, and especially Bedau's concept of “weak emergence”, seem to point in a direction that completely avoids downward causation. This alone is a reason to consider their definitions and pursue the question of whether there is a way to strengthen the concept of epistemological emergence without letting it dissolve into what has already been described by Nagel's robust reductionism (Nagel, 1998). Before attempting to answer this question, we must first outline what it means for a property to emerge in an epistemological sense and how this can lead to ontological assumptions. Note that throughout the text we will keep this metaphysical use of the word “ontological” in line with O'Connor, Timothy, Wong & Hong Yu (2012). This metaphysical ontology is not to be confused with the ontology of sciences like for example biology or sociology: Adding a fact to those ontologies is a matter of whether there is a genuine fact that makes true the propositions of the relevant domain (Psillos, 2009). From a factualist point of view, as Psillos puts it “one can be a realist about a number of domains, without necessarily taking stance on independent metaphysical issues”. This optimistic attitude has more to do with the epistemic thesis (Psillos, 1999) of a realist, than with her metaphysical assumptions. Having said that, let us resume our attempt to distinguish epistemological from ontological emergence. Few people would doubt the fact that we are beings with limited cognitive capacities. These limitations may be straightforward like for example the 7±2 digit limitation of our working memory (Miller, 1956), or more generic decision process limitations, like for example those that arise from the heuristic methods that we employ when reasoning (Fiske, 2008). The numerous causal chains leading from interactions between too many or too complex entities, to the rise of apparently new qualities, may overwhelm our cognitive limits. We then tend to attribute to these qualities a new ontological status. Let us not forget that unraveling the causal chains behind a phenomenon is one aspect of explanation. If, for some reason, we fail to do so, the entity of interest
remains inexplicable and the only way to elaborate on it, is to add it to our basic ontology. Some philosophers have not hesitated to do exactly this in the case of emergent phenomena. However, until now, scientific inquiry has brought forward no such exotic emergent causal factors. On the contrary, whenever these novel causes were assumed, they were eventually explained away. The “vital force” is one famous example: The suggestion that life is simply made of ordinary matter seemed implausible. Of course we now know that the word “simply” in the last sentence couldn't have been a more inappropriate bedfellow, both of the word “matter” as well as of the word “made”. The complexity of even a single cell organism is immense. Scientists consider phenomena, like the way some tiny proteins fold around themselves, to be extremely complicated. Epistemological emergence seems more plausible if we keep in perspective the complexity involved in even the smallest organisms. One of the first examples used to illustrate the concept of emergence, is that of chemical composition. A new substance is produced that seems to possess properties that could not have been predicted - no matter how hard we studied the initial components. The first who worked out a comprehensive emergentist picture were the British Emergentists (O'Connor et al, 2012), a tradition that started (Beckerman, 1993) with John Stuart Mill's (1875) book “A system of Logic”. In this book we read: The chemical combination of two substances produces, as is well known, a third substance with properties different from those of either of the two substances separately, or both of them taken together. Not a trace of the properties of hydrogen or of oxygen is observable in those of their compound, water." Mill used this simple example to illustrate the emergence of new properties, however we may think of it as an illustration of how it may appear to us that new properties have emerged. Indeed, at first glance it seems that hydrogen and oxygen are flammable gases, whereas water is a transparent liquid that tends to extinguish fire. It sounds rather obvious that new properties have indeed emerged. On a second thought however, water is not a liquid in the majority of the places where it can be found in our solar system – whereas oxygen and hydrogen can be found abundantly in liquid or even more condensed forms. Furthermore, although Martin Luther King's phrase “there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out“ was used as a metaphor (King, 1968), it is in fact quite true: Water would cause some types of fire to ignite, as water can act as a catalyst. Even water transparency is relevant: Should our optical system function in other wavelengths such as the
ultraviolet part of the spectrum, instead of our familiar “visual window”, water would appear to us no less invisible then tar. The above remarks are not in order to postulate some sort of phenomenological argument in support of our incapacity to determine the “actual world”. Rather they are a naive attempt to illustrate how epistemological limitations may lead to ontological claims. Their naivety rests on the fact that we considered the chemical substances as viewed in a commonsensical non-scientific manner. We must stress the fact that the whole discussion on emergence is conducted on the assumption that the answer to the question “emergent for whom?” is not “for a lay person”; but for the scientific and philosophical community. In fact we brought forward these non-scientific views, exactly because the members of these communities are of course “simply” humans – in the sense that sometimes they argue on the basis of their ordinary human experience (although perhaps some might indignantly frown upon this reminder). There is abundant evidence that demonstrates how scientists can be too