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Perspective on Knowledge: The challenge of emergence

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Emergence is unsettling 

Emergence is awesome, but it’s also unsettling, for a couple of reasons. First, traditionally we humans have succeeded at building complex structures by breaking the plans down into a multitude of simple, predictable, knowable causes and effects. So, when we see something as complex as a termite tower or flocking birds maintaining their cylindrical shape, our traditional line of thought would have us look for equally complex causes. That’s how we build our own human towers, and how we would choreograph our own human sky dances. 

That rules simple enough for insects can result in multi-floor termite palaces challenges our pride in our methodology. Maybe our stringing together of baby-step causes to build something of significance is a bit childish, overly literal, unimaginative, or rather plodding. Maybe our way of being clever isn’t so clever after all. 

The power of emergence 

Emergence is unsettling for another reason. We can tell ourselves that a flock of birds isn’t a thing and is just a pattern, a relationship among its parts. But one of the modern and persistent explanations of consciousness is that minds are also emergent phenomena. Birds follow a couple of simple rules and build flocking shapes, and neurons follow a couple of more complicated rules and build a mind. But a mind is not similar to a flock, a mere shape that persists. Our minds are as real to us as can be, even though if you look at the neurons that create minds, you won’t see ideas, feelings, desires, or self-awareness.

Maybe neurons don’t give rise to minds. Maybe the old idea of the presence of an immaterial soul makes more sense. Or, perhaps our commitment to real things being material things leads us to underestimate the power of emergence.

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