Synergy and Emergence

English: Logo used by the Synergy project (htt...
English: Logo used by the Synergy project ( (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of synergy. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

Synergy is the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect different from or greater than the sum of their individual effects.

Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland is an exa...
Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is an example of a complex emergent structure created by natural processes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One man might be unable to move a heavy load, but two men working together might be able to move it easily. Ants individually can only move very small objects, but working together can build very large structures, their nests. Synergy is related to emergent phenomenon, where a complex system shows behaviours which are not apparent in the system’s constituent parts. For example a water molecule cannot said to have the property of “wetness”, but a large collection of water molecules does have that property. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.

English: A collage of organisms.
English: A collage of organisms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Synergy and emergent systems are found in all levels of physical and biological systems. In fact the whole of biology could be considered to be an emergent system from physics – animals, plants and other living things are after all, only collections of molecules, and molecules are not, of themselves, alive.

At the highest level of all, consciousness is an emergent system of the synergy of astronomical numbers of brain cells. At the lowest level, all of physics is an emergent system of the state of the universe at the beginning, the Big Bang.

English: Big Bang
English: Big Bang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After I wrote that I looked up “emergence” on Wikipedia and found this:

Biology can be viewed as an emergent property of the laws of chemistry which, in turn, can be viewed as an emergent property of particle physics. Similarly, psychology could be understood as an emergent property of neurobiological dynamics, and free-market theories understand economy as an emergent feature of psychology.

The writer of the Wikipedia article is obviously on the same page as me!

water-molecule-vector_500x500 (Photo credit: Shmector)

Each water molecule has a myriad of properties, none of which is “wetness”. However “wetness” can be explained by considering the behaviour of the various types of bonds that would be formed between water molecules and a consideration of how the molecules would move around each other, and react to other molecules such as those of the surface that the water is placed on. On some surfaces (such as the surface of a leaf) the molecules will organise themselves into “beads”, on others the water will “wet” the surface.

Water Beads
Water Beads (Photo credit: s_gibson72)

Obviously molecules don’t have volition, and the way I expressed the idea above is much too anthropomorphic, and indeed the behaviour can be described by referring to the physical behaviour of the water molecules, and there is nothing particularly mysterious about this, at least at the level at which I am pitching my suggested explanation.

Moving at the Speed of Life ...
Moving at the Speed of Life … (Photo credit: д§mд)

There are other emergent phenomena that are more difficult to explain. Life, for example. Living organisms are made up of various more or less esoteric chemical compounds, including some really, really large molecules. These large molecules (DNA) are made up of a small number of much smaller molecules (bases) which are strung together in the famous double helix. This double helix is folded in complex ways into truly enormous (at a chemical level) structures called chromosomes. These structures encode all the information necessary to create the organism.

Chromosome segregation during mitosis
Chromosome segregation during mitosis (Photo credit: TheJCB)

This in itself is a paradox – a small part of the organisation contains all the information necessary to construct the whole organism. It resembles a bootstrap situation. It seems to me that much of the genetic information  has to be instructions for constructing the information and not a detailed description of the organism.

Cells are complex and are individually alive, in some sense, since they are created, produce offspring and eventually die, but with some exceptions (unicellular organisms) a single cell can’t live on its own.

Chemistry Is What We Are
Chemistry Is What We Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But to get back to the subject, I’ve described (probably pretty badly) a lot of chemistry, but I haven’t been able to describe where life comes from. It’s difficult, but possible, to describe how cells function in a mechanical, chemical sense, but it is not easy to say what it is that makes them alive. You can tell from the over use of bold that I’m having difficulty expressing my meanings here!

Living cells make copies of themselves, but so do some mechanical or chemical processes. Crystals and snowflakes spring to mind. Living cells consume chemicals from their surroundings and so do some complex non-living processes (I’m thinking of weather systems that circulate water and air, but that’s maybe not a good example). Living cells are self organising, altering surroundings to suit themselves, it’s true, but they are simply little complex chemical factories. Where’s the life in that?