deceived by biases and heuristics that govern our basic modes of reasoning (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). The relevance of this approach may become more obvious if we consider the fact that some of the arguments that support the ontological emergence of consciousness, are based on the “mysterious first person perspective” or our subjective impressions of ourselves and the difficulty to connect these self-referential impressions with the “third person” scientific perspective. After having a quick look at Mill's water, let us add some more water to the mill, by considering three familiar but complex entities that most people would definitely not call emergent: The Sun, my cat or a meteorite. I am far from knowing every detail about their composition and function. However, their scientific explanation seems the best available, since it is coherent with my previous knowledge and assumptions. Therefore I tend not to attribute to them a completely new ontological status (neither as entities nor as properties). During human history we did exactly this with these entities (except of my cat – although other cats were involved) by deifying them – that is attributing to them a unique and basic ontological property that was not to be further causally explained. There is a long tradition in this type of ontological inflationary explanation. However, since all indications found through scientific inquiry seem, at least so far, to be pointing in the opposite direction, perhaps we should resist the tendency to follow these deeply rooted pre-scientific traditions that offer explanation through ontological inflation. When phenomena of extraordinary and dense complexity are involved, the causal-chain paths towards the truth may seem barren, and our only escape towards explanation may to indeed follow these ancient paths. It is in such cases that cautioning against our spontaneous urge may be of some value.
So far we mainly analyzed how an apparent emergent quality can be attributed to ontological emergence. However, there were only indirect hints at what epistemological emergence is. As we mentioned before, there have been attempts to define the concept with accuracy. Ronald (1999) offers the following definition, from the perspective of artificial life: “The language of design L1 and the language of observation L2 are distinct, and the causal link between the elementary interactions programmed in L1 and the behaviors observed in L2 is non-obvious to the observer who therefore experiences surprise”. This is a specific and technical definition that does not seem to to have broader applications: When we compose an already known substance X from the elements Z and Y, we are not caught by surprise every time we face the result of our experiment. We expected X and we also expected it to possess some form of emergent properties P(X). They are emergent because no mater how much we study the properties of Z and Y, we cannot find an explanation of how these came into being. It does not therefore come as a surprise that this definition lacks the required generality to adequately address the concept of emergence. A more concrete definition is given by Bedau: "Macrostate P of S with microdynamic D is weakly emergent iff P can be derived from D and S's external conditions but only by simulation" (Bedau, 1997). He further explains the notion of simulation as follows Although perhaps unfamiliar, the idea of a macrostate being derived "by simulation" is straightforward and natural. Given a system's initial condition and the sequence of all other external conditions, the system's microdynamic completely determines each successive microstate of the system. To simulate the system one iterates its microdynamic, given a contingent stream of external conditions as input. Since the macrostate P is a structural property constituted out of the system's microstates, the external conditions and the microdynamic completely determine whether P materializes at any stage in the simulation. By simulating the system in this way one can derive from the microdynamic plus the external conditions whether P obtains at any given time after the initial condition. In order to further clarify what is involved in using a simulation, it would be useful to describe the alternative (non-simulative) way of calculating the macrostate P. The author does not offer an explicit description of this matter, however it seems that the word “iterates“ plays an important role in the concept of simulation. If for example the macrostate P can be expressed as a function of time P(t), then we could represent the iteration as P(t+1)=F(P(t)), where F is a function expressing the calculations that must be performed in order to evaluate state P at moment t+1, given state P at the previous moment t. The fact that time is expressed in a discrete instead of the familiar continuous
form appears awkward at first – however the distance between t and t+1 is arbitrary: We can reduce it as much as it is required in order to model the phenomenon at the desired level of detail. This recursive formula practically means that, in order to calculate the macrostate P at any given moment, we first need to calculate all the states up to that moment. There is no shortcut available – we need to go through all the moments up to the specific time of interest. Computer simulations like Conway 's Game of Life proceed in a similar manner: Each output state P(t+1) is calculated through the previous states P(t). In general, there is no feasible way to compute directly any state P without taking into account all previous steps. The alternative, non-simulative method to this recursive formula of computation, would be written as P(t) = G(t) (with the restriction that G(t) cannot be expressed as a function of P). This equation does not involve the calculation of any previous states. We can compute directly the state P at any given moment t. In other words, it is an analytical expression. It provides us with a