Ten years ago, I began to write about what I saw then as a few discoveries about human nature, mostly centering on the events I called, "emergence." How naive I was then. Now, ten years, tens of thousands of cases, and some six thousand pages later, I and my colleagues are realizing we have probably opened the Pandora's box of human nature. And it's big. And complicated. And easy to get entangled in.
Of course, it's also amazing and seemingly filled with an unlimited amount of useful tools. For instance, for us, it's led us to discover whole new theory of personality and a new talk therapy. How nice. However, the more we discover, the more unwieldy the whole thing gets. Which brings me to the point for this article; the state of Emergence 2005. Let me start with the word "emergence" itself.
Recently I began reading Robert Laughlin's new book, "A Different Universe, Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down." For those who don't know who he is, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1998. So what am I, a personality theorist, doing reading a physicist's book? In a word, emergence. His work is immersed in it. More over, he has written what I see as probably one of the best books on the principles of emergence one could hope to find. For physicists, that is.
So am I saying his book is only for physicists? Not at all. In fact, I here and now publicly thank him for causing in me realization after realization as to how the chaos and order of human nature relate. More over, his book is warm, clear, and inspiring. Even so, his book, wonderful as it is, is not a book about human nature per se. It is a book about the nature of everything. And being a personality theorist, I long for the more warmly touching aspects of the principles of emergence. I am, after all, a humanist.
So is there a "best book on emergence" for humanists? No, there is no such book. In fact, I know of not a single book which effectively applies the principles of emergence to any part of human nature. Not one. Why? Because talking about people as if they are the quanta of the physical world tends to make people angry. Too cold and impersonal perhaps. Or too detached and philosophical. More likely though, there is no such book because no one has found a clear and concise way to define the word "emergence." Not Robert Laughlin. Not James Gleick. Not Briggs and Peat. Not The Sante Fe Institute. And most of all, not me.
How ironic. Here we have what many believe is the conceptual key to the whole next level of human development, from physics to philosophy. Yet no one seems able to define the central concept other than to describe it by its outcomes; by what it does. So for the physicists, emergence is what happens in the amazing events wherein the seemingly unorganized little stuff in the Universe finally emerges into the big organized stuff; everything from the big bang to the things we can see and hold and use to reassure ourselves we are safe in our world. And for the humanists, at least for Emergence Practitioners, emergence is what happens in the incredible moments wherein babies learn to see the things which amaze not only physicists, but also every other being in the Universe; the events in which people go from unknowing to knowing; from shock to consciousness; from ignorance to enlightenment; from personal aloneness to divine connection.
What is more amazing still is how, if you look for instances wherein people have been trying to define this moment, you literally find evidences that people have been struggling to find these words for as long as there have been people. For instance author Karen Armstrong, in her book, "A History of God," describes just such an instance. Here, she tells us that there is a Babylonian epic poem, the Enuma Elish, which describes how "the gods emerged two by two from a formless, watery waste."
To what is it she is referring? To the 3,000 year old Babylonian creation myth which these people reenacted at the beginning of every year, a story / play / religious ceremony in which she says they "celebrated the victory of their gods over chaos."
What I find particularly interesting is how she says they described "chaos." She tells us that the Babylonians saw chaos not as a fiery, seething mass (like the Christian hell) but rather as a "sloppy mess where everything lacked boundary, definition, and identity" (something like your kid's room on a bad day, or your boundary-less girlfriend who always embarrasses you in front of others).
A "watery waste." A "sloppy mess where everything lacks boundary, definition, and identity." How much more accurately could one describe the world of quantum mechanics? Or the world of marital disagreements and political arguments? As a humanist, I think not much better. But for physicists? I would guess this is a bit too messy for most of them, at least for the more traditionally scientific types.
I find this unfortunate as my sense of the purpose of physics is to help us mere mortals to understand where we are, who we are, and how we can best live life. Then again, who would want to depend on a watery waste for our safety and security. Even I want for the solid and dependable world of a warm home and a comfortable bed. Which beings me to the point of this article. And to the point at which I believe all those who believe in emergence are stuck. All of us. Every one.
Our stuck point? That we still have no clear way to define emergence. It seems defining this word is as illusive as finding Newtonian Laws at the quantum level of matter and energy. More over, to simply pretend we do not need this definition is to remain in the watery waste of the unconscious psyche, a place notorious for pain and suffering whether in science or in personal life.
But don't we already use words to describe "emergence?" For instance, don't we call these moments, "epiphanies?" And "eureka's?" And "aha's?" And "break through's?"
