The Components Fallacy – wholes are not made of parts
I’ve been thinking about emergence and entropy lately; what they are and how they are related. Information theory, intelligence and consciousness also sprung to mind in the same context. They all seem to be different aspects of the same thing.
Let’s start with emergence, the idea that the whole can be greater than its parts, or at least that the whole, for example a gas cloud in a box can be understood as good or better in terms of a few macro data (pressure and temperature) than making calculations for every single gas molecule.
What is dead may never live
Emergence can be weak (it’s simply convenient to talk about chairs and tables, rather than their constituent elementary particles and wave functions) or strong (the whole is greater than its parts; water molecules aren’t wet; particles have no consciousness. The wetness and the consciousness emerge as something new from the particles’ dance. Actually, quite like a dance or a song, really can’t be reduced to steps or notes, but are flowing wholes of the relationsships between their constituent components.
The dance doesn’t exist anywhere in its particles, only in the living process, betweens and relations. A simple machine has parts, it is its parts. But a living thing is not its parts; it’s not the same anymore after turned off, if stopped. Often it can’t even be started again. Hence dances, songs, life are not at all like machines built from components. Processes are something different altogether, non-reductionistic, only existing as wholes. Back to the topic of going from the bottom and up, i.e., emergence, rather than vice versa:
We can talk about objects like chairs and tables without knowing or caring about particles and quantum mechanics. In that respect, emergence works, it is real. At least for us people. However it might very well be real to us just because the macro level is our everyday level. That is the only level we understand. The top level was always going to be our ultimate reference level, the benchmark for what is real, what works.
The bottom level on the contrary is almost unfathomable, not “working” as far as intuition goes. Down there it’s just information, labels like charge, numbers accompanied by rules for how one number interacts with another number. We call it particles, we imagine small marbles zipping around, but they are “just” vibrations or excitations of a field. And the field isn’t tangible, it is itself just dimensionless numbers strewn about– just a way of keeping count, of governing the interaction with other numbers. There just isn’t anything there, with “anything” and “thing” and “there” defined as our everyday experience of tangible stuff being in a particular position, with a particular velocity, momentum and amount of kinetic energy.
The bottom level does by the way work from a scientific point of view. It works extremely well, better in fact than the top, macro, level. The bottom, quantum, level thus seems to be the true description of reality. And our macro world is just a neat result of weak emergence, of averages working, quite surprisingly, well enough for almost any basic application, except electronics, time measurement, particle physics and close-to-the-speed-of-light experiments.
It really is amazing that the everyday macro level does emerge from the beyond weird micro level. Macro things stay in place with absolute dead certainty, while their micro parts can’t be trusted to be neither here nor there. The question I am building up to is whether truly new macro things emerge from the micro level, and whether these emerged entities can effect, govern, the micro level, i.e., not only be the most effective descriptor, but actually writing the script for its parts.
The motions of a flock of birds, as well as the motions of the flock’s individual birds, can be more effectively predicted by modelling the flock than by following a single bird. The flock does indeed seem to have its own life, and be governing the motions if its constiutuent birds.
Similar things occur in songs, dances and consciousness. The next note of a song can be guessed from the song so far, even the very first time you listen to it. But the song in no way affects what notes it is composed of. How about consciousness. Does it emerge from some physical and biological processes, from the dance of molecules and energy? Can it affect it’s own contituent thoughts, affect the movements of the body, thus exercising “free will” upstream on the consciousness’s parts; independent of the physical laws that already govern how particles and fields interact while never creating or destroying any energy in the process?
Energy, by the way, isn’t real either. It too is “just” a useful accounting trick. Energy keeps track of information that enables predictions for interactions, but there aren’t any energy units anywhere. There never were any energy to begin with, and none was ever created. Things have momentum, i.e., mass and velocity. The zip about, crashing into each other, thus changing their respective speeds. Their labels thus change, but the sum of all energy labels always amount to zero. There is no energy, energy just tells us what to expect from an interaction. Energy thus is just a specific kind of information. Just like entropy is information about what we don’t know or can’t know, often called the level of disorder, perhaps the level of what’s not known about interactions.
Everything comes down to relations, dances, interactions:
There are, e.g., electrical charges, labels of plus and minus (but nothing tangible to pin the labels on, the labels are just there, ready to govern charged particles’ interactions).
And there are rules of interaction between quarks.
And then there is that curved space thingamajig, that gives the appearance of masses pulling on each other. A massive object, i.e., something assigned a mass number, bends space in a way that makes it seem as if other massive objects are drawn to it and vice versa. Mass governs (bends) space and time; and space and time govern the interactions of masses. It’s all a dance, there are no things, no particles, no bottom, just interactions, in betweens. The relations govern what is; the very existence of a particle, a thing is dependent on its relation with other nodes. The nodes, the relata is secondary to the relation. No man is an island, the elementary particle version. Where does this dance take place? In space? In time?
