A Review of The Emergence of Everything by Harold J. Morowitz, Oxford University Press, 2002.
WHO AMONG US HAS NOT USED THE WORD emergence in philosophical debate without a clear definition of what we mean? I, for one, am guilty as charged. It is clear that the universe began with very little structure but somehow atoms, chemicals, life and mind emerged from this primordial simplicity. But what is emergence exactly? It has something to do with growing structural complexity, novelty and the sum being greater than the parts, but how can we define emergence in an epistemologically sound way that can cover both elemental and biological evolution?
When I saw The Emergence Of Everything advertised in Scientific American, I naturally thought this book would help me to define emergence. Reading the cover endorsements supported this hope. Morowitz has two introductory chapters in which he summarizes the history of scientific, philosophical and theological thought up to the present. He uses this background to frame recent work on complexity and computer modeling as an introduction to the concept of emergence. The rest of the book consist of 28 examples of emergences from cosmogenesis through the emergence of stars, atoms, chemistry, life, civilization, mind, philosophy, and, finally, spirituality. This is a lot of ground to cover in 200 pages.
On the first page Morowitz says that something new and exciting is taking place in analytical thought, philosophy, religion and this, of course, is the paradigm of emergence. Later in the first chapter Morowitz explains that emergence is both a property of computer models and the systems being modeled and that they can both demonstrate novelty, that is, the emergence of something new into the universe. In computer models, as in nature, the possible combinations of the elements of one level are often transcomputable (could not be computed no matter how powerful your computer) so you must use pruning rules to only explore plausible combinations in your search for emergent structures in the next level. The premise is that when the mapping between the model and the system to be modeled is successful then you may have discovered the pruning rules used by nature and thus gain a deep insight into the laws of the universe.
At the end of the first chapter, Morowitz summarizes emergence by contrasting it with reduction. Where reduction tries to move from the whole to its parts, emergence tries to generate the properties of the whole from an understanding of the parts. This is a nice summary of the problem but it does not bring anything new to the table.
In the first chapter, the author stated that a clear epistemology is necessary to understand emergence, but in the second chapter he argued that we do not have a clear epistemology in which to frame emergence. At this point I began to wonder what the book was about since the author had admitted up front that we do not have the tools to understand the subject.
But it become clear in the last chapter, when Morowitz confessed that he had two agendas: to study emergence by examining a number of examples, and to look for the nature and operation of God in the emergent universe. His book is therefore really more of a work of theology than it is science. The theology is cloaked in scientific jargon and mathematical equations, but it is theology nonetheless.
Discussing the universe after the Big Bang, Morowitz emphasizes that the emergence of atoms is informatic and that something akin to mind has already entered the universe. Either he is placing the existence of information before the emergence of mind, which is a grave epistemological error, or he is placing the mind of God in the laws of physics, which is a creationist position. In the common evolutionary view, mind emerged from life with nervous systems. From mind sprang meaning, which is required before information can exist. In the evolutionary view, the Universe has no meaning save the meaning cast upon it by mind.
To say that information and mind entered the universe at the time of atomic emergence is either cloudy epistemology or a veiled attempt to imbed divinity in physical laws. I think it is both. This initial misstep in epistemology leads to a much larger problem when, in a later chapter, Morowitz shows an equation for the equivalent energy required for a binary decision and says that the equations for entropy have a noetic quality. Once mind has been introduced into physical laws it does not seem too far afield to attempt to calculate the energy required for a decision. After equating the thermodynamic formulation of entropy to the Information Theory formulation of entropy, Morowitz calculates the energy equivalent of a binary decision. In his Information Theory, Claude Shannon made it clear that this information has no value, that is, it does not reference meaning or consciousness, it is just an engineering tool for describing the capacity of a communication channel. Morowitz disregarded this caveat, making a large epistemological error in assigning a calculated energy value to a decision.
The problem is that only minds/brains can make decisions. To attribute the energy equivalence of a decision is ludicrous, as we do not know how brains make decisions, but the chances are high that the brain requires an amount of energy astronomically larger than 10-21 joules, which is the result of Morowitz’s calculations for a binary decision. This is an attempt to show a noetic aspect in the laws of physics and to show that God is lurking in our equations. Morowitz is not doing anyone any favors by his efforts. Most creationists know better then to try to prove God’s existence using the laws of physics, philosophers will take issue with his sloppy epistemology and physicists will bemoan his perversion of science and mathematics to theological ends.
Morowitz characterizes emergence as the sum being more than the parts. He references this description several times. I had encountered and pondered this expression in the past and it seems to mean that the behavior of the higher-level system could not be predicted by looking at the elements of the lower level. After thinking about this phrase again while reading Morowitz’s book, it seems to me that the phrase is more about human expectations than emergence itself. The phrase speaks to our limitations of knowledge, not about physical emergence. This brings up the same question about emergence. Emergence seems to be both a mental construct and a physical phenomena, and Morowitz does not make a clear epistemological distinction between the two, which clouds the whole book. He says that emergence is the opposite of reduction, but reduction is an analytical methodology. Is emergence, then, simply analysis in the opposite direction? The epistemology here is so cloudy you are never sure if any particular usage of “emergence” refers to a methodology, a noun used to name a particular type of emergence, or a verb describing the coming into being of novelty.
Morowitz wants to predict emergences but admits that we do not have the required pruning rules. In fact, he asks his readers to help in the hunt for pruning rules. This dashed all my hopes built by the cover endorsements. He asks the right questions but has no answers. The fact is that all emergences are postdictive but not predictive for the reasons he states. There are so many possible combinations of matter and energies that all we can do is look at the things that actually do emerge and then try to explain them by reduction. In physics there have been many novel inventions that were based on understanding the properties of matter. The atomic bomb and lasers spring to mind. Are these emergences or just inventions? Under Morowitz’s epistemology there is no way to know how to classify these truly novel creations.
The book’s overview of the various levels of emergence is a good introduction to the concepts if you have never considered them. Morowitz is at his best describing his field of molecular biology. But I did not find that he brought anything new to the table. I had hoped for a defining piece on emergence, but instead I got a book on theology.
About the author
Joe Cuchiara works in R&D for a large telecommunications company located in southern California. He studied neurology and worked in the field of electroencephalography and participated in brain research in a group at UCSD in La Jolla, California. He is a life long student of the history of science and the cognitive sciences. Mr. Cuchiara is a sculptor and painter and characterizes his philosophy as Evolutionary Secular Humanism.