I run a think tank called the Emergence Project which is focused on how we help foster the Emergence of a self-governing, self-evolving, self-transcending global civilization that actually makes it through our technological adolescence.
Be patient with me as we get into the flow. The talk itself will end up being an Emergent process.
So, what I want to talk about today is what Emergence is as a phenomena – as a property that’s actually essential to understand the nature of the universe we live in, and that’s actually essential to understanding what it means to be human, and that is essential for understanding the basis of meaning, for ethics, for existentialism, and also what that portends for the future of civilization and addressing some of the things that are concerning, and that are exciting.
You can consider the next 20 minutes, or however long this is, as kind of an extemporaneous rambling ode to emergence itself. A kind of love talk about how cool it is that Universe actually has this property and that we can understand and participate with it.
So, let’s start by defining what is emergence. Emergence means something new arises that wasn’t here before. Right? We all kind of have that sense intuitively. But, scientifically, how the fuck does that happen? How do you bring particles or planets or anything together and all of a sudden the whole has some properties that none of the parts have? Like, where do they come from? Which is why in the fields of science that study emergence, which evolutionary theory, and biology, and systems science, and complexity theory studies, it’s considered the closest thing to magic that’s actually a scientifically admissible term. But, it’s still sketchy in really understanding how this thing works.
How do we get fundamentally new things out of relationships of things where that didn’t exist before? Right, it’s fascinating. How do you have a cell that respirates, made up of molecules, none of which respirate? And so, it’s just really interesting when you actually think about this right?
We have a pair term… does anyone know what the key term is in understanding synergy? And emergence is synergy. Synergy and emergence are two sides of the same phenomena. Synergy means whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and emergence is what is that greater? It’s what is that new stuff that emerges out of bringing things together? And so, synergy is more formally defined as properties of whole systems that aren’t found in any of the parts taken separately, which also means are fundamentally unpredicted by the parts taken separately. Which portends a future that is fundamentally, ontologically unpredictable from the current state of the future. Which is very different than a mechanistic, clock-unfolding, Newtonian understanding of the future. And yet, still actually makes sense in term of scientific law. Super interesting right?
So, synergy is this property of relationship where the whole has new properties that the parts didn’t have. So, emergence is a result of synergy. Synergy is a result of relationship. Does that make sense? And relationship is a result of attractive forces. There are some kinds of attractive forces, whether it’s gravity bringing dust together into planets, or planets into solar systems. Whether it’s electromagnetism bringing subatomic particles together into atoms, or the strong force bringing quarks together into protons. Each of those are emergent properties driven by synergy, driven by relationship, driven by attraction. Or, whether it’s bringing people together via pheromones, or love, or intellectual affinity, or a topic that we’re all interested in, like creating a better world.
There are some attractive forces, and so, Bucky Fuller called love “metaphysical gravity”. In the same way that gravity and physical forces act on physical bodies to attract them, we have metaphysical forces that act on metaphysical bodies to drive attraction. But think about… so imagine if you think about all of the attractive forces as expressions of a fundamental principle of universe of allurement. That there’s a principle by which separate things have reason to come together that offers an advantage that being separate doesn’t have, and you think all of the forces of special case applications of that… imagine if that wasn’t the case. Imagine if we had a universe where allurement wasn’t a fundamental principle of it. And the whole thing would have stopped at quantum foam. Right? You have quantum foam emerge, you don’t even quite get to the point of subatomic particles and that’s it because nothing attracts to then have synergy and emergent properties.
I have a friend and collaborator Mark Gaffney who calls this universal love story: why at the heart of the evolutionary story is this love story, which is that it’s actually attracting that drives the whole evolutionary story. Attraction driving relationship, driving synergy, driving new emergent properties, driving net novelty and new creation and the arrow of evolution. So we can actually understand the arrow of evolution in terms of this set of phenomena together. Does that make sense?
So then evolution and complexity theory is defined most generally in terms of more elegantly ordered complexity. That’s actually the best definition we have in terms of mathematical complexity theory coming out of Santa Fe Institute. That the definition has the word elegance built right in it because it’s again one of these fairly mysterious properties, but that’s key to it, which is bringing things together doesn’t give you emergent properties. Bringing them together in a particularly elegantly ordered way does.
So think about, think of all the parts that make up a cell. You’ve got all these non-living parts. DNA, and cell nucleus structures, and all the different organelles, and cytoplasm, and they’re all not living. And then the cell is living, but if you brought all those parts together and you didn’t arrange them as a cell, it was just a bunch of molecules, it wouldn’t be that interesting. Right? It would just be goo. If you took the 50 trillion cells that made you and you didn’t arrange them exactly this way, and you just had 150 pounds of cells, it would be much less interesting. Even though there would be just as much complexity, you wouldn’t have an order in the complexity where the emergent properties come. That’s actually the relationship. It’s not just heaps coming together, it’s not just complexity, it’s wholes. And the difference between a whole and a heap is order. And the specific set of patterns of order.