shortcut that enables us to evaluate P directly, no matter how far in time it is. Let us consider what this means for the concept of simulation. It seems that it is our most expensive (in terms of computing time) method. It is also our most generic method, for example one could use arithmetic methods for calculations even in the case of a simple pendulum – ignoring the fact that an analytical expression is available. In other words, it is our least effective method , in the sense that we use it when no shortcut to the solution is available (in the form of an analytical expression). Automated calculations can now be performed with the use of computers, therefore we tend to employ such iterative methods more and more often. In the study of complex phenomena, where analytic expressions are a rare companion to the scientist, their use in invaluable. They remain however, our least effective method in terms of the ability to jump forward in time, given finite resources. If the equation expresses a scientific theory - or as Duhem may have put it, if it is viewed as the voice of our prophet, then this type of prophet speaks about the future in the most slow (yet impressive) voice among our other prophets. We thus seem to be moving away from a notion of simulation with novel, distinct epistemological properties, capable of carrying the weight of weak emergence's definition. However, we should also take into consideration that other approaches have moved in exactly the opposite direction. Davies (2004) for example has gone so far as to suggest that there is a top limit in the computing capacity of our universe and furthermore, he claims to have computed this limit. He found it to be approximately equal to the amount of computation that is required in order to calculate the possible ways that a protein can fold around itself. Therefore Davies conveniently concludes that this is the
epistemological limit that renders something as weakly emergent – in particular that renders life on earth weakly emergent in a global, literally universal manner. This is a rather bold claim that is based on the line of thought which contrasts Laplace's omniscient Demon that is able calculate everything in the universe, with Landauer's definition of a physical law: “The calculative process, just like the measurement process, is subject to some limitations. A sensible theory of physics must respect these limitations, and should not invoke calculative routines that in fact cannot be carried out.” He then assumes that the Demon "would be obliged to make do with the computational recourses of the universe", since it inhabits this universe rather that some Platonic world. The assumption that we already possess the knowledge to define an absolute upper limit to the computational capabilities of the universe is a somewhat daring assumption. A Demon that obeys a rule of this sort, does not sound quite demonish – whereas on the other hand, the coincidence of the two calculation results (proteins and universe capacity) seem a demonic coincidence. There is an interesting example that may shed more light on the concept of simulation, by comparing the two methods (simulative and non-simulative). It focuses not on their purported epistemological differences but rather on their similarities. It was first brought forward by Srivastava et al (1990) as mentioned in Frigg and Reiss (2009): Consider the so-called double pendulum, a pendulum in which the bob is fixed not to a string but a hinge-like ‘arm’ consisting of two branches that are connected to each other with an axis and that enclose an angle α. If we block the hinge (and thereby keep α fixed) we have a normal pendulum whose equation is analytically solvable (even if we take friction into account). If we remove this constraint and let the angle between the two branches vary, then the equations of motion become non-integrable and solutions have to be calculated numerically. Does this change our understanding of how the equation describing the double pendulum relates to the world? The authors answer negatively and conclude that, although computer simulations may pose interesting epistemological problems, they have a lot in common with more general problems that arise from modeling and scientific experimenting. Focusing on these aspects of simulation instead of “convincing ourselves that simulations are unlike anything else” would be much more beneficial. This conclusion also seems to further weaken Bedau's definition of weak emergence.
We use simulations in order to study emergent phenomena because they are complex phenomena. Since we have no other method that would yield analytical solutions to such problems, we have no option but to use this slow yet effective method. In large engineering projects, such as the construction of airplanes, the use of simulations is again mandatory, although there are no emergent phenomena. However, there are extremely complex problems that can be faced in no other way. We also construct prototypes and models, in order to confront these challenges – to simulate complex phenomena. But what then could be an appropriate definition for an epistemologically emergent property? Could it be that while emergence struggled to rid itself of the ontological weight, it completely evaporated? After all, Nagel's (1998) robust account of reductionism seems to take into consideration the epistemological criticism and, in a sense, admits the epistemological emergence of properties that cannot be reduced to their constituents, at least not without losing their explanatory strength. Without a more concrete definition of emergence this question remains open. A growing number of publications on the subject reflects our eagerness to understand complex emergent phenomena. Among these we find long standing questions concerning the nature of human intelligence and life. We should not be intimidated by the fact that no straightforward answer has yet emerged.
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