Hierarchies of Emergence

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One time, I started thinking about how authors of encyclopedias ― especially printed ones ― are more or less tasked with organizing the totality of human knowledge. I tried to imagine how I’d organize it. What would the main categories be? And how would they be ordered? Or should it just be alphabetical, so questions like those don’t have to be answered? Alphabetical order seemed inefficient, though ― for example, it would scatter topics better suited to be grouped together.

I was curious how the authors of the encyclopedia I grew up with chose to handle these decisions, so I found it and opened to the table of contents. It was divided into two parts. The second part did turn out to be organized alphabetically, but the first part was organized in a different way ― one that’s stuck with me ever since.

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Chapters of the Random House Encyclopedia

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This made a lot of sense and seemed so obvious in hindsight.

But what would you call this pattern or perspective?

Maybe a hierarchy of evolution or emergence.

Emergence refers to how, in complex systems, higher-level patterns form as smaller wholes become part of larger wholes.

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Hierarchies like this can be found in various forms, and the following is essentially a small collection of them.

Notice how these spectrums come into play:
_small to large
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past to future
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simple to complex
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general to specific
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slower change to faster change
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less extropic to more extropic

Extropy is the measure of a system’s intelligence, information, vitality, and capacity for improvement ― in a figurative sense, the opposite of entropy.” [1]

[Pannenkoek] “So is this the secret to organizing the universe?”

It’s something like that.

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“Evolution seems to be guided by counterbalancing trends of complexification and unification.” [2]

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Levels of Existence

[3]

“The Gaia hypothesis proposes that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet ― in a sense, that the earth behaves likes a superorganism.” [4]

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“One theory is that there are differing intensities of conscious experience across the animal kingdom.” [5]

Hofstadter’s ‘Souledness’ Spectrum

“‘Souledness’ is by no means an off-on, black-and-white, discrete variable having just two possible states like a bit, a pixel, or a light bulb ― but rather is a shaded, blurry, numerical variable that ranges continuously across different species and varieties of object, and that also can rise or fall over time as a result of the growth or decay.” [Hofstadter]

“Perhaps the problem is the seeming need we have to make black-and-white cutoffs when it comes to certain mysterious phenomena, such as life and consciousness. We seem to want there to be an absolute threshold between the living and the nonliving, and between the thinking and the ‘merely mechanical’, but the onward march of science seems to force us ever more clearly into accepting intermediate levels of such properties.” [Hofstadter]

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“Monitoring an awake brain shows activity that’s neither totally predictable nor completely random ― and is emblematic of what’s meant by ‘complex’.” [6]

“The most complex object in the known universe is the human brain.” [7]

An important caveat, though, is that “despite the importance and ubiquity of the concept of complexity in modern science and society, no general and widely accepted means of measuring the complexity of a physical object, system, or process currently exists. This may reflect the nascent stage of our understanding of complex systems, which still lacks a general unified framework that cuts across all disciplines.” [8]

“Complexity is a mix of order and chaos.” [9]

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Fields Arranged by ‘Purity

[10]

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The Scientific Universe

[11]

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Of the subjects depicted in the two previous images, Logic and Mathematics are different from all the others. They’re not only more fundamental but also a priori, analytic, and deductive, while the rest are empirical, synthetic, inductive, natural sciences.

Notice how in ‘The Scientific Universe’ (the image above) Formal Sciences is the only one of the five branches of science not mapped onto the scale of the universe.

Consequently, I think of the logic and mathematics not as part of the same spectrum but as its own category/spectrum ― a closely-related but separate kingdom of knowledge and truths.

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“The ultimate aim of modern biology is to explain all biology in terms of chemistry and physics ― the atomic level, where knowledge is more secure.” [12]

“From mind to anatomy and physiology, to cell physiology, to molecular biology, to atomic physics ― all this knowledge is assumed to rest on a firm bedrock of the laws of quantum mechanics, the newest and most complete theory of atomic structures and processes. Within this context, psychology becomes a branch of physics.” [13]

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“On one hand, the human mind, including consciousness and reflective thought, can be explained by activities of the central nervous system, which, in turn, can be reduced to the biological structure and function of that physiological system. Biological phenomena at all levels can be totally understood in terms of atomic physics, that is, through the action and interaction of the component atoms.

On the other hand, atomic physics, which is now understood most fully by means of quantum mechanics, must be formulated with an observer ― the mind ― as a primitive component of the system. Heisenberg stressed that the laws of nature no longer dealt with elementary particles, but with our knowledge of these particles ― that is, with the contents of our minds.” [13]

This seems like an example of a “strange loop” ― a phenomenon discussed in (and central to) Gödel, Escher, Bach.

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[14]

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Major Evolutionary Transitions

“Also referred to as ‘metasystem transitions’;
abiogenesis’ means the beginning of life.” [15]

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Although the lens of emergence ― this way of organizing things ― seems obvious in hindsight, for the first twenty or so years of my life, I didn’t really think about things this way ― at least not beyond a sort of compartmentalized conception of the progression from atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. So encountering this perspective gave me this clarity I didn’t know I’d been lacking ― about both the relationships between the subjects I’d been taught so many years in school, and humanity’s place in the universe.

