Journal Entry: Tue Jan 26, 2010, 1:49 PM
The Possible Necessity of Consciousness as an Emergent Property of a Highly Complex Successfully Systems
The thought came to me while listening to Steven Johnson talk about emergence. I read his book a few years ago, and its ideas never left me. The core of emergence is this, amazingly complex and intricate properties can arise from a seemingly simple set of rules. An ant colony is a classic example of this. By themselves each ant is well
stupid, but as a colony they are capable of amazing feats of seemingly intelligence. Our brains are another example of this, neurons and neutral connections somehow give rise
well to us, meaning the us US, the "I", the thing you think is sitting up in your head, like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Star Trek enterprise.
In this short interview I was listening to, he was again explaining the basic theory, and gave one of his favorite examples of an emergent system Google. Google's accurate results are based on a very simple set of rules
it counts that number of links to a website, and uses that data to measures the usefulness of the information it contains. With billions of web pages out, it would be impossible for a human conscious agent to categorize each web page, so using this simple premise, this categorization is performed.
What struck me is what he added to this, given his own experience with Google. His ranking became very high, and by association those sites that linked to him also rose in their search other ranking. After awhile he noticed that the comments posted to his site began to have less to do with emergence and science and more with Viagra, and male enhancement vitamins. The reason was obvious, the owners of these sites knew what he was getting a large number of hits, and wanted to ride that wave so he deleted the non-relevant links.
This seems like a simple act, but then I started thinking about other emergent systems, such as the economy. In economics there are two main schools (Keynesian vs. the Austrian School of economics). One basicly believes in the "invisible hand" of a free market economy
basically that an economic system works best if left alone, without government intervention, the other (Keynesian) believes that government intervention is required to stabilize the inequities inherent in a capitalist system.
I, not being an economist (thankfully), believes that the extremes of both systems have shown themselves to be flawed. Communism failed because of the one extreme, and the difficulties we are currently going through, because of the other.
In short, like the Google search engine, the visible hand of the free market works up to a point, but then an intervention of a conscious agent, that can see beyond part of the system to the whole, is needed to adjust it.
The question that I posed from this observation is whether some sort of conscious agency is required to correct natural emergent systems, just as it's true of the manmade systems described above. And if so, does this agent arise from the system itself, or is it something external.
It is a given that a conscious entity/agent can arise from an emergent system (i.e. look in the mirror). Of course the nature of our consciousness is another debate, and is one of the trickiest areas of both science and philosophy.
I will admit, this is a huge leap, but I started to think about some natural systems, such as evolution. One flaw I've also saw in evolution is in its basic premise survival of the fittest. In reality, and I believe this agrees with classic evolutional theory, it is survival of the fit enough (fit enough to exist in a particle environment it doesn't have to be the perfect fit), because if it was really survival of the fittest, it would seems to be that all life would just evolve into one, super-fit and adaptable state. Then I began thinking about early life on Earth, and realized for about 2 billion years, that's pretty much what happened.
Live evolved into a stable formed that survived very well in the environment on earth at the time, an environment filled with carbon dioxide, hydrogen, sulfur and
not oxygen in short a place very mush toxic to us. In this young Earth (why does that phrase scare me), Cyanobacteria, were pigs in pigs heaven, successful, simple and stable. Oxygen in fact was toxic to life as it existed. But yeah that's exactly what it created oxygen. By creating oxygen this early life ended its dominance (again a two billion year rain) and created an energy rich environment which acted as a catalyst for more complex life forms.
What possible evolutionary benefit could their possible be to create something that kills you?
And wait, life changed the environment, which drove evolution which changed the environment and spawn more evolution. It almost seems that life wanted to evolve.
I'm not an evolutionary biologist and I know there are a lot of steps I missed in the process, but the basic phenomenon I'm interested in is this:
The apparent randomness of nature that seems to negate the possibility of a self-aware force, yet the apparent order or deliberance of nature seems to support the idea of some sort of innate consciousness.
I've also thought about this way; imagine two systems, one with this conscious agency and one without. The very ability for one system to "see" itself, and it's overall structure will gives it's chance of survival a better chance and one without, and (again using ourselves as model) we see that such an agency does exist.
Let's looks at another example. Both early Earth and Venus were complex systems with roughly the same variables in play, yet one spawned life and one didn't.
On a much more fundamental level let's looks at determinism as a whole. Determinism states that if you know all the states of each agent/particle of a complex system, you will be able to determine with 100 percent certainty the system's future state. For example, if a super computer could map the position of each molecule of the universe, the computer would be able to determine the next action you're about to take not only that, but that action after to, and the action that you're great great grand daughter will take 100 years from now.
There is a major problem with this of course -things on the a sub-atomic level have different physics than things on the macro level. And below the Planck scale, there's
well nothing we can really know. And there is also the uncertainty principal which states that the more precisely one property is known (of a sub-atomic particle), the less precisely the other can be known.
In short, this means that it is impossible to know everything about a system; therefore determinism is a moot point.
Let's review what we know:
Consciousness can arise from a complex system as least in one form us
Most complex systems have emergent properties
It is impossible to predict with 100 certainty the future state of any complex system
Conscious agents (us) intervene in natural and socially constructed systems to deal with perceived adverse behavior
How we would know if is an emergence conscious that arises out of various complex system? What would we look for?
It seems to be, the markers of this would be non-random systemic behavioral changes that can't be explained by the sum of the system's parts. Unfortunately, this describes most emergent properties and in fact is at the core of the definition of emergence.
Mark A. Bedau observes:
"Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing."(Bedau 1997)
Then could emergence itself be considered some sort of consciousness.
Seeing that the brain is the only model we have for sure it seems that at least four factors have to be in-place for consciousness to arise.
1. The system has to be sufficiently complex
2. The system has to be made up of smaller parts that perform particular functions
3. These smaller agents (parts) need to be able to transfer information to other disparate agents
4. This information needs to be quickly shared and added to if needed thorough the whole system
This sounds like an ant colony to me, or a bee hive. How about a thunder storm, doesn't that meet this requirements? Yes, I believe so, but of course saying that these factors exist doesn't mean that these are the only factors that are needed.
So anyway, when our ancestor talked of innate objects having a sort of spirit, perhaps they were on to something. Perhaps this is one of those things we know, without knowing, or more rightly having a way to articulate.
I ahh, should stick with poetry.
Listening to: my echo and the abyss
Reading: tea leaves and chicken fat
Watching: YOU, spooky isn't it
Drinking: OK, now I'm drinking enough