This means not every relationship is synergistic. Some relationships are entropic. They actually create the opposite direction of new emergent properties – they destroy some properties that were already there. Almost everyone has some examples. *Crowd laugh* You can bring chemicals together that rather than self-organizing to create higher ordered molecules with new thermodynamic properties, they have an exothermic entropic reaction, and they drop to lower levels of organization, right? This is true at all levels. So, it’s not just relationship, it’s specific kinds of relationship that maximize synergy. This is a key thing to understand about the nature of universe. It’s also the case that if you bring the same thing together a bunch of the same thing, you don’t get very interesting synergies. You get very interesting synergies when you bring different things with different properties together in the right format, where then you have the properties of each of those things, and then the properties of the relationship between those which is the new stuff. And you get emergence. You’ve got hydrogen and you’ve got oxygen which are different things, and you bring them together you get water and the basis for life. But neither hydrogen or oxygen at room temperature are liquids. And so this is a fascinating thing.
So we’re actually very interested in having deep synergistic relationships with differences that lead to fundamentally new emerging properties. So, it’s not just net complexity, it’s ordered complexity and it’s elegant complexity. And when you get a new property then universe selects for that, right? That new property offers some evolutionary advantage to that system, a system that didn’t have that wouldn’t have that. So things can come together all kinds of ways, but the ones that come together most synergistically offer and confer the most advantage, and universe selects for it. So universe is selecting for more differences, right, so it’s selecting for diversity and then more synergistic combinations across those differences. And it’s both of those: more diversity, and more unification across the diversity, right? More agency and more symbiosis at the same time is what defines the arrow of evolution. Does that make sense?
[Audience question inaudible]
Things that are separate, autonomous, agents. Right, so like a cell you can think of as having its own agency. Right, it’s own ability to act and its own boundary and periphery. But you bring a bunch of cells together, and this collection of cells can reflect on consciousness and existentialism, and have a conversation like this, even though none of those cells on their own do that. And it’s different kinds of cells. You couldn’t do that with just neurons. It takes neurons and coleal(spelling?) cells and immune cells and stem cells, etc… to all come together. So, more agency, more differentiation, more orderly relationship, more synergy – all of that comes together and the net defining thing is emergence. How much fundamental new advantage arises, and that’s what evolution selects for. And so if it wasn’t for this whole combination of things together, “is this the message that says 5 minutes? Fascinating“ So I, I’ll see if we can go very quickly through though that was the first 1% of what I hoped to discuss. So I’m going to just skim over the top of a bunch of topics and hopefully paint a Gestalten least of an art that’s interesting.
The evolutionary universe story, the kind of new best story of universe we have emerging from the intersection of all sciences, is that we have an evolutionary universe that doesn’t require a creator agent, deistic or theistic god to create, but is also not a random, highly improbable set of movements that get us here, but that there is a set of properties that give us a self-organizing, rather than creative agent, creative principle universe, that is moving toward more ordered, elegant complexity, and with that story on the physical you also have the evolution of consciousness structures themselves.
As you move from a reptilian of a system to the increased orderly complexity of the mammalian, and then a neocortical, and then a prefrontal nervous system, you move from the kinds of sentients that map to that of pain/pleasure reptilian, to emotional, to cognition, to abstraction. So we have the universe that’s moving in the direction of not only more elegance, but greater depths and breadths of consciousness itself.
Now this defines an era of evolution that reifies meaning in a very interesting way. And one of the things that’s so interesting is with our capacity for abstraction, we cannot just think about our experiential self of the moment, but we can think about ourselves in abstract terms. We can think about time abstractly. Deep past and deep future. Right? And that is what allows us to actually understand evolution itself. So, understanding of deep past and fossil record and astrophysics, they give us a sense of the ability to abstract laws of how that change occurs over time, that allows us a deeper insight as to how we got here. And then also the ability to envision a future fundamentally more beautiful, more interesting. And then be part of that creative process.
So, it’s worthwhile just noting that our prefrontal cortex, our capacity for abstraction, is a pretty new phenomena evolutionarily. And it’s also a very powerful set of capabilities. And when you have a new phenomena that’s very powerful, you’re not going to know how to use it that well. Many of its applications will be destructive until you figure it out. So you can think about the future as worry. We can think about the past as regret. We can think about self abstractly, in terms of negative self-comparison. So then we have spiritual ideals emerge that basically say this is all bad. Right? Mind and the ability for abstraction like this is bad. We should not think about the future at all or think about the past and just be in the moment like the other animals and children are. See how happy they are? But it’s a regressive spirituality that is actually rejecting the fundamentally novel human capability that emerged, rather than say let’s learn how to use it well for its evolutionary purposes in a fundamentally evolving universe. So if we learn how to use it well then we say how can we learn from the past how universe works, to be able to imagine a future in an omni-considerate way that has fundamentally less suffering and higher quality of life across all meaningful quality of life metrics for all life. That is omni-considerately true, good, and beautiful, and then how can we apply can we apply all that learning now to actually help create that world. And in doing so we stop just being a part of the whole.