A diagram showing a mitochondrion of the eukar...
A diagram showing a mitochondrion of the eukaryotic cell. Mitochondria are organelles surrounded by membranes, distributed in the cytosol of most eukaryotic cells. Its main function is the conversion of potential energy of pyruvate molecules into ATP. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of the argument above, it is undeniable that life exists and practically, it is relatively easy to distinguish living things from non-living things. There are some “edge cases” though. Is a virus a living organism or merely a result of a chemical process. At the other end of the scale, is a rain forest a living organism? It certainly contains living organisms, but can the rain forest as an entity be described accurately as a living organism? My answer would be “probably yes” in both cases.

Computational consciousness
Computational consciousness (Photo credit: brewbooks)

The other example of emergence that I want to consider is “consciousness” and its cousin “mind”. We are conscious and we have minds, but are we the only animals that are conscious and have minds? I find the idea unlikely but possible. Animals have evolved over many millions of years and every feature of our bodies has been evolved gradually and incrementally. Our brains have evolved from one or two neurons in one of our ancestor’s bodies and have been incrementally expanded over a long long time.

English: Marine flatworm Pseudobiceros glorios...
English: Marine flatworm Pseudobiceros gloriosus. Lembeh straits, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Français : Pseudobiceros gloriosus, un plathelminthe. Détroit de Lembeh, nord de Célèbes, Indonésie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But our ancestor was not a human being and many animals with varying sized brains. Our pets and the bird outside the window have evolved from that animal. Consciousness and mind are related to the brain, so it is highly likely that as the brain evolved, so did mind and consciousness, which implies that our pets and the bird in the tree and all other animals with brains has a greater or lesser consciousness and mind.

It is possible, but unlikely that there is some threshold where an increasingly complex brain becomes conscious. My dog acts as if it were conscious and has a mind, but that could be merely a mechanical function of the brain. Personally I doubt it. I think that lower animals like dogs are conscious, have a mind and are self-aware, but at a lower level than humans.

Dog dog
Dog dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no test for consciousness so far as I know. Oh, if an unconscious person’s eyelids flicker, we might say that he is “coming round”, but it could be that these mechanical processes could have no consciousness behind them. A similar argument is the “android” argument – if a man is replaced by an android, which has no consciousness or mind, and the android completely emulates the behaviour of a conscious and minded person, how would we tell, and by emulating the behaviour, would the android in fact possess a mind and consciousness?

Android x86
Android x86 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s another way of putting the question “what is this emergent phenomenon called consciousness, and how does it arise from the way that the brain works”. I’ve read some discussion of this issue by various philosophers, and I still have no opinion on the matter.

This article has expanded to well over my self-imposed target of 1000 words. It is however a subject that I find interesting, and I hope that any readers do so too.

globe of blogs
globe of blogs (Photo credit: shankargallery)
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Blogging – how is it going?

blogging (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

When I started this blog, 60-odd posts ago, I had no idea where it was going. Of course I had some ideas on what I wanted. Philosophy, cooking and photography. As it turns out, there’s been a bit of philosophy going on, but it’s not been centre stage, as it were. There’s been a decline in the cooking posts, which I intend to remedy sooner or later, and the photography has been non-existent. That’s because most of my photography has gone into my Facebook page.

So what have I been blogging about? I looked back and, well, I’m surprised to note that my posts, were philosophical in tone, but not necessarily what I’d call “philosophically motivated”, but often triggered by events that have come to my attention either in my personal life or in the media. Some serious and some not serious. As an example this post has turned into a philosophical review of earlier posts.

P philosophy
P philosophy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what can I reflect on over 60-odd posts, apart from my apparent tendency to seek deeper meaning in the relatively trivial? Because I don’t consider my posts to be “deeply meanignful”.

Well one aspect of this one-a-week blogging thing strikes me immediately. I am a procrastinator and my previous attempts at blogging or similar have failed miserably. Currently I am up to 60-odd posts and still going. (Pats self on back). What is different this time?

