Emergence, or the Democracy of Matter: A Networkological Approach, Part I
What is emergence? Without question, in the sciences, this term has been essential. But what would a philosophical concept of emergence entail? David Roden has a really great, smart post up at enemyindustry about emergence. It asks all the right questions about emergence (a key term in my networkologies project), and brings to light several concerns about this term that I think need to be addressed before it’s philosophically useful.
Firstly, the philosophical import of the concept of emergence, as described by figures like Manuel Delanda, for example, is, as David rightly states, that emergence allows for the construction of what many have called a ‘flat ontology.’ This term, as used by Deleuze, Delanda, and Bryant, has slightly different meanings for each. I’d like to argue that an ontology should not be fully flat, lest it be univocal (Badiou’s take on Deleuze), rather, it should be ‘flat yet thick’, not a one, but a oneand, without a transcendent, but with space for a wide variety of potential transcendentals (which is closer to what Deleuze describes himself). I think Guatarri does a great job of this, as shown in a text like Machinic Unconscious, and further developed in Thousand Plateaus.
I agree with David: weak emergence is not enough. That is, most scientists describe emergence as non-predictable behavior, in which a series of micro-agents produce macro events which cannot be deduced from the rules which govern the micro-agents. But this approach implies that emergence depends upon the limits of the knowledge thereof. Is there a more ontologically useful concept of emergence, one which does not rope human knowledge and it’s limits into the mix?
I think so. And I agree with David – without this, no flat ontology, no workable assemblage theory. A lot rides on this. But where to start?
A Networkological Theory of Emergence: First, the Issue of Levels
Emergence, firstly, depends on the notion of level. This notion is implicit in any discussion of emergence. But who gets to determine macro, meso, and micro? From a networkological perspective, this is all relative to the ‘network of reference’ employed to ‘know’ an entity. This network of reference can be employed by anything, from an electron to a human. Building on Uexkuell, the argument is basically that electrons divide the world up electronly, humans with a variety of perceptual schemas, and each therefore encounters a different world, yet each made out of the same fundamental ‘stuff’ (called ‘matrix’). And so, determinations of level are relative, but not arbitrary. An electron can’t choose to determine levels at will (and it doesn’t have a will!). Rather, levels appear to it based on the symmetries between its networks of reference and those which structure the phenomenon it encounters. A lot of symmetries, and things are clear, very little, they are fuzzy. This may sound like anthropomorphism, but it’s not, quantum particles have fuzzy, ‘unclear’ relations all the time.
Secondly, the Question of Balance
Ok, once we’ve determined levels relevant to a particular situation, what then do we mean by emergence? Let’s look at a vortex of water, a nice, non-human system. Water molecules in meta-stable energetic conditions often form vortexes, whirlpools. Why does this happen?
Vortexes are efficient, they channel energy through a system more efficiently than otherwise, by means of organizing the matter in question. But how? Each water molecule is ‘dumb’, in the sense that it only reacts to what is immediately around it. How can large-scale organization emerge?
Each water molecule sums up the total influences upon it at any given instant, and makes a ‘decision’ in relation thereto. These influences range from the large-scale (other water molecules) to the very minute (the pull of gravity from a distant star). When the macro-influences push strongly in one way or another, the decision is very clear, and the water molecule will move in the general direction which it’s surroundings push upon it. But what about when the influences in its immediate surroundings are nearly in balance?
That’s when minute fluctuations can tip the balance in one direction or another. It’s at this point that, at just the right moment and point of balance, the pull of gravity from a distant star could be the tiny push that puts that water molecule over the edge in one direction or another. And such influences might not only be external, they can also be internal to the water molecule, perhaps the slight push of one its quarks which is momentarily out of balance with the others in a given component of the water molecule. The closer a system is to balance, the more minute are the influences that can push in one way or another, and the more difficult it is to know which caused what.
Fourthly, The Quandary of Originary Potential
Add to this the fact that it seems that nothing in the universe is ever completely and fully knowable. That is, there seems to be a truly fundamental fuzziness and unpredictability about matter. I mean, quantum particles are notorious for being only predictable in the aggregate. And scientists argue about this constantly – why is this? Is this because as systems come into balance, minute and hardly detectable influences ‘decide’ for the quantum particle, or is this because quantum particles are ultimately and fundamentally indeterminate in some way?
