Saturday, May 18, 2013

How It Looks to Us: the Human Frame of Reference


It has been fairly well established that humans do not perceive what has been called the “actual, free-standing reality.” It would appear that all non-deductive human knowledge of the world is mediated through the senses, which present to the brain a version of that reality, something perhaps linked to it, but not the essence of it.  Humans literally cannot directly experience this “real” reality, what Immanuel Kant called “The Thing in Itself”.  If a human were to be plunged into this “real” reality, we must suppose he or she would have no way of comprehending it or describing it to anyone else, since the human would have no basis whatsoever from which  to do so. Such a basis could only be grounded in what philosophers call absolute perspective, which can only be possessed by a fully transcendent being. This means that humans face a paradox from which they cannot escape. It is logically impossible for them to view reality from a non-human, transcendent vantage point. They cannot perceive as a human and a non-human simultaneously.

Humans can only perceive and describe reality within certain carefully bounded limits. There are, obviously, many physical limitations humans have, but here I am referring chiefly to how human consciousness processes the stimuli provided by the senses. The human nervous system seems to have evolved in such a way so as to sort out sensory input and arrange it in a form which facilitates our survival. The senses convert different kinds of energies coming into (or from within) the body into electrochemical signals that the brain uses to interpret these energies, converting them from raw sensation into the objects of conscious awareness, thus giving us a picture of reality that is comprehensible. (See Perception in a later volume.) The brain which processes and reacts to these signals appears to have evolved in a kluge-like, haphazard fashion, with many ancient functions conserved across both time and species. Within its processes, there is plenty of room for error or breakdown, and the deep nature of its functioning is not yet fully understood. 

The brain’s higher functions—ratiocination, language processing, abstraction, imagination, memory—appear to be vulnerable to physical limitations inherent in the brain’s anatomy and physiology and subject to errors caused by physical deterioration due to illness, injury, or age. Further, the brain’s intellectual functions seem to be inextricably bound to its emotional functions and expressions, which can manifest themselves in a very great number of ways. Therefore, the brain cannot be thought of as an infallible recorder of the external world.

The human attempt to understand all of this takes place, of course, within the confines of the physical brain itself. There is no empirical support for the proposition that mind can exist outside of the brain, although it is not logically impossible that it might. The brain must use its own resources to understand its own functioning. A deep paradox exists here: the very complexity that gives rise to intelligence makes the analysis of that intelligence an almost insuperably difficult task. As one neurologist put it, if the brain were simple to understand, we would be too simple to understand it.

There are many epistemological issues as well. How do we know what we know? How do we verify what we know? What is knowledge itself? Can humans have sufficient confirmatory evidence to support our contentions of validity? Perhaps we will have to settle for consistency as the chief test of our link to reality and surrender the quest for a certitude that may be unattainable.

So we must question the ability of humans to even engage in the kind of examination that I am proposing. In a sense, all such examinations of the human condition and the context in which human history has emerged are inherently, perhaps even fatally, limited and flawed. How can we put human history into the context of a reality that we cannot truly perceive? And in regard to what we believe we can perceive, we face other barriers, as well. Advanced types of communication (that is, those which rise above the level of mere gestures or simple signals) are dependent on language, which in turn is an imprecise tool (as I will stress repeatedly). So one can readily see the dilemma we face. Is language sufficient to discuss the limitations of language? If we perceive only a version of reality, how can we, with any coherence, discuss reality itself? We are trapped in the prison of human consciousness. We cannot imagine any other way of seeing the world because even the terms in which we try to imagine another viewpoint are grounded completely in our own frame of reference. It could be argued that even I don’t completely understand what I mean by what I am saying, and that you don’t either. It’s as if we are in an intellectual hall of mirrors, a world of psychological self-recursion, where we find ourselves looking at ourselves looking at ourselves. Even at the very moment that you are reading this you might realize that you are reading about reading about reading…

We read that our understanding is imperfect, and because of our imperfect understanding we cannot fully realize it, thus illustrating the very principle we fail to grasp. It’s as if the best we can do when trying to convey our thoughts and impressions is to achieve an approximation of communication, with the hope that there is enough of a coincidence between our views, our experiences, and our understanding of language that some sort of communication might be effected. (And as a matter of principle, it would appear that the more abstract our words, the more imprecision of communication there will be.)


There are, naturally, perceptual similarities between humans and other animals, and these similarities are more pronounced in species which are evolutionarily closer to us. We may assume, for example, that other higher primates (such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) have very similar sensory apparatuses. We share with them visual traits such as color perception, depth perception, and highly developed maculae. We share with them weak senses of smell. We tend to have highly sensitive hands. (This is why an understanding of the phylogenetic tree of life is so crucial—it is the basis for our assessment of our own capabilities, similarities, and dissimilarities relative to every other living thing.) Extending this, we may argue that we share many experiential similarities with all mammals. (At some point, of course, we may ask if the members of other classes have a sense of their own existence, and it seems likely to me that the simpler a thing’s brain is, the less that thing would be “aware” of its own existence, however the term aware might be defined.) Human consciousness, of course, provides us with a unique vantage point. Many other animals certainly have the capacity to learn and imitate complex behavioral patterns, use tools, teach their offspring vital skills, and even perhaps communicate in symbols (such as cetacean sounds). But it is not the uniqueness of our mental capacities, but rather the degree to which they have been developed that sets us apart. Natural selection operated with its typical ruthlessness to give our immediate ancestors brains more capable of assessing a situation and acting appropriately in it, and storing useful information in our working memory, than any other species we know of.

