Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Emergence as Sensual Object

Snowflakes are emergent forms of water crystals

A commenter on a previous post suggests that while strong holism isn't valid for various ontological and political reasons, a slightly weaker kind of emergentism might be valid and compatible with OOO.

I have my doubts about distinguishing between the kind of holism I don't like and the kind of holism suggested. All the classical definitions of emergence seem to indicate that they are talking about wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, that are relatively stable, that exert downward causality (they can affect their parts), and so on.

These properties of emergence suggest that it's some kind of basic machinery that keeps the world together and generates new parts of the world. The tendency is to see it as some kind of underlying causal mechanism by which smaller components start to function as a larger, super component.

If true, this would seriously upset the OO applecart. Why? Because objects are ontologically primary entities, not some process such as emergence. In an OO reality, emergence must be a property of objects, not the other way around. Thus it seems likely that in OOO emergence would be a sensual feature of objects. In other words, emergence is always emergence-for or emergence-as.

In other words, emergence implies 1+n objects interacting in what Graham Harman call the sensual ether. This ether is the causal machinery, not some underlying wires and pulleys.

Let's now consider how emergence is really a sensual property of objects. Before we get to the snowflakes, let's consider an easier kind of emergence—that is, a kind about which it's easier to say that it's sensual, produced in interactions with other entities.

This is the famous Dog Picture that illustrates some features of perception according to Gestalt psychology. The features have to do with emergence.

Pop! The whole dog emerges from the splotches of black on white. According to the theory you don't assemble the dog out of its parts. It emerges out of the fragments of shading and blank space in the picture.

Now this kind of emergence clearly requires an observer. It requires, more minimally an interaction between the image and some other entity. If “observer” sounds too much like a (human) subject to you, then try this neuroscientific explanation of how it works (I split up the original paragraph so it won't be such a wall of words):

Although Gestalt theory did not offer any specific computational mechanism to explain emergence in visual perception, Koffka (1935) suggested a physical analogy of the soap bubble to demonstrate the operational principle behind emergence.

The spherical shape of a soap bubble is not encoded in the form of a spherical template or abstract mathematical code, but rather that form emerges from the parallel action of innumerable local forces of surface tension acting in unison.

The characteristic feature of emergence is that the final global form is not computed in a single pass, but continuously, like a relaxation to equilibrium in a dynamic system model. In other words the forces acting on the system induce a change in the system configuration, and that change in turn modifies the forces acting on the system.

The system configuration and the forces that drive it therefore are changing continuously in time until equilibrium is attained, at which point the system remains in a state of dynamic equilibrium, i.e. its static state belies a dynamic balance of forces ready to spring back into motion as soon as the balance is upset.

Form emerges from the parallel action of innumerable local forces ... acting in unison. What does that mean? It means that emergence is a sensual object. Emergence is relational.

Snowflakes, for instance, form in interactions between water crystals and properties of the ambient air through which they fall (temperature, humidity).

It would be truly strange if snowflakes magically assembled themselves out of themselves alone, without interactions with anything else. This would mean that there was some kind of mysterious engine of causality working underneath or within them. This kind of deep emergence has always struck me as a smoke and mirrors game. There's something I find slightly odd about autopoesis for instance—excuse my crudity, and sorry to those who like it.

No wonder we have trouble thinking of minds. How come neurons just pop into mentation? However, if emergence is a sensual object produced by neurons plus other entities in their vicinity, no problem.

Reality really would be strange if there were some magical property hidden beneath objects. All we need for object-oriented magic, however, are objects. Their interaction generates a sensual ether in which the magic takes place. The best place to do magic is right under your nose. No one can believe it when it's in your face. You suspect some hidden mystery. But as Poe's story of the Purloined Letter makes clear, the real mystery is in your face.

Time to stop—will carry on in a subsequent post.


Unknown said...

deep, flat, wow, cor! interesting post(al)object. seminal. concise. a bit earthshattering to read. i'm sure to be re-reading this over and over again.

Unknown said...

"like"/ also stimulating/ i'm no expert but it feels like a highly condensed and supercharged essay full of clear ideas that are rarely articulated/ this well/be a post i'm returning to

daz hastings said...

i had a feeling i'd be back here