But in our ability to think about the whole and think about the direction of the whole we can actually become an agent for the whole. This is fucking huge. The bee is serving this huge role of evolution by pollinating the plants that make the atmosphere that makes us. But they don’t know they’re doing that and they can’t consciously figure out how to do it better. But we actually have the capability of looking at what the whole story is and identifying as, woah, the whole evolutionary impulse of universe brought me about and then woke up to itself in me. So in a meaningful way I am actually the evolutionary impulse of universe awoke to itself in a form that has adequate ordered complexity that can contemplate that, and then get to consciously choose how to participate with it to be in a, not just aboard spaceship earth, but crew. To help steer the direction of evolution and cosmos. And so we move from evolution as a mostly unconscious algorithmic process that selects for dominance now, to a process that can be mediated by conscious agents. They can actually forecast a more beautiful future and select to help create that. Does that make sense?
So, when we don’t identify as evolutionaries then we can be actually kind of, we identify as nouns rather than verbs, and we stay stuck where we’re at, and then we need pain as an evolutionary driver, and then emergence through emergency is how we grow. As soon as we identify with the inexorability of evolution, and ourselves as evolution incarnate, we stop needing pain to push us because our whole fucking purpose for being, for becoming, being and becoming are actually matched. They’re two sides of the same thing. Is the allure of the becoming, is the bringing about more of the timeless properties of the infinite in time. More of the infinite through the finite actually becomes the basis of our existence.
Everybody knows that when you are in the experience of creating beauty that didn’t exist before in universe that adds to universe, that’s uniquely yours to create, you feel a kind of aliveness that’s not matched by anything else. In lieu of not doing that, the emptiness causes all kinds of addiction, because that’s fundamental to what we’re actually here to do. Now when we all identify as evolutionaries we obsolete the need as pain for a driver. Does that make sense? Because we have a pull driver rather than just a push driver. When we also identify as fundamentally interconnected parts, interconnected universe, rather than separate things. We stop thinking that there is any definition of success for self that isn’t a definition of success for the whole. And we stop thinking that the idea of advantaging our self at the expense of something else we’re inexorably connected to doesn’t make sense at all. So we are all agents for an interconnected whole where our sense of self is, our self is actually an emergent property of the intersection of this system with the rest of universe. It’s actually key in terms of emergence. Your self is an emergent property of the whole universe. You wouldn’t exist in the same way without your brain and your body, you also wouldn’t exist without the atmosphere. And the trees that make it, and the plants and bacteria that make it, and the gravity and electromagnetic fundamental forces. The concept of I separate from universe is a misnomer. So the concept of a life path for self that isn’t a life path for universe is a misnomer. Or advantage for self. So when we get in the deepest sense, when Einstein said, the idea that there are separate things is an optical delusion of consciousness. And in reality, there is one reality that we call universe of which we are all inextricably connected facets. And your inner connected self is a facet of that.
Now, what’s so fucking fascinating is that interconnected with all of it is the expression of the foundation of all of it and it’s also completely unique in all of universe. It’s a unique facet. Non-fungibly unique. What that means is you have something to offer universe in your experience and your creativity, that no one else has to offer exactly that way, which means that if you don’t offer it… like if Salvador Dali hadn’t done Dali, Michelangelo didn’t do Dali… Escher wouldn’t have done Dali… Dali just wouldn’t have happened. And so universe would have been fundamentally less. So when you get that your own self-actualization is compulsory, right, you have an obligation to it, but then when you get that everyone else if they don’t self-actualize universe is less, your participation with helping everyone else self-actualize is also compulsory.
So competition is an obsolete concept. Symbiotic, so remember universe moves towards more differentiation, more novelty, and then more symbiosis across that novelty for more emergence. And what we’re moving towards is a civilization where everyone actually identifies this way, as an emergent property of the whole, as an interconnected part of universe, with a unique role to play, with unique synergies with all the other unique roles to play. And then with that synergy, with that human participation, then humanity actually becomes a thing. It actually becomes an emergent property. Right now it’s an idea. But we don’t have humanity. We don’t have civilization. We have humans bumping. Right? We have a bunch of organelles that haven’t organized as a cell that starts breathing. You don’t have behavior of the whole that is centrally and consciously self-organizing. But we can.
