Emergent Properties

I have been spurred to highlight this concept by reading Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture, by Brian Goodwin. This is a wide-ranging book I’d like to review at great length. Let me start with Emergent Properties.

Emergent properties is a name for a phenomenon we all know well. We have seen individual birds; we have seen several of the same species of birds near together; and we have seen flocks of birds. The behavior of a flock of birds cannot be predicted by watching one bird. Nor can the behavior of any one bird when it is active in a flock be predicted by careful study of that bird by itself. Flocking is an emergent property, which is present at some times and not others.

Goodwin calls “ice” an emergent property of water. Reality is full of these phase changes, surprising shifts that occur in a non-linear fashion. We take them for granted, partly because materialist science cannot explain many of them. Properly, they should command awe: “where did THAT come from?!”

Verbal language is an emergent property, among primates. It is also an emergent property among the young of homo sapiens. Likewise writing.

Goodwin notes that emergent properties are not only visible everywhere, but the preconditions for an emergence are similar for many of them, across a wide range of phenomena. Before emergence, conditions are “chaotic,” in the technical sense described by chaos (or complexity) theory. The specific sort of chaos/complexity that is often the precondition for an emergent property can be described mathematically by what is known as a power law. It’s a kind of fractal where the smallest elements and the largest ones seem to mimic each other, with the whole process seemingly guided by the same impulse, like the head of a cauliflower.

Power laws map the situation that leads to some coordinated activities in some species of ants. Also among some termites as they build their mounds.

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