English: Old gatepost Field openings used to b...
English: Old gatepost Field openings used to be closed by putting posts in the holes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, one of the factors I think is WordPress. As a confirmed technophile, I have tried many other solutions, and even tried the DIY approach. I can speak several computer languages like a native, and I can achieve passable programs in several others. I don’t care what language it is, if I want to learn it for anything, it doesn’t take me long. (Note to self: write an article about programming “in the zone” and “thinking in a programming language”!)

WordPress (Photo credit: Adriano Gasparri)

WordPress is different in that I don’t have to program anything. I just write my thoughts in a fairly forgiving editor, add a few images and click the “Publish” button. No doubt there are other similar systems out there, but I came across WordPress and it works for me. I can bash out 1000-ish words per week and cast them into the ether, or at least the Internet, and I have achieved my self-imposed goal.

cassini science targets
cassini science targets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What happens when it gets out there depends on whether my thinking resonates with others out there on the Internet. I get emails saying that so-and-so “liked” a post, which is nice, or that so-and-so is now “following” my posts, which is nicer, but comments on my posts are rare. Insert not-smiley emoticon. I’m not sure why. Maybe I should solicit and respond to comments? Insert smiley emoticon.

Smiley Rocks
Smiley Rocks (Photo credit: w3i_yu)

Anyhow, I like WordPress and it works for me, but there are probably, almost certainly, other blogging systems that would do as well, each with their own quirks and wrinkles. I wouldn’t presume to say that WordPress is the best or that WordPress is for everyone. But it works for me.

I aim to do approximately 1000 words per post (the editor tells me I’m just over half way there – helpful). I base this on the concept that if the post is too long, it won’t get read to the end, unless it is *really* interesting. I don’t aspire to be more than 1000 words interesting! I think that’s reasonable and I hope it *is* reasonable, otherwise I’m wasting my time.

English: This is a modification of File:200902...
English: This is a modification of File:20090211 thousand words-01.jpg, which I digitally cropped, to remove the title and the copyright notice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I started this blog, I decided that I would post on Friday or Saturday each week. That has slid out to Tuesday occasionally, but I’m pleased to say that I have maintained the once a week target since I decided to attempt it. Yay! There are personal reasons why Friday and Saturday are not conducive to blog writing, and Sunday is the day that I am (effectively) targetting these days. I’m writing this on a Sunday.

Who am I blogging to? I putting these posts out there, on the Internet, and presumably I hope that someone will read them. Actually, that not as clear cut as all that. While I love the idea that some people might find my posts (ruminations? ramblings?) interesting, I don’t think that I’d be disappointed if nobody read them. If anyone does, please comment with “Hey, Cliff, I read the post.” Extra comments optional!

Duty Calls
Duty calls.

Blogging is a narcissistic occupation. The blogger puts his thoughts out there, on the Internet, because he thinks his thoughts are of some value. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. It doesn’t matter to the blogger, or at least to this blogger.  If you figure out the millions of bloggers world-wide and the number of postings that they make per day, it is unlikely that any one blogger is likely to attract a lot of attention. Unless they happen to be President of the United States or something.

I’m always grateful when someone comments on my posts though. I don’t think that the blogging medium is particularly good for having a conversation or discussion though, as I don’t spend a lot of time on it, and I don’t get a huge number of comments. I do know that some people do end up with 1000s of comments on their posts, but those blogs tend to be specialised – political blogs for example. I don’t have such a detailed target, so I’m happy with the few comments and likes that I get.

Models of Blogs: Blog as Participant in Conver...
Models of Blogs: Blog as Participant in Conversation (3 of 3) (Photo credit: robinhamman)
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Three philosophers

Morton's Fork in Labels (Extra #252)
Morton’s Fork in Labels (Extra #252) (Photo credit: Cycrolu)

In this post I’m going to talk about three statements about three particular situations which are basically the same. The first one was made by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century. The second was made in the book “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. And the third was made by Bart Simpson in the Simpson’s cartoon.

