Summary: Starting from complexity fundamentals, Daniel Schmactenberger describes the world and briefly makes a case that your purpose is to create a happier future for all life.
This is an edited transcript for a video of a talk. Some beauty was lost during transcription in exchange for readability. I chose to 80/20 the editing by mostly keeping his compound sentence structure instead of trying to make it read like a post. If you too find Daniel's message meaningful, I'm willing to be convinced to edit further.
What I want to talk about today is what emergence is as a phenomenon, and as a property that's actually essential to understand the nature of the Universe we live in, that’s actually essential to understand what it means to be human, and that is essential for understanding the basis for meaning, for ethics, for existentialism. And then also what that portends for the future of civilization, and addressing some of the things that are concerning and that are exciting.
You can consider the next 20 minutes (or however long this is) as kind of an extemporaneous rambling ode to emergence itself, a kind of love talk about how cool it is that Universe actually has this property, and that we can understand and participate with it.
Let's start by defining.
What is emergence? Emergence means something new arises that wasn't here before. We all kind of have that sense intuitively. But scientifically, how does that happen? How do you bring particles or planets or anything together, and all of a sudden the whole has some properties that none of the parts had? Where do they come from? Which is why in the fields of science that study emergence - evolutionary theory and biology and system science and complexity theory - it's considered the closest thing to magic that's actually a scientifically kind of admissible term.
But it's still sketchy, in terms of really understanding how this thing works. Because how do we get fundamentally new things out of relationships of things where they didn't exist before? This is fascinating. How do you have a cell that respirates, made up of molecules, none of whom respirate? It's really interesting when you actually think about this.
We have a paired term that is key in understanding emergence: synergy. Synergy and emergence are two sides of the same phenomenon. Synergy creates a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts; emergence is, what is that greater whole? What is the new stuff that emerges out of bringing things together? Synergy is more formally defined as properties of whole systems that aren't found in any of the parts taken separately, which also means properties that are fundamentally unpredicted by the parts taken separately. Which portends a future that is fundamentally ontologically unpredictable from the current state of the future. Which is very different than a mechanistic, clock-unfolding, Newtonian understanding of the future, and yet still actually makes sense in terms of scientific laws. Super interesting, right?
So synergy is this property of relationship where the whole has new properties that the parts didn't have. Emergence is a result of synergy; synergy is a result of relationship.
Relationship is a result of attractive forces. There are some different kinds of attractive forces. Whether it's gravity bringing dust together into planets, or planets together into solar systems, whether it's electromagnetism bringing subatomic particles together into atoms, or the strong force bringing quarks together into protons, whether it's bringing people together via pheromones, or love, or intellectual affinity, or a topic that we're all interested in, like creating a better world - each of those wholes are emergent properties driven by synergy, driven by relationship, driven by attractive forces.
Bucky Fuller called love "metaphysical gravity" - in the same way that gravity and physical forces act on physical bodies to attract them, we have metaphysical forces that act on metaphysical bodies to drive attraction.
Imagine if you think about all of the attractive forces as expressions of a fundamental principle of allurement. There is a principle of Universe by which separate things have reason to come together, that offers advantage that being separate doesn't have. Think about all of the forces as special case applications of that. Imagine if that wasn't the case. Imagine if we had a Universe where allurement wasn't a fundamental principle of it: the whole thing would have stopped at quantum foam. You have quantum foam emerge, you don't even quite get to the point of subatomic particle, and that's it - because nothing attracts to then have synergy and emergent properties.
I have a friend and collaborator, Mark Gaffney, who calls this universe a love story. At the heart of the evolutionary story is this love story; it's actually attraction driving the whole evolutionary story. Attraction driving relationship driving synergy driving new emergent properties driving net novelty and new creation and the arrow of evolution. So we can understand the arrow of evolution itself in terms of this set of phenomena together.
So then evolution, in complexity theory, is defined most generally in terms of more elegantly ordered complexity. That's actually the best definition we have in terms of mathematical complexity theory (coming out of Santa Fe Institute). The definition has the word elegance built right into it, because it's again one of these actually fairly mysterious properties. But elegance is key to it, because bringing things together doesn't give you emergent properties. Bringing them together in a particularly elegantly ordered way does.
Think about all the parts that make up a cell. You've got all these nonliving parts: DNA and cell nucleus structures and all the different organelles and cytoplasm. They're all not living, and then the cell is living. If you brought all those parts together but you didn't arrange them as a cell, if it was just a bunch of molecules, it wouldn't be that interesting, right? It would just be goo. If you took the trillion cells that made you and you didn't arrange them exactly this way, and you just had like, 150 pounds of cells, it would be much less interesting. Even though there would be just as much complexity, you wouldn't have the order in the complexity which is where the emergent property comes from. That's actually the relationship. It’s not just heaps coming together, it's not just complexity, it's wholes. The difference between a whole and a heap is order, and a specific set of patterns of order.