Of course, the answer is yes. Spiritually biased types do call emergences, "epiphanies." And scientifically oriented types call them, "eureka's." And artistically minded people call them, "aha's." And therapeutically minded folks call them, "break through's." But what good do any of these labels do us?
Not much, really. However, I think we could do a whole heck of a lot of good if these dissonant groups of people could agree on a simple, concise, and clear definition for what happens in emergences.
It was in this spirit, I recently wrote to Robert Laughlin. In my letter, I tried to bridge some of this difference by using his terms to voice my work. In my letter, I wrote:
So what does what I've written mean to an ordinary person? To use the metaphor which emerged in me while reading Mr. Laughlin's book, I've begun to understand emergence, and life, as what happens when we watch an hour glass. What do I mean?
Picture a big, silver and glass, hour glass. Now picture that I've just turned it over. Where do your eyes look first?
To begin with, I actually have a foot and a half high, silver and glass, hour glass. And I have, for the past few days, been showing people this hour glass and asking them where they feel drawn to look. The result? Without exception, people seem drawn to look at the sand falling into the lower chamber.
What's the big deal?
That rather than looking at what they can clearly understand; the overall hour glass itself, people seem by nature to be compelled to look at the one part of this object which they can not clearly define no matter how long they look at it; the falling sands.
Of course, a physicist would tell you, if you were to zoom in on any part of this hour glass with an electron microscope, what you would see would be waves of particles as chaotic as the falling sands, no matter where you focused. However, at the scale of normal human vision, if we focus on the falling sand, we see chaos. And if we step back and take in the whole hour glass, we see order.
And at the intersection between the upper glass chamber and the lower?
At this point, we would be hard pressed to define exactly what is happening, at least in a repeatable and reliable way. Is it simply order to chaos? Not really. However, at the scale of normal human vision, this is exactly what is happening. What's my point?
My point is, scale is everything, at least with regard to human understanding. In fact, scale is the relational variable between everything we understand and everything we do not understand. For instance physicists use the three variables of space, motion, and time to describe what happens in our world, and they call this E=MC2, "relativity." Perhaps the truth is more like ES= MC2S, where "S" is the fourth primary variable of physics; "scale"; and the quantity on either side of the equation equals "R" (reality).
Whatever the case, what I'm saying is, for a physicist, the ability to define the wave function influencing the falling sand can seem like a legitimate step toward defining chaos. Yet it both is and isn't, depending on the scale at which you use this information. And to a humanist, the ability to zoom in on the individual sentences in a family argument can seem like the place to look for the answer. Yet this both is and isn't the place to look either, depending on the scale at which you use this information.
We people, physicists and humanists alike, seem to be drawn by nature to the falling sands of whatever we look at, whether it be literal sand, molecules, arguments, or the artist's brush strokes. Because we are, we most times fail to recognize that the usefulness, and the beauty, of any and all of our explorations depends entirely on whether we can use what we find at the scale at which we humans live.
In other words, we humans seem to constantly miss the fact that we have "limits," natural laws which align us with a scale and not with an intelligence. Because we miss this fact, we continually deceive ourselves into thinking, if we try long enough, we can organize chaos, and if we can do that, we can become the "gods" of the Enuma Elish.
More unfortunate still, because we, by nature, focus mainly on the more chaotic aspects of our world, we fail to focus on the most important and useful points of all. Which points? The points at which chaos and order intersect. The points at which order submerges into chaos, and chaos emerges into order. The points at which the sand changes chambers.
What would we find if we were to focus on these points?
We would find that the phase transitions of the physicists are the perfect analogy for the onset of human misunderstandings, not just philosophically but literally. And we would find that the onset of diseases such as cancer and heart disease are never the literal result of some defective progression but rather that all diseases have phase transitions too, including phase transitions back into health.
As for my fellow humanists, were we to focus on this intersection point, we would find that "emerging two by two" holds the secret to healing the entire human psyche, given we can focus away from the symptoms long enough to learn about the one place we humans can actually make a difference; the point at which phase transitions occur between love and hate, between beauty and blankness, between kindness and structure, and between health and disease.
These points, after all, are what emerge in our world; the strange attractors of chaos theory. Regardless of what you call them though, what emerges at these points is "connections." And connections, not symptoms, are what create the meaning in each and every part of our lives and in our world at large.
Perhaps this concept can also be a strange attractor, the germ of an idea which could connect our seemingly disparate groups. Perhaps then, together, we could truly make our world a better place. And a more "connected" place for all of us.
In this, I invite you to join me.