I work in a field called emergence which is trying to solve such ginormous mysteries as how information emerges from energy, how life emerges from chemistry, how selves emerge from atoms, how soulishness emerges from life, how purpose emerges from non-purpose.
We’re not asking whether they do. Evidence suggests strongly that they do, and not the other way around with God, the great purposeful and informed soul in the sky making atoms and chemistry. We’re not asking why they emerged either. Or where or when, because it’s safe to assume they didn’t just emerge here in our neighborhood of the universe.
No, we’re asking precisely how they emerge. We seek a scientific account as solid as science’s explanation for lightning, clouds or tides. No smoke and mirrors, no woo woo or fancy technical sounding forces we claim exist but can’t explain, no thumbs on the scale, no sneaking a God in to give it a nudge, no appeals to one mystery like quantum mechanics to explain another mystery like purpose.
The question boils down to how matter becomes mattering.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill got the ball rolling on emergence research when he noted that two toxic substances, chlorine gas and sodium metal, when combined produced common table salt. He thought there must be some special combinatorial logic that makes it so the attributes of parts don’t simply add up to the attributes of wholes. He speculated that the same combinatorial logic might explain how life emerges from chemistry. In this he raised questions about where properties really reside. If sodium metal is toxic here but not there, does it have the property of toxicity? Do any things have properties and if not where do their properties reside?
To leap out a few levels, personality researchers originally thought that people had personalities that stayed pretty much fixed. Lately they’ve noticed that, as with the chemicals that make salt, what we’re with makes a difference to what we are. A shy person in some contexts becomes bold. A grumpy person in some contexts becomes sweet. If you hang out with overweight people you tend to gain weight. Your deepest held values are largely inherited from the company you keep.* As political scientists say “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
I called soul “soulishness” to hint at this mutability. In the enlightenment the solidity of souls was questioned. Descartes and others thought of souls as the unchangable parts of our natures that even outlast our bodies. The French philosopher La Metre scoffed, noting that if you get a guy drunk his soul is radically altered. Some said that’s not the soul but an overlay on it, as though the soul is your original face over which you can put a drunkard’s mask. Another French philosopher Diderot wondered whether there was really an original face under the masks. Maybe we were nothing but masks. Or to put it another way, maybe a soul wasn’t a specific thing with specific characteristics but rather a range of behaviors on various dimensions. Your personality is like a mixing board–you dial up your charm here, you mute your sexuality there–you change the mix depending on the company you’re keeping. You might have noticed this at a party that brought together friends from your various circles. It can be hard to know what personality to wear. Over there are your professional colleagues, and sitting right next to them are your old party animal friends from high school. You don’t know quite how to be. Who are you anyway?
Mill’s salt example gives us a hint at how relationship changes properties. The toxic parts of chlorine gas bind with the toxic parts of sodium metal. Locking to each other their toxicity is constrained or bound up. We’re protected from their toxic natures but you could also say that their toxic natures are protected from the outside. Nobel laureate Physicist Robert Laughlin notes the relevant obvious: Molecules by themselves don’t roll but if you bind enough of them together they become “protected” in the form of a wheel. The rolling property emerges. Protection like this is one reason why you can’t simply add the part’s qualities to get the whole’s qualities. Some are locked off or protected in their effects on the whole.
And in fact, though the rest of us haven’t quite caught on–nor do we have to for everyday thought–physicists have now demonstrated that there are no solid stable indivisible things. Atom means indivisible thing, and atomism is now officially dead. Even at the atomic and subatomic levels everything is sub-dividable and moving all the time. When researching emergence we have to factor in this otherwise ignorable feature of causality. A thing is really a dynamic process whose features result from their ever changing interactions. What we perceive as a thing is really a habitually stable dynamical relationship in which the parts happen to cycle through similar states consistently enough that they become reliable. Even a salt crystal could become unstable breaking into its separate toxic components. It just doesn’t tend to nearly often or long enough to pose a problem. A wheel, then isn’t a solid thing made of solid things, it’s a dance routine in which each dancer is a dance routine in which each dancer is a dance routine, etc.
It’s a very hard concept to wrap one’s mind around. And of course unlike a dance routine, these aren’t choreographed by outsiders or intended by their parts. A wheel’s molecule doesn’t have a leader inside or out who says “C’mon people let’s work together on this.” So how do the dance routines emerge, especially in the composition of living beings? That’s what emergentists are working on. And we’re making great progress. I predict that within five to ten years we’ll have a solid and well accepted scientific answer. Can you imagine that? Science really explaining how mattering bootstraps it’s way out of matter with no Godly assist? Whether it would change a lot of minds, it certainly would change the dimensions of the debate. It would no longer be a forced choice between life serving God’s purposes and life being completely meaningless. It would no longer be, you are the soul that God gave you vs. you are a chembot zombie meat puppet with no soul.
Another take-away therefore from this research is an overlooked factor in causality. We think of things as caused by outside things pushing them. The bowling pin fell when it was hit by the bowling ball. There’s another kind of causality that is getting a lot of attention in science these days. It’s the way the internal dynamics–the dance routine between the parts–constrain each other, limiting their ability to move in certain ways. Think salt again. It’s two component chemicals are mutual constraints on each other, restricting what they can do. Anthropomorphizing, you could say the two chemicals are like two buddies in the buddy system at some drug-rehab program: I’ll keep you in line if you’ll keep me in line. We tend to think of constraint as the enemy of free-will, but it’s not. Think of how the drug-rehab buddies, if successful, restore free will. Self-discipline is just such internal self-constraint a dance routine in which the sub-routines keep each other in line.
The successfully self-disciplined are those who negotiate with themselves and win. They win more autonomy and self-directedness. People with self-discipline generally have more free will to work with. Paradoxically freedom is a matter of forming the right constraints. * This last point is a growing issue. For an amazing reflection on how the Internet is making us much more parochial about the company we keep check out this current issue New Yorker article: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/02/091102crbo…