And I would actually say, and this is what I wanted to have more time to get into, but, to just foreshadow quickly, if we cherry-pick from the huge datasets about where humanity’s going right now, we can see that things are exponentially changing, which means changing at more and more rapid and more and more significant rates, and you can cherry-pick metrics where things are getting exponentially better, and that’s true, and other things are getting exponentially worse, and that’s also true. Which means the future that you predict if you just follow any of those curves is not happening. If things are getting exponentially better and worse at the same time, does everybody kind of get that’s happening on different metrics? Then, that doesn’t mean things are getting better or worse, it means the current system is destabilizing. And that means self-terminating. And then we either have a discrete phase shift to a lower order, entropic system, or the emergence of a higher order system that is foundationally different than the current system we have in every way. So, the things getting better are the pieces that can be reorganized to create a new civilization with a foundationally new structure. Biosphere metrics are getting exponentially worse from misapplication of technology. Technology’s right application are making things fundamentally better but technology is giving us the capacity to do things like have data analytic capabilities to inventory all the world’s resources to then be able to allocate all the world’s resources to meet all the world’s needs with optimized efficiency. We’ve never had that ability before. Like the transportation and communication technologies can actually make us a global civilization. We’ve never had that before. And so the technological capacities that require us to step up, otherwise we, you know, self-extinction is a very real thing, also make possible a discrete phase shift in evolution that’s characterized by three major things.
And this will be where I end. At the level of social systems, primarily economics, the key shift we’re going to move to is a… moving from a differential advantage economy, defined by private ownership, valuation-based and scarcity, and differential advantage, to an economic system that is defined by making sure that the incentive of every agent and the wellbeing of every other agent in the commons is perfectly aligned with no externality. Meaning we actually understand it’s an interconnected system, we identify all the externalities and internalize them so the system’s actually defined by the systematic advantage for the whole. This is not communism, or socialism, or capitalism. It’s something new that was not possible before to even anticipate. But it is how your body works, where none of the cells are advantaging themselves at the expense of the others. They’re doing what’s best for them, what’s best for the whole symbiotically at the same time. So that’s the key net shift at the level of macroeconomics and correspondingly governance and all of our social structures.
At the level of infrastructure at the built world, we’re moving to a linear materials economy, where we extract from the earth at ever growing rates unsustainability from finite resources and turn it into trash, to a closed loop materials economy where the trash is the new stuff. We stop extracting from the earth, stop producing waste. We actually have a post-growth, negative entropy, closed-loop materials economy where we can live ongoingly at progressively higher and higher quality of life, sustainably with the biosphere. So that’s the infrastructure shift, that’s a social structure shift. And the superstructure shift, the memetic shift, is this awareness of all of us as facets of one integrated self-evolving reality where the well-being of everyone, the well-being of everyone else, the well-being of the commons, are not meaningfully calculable separate from each other.
Now what’s so interesting is there used to be such a thing as local problems. When Gandhi was working with home rule for India, it was largely thought of as an Indian problem. And it didn’t directly affect everybody. When people who founded the US wanted to leave the British empire there was somewhere else to go. And it was a local problem. Right now when we deal with species extinction, and ocean acidification, and peak nitrogen, and peak phosphorus, they’re all global issues. You can’t solve them without China, and without India, and without the US, and without everyone participating, so the idea that we have local issues is gone. Our level of global infrastructure and technology makes it so they’re all global issues. And they’re actually existential. They are threatening of the biosphere.
No one has ever had issues in the history of humanity threaten the ability of the species to continue. Nor did they have ones that they had to face imminently in the short-term. Nor did they have the capacity to actually face those kinds of things, the data science, the technology that could build something fundamentally new. What that means is we have the most significant work that humanity has ever had, with the most significant capabilities, which also means the most potential to impact the biggest picture that any humans have ever had. And it’s easy to think about that and then get caught back into like, shit you gotta do next as part of to win at the current system that is going extinct. But winning at a system that is obsoleting the capability of life on earth to continue, winning at a dying system, is not an interesting win.
If you ever think about the definition of heaven where you’re in heaven, and they’re people in hell and you’re happy, you have to be a psychopath. You have to be able to separate from the experience of other sentient things enough that you can be totally stoked with that level of suffering. Well the idea in this world, that the level of intensity of suffering that’s happening can be happening, and you can just be stoked because you’re killing it in your life, you have to be mildly psychopathic.
If we want to not be psychopaths then there is no definition of success for ourselves that is not a definition of success for everything. Now when we start really taking that seriously, fucking everything changes. And then you start saying, well what can I actually do to make my life of greatest use to all life. And then your answer to that question, if you take it seriously and really study, and really work on it, and don’t just like ask the question, get overwhelmed, and go back to current stuff, your progressively better answer to that question will lead to the emergence of your life meaning and dharma and path. And correspondingly, the emergence of civilization making it.