But we shouldn't be fooled by our comparatively immense gifts. The human brain is both liberating and confining. Our experiences are the sum total of our sensory input and the way those inputs are interpreted, and the particular evolution of the human brain facilitates our survival and reproductive success; it does not give us infallible powers of assessment  and comprehension. Evolution has produced different capabilities in different animals, ones that we cannot truly imagine. Moreover, the different neural structures of other animals (even though many specific brain structures are conserved across species) probably create distinctive frames of reference.

For instance, no human can, by definition, know what it would be like to hear the high audio tones perceptible to dogs. Humans do not really understand the mental world created by the echolocation of bats, which may be as “real” as the visual world created by our eyes. (Some blind humans may have a version of this ability, however.) Humans cannot imagine what it would be like to experience the perception of infrared, as certain insect species can. Our perceptions and the neural structures that underlie them produce a frame of reference that is both unique and strictly limited. Humans can guess what it would be like to perceive the world as a dog, an ant, or a bat, but all of their guesses and suppositions could only be understood in human terms, an endless loop. (And if we have difficulty imagining the experience of being a dog, how much more difficult would it be for us to imagine the perspective of an omniscient being!)


We are therefore confined to a limited, mediated, human-centered version of reality. We are linked to the “real” reality, but we do not apprehend that reality directly. Knowledge of the reality in which we find ourselves can be obtained in only two verifiable ways. The first is through the senses, the basis of empiricism.  Even in the empirical realm, however, we can not be certain that we perceive what others perceive. The knowledge our senses gather does not appear to be infallible in all cases, nor does it seem that the senses of all humans are identical. It would appear that there are differences in degree in all sense perceptions. Additionally, as I have noted, there seem to be energies that humans are not capable of perceiving directly, such as the ends of the light spectrum or the lowest or highest megacycles of sound. Since there appear to be realities humans cannot perceive or experience, it would therefore seem that human perception is subjective (that is to say, not absolute). The testing of reality through experimentation, the goal of which is to replicate certain conditions and control particular variables within that reality in order to assess the effect of the variables on a given phenomenon, seems to be the most reliable method by which we can gather empirically-based information.

The second way we can obtain knowledge of our reality in a verifiable way is through inductive reasoning, the basis of mathematics. Mathematics may be something that is discovered by human reason, or it may be a construct and creation of human reason. By its very processes, it may be the closest we come to a direct connection with that which is ultimately real, but we will examine that question in more detail elsewhere. (See Is Mathematics the Real Reality?)

Knowledge claims based on revelation, the basis of much of religious belief,  cannot be independently verified, but they still may be veridical.  By its very nature, revelation is not testable—it cannot be repeated and observed in the manner of a replicable experiment, nor can it be expressed as an equation. And as we move from the testable realm of physical objects and their interrelationships, or the realm of mathematical proofs, the degree of certainty we can have declines correspondingly. It is the lack of certainty that affects the human world in many ways, however humans may wish to believe otherwise.

The human frame of reference is therefore a deeply confining one, filled with self-contradictions. Humans must use language to show that language is insufficient to the description of reality. They must imagine the existence and nature of an absolute perspective they cannot imagine. They must describe their own subjective perceptions using subjective perceptions. They must use their brains to figure out their brains. They must discuss their lack of certainty using uncertain means.

So in our examination of the world, we are confronted with an inescapable reality: everything that we look at can be explained only by such phrases as, “the way we see it” or, “according to human perception” or, “as it looks to us” or, “as it seems to us.”

There is no other way for us to proceed.

Note: The concept of absolute perspective is discussed in Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Worlds of Reality

In this section [of The Emergence and Nature of Human History, Volume One] we have examined the processes and rules which brought forth and govern the world we know and inhabit. Starting with the unknowable quintessence of reality, That Which Is, we proceeded to self-organization and emergence, which seem to be fundamental features of physical reality itself, the methods by which all structure and order arise. We then plunged into the rules that, in the human frame of reference, account for the nature of the physical reality of which we are an intrinsic part. After briefly examining the scope of our ancestors’ knowledge, we saw that some humans, over the centuries, discovered first the principles of heliocentrism, the orbital paths of the planets, the laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, the fundamental chemical laws, and the laws that govern electricity. The knowledge and power these discoveries conferred on humans were so great that educated people in the latter half of the 19th century believed every significant fact about the physical world had been elucidated. Then, beginning in the 1890s, the whole scope of human knowledge broadened. Radioactivity and x-rays were discovered. The existence of the atom was demonstrated beyond doubt. The principles of symmetry and asymmetry came into view. Mathematical tools discovered in the 19th and early 20th centuries allowed some humans to discover the nature of the four fundamental forces. Relativity, incorporating into its theories new mathematical and physical discoveries, such as the nature of electromagnetism, became the crown of classical physics. The quantum world’s bizarre, counter-intuitive rules came under examination. The menagerie of subatomic particles grew and grew as our methods of prying open the past grew. The very nature of the rapidly expanding, inconceivably enormous physical Universe became an area of our study, and the possibility that there were parallel, multiple Universes, alternate histories existing in their own frames of reference, came to the fore. The hypothesis that reality was composed of vibrating strings emerged. All of this profoundly altered the human conception of possibility. (And as we recall from the chapter entitled A Species Lost in Both Space and Time, the discovery of immense numbers of other galaxies and the true dimensions of space-time radically redefined the human conception of our place in the Universe.)

