Emergence

Physics is the fundamental science in that it describes the workings of the universe at all scales.  No other science is so comprehensive.

Will our knowledge of physics finally lead us to a “Theory of Everything”?  Perhaps, but the Theory of Everything alone will not be able to describe, predict, or explain its full expression upon/within the universe—no more so than our musical notation system can explain how a Brahms symphony was composed, nor its effect upon the listener.

Reductionism states that the whole is the sum of its parts, but emergence states that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

There are many examples of emergent properties in the natural world, what one might call radical novelty.  Some examples:  crystal structure (e.g. a salt crystal or a snowflake), ripples in a sand dune, clouds, life itself.  Social organization (e.g. a school of fish or a city), consciousness.

John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) created a diagram that nicely illustrates an emergent property of the universe that is important to us.

The universe viewed as a self-excited circuit. Starting simply (thin U at right), the universe grows in complexity with time (thick U at left), eventually giving rise to observer-participancy, which in turn imparts “tangible reality” to even the earliest days of the universe.

Richard Wolfson writes,

At some level of complexity, emergent properties become so interesting that, although we understand that they come from particles that are held together by the laws of physics, we can’t understand or appreciate them through physics alone.

I like to think of emergence as an expression of creativity. Our universe is inherently creative, just as we humans express ourselves creatively through music, art, literature, architecture, and in so many other ways.

Creativity is the most natural process in the universe. It’s in our DNA.

But DNA alone can’t explain it.

References

Richard Wolfson, The Great Courses, Course No. 1280, “Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works”, Lecture 1: “The Fundamental Science”, 2011.


“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

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