This means not every relationship is synergistic. Some relationships are entropic. They actually create the opposite direction of new emergent properties: they destroy some properties that were already there. Right? Almost everyone has some examples… You can bring chemicals together that rather than self-organizing to create higher ordered molecules with new thermodynamic properties, they have an exothermic entropic reaction and drop to lower levels of organization. This is true at all levels.
So it's not just relationship, it's specific kinds of relationship that maximize synergy. This is a key thing to understand about the nature of Universe.
It's also the case that if you bring a bunch of the same thing together, you don't get very interesting synergies. You get very interesting synergies when you bring different things with different properties together in the right format, where then you have the properties of each of those things and then the properties of the relationship between those, which is the new stuff. And you get emergence. So you've got hydrogen and you've got oxygen, which are different things, and you bring them together and you get water, the basis for life. But neither hydrogen or oxygen at room temperature are liquids. This is a fascinating thing.
So we're actually very interested in having deep synergistic relationships with differences that lead to fundamentally new emerging properties. So it's not just net complexity, it's ordered complexity, and it's elegantly ordered complexity.
And when you get a new property, then Universe selects on that. That new property may offer some evolutionary advantage to the system that a system without that property wouldn't have. Things can come together all kinds of ways, but the combinations that come together most synergistically offer and confer the most advantage, and Universe selects for it. So Universe is actually selecting for more differences. It's selecting for diversity, and then more synergistic combinations across those differences. It's both of those: more diversity and more unification across the diversity. More agency and more symbiosis at the same time is what defines the arrow of evolution.
A thing that is a separate autonomous agent, like a cell, you can think of as having its own agency, its own ability to act, its own boundary and periphery. But if you bring a bunch of cells together, this collection of cells can reflect on consciousness and existentialism, and have a conversation like this, even though none of those cells on their own do that. And it's the combination of different kinds of cells: you couldn't do that with just neurons. It takes neurons and glial cells and immune cells and stem cells et cetera to all come together. More agency, more differentiation, more orderly relationship, more synergy, all of that comes together and the net defining thing is emergence. How much fundamental new advantage arises? That's what evolution selects for.
The evolutionary Universe story
I'm going to just skim over the top of a bunch of topics and hopefully paint a gestalt at least of an arc that's interesting.
The kind of new best story of Universe we have emerging from the intersection of all the sciences - is that we have an evolutionary Universe that doesn't require a creator / agent / deistic or theistic god to create, but is also not just a random highly improbable set of movements to get us here, but rather there is a set of properties that give us a self-organizing (rather than a creative agent / creative principle Universe) that is moving towards more elegant ordered complexity.
As with that story on the physical, you also have the evolution of consciousness structures themselves. As you move from a reptilian nervous system to the increased orderly complexity of a mammalian, then a neocortical, then a prefrontal nervous system you move from the kinds of sentience that map to pain and pleasure at reptilian to emotional to cognition to abstraction. So we have a Universe that's moving in the direction of not only more elegance, but greater depths and breadth of consciousness itself. This defines an arrow of evolution that reifies meaning in a very interesting way.
One of the things that's so interesting is with our capacity for abstraction, we can think not just about our experiential self of the moment, but we can think about ourselves in abstract terms - we can think about time abstractly, deep past and deep future. That is what allows us to actually understand evolution itself. It's an understanding of deep past and fossil record and astrophysics that give us a sense of the ability to abstract laws of how that change occurs over time, which allows us a deeper insight as to how we got here, and then also the ability to envision a future fundamentally more beautiful and more interesting, and then be part of that creative process.
So it's worthwhile noting that our prefrontal cortex / our capacity for abstraction is a pretty new phenomena evolutionarily. It's also very powerful set of capabilities, and when you have a new phenomena that's very powerful, you're not going to know how to use it that well. Many of its applications will be destructive until you figure it out. So we can think about the future as worry, we can think about the past as regret, we can think about self abstractly in terms of negative self comparison. So then we have spiritual ideals emerge that basically say, 'This is all bad. Mind and the ability for abstraction like this is bad. We should not think about the future at all, or think about the past, and just be in the moment, like the other animals and children are. See how happy they are?' But that's a regressive spirituality that is actually rejecting the fundamentally novel human capability that emerged, rather than accept it say, 'Let's learn how to use this well for its evolutionary purposes in a fundamentally evolving Universe.'