We then asked if the essence of reality was mathematics, and briefly examined the debate between those who believe mathematical objects to be objectively real and those who put mathematical ideas squarely in the realm of human consciousness, holding open the possibility that some elements of mathematics were discovered while others were created. We concluded that mathematical truths are the most fundamental, unalterable truths that exist, the way things simply are. But we also concluded that while the mathematical level of reality was absolutely necessary and fundamental, it was not sufficient, by itself, to account for the nature of all reality. It was the foundation of emergent phenomena—not the whole of them.

Then, in succession, we examined how the world we know is governed and expressed by randomness, probability, coincidence, chains of unintended consequences, synergy, feedback loops, patterns, shapes, and cycles. We concluded that the world built and governed by all the physical rules and processes we described was both a vast system of systems and a non-equilibrium system, the latter made more so by the unpredictable nature of human consciousness.

Various kinds and levels of physical reality have been created by all of the phenomena we examined. In a sense, the physical realities that have arisen from these processes and rules constitute separate worlds, worlds that exist at different scales of size and which operate in different contexts.  If we start at the most basic of physical levels and work our way up, so to speak, we might find that our perspective changes with every new world that we examine. Our understanding of reality would therefore be the product of our ability to combine all of these perspectives into a single holistic view, an ability which would vary greatly from person to person.

There is the subatomic world, the world of fundamental particles that follow their own delirious quantum rules, the rules they have been following since the earliest times of the Universe itself. Their reality is in one sense an ever-changing one, and yet upon it rests the predictable and consistent nature of the macroscopic world. They are in ceaseless motion, and they behave in such utterly basic ways that it is impossible for us to conceive of the term “behavior” in any simpler of a manner. Many of them are so fundamental that they have no internal structure at all and are so small that they are nothing more than geometric points. The subatomic world is among the oldest of all realities in spacetime’s history, having come into being within moments of the break-up of the unified force. It is a reality that reveals itself to us only when competing probabilities are resolved, in a manner only a relative handful of humans truly understand. Subatomic particles form the Universe as Gigantic Electrical Field, the Universe as Gigantic Gravitational Field, the Universe as an unbounded, self-contained entity.  Every single bit of matter, energy, dark matter, and dark energy is composed (presumably in the case of the latter two) of the most basic particles, and it is these particles that form the common nature of physical reality throughout the Universe. As viewed from their standpoint (as best we can imagine it, which is to say not very well), reality is restless, chaotic (and yet mathematically explicable), and almost infinitely malleable. To the neutrinos, it wouldn't necessarily be evident that anything other than they existed at all. It is impossible to reduce the simplest members of the subatomic world to smaller or less structured forms. This world is the most recent one that humans have discovered. The human species was utterly unaware of its very existence until late in the story of human life. Its rules are the least widely understood phenomena among the members of the human community.

Emerging from the subatomic world there is the atomic world. Atoms integrate into themselves subatomic particles, and governed by the actions of the fundamental forces, decay, aggregate, disaggregate, reconstruct, fall apart, fly together, bind, and unbind. Their rules are very ancient; the oldest members of their group can trace their lineage right back to the first three one-thousandths of a per cent of the Universe’s existence. The others were created billions of years ago in stars undergoing massive upheavals, in bursts of cosmic rays, or in the inconceivable explosions known as supernovae. There are only about 92 naturally occurring types of the members of this world. From their perspective, reality consists of constant—and yet structured and rule-bound—change, change which takes place through the relative ability of the different members to combine with each other. It is possible to reduce any of the members of the atomic world to smaller or less structured forms. They are all one step away from being reduced to such forms, and in the process losing their identity as members of the atomic world. The atomic world was not definitively proved to exist until very late in the story of human life, and it was discovered before the full array of its component parts had been ascertained.

