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Emergence and Cognition

It all happens at once

How is it that we can think?
As is often noticed - none of our parts can think yet the whole does. I think the idea of emergence illuminates that question a lot. I've been working with that idea a lot for a long time and find it works very well.
The problem I have in trying to explain this is that most people misunderstand key concepts because there are popular variants of the concept that make no sense. My problem is demonstrate the variants that DO make sense.

Here goes.
First misunderstood concept is Evolution (aka Natural Selection or The Evolutionary Algorithm). I find over decades that most people fundamentally misunderstand Evolution. They say that evolution is like a hurricane assembling an airplane out of a junkyard of parts. How likely is that? It's not likely at all and is a ridiculous idea and is nothing like how Evolution works. Yet that is the way most people think of evolution.
You know about the evolutionary algorithm I'm sure. It's a loop involving replicators, a bit of variation, and a selection pressure. Over time the replicators become better and better at meeting the selection pressure. This algorithm is no theoretical construct. It works. Biolology is based on it. But so is technology and memetics. The algorithm has been implemented on computers and works in that space too. It's an amazing algorithm. But you won't get it if you think evolution means that monkeys somehow evolved from frogs. Evolution, properly understood, is central to my thinking.
Emergence is another idea that is central to my thinking that is normally misunderstood. It's not really a hard idea to grasp but it runs almost directly counter to 2000 years of Western Philosophy and that means that most people have intellectual baggage from the ancients that prevents clear understanding of ideas like emergence. People have, for instance, this idea that they have a mind that thinks. They don't. That they can think is an emergent property of most people. Nobody will ever find a mind. It's a metaphoric concept that goes back at least to Plato that is incoherent.
Another idea that is central to my thinking is the idea of 'levels of abstraction'. That term is my own invention. I've encountered the idea from others who call it by a different name. I'm not familiar with those other names or what they imply. But people won't understand my thinking at all if they don't get the idea of 'levels of abstraction'. (And to be clear; I'm open to using another term but I won't accept criticism of the idea unless I think the critic actually understands the idea.)
Here's what I mean by 'level of abstraction'. Recall that subatomic particles interact in a way that makes atoms. The subatomic particles define a level of abstraction. Atoms are another level of abstraction that depends on the subatomic particles but have properties that the subatomic particles do not have. So, atoms and the subatomic particles are on different levels of abstraction. An important point here. Language forces me to use a spatial metaphor for this and that metaphor sort of forces the idea that the levels are higher or lower than each other. That is not what I mean. I do mean that the levels can be thought of in isolation. You can learn how atoms behave without knowing about quarks. After all, chemistry pre-dated knowledge of quarks by a couple of centuries. And very important - no level of abstraction is fundamental - they are all there at once and influence flows freely among the levels.

So let me try, very briefly, to say how cognition can arise in things made of atoms.

Let's start with the level of abstraction that is atoms. Atoms have properties that are what physics deals with. Atoms combine to make molecules which are the level of abstraction that chemistry deals with. But also molecules enable a new property in physics. Atoms are not solid or liquid, but aggregations of molecules are. Solidity is not a property of atoms or electrons or quarks. It's an emergent property.

Let's jump up a few levels and look at a bicycle factory. This is a place that works with the emergent properties of metal. Metal can be shaped into various forms in various ways. You can make the parts of a bicycle out of metal. Now - say you make all the parts you need for a bicycle and lay them out on a table. What do you have? A bunch of metal parts. So go ahead and assemble the parts to make a bike. Physically, you still have all the parts. For instance you could weigh it to check, or dunk it in water to see the displacement. So on the level of physical material, nothing has changed. But the assembled bike has a property that the parts alone don't have - the bike is rideable. That rideable bike is another level of abstraction.

Leaping to another level of abstraction - a human being. We are all amazing physical things. Just how amazing we are gets better revealed everyday. But one thing is plain: we are physical. We are made of cells with many forms that interact to form the creatures we are. That is a familiar pattern: things interacting with one set of properties that enable a new level of abstraction with a new set of properties. Neurons and hormones do not think or feel. But they enable a level of abstraction that does think and feel.

And that is how cognition can emerge from atoms.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.