So if we learn how to use it well, then we say, 'How can we learn from the past how Universe works, to be able to imagine a true and good and beautiful future in an omniconsiderate way, that has fundamentally less suffering and higher quality of life across all meaningful quality of life metrics for all life? How can we apply all that learning now to actually help create that world?’
And in doing so, we stop just being a part of the whole. In our ability to think about the whole and think about the direction of the whole, we can actually become an agent for the whole. This is huge. The bee is serving this huge role in evolution by pollinating the plants that make the atmosphere that make us. But bees don't know they're doing that, and they can't consciously figure out how to do it better. But we actually have the capability of looking at what the whole story is and identifying, 'Whoa - the whole evolutionary impulse of Universe brought me about, and then woke up to itself in me. And so in a meaningful way, I am actually the evolutionary impulsive Universe awoken to itself, in a form that has adequate ordered complexity to contemplate that, and then get to consciously choose how to participate with it - to be not just aboard Spaceship Earth but crew, to help steer the direction of evolution and cosmos.’
So we move from evolution as a mostly unconscious algorithmic process that selects for dominance now to a process mediated by conscious agents that can actually forecast a more beautiful future and select to help create that.
Does that make sense?
(Audience: "Woo!" "That is sexy!")
From avoiding pain to seeking creation
So when we don't identify as evolutionaries, when we identify as nouns rather than verbs, we stay stuck where we're at. And then we need pain as an evolutionary driver. Then emergence through emergency is how we grow. But as soon as we identify with the inexorability of evolution, and ourselves as evolution incarnate, we stopped needing pain to push us because our whole purpose for being, for becoming - being / becoming are actually matched, they are two sides of the same thing - is the lure of the becoming, is the bringing about more of the timeless properties of the infinite in time, more of the infinite through the finite. This actually becomes the basis of our existence.
Everybody knows that when you are in the experience of creating beauty that didn't exist before in Universe, that adds to Universe, that's uniquely yours to create, you feel a kind of aliveness that's not matched by anything else. In lieu of not doing that, the emptiness causes all kinds of addiction. Because creating is fundamental to what we're actually here to do.
When we all identify as evolutionaries, we obsolete the need for pain as a driver. Because we have a pull driver, rather than just needing the push driver.
When we also identify as fundamentally interconnected parts of a interconnected Universe rather than separate things, we stop thinking that there is any definition of success for self that isn't the definition of success for the whole. We stop thinking that the idea of advantaging ourself at the expense of something else we're inexorably interconnected to makes sense at all.
We are all agents for an interconnected whole where our sense of self / our self is actually an emergent property of the intersection of this system with the rest of Universe. It's actually key in terms of emergence: yourself as an emergent property of the whole Universe. Because even though you wouldn't exist in the same way without your brain and your body, you also wouldn't exist without the atmosphere, and the trees that make it, and the plants and bacteria that make it, and the gravity and electromagnetism and foundational forces. The concept of "I" separate from Universe is a misnomer. The concept of a life path for oneself that isn't a life path for Universe is a misnomer. Or advantage for self. Then we get, in the deepest sense, what Einstein said: 'the idea that there are separate things is an optical delusion of consciousness.’ In reality there is one reality that we call Universe, of which we are all inextricably interconnected facets.
And your experience of self is a facet of that. Now, what's so fascinating is that your experience of self is interconnected with all of it, it's an expression of the foundation of all of it, and it's also completely unique in all of Universe. It's a unique facet. Non-fungibly unique. That means you have something to offer Universe in your experience and your creativity that no one else has to offer exactly that way, which means if you don't offer it... Like what if Salvador Dalí hadn't done Dalí? Michelangelo didn't do Dalí, Escher wouldn't have done Dalí. Dalí just wouldn't have happened. And so Universe would have been fundamentally less. So your own self-actualization is compulsory, you have an obligation to it.
But then when you get that, you realize that everyone else, if they don't self-actualize, Universe is less, your participation with helping everyone else self-actualize is also compulsory.
So competition is an obsolete concept. Remember Universe moves towards more differentiation, more novelty, and then more symbiosis across that novelty for more emergence. What we're moving towards is a civilization where everyone actually identifies this way, as a emergent property of the whole, as an interconnected part of Universe with a unique role to play, with unique synergies with all the other unique roles to play. Then with that synergy, with that human participation, then humanity actually becomes a thing. It actually becomes an emergent property. Right now it's an idea, but we don't have humanity, we don't have civilization - we have humans bumping. We have a bunch of organelles that haven't organized as a cell that starts breathing. We don't have behavior of the whole that is centrally and consciously self-organizing. But we can.
