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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.