Morton’s Fork, as defined in the Wikipedia article linked to above is as follows:

A Morton’s Fork is a specious piece of reasoning in which contradictory arguments lead to the same (unpleasant) conclusion. It is said to originate with the collecting of taxes by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century, who held that a man living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them.

Obviously there are counter examples to Morton’s assertions. A man living “modestly” may be simply living on a modest income, and a person living extravagantly may well be spending money that he does not have and be sliding into debt. The Wikipedia article does not record whether or not Morton’s Fork succeed in its aim, which was presumably to extract more tax money from tax payers, but I suspect its effect was minimal.

English: Catch 22 With a little imagination th...
English: Catch 22 With a little imagination the bus company could have called this service, seen at Scunthorpe bus terminal, not “Shuttle 22” but “Catch 22”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22”, the protagonists are pilots, bombardiers and other aircrew ranks during the second World War. Yossarian and his associates have to contend not only with the enemy, but also with the bumbling stupidity of military rules and the equalling bumbling stupidity or malice of the commanding officers.

Anti-war demonstration, Seattle, Washington, 1...
Anti-war demonstration, Seattle, Washington, 19 March 2007. Marchers head south on Fifth Avenue. Sign: “Iraq: Blood and stupidity”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good example is the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent. The man had actually survived a mission in which many of his crew mates had died, but since he had be recorded as having been killed, the military refused to acknowledge his existence. He was forced to live a shadowy existence, living in Yossarian’s tent.

Tent op kamp
Tent op kamp (Photo credit: florisla)

Catch 22 is a non-existent military rule. The book defines it like this:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

Obviously Orr could not want to fly the missions and still be crazy, or be crazy and still want to fly them, so the logical bind fails, and for analogous reasons to Morton’s Fork. Such situations are sometimes referred to as paradoxes, but I don’t think that they are, unless they can be considered a special type of paradox called an antinomy. I think that Morton’s Fork and Catch 22 work by excluding valid situations from consideration, and hence are failures of the logical argument.

Bart Simpson statue
Bart Simpson statue (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

In the Simpson cartoon “Bart the Genius”, Bart Simpson cheats his way into a school for intellectually advanced students by stealing another student’s test paper. Bart is pretty much out of his depth from the start, as the other students quickly detect that he is not intellectually advanced as is claimed. In the classroom students are asked to come up with an example of a paradox. Under pressure Bart blurts out “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t”. This is grudgingly accepted as a paradox by the teacher.

Animatie van Olbers paradox Olbers' paradox is...
Animatie van Olbers paradox Olbers’ paradox is the argument that the darkness of the night sky conflicts with the supposition of an infinite and eternal static universe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a marital situation Bart’s formulation is well known. One partner asks a innocuous question. The other party knows that that there are two possible answers, neither of which is going to lead to a positive outcome. “Do you mind if I watch the rugby?” is going to lead to significant grumpiness or an argument if the answer is yes, or a couple of hours of boredom and noise if the answer is no.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Of course couples evolve methods for resolving such issues. Maybe a good book and a gin and tonic in another room is a solution or maybe the rugby might turn out to be interesting after all.

Married (Photo credit: hjrosasq)

Bart’s expression of the idea is slightly different. In the first two the idea is expressed in terms of rules, Morton’s Fork being about tax, and Catch 22 in a rule about sanity and flying dangerous missions. Bart’s is a more general cry from the heart, about the cantankerousness of the world.

Life sucks
Life sucks
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Rain camera

It might be a little perverse to write about rain when I look out of the window and see brilliant sunshine, but on the other side of the world they are thinking about building arks! They have had more than their fair share of rainy days recently, maybe more than forty of them perhaps.

In the West of England. south of the Mendip hills is an area I know quite well. It is known as the “Somerset Levels” and is essentially a large are of low lying land that would be either under water or marshy if it were not for the drains and pumps that keep the area relatively dry.