From the atomic world there emerges the molecular world. It would take two steps to completely reduce members of the molecular world (by themselves) to fundamental particles. The molecular world’s existence had been suspected for many centuries, but it was erroneously thought to be the atomic world until very recently. The molecular world is the world of chemical compounds, which have acted in conjunction with the members of the subatomic and atomic worlds to create stars, galaxies, solar systems, planets—and life. It would take three steps to reduce these larger structures to their subatomic constituents. Within the world of molecules, we might suppose that reality consists of the formation of physical alliances of various sizes and shapes, in a manner more ordered (seemingly) than that of the atomic world and much more ordered than that of the subatomic world. For us, the most significant sub-section of the molecular world might be thought of as those molecules that contained carbon. Carbon-containing molecules became dispersed throughout and evolved upon the stage of the planet Earth, an iron-rich little world of the Inner Solar System. The processes of the carbon-containing molecules  brought about…

the world of life. Life can be thought of as the unconscious effort of carbon-containing molecules to keep themselves going. From the earliest harnessing of energy for primitive metabolism, the chemical evolution of the most basic organic molecules, and the evolution of nucleic acids, there emerged the incredible array of forms that permeate the biosphere. The world of organisms, a sub-branch of the world of life, arose when single-celled entities established symbiotic relationships with other single celled entities and unconsciously drifted into colonies. These colonies of single-celled organisms gradually evolved, over many generations, systems and subsystems within themselves, the deep origins of specialized organs and systems. Therefore, from a particular branch of the molecular world there emerged a higher level of organization, one that contained within itself all the different worlds upon which it was founded. It would take three steps to reduce the members of the world of life to fundamental particles.

From the world of life there ultimately emerged a branch of it known as the human world. The human world carries within it and expresses, in various ways, all the other realities out of which it emerged. Human bodies are constructed according to all the physical laws and principles the emergence of which preceded them in time. Human bodies are the product of some four billion years of organic evolution, a process which brought them forward because beings like themselves were successful at the only game the world of life “cares” about—reproduction.

The human world was also characterized and defined by the humans’ possession of consciousness, the awareness of awareness, the integration of experience into a self, the awareness of the self, the ability to conceive of and act on a world outside of the self, a sense of presence, a sense of being an object, a sense that the world was not just a mass of undifferentiated sensations, and a sense that such things as cause and effect and purposefulness existed. Consciousness emerged when human nervous systems evolved sufficient structural and physiological complexity.

From the possession of consciousness has arisen…

the social world, the world of human society, the phenomenon of humans living together in groups under common rules, rules that facilitated the group’s survival through the maintenance of intragroup cohesion and the defense of the group against external threats through mutual and collective defense efforts. A social world can lose a certain number of lives and still survive. The ways of life which came to characterize the various manifestations of the social world across the surface of the Earth gave rise to…

the cultural world, the whole set of a society’s inherited ways of doing things, the whole set of its ideas about the nature of the world, the whole set of the kinds of material objects that it possesses and uses, and all of its traditions. Culture is conveyed across both time and space, and is chiefly dependent on language. Cultures can intermix with other cultures, be subsumed within a dominant culture, fade away, spread, change radically over time, and generate ideas that leap from mind to mind across cultures. The members of cultures die, but their influence can transcend their physical deaths. From the interaction of the various cultures that have developed on the surface of the Earth, there is gradually emerging a world culture.

And then we might try to imagine the world of the Earth itself as if the Earth were a conscious entity, the enormity of its distances and sizes compared to us, the gigantic physical processes that operate within it, and the vast stretches of time over which it has existed. Such a perspective is virtually impossible for humans to even partially imagine. Naturally, the Earth is contained within a solar system that is contained within a galaxy that is contained within a local galactic group that is in turn part of a larger Universe which may be one of many Universes. Each jump in size and duration is more difficult for a human to conceive of. In sum, each level of organization, each world, each perspective, each version of reality possesses its own definitions of duration and size, existing in vastly different temporal and spatial contexts. Each possesses its own pace of events, its own particular rules, its own “way of life” (to stretch a metaphor). We can try to imagine these perspectives but by definition, we cannot know them. We can only postulate their existence.

We see, therefore, that there are continuing levels of reality. All of these levels exist and are in operation this very moment. All but one of these levels—the one provided by our own perspective and frame of reference—are essentially either invisible to us, appearing to manifest themselves only as effects which we can sometimes detect, or are too large for us to comprehend, enormous contexts of which we are an infinitesimally small part. The reality on which humans gaze, typically with an unconscious assurance that what they see is reality, is merely an intermediate form of it. Humans themselves are particles about halfway up the scale of size from quarks to galaxies. They are part of realities either too small or too big to comprehend, realities that exist in their own frames of reference but which, nonetheless, are connected to ours.

All of the hidden realities we have examined are ultimately different ways of examining the same thing, ways of breaking down the Unity that is the essence of ultimate reality so that its inner workings might be seen. There is an element of arbitrariness, even artificiality in such an examination, but the Unity is too big to be comprehended (at least in part) any other way. The means by which we interact with these realities is human consciousness, our only tenuous link to the “real” reality, a reality which is the sum of all perspectives. It is time for us to trace the emergence of human consciousness through time, and in so doing place our species, and our lives, in their true context.

Self-Organization and Emergence

The reason why higher-level subjects can be studied at all is that under special circumstances the stupendously complex behaviour of vast numbers of particles resolves itself into a measure of simplicity and comprehensibility. This is called emergence: high-level simplicity ‘emerges’ from low-level complexity. High-level phenomena about which there are comprehensible facts that are not simply deducible from lower-level theories are called emergent phenomena. –David Deutsch1

How has That Which Is manifested itself? What are the most fundamental principles which it seems to have given rise to, at least in this Universe? More broadly, what are the most basic rules that seem, in our perspective, to govern the physical reality  in which we find ourselves?

