Emergence is a very popular idea used to explain a wide variety of phenomena from why AI systems sometimes return bizarre responses to the processes leading to the formation of life and consciousness. One of the most remarkable phenomena ascribed to emergence is self-organization. Here we examine this facet of emergence as developed by Stuart Kauffman and ask if it answers the questions of life, evolution and consciousness.
“Where did we come from?” is a question that has been at the center of nearly every thinking human being since, well, since we started thinking. Every group, society or civilization has an answer or answers. For most, up until the last hundred years, the assumption either was that we have been here eternally or that we are here because some superior being made us.
The clockwork, deterministic universe of Newton, Laplace and others nudged God — this superior being — toward the sidelines. Then Darwin pushed God right out of the picture. Almost, anyway. There still was the problem of beginnings and something versus nothing. Stephen Hawking, Leonard Susskind and others say the quantum vacuum is all we need. Poof! God is gone.
We might say that the answer went from top down to bottom up. Rather than being created and intended in a top down view, the bottom up view says that we emerged from underlying materials and forces and our existence is based exclusively on random, purposeless natural causes.
Most in our culture aren’t buying it, despite a near monopoly in official cultural communication — that is through most media, entertainment and education. Maybe that’s because there remain some major gaps that some think are God-sized. Gaps like the fact that the quantum vacuum isn’t exactly empty, which still leaves a question of something vs. nothing. Gaps like where did the beautiful and effective laws of nature come from, and how did life begin? And, as neo-Darwinism is finding itself increasingly on its back foot, how can the remarkable diversity of life and apparently teleology resulting in conscious humans be explained? And where the heck did consciousness come from?
Stuart Kauffman is one who believes he may be on to the answer, or at least he may be on the path to an answer. As we saw in the last post, a great many are taking the emerging science of emergence, of which Kauffman is one of the pioneers, as if the task of solving these big mysteries is done…