As far as I can tell, this is an unanswerable question. For in order to answer this, you’d need to have a god’s eye view – a full knowledge of ALL the influences on an entity, through all spacetime, and at every level of scale, and that’s impossible. The result is that I think we can safely say that there is something about all matter, at every single point, that is to some extent indeterminate, and in a fundamental way. And the reasoning for this isn’t simply faith, or blind assertion, but the very this-worldly limits to knowledge, not only human knowledge, but knowledge per se, due to the very structure of the world as it is, unless the god’s eye perspective is actually occupiable somehow, which it seems is impossible.
Either way, whether or not there is some ‘originary potential’ in all matter, at every size and level of scale (as the networkological perspective argues), or whether or not this is a practical issue, is ultimately fundamentally unknowable, so in practical terms, yes, there is something like originary potential. Which get us to the point at which we can say that when all other things are in balance, then the decision of micro-agents at a given level of scale (ie: a water molecule) is made either by minute factors in that agent’s context, OR, the influence of indeterminacy of originary potential.
Either way, you get withdrawal, privacy, whatever you call it – the ability to surprise, when everything else is in relative balance. This is precisely what is brought about by energetic meta-stability, the state of which complexity theorists and Gilbert Simondon make so much fuss. But what’s interesting here is that while there’s a minimum amount of privacy/withdrawal that everything possesses, it is only in relatively meta-stable conditions that most entities express this indeterminacy. Don’t get me wrong, strictly speaking, all the quantum particles in my body could tunnel to the left by one foot two minutes from now. But it is very, very unlikely, though not impossible. But any individual quantum particle can in theory do this, because according to the theory of originary potential, we can never, ever fully know what an entity will do next.
An example: The Vortex
Ok, but how does this all lead to emergence? In a vortex of water, each water molecule’s general decisions are made in relation to the aggregate of molecules around it, with a few exceptions, of course. And as we know from watching vortexes, the pattern is a spiral. And this isn’t so hard to do, if everybody nudges in the same general direction and slightly down, a spiral will come about pretty much on it’s own. Why? Those closer to the center of where the spiral develops will be pushed slightly further towards the center, while those slightly further out will be pushed that way slightly less, and all of it will be self-reinforcing till it hits equilibrium.
The result is a new ‘level’, the level of the whole, namely, the vortex as such. But wait, it seems we glossed over the very moment of emergence itself! Let’s backtrack for a second. What gets to determine which way the vortex turns? As we will see, this is the crux of the issue.
Before a vortex starts, there is a pull downwards, but molecules in the water have a sideways force as well, generally in widely varying directions. Around every given water molecule, their context ‘votes’, and so long as things are relatively unbalanced, the molecule in question generally goes where its context votes. The problem is, at first, everyone goes in different directions. But as the downward pull of, say, an open drain occurs, molecules start falling down with increasing speed and pressure. This squishes more molecules together, and the polar qualities of water molecules start playing ever larger roles.
With the increasing pressure and speed, molecules that aren’t organized are increasingly forced by their neighbors to make choices, and choices that line up more with their neighbors. At low pressures and speeds, there’s imply less pressure to choose, and many molecules will go their own. But with the squishing, it’s time to choose. And so blocks of sameness get larger and larger. At first there are many of these, but as pressure and speed increase, the larger block start pressuring the smaller ones to choose to join them, and so many blocks flip orientation.
But what makes a given block flip? If things are unbalanced, it generally goes where the majority vote rules. But in close ties, micro influences, or originary potential, makes the call.
And at some point, the last microbloc is swallowed, and the entire vortex has chosen a side, and the spiral takes on it’s characteristic shape.
The Democracy of Matter
But wait, who then got to decide which way the vortex turns? Well, for each bloc, it could’ve been its macro-context, or, if things were close, its micro-context (exterior or interior). But as a whole, the decision was likely distributed to many mini-decisions, all piling up. It’s everywhere, and nowhere, because ultimately, there’s many microdecisions that add up to one direction over another.
Once the vortex starts, however, we have another situation entirely. Now there’s a macro-level to take into account. And this is nothing metaphysical, per se. It’s just the aggregate of all the micro-influences which, now coordinated, are flowing in a direction, say, clockwise.
But let us now perturb this system. Let’s open up another drain. Is it’s pull strong enough to pull the vortex apart, into two halves, or just move it to the side?
Obviously those molecules in the vortex closer to the side with the second drain will feel the pull to that direction, but since these molecules will soon be on the other side, the question is how strong is the pull on any molecule on the drain side? If it’s really strong, it’s a no-brainer, context votes, and the vortex will split in half, while if not, it will simply shift a bit to the side.