Everywhere there is decay and disintegration. Everywhere, things seem to be heading toward entropy, toward complete equilibrium. Everywhere, structure seems to break down into chaos. And yet, the Universe is filled with structures, many of them extremely huge and extremely ancient, containing innumerable other structures within them, oftentimes structures of great complexity. How did this occur? Moreover, some of these structures have gained the ability to replicate themselves and make more structures, even, eventually, to evolve unanticipated structures. How is this possible? What hidden realities are at work that make chaos resolve into order—the exact opposite of what we might expect? There seem to be two phenomena which, in the Universe we know and inhabit, govern the operation of all things: self-organization and emergence. It is these phenomena which seem to have given rise to every structured thing and organized process we know of and observe, and it is these two phenomena which appear to have created the increasingly ordered levels of physical reality that eventually gave rise to our tiny and isolated species. In the opinion of an increasing number of specialists, they are the great builders of the Universe. So how might they be understood?

We need to first understand that the classical method of examining nature by breaking its components into smaller and smaller parts, a process known as reductionism, has been very successful at systematically describing enormous numbers of naturally-occurring phenomena. But reductionism became a sort of intellectual dead-end; it could describe the smallest parts of the natural world, but it could not adequately explain the way these basic entities had come together to form the elaborate structures we observe around us. Thus, the sciences of complexity, self-organization, and emergence began to grow in response to the need for such an explanation.

There is an extensive literature on these matters—the number of papers, books, and articles in these fields has increased tremendously in recent years—and there is by no means a complete consensus among scientists with regard to the exact definitions of the terms involved and the internal operations and characteristics of the phenomena being described. To a layperson like me, the various disputes among these scholars can be daunting in their complexity, to say the least. But there are research findings I think I can present with some degree of confidence.


By self-organization, we mean the appearance of distinct patterns, processes, structures, or interactions without the specific direction or intentionality of any outside source. As Francis Heylighen  of the University of Brussels put it in a 1989 paper:

Self-organization may be defined as a spontaneous (i.e. not steered or directed by an external system) process of organization, i.e. of the development of an organized structure. The spontaneous creation of an “organized whole” out of a “disordered” collection of interacting parts, as witnessed in self-organizing systems in physics, chemistry, biology,[and]  sociology, is a basic part of  dynamical emergence.2

Heinz Pagels, who in the 1980s wrote presciently about the ability of the computer to simulate and model complex realities, put it this way, in remarking on the work of another researcher, Charles Bennett:

A self-organizing system lowers its entropy (a measure of its degree of disorganization) by expelling entropy into its environment and hence avoiding deterioration. An example of a self-organizing system is the growth of a plant or crystal. The point to be made about self-organizing systems is that first they are indeed complex—highly organized—and  second they got that way by starting from a much simpler system.3

The concept of self-organization is counter-intuitive, in some ways. It goes against much of our ordinary experience, where things seem to fall apart and become disorganized. But, repeatedly, we observe examples of how order arises with no outside influence. When energy in some form passes through a set of particles/units/individual entities, there seem to be definite patterns that emerge spontaneously. Examples would include varieties of cloud formation, the emergence of bubble-like structures in liquids that are heated, and a whole host of other effects that have been noted by all the natural sciences. It is this tendency of things to create spontaneous structure that allows for new structures to arise, structures which in turn make possible the construction of bigger and yet more organized structures, and so on. And although it would appear, according to several researchers, that there can be self-organization in isolation, in other words, without any ensuing emergence, (and emergence that is not brought on by self-organization) it would further appear that self-organization and emergence in combination largely produced the physical reality and its various levels of organization we see all around ourselves (in the human frame of reference).

In 2008, three physicists expressed the concept of self-organization in this way:

…if we think of empty spacetime as some immaterial substance, con­sisting of a very large number of minute, struc­tureless pieces, and if we then let these micro­scopic building blocks interact with one anoth­er according to simple rules dictated by gravity and quantum theory, they will spontaneously arrange themselves into a whole that in many ways looks like the observed universe. It is sim­ilar to the way that molecules assemble them­selves into crystalline or amorphous solids…

Similar mechanisms of self-assembly and self-organization occur across physics, biology and other fields of science. A beautiful example is the behavior of large flocks of birds, such as European starlings. Individual birds interact only with a small number of nearby birds; no leader tells them what to do. Yet the flock still forms and moves as a whole. The flock possesses collective, or emergent, properties that are not obvious in each bird’s behavior.4