This is what I wanted to have more time to get into, but to just foreshadow quickly, if we cherry-pick from the huge data sets about where humanity is going right now, we can see that things are exponentially changing, which means changing at more and more rapid and more and more significant rates. You can cherry-pick metrics where things are getting exponentially better, and that's true, and other things are getting exponentially worse, and that's also true. Which means the future that you predict if you just follow any of those curves is not happening. If things are getting exponentially better and worse at the same time, then that doesn't mean things are getting better or worse. It means the current system is destabilizing. And that means self-terminating.
Then we either have a discrete phase shift to a lower-order entropic system, or the emergence of a higher-order system that is foundationally different than the current system we have, in every in every way.
So the things getting bad are the pieces that can be reorganized to create a new civilization with a foundationally new structure. Biosphere metrics are getting exponentially worse from misapplication of technology. Technology's right application are making things fundamentally better. Technology is giving us the capacity to do things like have data analytic capabilities to inventory all the world's resources, to then be able to allocate all the world's resources to meet all the world's needs with optimum efficiency. We never had that ability before. The transportation and communication technologies that can actually make us a global civilization? We never had those before.
So the technological capacities that require us to step up - otherwise self-extinction is a very real thing - also make possible a discrete phase shift in evolution that's characterized by three major things.
- At the level of social systems (primarily economics), the key shift we're going to move to is a moving from a differential advantage economy - defined by private ownership, valuation based in scarcity, and differential advantage - to an economic system that is defined by making sure that the incentive of every agent is perfectly aligned with no externality with the well-being of every other agent and the commons. Meaning, we actually understand that it's an interconnected system, and we identify all the externalities and internalize them so the system is actually defined by systemic advantage for the whole. This is not communism or socialism or capitalism. It’s something that was not possible before to even anticipate. But it is how your body works. None of the cells are advantaging themselves at the expense of the other, they're doing what's best for them and what's best for the whole symbiotically at the same time. That's the key shift at the level of macroeconomics and correspondingly governance and all of our social structures.
- At the level of infrastructure, in the built world, we're moving from a linear materials economy where we extract from the earth at ever-growing rates unsustainably from finite resources and then turn it into trash, to a closed-loop materials economy, where the trash is the new stuff, we stop extracting from the earth, stop producing waste, and we actually have a post-growth negative entropy closed-loop materials economy, where we can live ongoingly a progressive higher and higher quality of life sustainably with the biosphere. That's the infrastructure shift, that's the social structure shift.
- At the level of superstructure, the memetic shift is this awareness of all of us as facets of one integrated self evolving reality where the well-being of everyone, the well-being of everyone else, and the well-being of the commons are not meaningfully calculable separate from each other.
Now, what's so interesting is there used to be such a thing as local problems. When Gandhi was working with home rule for India, it was largely thought of as an Indian problem, and it didn't directly affect everybody. When the people who founded the US wanted to leave the British Empire, there was somewhere else to go. It was a local problem. Right now as we deal with species extinction and ocean acidification and peak nitrogen and peak phosphorus, they're all global issues, and you can't solve them without China and without India and without the US and without everyone participating. So the idea that we have local issues is gone.
Our level of global infrastructure and technology is made to where we have all global issues. They are actually existential. They are threatening of the biosphere. No one has ever had issues in the history of humanity that threatened the ability of the species to continue. Nor did they have ones that they had to face imminently in short-term, nor did they have the capacity to actually face those kinds of things - the data science, the technology that could build something fundamentally new. That means we have the most significant work that humanity has ever had, with the most significant capabilities. Which also means the most potential to impact the biggest picture that any humans have ever had.
It's easy to think about that and then get caught back into stuff you've gotta do next to win at the current system that is going extinct. But winning at a system that is obsoleting the capability of life on Earth to continue - winning at a dying system - is not an interesting win.
To think about the definition of heaven where you're in Heaven while there are people in Hell, and be happy with that, you'd have to be a psychopath. You'd have to be able to separate from the experience of other sentient things enough to be totally stoked despite that level of suffering. Well, in this world, in order to believe the intensity of currently happening suffering can be happening while you can just be stoked because you're killing it in your life, you'd have to be mildly psychopathic.
If we want to not be psychopaths, then there is no definition for success for ourselves that is not definition of success for everything. When we start really taking that seriously, everything changes. You start saying, 'Well, what can I actually do to make my life of greatest use to all life?' And then if you take it seriously and really study and really work on it, and don't just ask the question, get overwhelmed, give up, and go back to current stuff, your progressively better answer to that question will lead to the emergence of your life meaning and Dharma and path. And, correspondingly, the emergence of civilization making it.