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[16]

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“Intelligence is the source of technology, so if we can use technology to improve intelligence, that closes the loop and potentially creates a positive feedback cycle. Let’s say we invent brain-computer interfaces that substantially improve human intelligence. What might these augmented humans do with their improved intelligence? Well, among other things, they’ll probably design the next generation of brain-computer interfaces. And then, being even smarter, the next generation can do an even better job of designing the third generation. This hypothetical positive feedback cycle was pointed out in the 1960’s by I. J. Good, a famous statistician, who called it the ‘intelligence explosion’. The purest case would be an artificial intelligence rewriting its own source code. The key idea is that if you can improve intelligence even a little, the process accelerates. It’s a tipping point.” [Eliezer Yudkowsky]

“The technological singularity is a hypothetical future point in time when technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. According to the most popular version of the hypothesis, an upgradable AI would enter a ‘runaway reaction’ of self-improvement cycles. These iterations of recursive self-improvement could accelerate, potentially allowing enormous qualitative change before any upper limits imposed by the laws of physics or theoretical computation set in. Each new generation would appear more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence that would far surpass all human intelligence.” [17]

[Pannenkoek] “Sounds like it should be called the ‘technological event horizon’.”

“It’s an open question whether the consequences of the singularity would be for the better or for the worse. The potential upside is enormous, but the potential downside includes existential risk. And the initial conditions we create for such a system would be of utmost importance.” [18]

[Pannenkoek] “That last part about the importance of the initial conditions reminds me of chaos, in the mathematical sense.”

“Superintelligence would be the last invention biological man would ever need to make.” [18]

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Kurzweil’s Epochs

[19]

“Epoch 1 began with the Big Bang, and Epoch 2 began with abiogenesis, the beginning of life on Earth. Currently, we’re in Epoch 4. During Epoch 6, vastly expanded, predominantly non-biological human intelligence spreads through the universe, and patterns of matter and energy become saturated with intelligent processes and knowledge.” [19]

“The Omega Point is a theoretical cosmological state in the distant future in which intelligent life takes over all matter, and the computational capacity of the observable universe reaches its maximum.” [20]

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I don’t think (or hope) the majority of the predictions of these last few theories are likely to come true, but I do think they’re very poetic.

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“Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick asked Carl Sagan his opinion on how to best depict extraterrestrial intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sagan, while acknowledging Kubrick’s desire to use actors to portray humanoid aliens for convenience’s sake, argued that alien life forms were unlikely to bear any resemblance to terrestrial life, and that to do so would introduce ‘at least an element of falseness’ to the film. He proposed that the film suggest, rather than depict, extraterrestrial superintelligence. Kubrick hinted at the nature of the mysterious unseen alien race by suggesting, in a 1968 interview, that given millions of years of evolution, they progressed from biological beings to ‘immortal machine entities’, and then into ‘beings of pure energy and spirit’ with ‘limitless capabilities and ungraspable intelligence’.” [21]

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The most beautiful thing I’ve come across related to this topic is this illustrated version of Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Last Question, which I’ll link here. It’s about a 15-minute read, and I highly encourage you to give it a look. Otherwise, the following is a brief summary of the plot.

“The story deals with the development of a series of computers, Multivac, and its relationships with humanity, beginning in 2061. In each of the first six scenes, a different character presents the computer with the same question, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted: ‘How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?’ This is equivalent to asking, ‘Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics be reversed?’ Multivac’s only response after much ‘thinking’ is, ‘Insufficient data for meaningful answer.

The story jumps forward in time into later eras of human and scientific development. In each era, someone decides to ask the ultimate ‘last question’ regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time that Multivac’s descendant is asked the question, it finds itself unable to solve the problem, and all it can answer is, ‘There is as of yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

In the last scene, the single, god-like descendant of humanity ― the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion, trillion humans who have spread throughout the universe ― watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as matter and energy end. Humanity asks AC ― Multivac’s ultimate descendant that exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time ― the entropy question one last time, before the last of humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer but continues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. AC ultimately realizes that it hasn’t yet combined all of its available data in every possible combination and so begins the arduous process of rearranging and combining every last bit of information that it has gained throughout the eons. Eventually AC discovers the answer ― that the reversal of entropy is, in fact, possible ― but has nobody to report it to, since the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to answer by demonstration, since that will also create someone to who it can give the answer.

The story ends with AC’s pronouncement: ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.” [22]

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Citations

  1. Brian Holtz
  2. Scott Sampson
  3. Wikipedia’s Supervenience article
  4. harvard.edu
  5. S.E.P.’s Animal Consciousness article & William James
  6. Christof Coch
  7. (various sources)
  8. an old version of Wikipedia’s Complexity article
  9. various sources
  10. Randal Munroe
  11. Wikipedia’s Branches of Science article
  12. Francis Crick
  13. Harold J. Morowitz
  14. Robin Hanson, Wikipedia’s Great Filter article, & Kurzgesagt
  15. M. R. Gillings, M. Hilbert, D. J. Kemp, & Wikipedia’s Metasystem Transition article
  16. Gordon Moore & computerhistory.org
  17. Wikipedia’s Technological Singularity article
  18. Nick Bostrom
  19. Ray Kurzweil & Natalie Chelliah
  20. Wikipedia’s Frank J. Tipler article
  21. Wikipedia’s 2001: A Space Odyssey article
  22. Wikipedia’s The Last Question article
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