Screaming Planet

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On the Concept of Emergence In Various Systems

Posted on | July 5, 2007 | No Comments

During the sixties, science fiction went through a bit of a revolution that seems to echo to this day. When fields such as sociology, psychology and history became the “S” in SF, the traditional branch stemming back to Wells and Verne, with the shoddy characterization and simple gung-ho narratives serving as little more than an exercise in applied sci-pop got pushed to a back seat, handing over the limelight to this new, “literary” SF. Which is all well and nice, if we are trying to worm our ways into the halls of academia and become “proper” literature, not stuck in a genre ghetto forever. However, there are those content to remain where they were, on a special shelf designated for thinly veiled popular science books masquerading as stories and novels.

Arthur C. Clarke, for instance, used to be a huge figure in this field. His characters were often laughably single dimensional, his plots often no more than engineering problems that a “dear professor” could explain away, but they had a very important quality that any good writing needs to possess – they made the reader think. The aforementioned ghettoization was simply a result of the fact that they didn’t make one think of linguistic intricacies or introspective socio-psychological issues, but of things that go bang-zap-zing, things femtoscopic and gigascopic, things so convoluted that the humanists controlling the gates to proper, haute literature simply had no idea what those funny bespectacled people in plaid shirts were talking about. Of course, the pulp age didn’t help any, either.

Now, nearly half a century past his prime, much of Clarke’s work feels a tad dated, if for no other reason than simply because we’ve had plenty of time to read and reread it all to such an extent that many of his ideas are such common cultural memes that we do not think much of them and would consider them to be clichés if encountered in a novel. But those who like to be nudged into thinking about grand issues beyond the teeny-tiny humanitarian scope have naught to fear, for there are others looking to replace the old masters. One such example is Greg Egan, a fellow whose prose consistently manages to cause an even number of “wow!” moments and headaches while reading, crisscrossing nuclear physics, mathematics, biochemistry and information theory in ways that make your head spin, peppering them with light, easy-going narratives and shoddy characterization. What does he make us think about? Well, I do not know about others, but personally…

– o –

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith has introduced an interesting hypothesis on the origin of life whereby the original replicators weren’t DNA, or even RNA based, they weren’t even based on carbon but rather on silicon. Various types of clay, being deposited, cracking, then spreading through wind and rain, and being deposited again, set in motion a system of self-replication that might have been the crutch organic biology needed to get started. Various carbon-based additives to clay caused it to be replicated better, thus making their own replication and dissemination more effective, in turn leading to more and more complex systems of clay-carbon compounds until the clay simply wasn’t necessary for the bits of carbon to reproduce themselves, which is, give or take a couple of billion years, where we come in. But what if there wasn’t enough carbon present? What if silicon simply had to do its best?

In fact, let’s step back for a moment into the field of abstractions. The fact of a mathematical model iterating out through physical phenomena raises a few questions, not the least of which is whether this propagation is confined to the overly complex models of biological systems – might they not be a possibility in other, more fundamental physical systems, such as a Belousov-Zhabotin nonlinear chemical oscillators or laser oscillation, creating a possible basis for an ecosystem, possibly even a shortcut for emergent consciousness while skipping the dreary interstitial steps of the wetscape we had to plough through for thousands of millennia to reach this point?

Self replication enforces self replication, especially when dealing with a fully autocatalytic system, where once an agent stumbles upon the ability to make more of itself, it will simply go on doing it unless something that does it better comes along or it runs out of resources. Letting our thinking stumble down this rabbit hole, the emergence of complex self replicating systems with emergent properties should be a basic property of the Universe. But, having possibly encountered a non-biological living system, would we recognize it as such? Would we be able to detect the underlying nature of living holograms? Conscious catalytic stews? Two-dimensional intelligent tiling systems? Thinking swarms of muons? The wriggling forms of long-lasting BZ oscillators sure look a lot like worms – I wonder how much of the solution would be necessary before the complexity of the overlapping wave patters reached the point where it would be kick started into a state of qualitative emergence on a higher level.

Simple systems, such as a ZB solution or clay beds or even something as abstract as a Penrose tiling or a Wang carpet is not intrinsically complex. All of its constituent parts are really, really simple cells, but just like many cellular automata, these real-world examples display an amazing amount of complexity when the quantity of constituents is large enough. Emergent properties arise, and complexity starts to get layered on – everything is simply a matter of proper initial conditions, gaining quality through quantity. That pesky butterfly, if it were to flap its wings just right, might cause a building to be erected halfway around the world. Even if it happens millions of years later, through proxies such as exceptionally bright and dexterous monkeys. Emergence manifests itself in the oddest ways through systems no one thought of before, creating echoes and ripples through the temporal dimension. The seeds of simple crystalline structures akin to Penrose tessellations reappear on different ends of a systemic emergence scale, on one side created through selective chance, while on the other as crafted patterns created in the conceptual space of mental maps of systems several levels up the prigoginic scale forged through the emergent memeplex of Islamic aesthetics. Are we coming full circle? Is a new, secondary genetic takeover coming into being, heralded by these strange echoes of primordial simplicity? Is carbon about to be replaced, once again, by silicon, genes being replaced by memes? Some people certainly think so, though I believe that they vastly underestimate the number of fundamentalist rejectionists around them.

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