The constant interaction of particles in a given space or region creates a dynamical system, because those particles can be in different states in relation to each other over time. Self-organization involves the presence in a changing, dynamic system of attractors, areas of the system that seem to “capture” the trajectories of particles or keep other elements of the set close to them. Attractors exist in what are known as basins of attraction, regions of a system where attractors can exert their influence. The simplest attractors seem to be point attractors (or sometimes, fixed point attractors) which allow for only one final position for any particles they attract (such as a ball thrown into a jug or bowl which is inexorably drawn to the vessel’s lowest point). Another example of how a fixed point attractor operates, one given in many places in the literature, is the movement of a pendulum. The pendulum comes to rest eventually because gravity and friction create a basin of attraction that draws it into a resting state. Periodic attractors (or limit cycle attractors) cause particles (however the term particle is defined) to pass through different states on a regular basis. An object orbiting another object in a mathematically ideal way would be exhibiting the influence of periodic attractors. Particles drawn to periodic attractors are being affected by some kind of regularly occurring energy or reaction. They are not held in a fixed position, but they cannot operate in a purely random one. Strange attractors are points in a system deeply affected by the initial state of a system. Any perturbation of the system causes them to act in unpredictable ways. The greater the disturbance, the more unpredictable the actions of these attractors become, because any stimulus they receive is enormously amplified. Novel, unpredictable states can arise quickly from such attractors. It was not until the development of the computer that strange attractors, these odd, continuously moving points that never return to the exact same place in a system, could be studied. Fractal images generated by computers are examples of strange attractors in action.5

Attractors are physical states in a system, therefore, that particles tend to move toward, such as fixed points, states where the particles can settle into some sort of equilibrium, or those which can bring forth unpredictable new relationships and structures. 

So how is self-organization possible in an extremely complex system?

Physician and biologist Stuart Kauffman, a member of the Santa Fe Institute, has done as much work as anyone in the world on the natural processes that underlie complexity and self-organization. In his 1995 book At Home in the Universe, Kauffman calls the spontaneous emergence of self-organized complexity “order for free”. He explains that depending on the initial state of a system it will cycle in certain ways through its possible states, or state spaces. If there are vast numbers of possible states a system can be in, it will be necessary for attractors to draw in particle trajectories, in effect forming subsystems within the larger system, and allowing these subsystems to follow orderly patterns and establish a measure of stability, or homeostasis. Not all systems eventually do this, and the ones that don’t end up descending into chaos.6

The heart of Kauffman’s argument lies in his examination of Boolean networks, networks with components which can display only two possible behaviors. To explain these networks, Kauffman uses the example of arrays of light bulbs. He explains that a network of such bulbs can be ordered, chaotic, or in a transitional state between order and chaos. The network of lights, when operating, goes through what Kauffman describes as a state cycle, a pattern of lights that might range from only one pattern (such as alternating on-lights and off-lights) all the way to a state cycle exhibiting every conceivable state that is possible within the network. With a small number of lights, going through every possible state is easy. With increasing numbers of lights, however, it becomes progressively more complicated.

The number of different states the network can be in is governed by the number of lights in it. A single lone light bulb can exhibit only 2 states, either on or off. Two lights can exhibit four possible states (22) namely,  both on, both off, the first one on and the second one off, or the second one on and the first one off. Three lights can exhibit eight possible states (23), and so on.  If we keep adding one light to the network, it doesn't take long for the number of possible states to grow very large. For example, a mere 20 lights can exhibit 1,048,576 different combinations (220). One hundred lights can exhibit 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376 states! (That’s over 1.2 novillion.) Some idea of the magnitude of this number can be gained this way: if each of the possible 1.2 novillion+ light combinations manifested itself for only one one-millionth of a second, it would take more than 2.9 million times the estimated age of the Universe for each of them to be manifested.

There would have to be, in any such system of lights, a way of controlling whether each individual light was on or off. There would be a system of “inputs” for each bulb, connections to other bulbs  and/or to itself. In a network where each light had 4 or 5 random inputs, the network would be unpredictable and chaotic, going through its state cycles in extremely long sequences, even accounting for the presence of attractors that might give it some organization, and highly vulnerable to any outside disturbances of its operation. But if each bulb were only controlled by one or two others, and each bulb could only be on or off, order would spring into existence regardless of the size of the network and how many states (patterns of  lights either lit or not lit) it could display. Kauffman discovered something utterly amazing. Even in a system of 100,000 lights, which has 2100,000 possible combinations, if each light controls only itself and one other random light (2 inputs per light), the system will fall into a mere 317 different state cycles out of all the enormous number of possible cycles it could go through. (And 317 is about the square root of 100,000.) The conclusion is compelling: Given the right initial conditions and interactions, order can arise spontaneously in even the largest arrangement of entities, without any outside intervention and without any intentionality.7

Scientists are also investigating the phenomenon of self-organized criticality, a hypothesis most associated with the late Danish physicist Per Bak. The idea behind it is typically illustrated by picturing grains of sand being dropped on to a surface. The pile of sand that results can only grow so high before it begins to exhibit a characteristic shape and a structure that produces avalanches of various sizes if additional sand is added to it. The pile is self-organized in the sense that no one has to shape it. In fact, it spontaneously forms substructures of various kinds. And it is in a state of criticality because it is unstable and the results of adding more sand to it are unpredictable. Will adding more sand cause a minor avalanche or a catastrophic one? Bak saw the sand pile’s structure and behavior as a metaphor for all kinds of processes in the physical world that are driven to self-organization and instability by the constant addition of some crucial component. In the words of M. Mitchell Waldrop,

a steady input of energy or water or electrons drives a great many systems in nature to organize themselves in the same way. They become a mass of intricately interlocking subsystems just barely on the edge of criticality—with breakdowns of all sizes ripping through and rearranging things just often enough to keep them poised on the edge.8

It would appear, therefore, that not only is it possible for structures in nature to self-organize, it is rather common for them to do so. The means by which this happens are still being elucidated and debated over, but that it does happen can no longer be doubted. It is this tendency of nature to self-organize, to create structures and substructures which are mathematically describable, and to create spontaneous networks of interlocking and interacting components that allows for the existence of emergence—the appearance of a new “level” of reality.