But what if the balance is really close? Then we’ve got to take a vote! And keep taking votes, until we hit a decision. And any particular water molecule could end up at just the right place at the right time to be the deciding vote, at the point of balance between both sides. And then as it teeters on the edge, ‘deciding’ which way to cast it’s vote, it consults all it’s micro-influences, and its originary potential, and in what appears to us like privacy, ‘decides.’ And since it is the deciding vote, it wins, and whichever vote it casts, the system AS A WHOLE follows it, unless it remains unstably between alternative, in which case, it keeps voting until it hits a more stable state.
Thus we see that emergence is the democracy of matter. Just like in a democratic election, if all else comes out equal, and all votes have been counted, and if this happens, all may hang on one county, this time in Florida, next time in Ohio, so it is with matter. The whole depends on each and every part, because each and every part gets a vote, but we don’t know in advance which part will cast it’s vote from the structural position of the ‘point of balance’ of the system as a whole. In truly democratic systems, that point is never occupied by the same entity for longer than a micro-instant. In rigged systems, one entity always gets to decide for the whole.
What are the Ramifications?
And so just as Deleuze and Guatarri described differences between paranoid and non-paranoid social systems, so we can with nature. Complex, emergent systems are those in which the ability to decide for the whole is continually moving, depending on the balance of the constituencies within the whole. Any micro entity can shift the balance between voting blocs, and truly creative, maximally emergent systems are those which are able to keep in balance in systems of great diversity, so much so that the tiniest of levels and the greatest of scales interpenetrate in a massively diverse democratic conversation of great speed and subtlety.
The model for such a massive democracy is the human brain. As many neuroscientists have argued, the brain talks mostly to itself. It is continually predicting what sensory inputs will come next, completes images and sounds, ‘fills-in’ all it can’t fully see, continually guesses at the future. Only when something doesn’t fit its predictions does it take note, and if this continues at ever higher levels of scale, only then does something come to the attention of the whole. An anomaly! What could it mean? The brain associates radically, it sends out feelers at every possible level of scale in its vast, interconnected vortex in a vortex in a vortex like balance-machine.
And just like our vortex, only at massively intertwined levels of scale, each region and level of the brain that have been consulted take ‘votes.’ Local collective form, sides tip, swallow each other, join each other’s side, until several voices speak – the anomaly is a bird, a stone, a bit of dirt? And just like in a vortex of water, in a moment of indecision, the balance of the vote can come down to the response of a single nerve cell, but we can never know in advance which one, because that depends upon how all the other votes have been cast. Which neuron is the last undecided one?
In a system as complex as the brain, likely it almost never gets down to this level of scale, usually decisions are most likely made at very high levels of scale. But the brain is radically democratic because at any moment, it is POSSIBLE that ANY neuron (and any part of a neuron, if it comes to that) can be the deciding vote.
The most complex systems are those which support the maximum amount of diversity with the maximum amount of interdependence at the same time. How better to describe the human brain, the most complex dynamic system in the universe, that is, aside from the universe itself?
The brain continually keeps itself at a state of meta-stability, at the maximum number of levels of scale, precisely because this is the way to keep it sensitive to the most minute micro-votes. This is why complexity theorists continually speak of complexity occuring at the ‘edge of chaos.’ Too much diversity, and no voting blocs congeal, too little, and it’s always the big blocs, never the individuals, that end up determining the decisions of the whole.
But what if you knew that at any given moment, the whole of the society you lived in might be split 50/50, and it would all come down to you, one vote, that mattered for the whole?
Oddly enough, this is a reworked version of Laclau’s theory of the democracy, taken from New Thoughts on a Revolution for our Time, applied to matter. Counterhegemonic blocs are those which produce ’empty signifiers’ which serve as ‘surfaces of inscription’ for ‘imaginary horizons’ in times of ‘organic crisis,’ and do so in a manner which is increasingly open to contestation depending on how democratic they are. The more democratic, the more likely it is that your signifier comes to represent the whole, at given moment, so long as this keeps moving, rotating, depending on the situational context. Democracy is the radical distribution of decision by means of an ability to shift and amplify the micro to the macro on the fly, and in relation to circumstance.
But what about brains? Surely brains, the most intricately emergent entities we know of, other than the whole of the universe itself, are in some way more democratic than simple vortexes, right? To answer this question, we need not only the notion of emergence, but also complexity, which will be tackled in the next post.