Animals experience space, but is it real? Is room a fundamental aspect of reality, or is that also a kind of accounting? In a computer game there is the appearance of space and objects, but from our point of view that space och those objects don’t exist. Where did space even come from to make room for massive objects to bend it? Can you have masses without space and vice versa?
All of the topics of discussion today, space, mass, energy, time seem like accounting tricks. It’s all just information about relations. Without relations there is nothing. Reality, life, consciousness are a song and a dance. There are no things, no units, no relata, just relations, pauses, in betweens, information about relative positions (not in space, just… relative as apart from absolute).
How do relations form without relata? How can anything begin. It’s an amazing feat of science to have made people accept the Big Bang theory as explanatory: Oh, you know everything just suddenly exploded into being from nothing. It was a fluke fluctuation in nothing. Wut? That‘s the foundation of science?!
Okay… let’s accept there is something. We all feel here, real, alive, conscious. That’s undeniable. We have that information.
Our current picture of “being here”, of existence, is that things happen with a likelihood.
Further, nature abhors differences; nature tends toward a smooth chaos with no islands of complexity. Lock a bunch of gas particles in a box and they’ll bump around until they all have more or less the same speed and are evenly distributed. Lock a universe in a box and with time, it seems, it will turn into a uniform sea of radiation, all stuff gone, all patterns gone. The only thing left being a more or less infinitely diluted radiation energy, basically zero everywhere. Maybe that’s an accurate description, maybe not. Our models can’t be relied upon for such long term predictions.
However, that’s of no importance to us.
In the short term, our pressing reality is that eggs tends to break, not the other way round. And still, life and consciousness are moving in the other direction — toward increasing complexity. Wut? How can the governing principle of increasing entropy, of an all-encompassing smoothing out, result in growing islands of increasing complexity, i.e., falling entropy? Further, we seem set to spread among the stars, thus exporting complexity to the rest of the galaxy. How can that be?
Gravity, quantum fluctuations, inflation and evolution worked together to create planets with conscious life-forms. That pesky gravity took an almost uniform cloud of hydrogen and made a trillion galaxies with a trillion different planets in each galaxy, and on at least one planet made conscious humans. The ultimate island of entropy defiance. Right here, entropy is falling, but Earth is radiating high entropy energy ever faster, almost as if life itself was just a tool to hike the speed of increasing entropy in the universe.
So, does entropy increase or decrease? And what is entropy? Is it correctly described as Disorder? Information about what could have been but isn’t? Is time an essential variable, or is the tendency toward increasing entropy enough to describe interactions and “The arrow of time”? Time seems more and more emergent, just a neat way of accounting for increasing entropy. Like space being a neat way of predicting how various stuff interacts, rather than being a truly foundational aspect of existence.
The more I think about the foundations of existence, the less I think we are anywhere close to a true description with the standard model of quantum fields acting on a canvas of space-time.
My guess is that we’re on the completely wrong track altogether. Information may be the foundation of super strings that explain quarks and atoms all the way up to water molecules. But the wetness of water isn’t “emergent”, it too is just a handy notion for us conscious macro beings; a variable to consider for our fitness equation (Donald D Hoffman), i.e., how to most effectively manage our interactions with other fitness point seekers in the cosmic game of Pokémon Go.
I think Existence is consciousness all the way down. Nothing is material, there is no real space, energy or time, just a “game” for consciousnesses vying for fitness points.
Even that doesn’t even begin to consider how the game started, how the relations got going, how something whole and non-existent got going not to mention divided into parts. If we did, however, begin as a divine sine wave, eclipsing itself with a perfectly opposite wave phase, before exploding into Hilbert space or something; the boredom of being conscious with nothing and nobody to do, would surely have made us look for ways to divide into separate parts. We seem to have succeeded. And thus the whole split into parts with less substance together than the whole.
Does it matter?
Does it matter if we are evolved meat sacks in a Big Bang universe, or avatars in our own cosmic game?
Not really, but I still think it’s worthwhile, important really, to realize we really know exactly nothing.
Nothing adds up. Our puny imagination just keeps assigning notions, reductionist labels to ultimately meaningless hypothesized components, when what we are is a set of relations that can’t be reduced to lifeless parts.
To be perfectly clear, we aren’t parts. We aren’t composed of lifeless marbles that magically (through emergence) spring into something greater. I have no idea of what we are, what is happening, how anything began, how it ends, and so on. I do know nothing is what it seems to us.
The capacity for surprises is endless, even just judging from a human materialist perspective.
Does matter matter? Well it does for us right now. However, the matter with things is that they aren’t. Matter, like space, energy, time and entropy, most likely is just a notion we conscious macro beings find handy for our little game.
Welcome to the real world.