How do the professionals researching emergence define its properties? The question is still being investigated intensely, but some consensus now seems to be developing.

In a study entitled Causality, Emergence, Self-Organisation, published in 2003, the editors of the study, Vladimir Arshinov and Christian Fuchs, prefaced the book with a summary of what they believe to be the principal characteristics of emergence. They are: synergism, the interaction between two or more entities in a “co-operative” manner; novelty, the emergence of previously unobserved qualities; irreducibility, meaning that the process cannot be reversed to create the same entities that produced it; unpredictability, the creation of an unanticipated result; coherence/correlation, meaning that the emergent phenomenon creates a unity that encompasses its sources; and historicity, meaning that emergent phenomena are not pre-ordained.9

Tom De Wolf and Tom Holvoet  of the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium, did an extensive review in 2005 of the literature concerning emergence. They concluded that  genuine emergence has the following characteristics: Micro-macro effect. The behaviors and properties of the emergent system are a result of the interaction of the entities within it. This is considered by almost all researchers to be the essential feature of an emergent system. Radical novelty. The emergent entity cannot be something that would be anticipated by examining the parts of the system in isolation. Coherence. The organization maintains itself over time. Interacting parts. Parts existing in parallel to each other are not sufficient, and cannot produce emergence. Dynamical. The emergent system materializes over time because of new attractors in the interacting system that produces it. Decentralized control.  No individual part controls the whole system. Two-way link. The interacting parts give rise to the new system. The new system in turn affects its parts. Robustness and flexibility. The overall emergent structure is less sensitive to disturbance  or destruction than any single entity within it, and can maintain itself even if it sustains some damage.10

So the essence of emergence appears to be an interaction of elements that brings about an unanticipated, unpredictable outcome, an outcome that can only exist in the presence of this interaction. (See the chapters Synergy and Feedback Loops and Chains of Unanticipated Consequences in this section of the book for more elaboration on these points.)  The emergent system in turn creates a new interactive dynamic that can set the stage for a still higher level of organization. This process does not need any conscious direction and its ultimate result—if there is an ultimate result—will be the sum of all of the unpredictable outcomes generated at every level of the emergent process.

What might stimulate this process? In Robert Hazen’s 2005 study on the origin of life, he identified what he sees to be the factors contributing to the emergence of complex patterning: Concentration of agents. By this Hazen means that there must be sufficient numbers of units (grains of sand, stars, neurons) in close proximity to each other. “Below a critical threshold, no patterns are seen.” Interconnectivity of agents. The more numerous and complex the interactions of individual entities, the greater the chance of emergent phenomena. Energy flow through the system. “The emergence of complex patterns evidently requires energy flow within rather restrictive limits: Too little flow and nothing happens; too much flow and the system is randomized—entropy triumphs.” Cycling of energy flow. Periodic fluctuations in energy and the presence of periodic cycles of  change seem to have a dramatic effect on emergence.11  So emergence seems to involve the effect of energy passing through a system of densely concentrated and closely interacting particles in a particular way, with the term “particle” defined very broadly. As we go backward in time or downward in scale, the interactions between particles (of various sizes and complexities) is less organized and more and more subject to purely stochastic processes.  

The implications of all this are enormous. Nobel laureate Robert B. Laughlin, in discussing the effect the growing study of emergence is having on the sciences, observes that there is a great deal of resistance in the scientific community to abandoning reductionist ideas and embracing emergent ones. Nonetheless, he contends that emergence is such a powerful and useful concept that it will come to dominate humanity’s study of nature, alter our perception of what mathematics is capable of, and usher in what he calls The Age of Emergence, the era when our view of reality is defined by what he calls “the higher organizational laws of the world”.12 If Professor Laughlin is right, then we will come to see the presence of emergent phenomena not just in the sciences but in every area of existence, including an explanation of the emergence of human society and culture.

Personal Conclusions

So what do I conclude from all of this? Here are my hypotheses, based on my (limited) understanding of these phenomena:

First, self-organization and emergence seem to be evolutionary and self-perpetuating in nature. Self-organization (usually) causes emergent phenomena to come into being. Various and diverse emergent phenomena can in turn self-organize to produce a new, larger, more comprehensive  emergent phenomenon. Where this process will end cannot, by its very nature, be predicted. Each level of reality is more and more unexpected; the cumulative effect of all these levels, one “on top” of the other, is the least predictable thing of all in the process. As individual phenomena emerge into the next level of organization, they become subsumed within it. These phenomena are harnessed, so to speak, and become part of an integrated system.

At every level of physical reality, particles tend to link up with other particles because they are drawn together by distinct areas of space-time. (Could we say that they are simply following the path of least resistance?) This linking up becomes more complex as the levels of physical organization become more elaborate. At the highest level of organization—human society—so many variables are at work in this linking process that the effects become more and more unexpected.