Map of the Somerset Levels, UK (and surroundin...

In the current few months torrential rain has fallen on the whole of the UK and in the Somerset Levels this has caused problems with the drainage systems. The rivers are full and overflowing which means that there is nowhere to pump the water from the low-lying areas, and large parts of the Levels have been flooded.

Some locals complain that the reason for the flooding is that the rivers have not been dredged by the local councils and so can’t carry the amount of water that they should be able to. Even if this is true, which it may well be, it is hard to see how the rivers could cope with the vat amounts of water that will have to be pumped off the levels.

Blagdon Pumping Station

North of the Mendip Hills is another low lying area which I am not sure can be considered part of the Levels. However this area has (so far as I know) been pretty much untouched by the floods. It is interesting to note that the village of Nailsea was originally on an island though it would be hard to tell that now. Besides the village has expanded vastly even in the time that I’ve known North Somerset, so most of it would probably be flooded if the waters came back.

English: Steam pumping engine Curry Moor Somer...

Most of the roads in the Levels follow the rivers and drainage channels and tend to be pretty straight, most of the time. Many of them date for Roman times or earlier and they were built over marshy land. The original road builders made causeways of bundles of reeds as foundations for the roads and new roads were simply built over the old roads. Over the years the reed bundles have not all rotted away equally, and as a result in some places the road level varies. As a result if you drive fast along some of the straighter roads it can feel like a gentle rollercoaster and can induce motion sickness in susceptible people.

Floods On The Levels - 3

It can also cause drivers to lose control and end up the drainage channel or rhyne, as they are known as in Somerset. This happened to a friend of mine, who then had to get the farmer to drag his car out of the rhyne. This obviously was not the first such happening at that spot (which was on a slight bend) because the car came out with someone else’s number plate hooked to the back.

My friend took another friend to show him where the accident had occurred and, in reversing the car onto a little bridge over the rhyne, missed the bridge and the car ended up in the rhyne again. The farmer, who towed him out again, grumpily mentioned that if this happened much more, he’d have to start charging.

English: Edmund, OK, June 15, 2010 --A car lie...

I should not give the impression that the flooding issues recently (2013-2014) were only in the West of England. I’ve seen reports of flooding in many areas of the UK, including low lying areas around the Thames and in places in the Weald, south of the North Downs and north of the South downs. There were even floods near my old school, in an area that I would not have thought to have been prone to flooding. These are only the places that I recall being flooded and I’ve remembered them because I know the areas. Other places were also flooded.

The River Mole Bursts Its Banks In Leatherhead

The recent heavy rain in the UK is unprecedented or at least very uncommon. It could be that this is merely a conjunction of unusual events that have happened by chance, or it could be that the cause is global warning, or at least global change. If it is caused by global warming, this could be caused by human activity or it be caused by something else, such as changes in the sun.

Global Warming

I tend to think that the increases in temperature and the changes in climate are undeniable and probably due to the activities of humans. I say “increases in temperature”, but the recent very cold weather in the USA probably a result of the warming too, as the changes in climate are all linked. As you raise one end of a balance you cause the other end to dip. Or it may be simply that the climate variations are becoming more extreme.

Since at the end of January and the beginning of February 2014 is close to a new moon, tides will be higher than usual. As result the storm swell which increases the height of a tide is going to cause flooding in coastal areas. While this is not directly related to rain, already sodden coastal areas can expect even more flooding.

IMGP7820-king tide over footpath

As a side note, the “king tides” caused by lunar conjunction have caused minor flooding in some areas in Auckland, New Zealand. However the weather is fine here, and it is mid-summer so people have been out and about observing and even enjoying the high tide. A recreational area has been partly flooded by the tide and provided some safe fun for children in canoes and on boogie boards.

Auckland residents have all headed to the beach to experience the super high tides, but because of the high tides there was little beach to see! Still, people had fun riding through the shallow water in the cycle lanes beside the motorway with other canoeing alongside them!

Wild Wild West

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