Tag Archives: emergence

Everything arises bottom-up

It occurs to me that, as we’ve come to understand things better, often a “top down” conception of how something arises has been replaced by a “bottom up” account.

An obvious example is political authority.  The Medieval concept of a God-appointed ruler issuing commands by divine right has been replaced by agreement that legitimate political authority arises bottom-upwards, from the consent of “we the people”.

Similarly, human rights are sometimes supposed to be absolute principles with which people are “endowed by their Creator”.  But, in reality they are collective agreements, deriving from human advocacy about how we want people to be treated, and thus resting only on their widespread acceptance.  Does that make them more insecure, more alienable?  Maybe (and perhaps that’s why some attempt to treat them as absolute and objective), but that’s all there is to it. 

It’s the same with the wider concept of morality. Many have sought to anchor morality in the solid foundation of either a divinity or objective reason.  But neither works: morality derives from human nature and human values. It bubbles up from each of us, leading to wider societal norms and expectations, rather than being imposed on us from outside. Some see that as producing only a second-rate morality, but wanting there to be an objective morality to which a supra-human authority will hold us doesn’t make such a scheme tenable. 

Likewise, principles of fairness and justice can only be rooted in human evaluations of what is fair or just.  There isn’t anything else, no objective scale against which we can read off a quantification of “justness” or “fairness”, any more than there is for moral “oughtness”. What we call “natural justice” is justice rooted in our human feelings of what is fair.  Beyond human society, nature is literally incapable of knowing or caring about concepts of “fairness”, “justice” or “morality”. These are human concepts arising from ourselves. 

And then there are concepts of meaning and purpose. Some argue that, without a God, there can be no meaning or purpose to life.  They tell us that, unless there is an afterlife, our lives are ultimately pointless. But the only forms of meaning and purpose that exists are the purposes that we create for ourselves and the meanings that we find in our lives. As thinking, feeling, sentient creatures we create purposes and we find things meaningful.  That they are local and time-limited doesn’t make them less real.  

But then sentience and consciousness also bubble up from below, forming out of patterns of non-sentient matter. These local and temporary patterns of material stuff arise as a product of evolution, that creates such patterns (“brains”) to do the job of facilitating survival and reproduction. 

It’s the same with intelligence. The top-down conception that the universe starts with intelligence, which dribbles down from there, is wrong.  Rather, intelligence bubbles up from non-intelligent precursors. Over evolutionary time, successive generations of animals developed greater capabilities to sense their environment, to process the information, and then compute a response.

Of course life itself is the same, arising out of non-life.  We’ve long ditched the dualistic notion of elan vital giving spark to inanimate matter.  Simple molecules can replicate because atoms of the same type act like each other, and so, in simple circumstances, simple collections of matter behave similarly. And it complicates from there as simple structures aggregate into complex ones. And when replicators get sufficiently complicated we call them “life”. 

The above traces social sciences into biology and into biochemistry and simple chemistry.  But maybe the same bottom-up approach also applies to physics.

Richard Feynman starts his Lectures by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis, that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

And everything builds from there. 

But even atoms are built of particles, and as for what “particles” are, well we are still pretty unclear on what the ultimate ontology is.

How about causation? It’s a fundamental concept on the macroscopic scale that thing happen at time t+1 because of how things were at time t. But even that may be an  emergent property, since causation gets less clear at the microscopic scale. Quantum indeterminacy holds that things occur for no discernible reason. A virtual particle pair can just arise, with no proximate cause. 

Maybe the concept of time is similar. Special Relativity has long destroyed the idea that there is a time that is absolute and the same for everyone.  Maybe time bubbles up and emerges so that we can only talk sensibly about “time” at a macroscopic level.  Such speculations are beyond established physics, but are being advocated by Carlo Rovelli and others.

And lastly there is space.  Again, the conception of space as an inert, static backdrop in which everything else plays out has long been overturned. Relativity tells us that space is distorted and warped by matter, such that it can no longer be thought of a separate from the matter it interacts with.  Speculative theories suggest that space itself may be created at the local, particle level from the quantum entanglement of adjacent particles.   

All of which leaves me wondering whether there is anything left for which a top-down conception is still tenable.  And, further, does the bottom-up nature of physics at the particle level necessitate that all higher-level properties are emergent bottom-up creations?