It is difficult to see how basic physical interactions can directly lead to the emergence of life. The emergence of chemical principles seems to be a necessary intermediate step. The transition from basic physical particles to human society required a great many intermediate steps.

The micro brings forth the macro; increasing amounts of energy are required to reduce the macro at various levels to the micro. As Timothy Ferris has pointed out, enormous energies are required to tear matter down to its most fundamental levels, energies that more and more approximate those which must have existed at the time of the Big Bang. It would be quite possible, for example, to destroy a complex structure by breaking it apart into small pieces. But breaking it into its constituent molecules would require much more energy, breaking it into its atoms would require an enormous amount of energy, and breaking it into its quarks and leptons would require an inconceivable amount of energy. The end results of emergence are not necessarily permanent; emergent phenomena can be undone, but doing so requires undoing a great many steps and the marshaling of energies that are not easily acquired.

When we reach down to the most fundamental level of physical reality, using reductionist methods, there seems to be nothing but chaos. Emergence theory allows us to account for the order we find at various levels higher than the chaotic, basic level of physicality. Emergence theory therefore puts the reductionistic view in a new perspective. No longer is reductionism simply a descent into chaos; it becomes a descent into origins.

Using reductionistic methods in combination with the emergent perspective allows us to trace our story backward through time, starting with the “highest” level (that is to say, the  level that is the ultimate result of all the preceding emergent levels) and ending up at the most fundamental level of physical reality, the point at which we can go back no further.  We would therefore start with the human cultural and social worlds, their intricate rules and interrelationships, and all the “structures” which are no more than approximately understood common ideas held in the neurons of human brains. We would trace the emergence of human society and culture to consciousness, which is less organized and more random than the social and cultural worlds. We trace the origin of consciousness to the evolution of a particular kind of brain, noting that the steps that led to the biological evolution of higher-order nervous systems were more random than the ordered functions of the brain produced by these steps. We see that the evolution of the brain was an emergent result of the general evolution of multicelled beings, which was a broader, less defined, less organized phenomenon than the emergence of highly advanced collections of neurons. The evolution of multicelled beings emerged from the relatively more chaotic world of one-celled organisms. These one-celled organisms were in turn brought about by the emergence of nucleic-acid based life existing without membranes, brought about by the interactions of molecules built around carbon atoms. These molecules were themselves the product of a long chain of basic, evolving, self-reproducing chemical units (perhaps preceded by simple metabolic processes) which existed in a highly chaotic state of seemingly random movement, and which began to undergo changes because of the interaction between their own replication errors and changes in the physical environments in which they existed. The atoms which came together to form these molecules were in turn assembled and held together by fundamental particles, which in turn were the product of the emergence of the four fundamental forces of nature at the first moments of the Universe’s existence.

Every level of organization is both more coherent and more information-dense at the same time. Every level of organization contains all the information of all the levels from which it emerged. In one perspective, reality can simply be seen as the generation, transference, accumulation, and aggregation of information.

Is the social organization created by human consciousness the ultimate stochastic dynamical system, because of the number of possible outcomes or actions of the “particles”? When a “particle” knows that it is a particle, and that it is possible do things that are not pre-determined, does that create a unique form of dynamical system?

Not all areas of the Universe have been resolved into order. There are still areas, for example, where the basic level of physical reality is the only one, and nothing has emerged from it. Other areas have gotten no farther than basic chemistry; others no farther than basic biology. The ways of life and social interaction created by the human species involve an extraordinary—and quite possibly, very rare—number of emergences “stacked up” on each other. And there would have been no conceivable way of predicting that the randomly interacting quarks that came into being moments after the Universe’s beginning would ultimately bring forth human society and culture.

Self-organization and emergence have produced certain fixed regularities in the operation of physical reality. In the human perspective, these regularities appear to take a particular form:

They are called the laws of nature. So now we turn to them.

1.   Deutsch, David, The Fabric of Reality, pp. 20-21
2.   F. Heylighen,  "Self-Organization, Emergence and the Architecture of Complexity", in:
      Proceedings of the 1st European Conference on System Science, (AFCET, Paris), p. 23-32., 1989
3.   Pagels, Heinz, The  Dreams of Reason,  pp. 65-66
4.   Jan Ambjørn, Jerzy Jurkiewicz, and Renate Loll, “The Self-Organizing Quantum Universe”, in Scientific American, July 2008
5.   Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, pp. 79-110
6.   Kauffman, pp. 74-79
7.   Kaufmann, pp. 77-83
8.   Waldrop, M. Mitchell, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, pp. 304-306
9.   Arshinov, Vladimir, and Fuchs, Christian, editors. Causality, Emergence, Self-Organization, pp. 5-8
10. Tom De Wolf, , and Tom Holvoet, “Emergence Versus Self-Organisation: Different  Concepts but Promising When Combined”,  Department of Computer Science, Kuleuven, Celestijnenlaan Leuven, Belgium, 2005
11. Hazen, Robert, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins, pp. 17-22
12. Laughlin, Robert B., A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, pp. 173-221